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In the year 1792, in a terra incognita of vast yellow grasslands and brightly hued canyons 2,000 miles west of Washington, D.C., a mysterious young American was experiencing a world as yet unimagined—and certainly unnamed—in American and European power centers. European fur traders and ships’ captains were probing the far corners of the American West, and the Spaniards had been on the scene in Santa Fe for two centuries. But Americans, whose nation was scarcely a decade old, were barely a presence in the West of the 1790s. While Thomas Jefferson—at the time secretary of state in Washington’s first administration— was considering expeditions to the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, the Lewis and Clark Expedition remained a dozen years in the future.

But this bold American adventurer, who was only 20, had just spent two years traveling and living with the peoples of one of the most remote and least-known Western regions of the continent. Exactly what Philip Nolan did and where he went in 1791 and 1792 is difficult to fix. We do know that he was a native of Natchez, on the east bank of the Mississippi, and that he had secured a passport and trading license from Esteban Rodríguez Miró, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and Florida. Otherwise, his adventure exists only in barest outline. He followed in the footsteps of French traders from Louisiana, and like them he seems to have made his way to the Wichita villages on the Red River (see map, P. 34) gateway trading villages like those of the Mandan/Hidatsas on the Missouri. Then Nolan traveled farther west with various groups of Comanches, the “Lords of the Southern Plains” who had controlled access to the region for half a century. Indeed, it is likely the Comanches initiated Philip Nolan’s adventure with an invitation to American traders to visit them in the distant interior.

If we accept the sketchy references to this adventure, Nolan favorably impressed the Comanches—a people with a highly developed regard for the masculine virtues—with American wilderness skills. Judging from a description that eventually made its way to Jefferson, the Comanches in turn showed Nolan a country few Euro-Americans had seen and that geographers would misunderstand for another century. Deep in the Plains they traveled, along the two great headwater streams of the Red River, one of which flowed through the unknown Wichita Mountains. The other one traversed an unimaginable landform, an immense plateau known in Spanish as the Llano Estacado (“Staked Plain”), which took the Indians three days to cross. Below the western cliffs of that grand plateau, Nolan swam in artesian pools and was shown carved depictions on a rock face of what appeared to be a giant horned serpent. Farther west he saw a river flowing southward down the plains and, far beyond it, the dim blue uplift of “the Mexican Mountains,” at the foot of which sat Santa Fe.

The early 1790s seldom springs to mind when we consider important periods in the history of the American West. But for the southern stretches of the West, Nolan’s barely known foray would prove significant indeed. What had drawn Philip Nolan west in the first place was a dream of wealth—not from gold or precious metals, or even from the fur-bearing animals luring traders to the streams of northern Louisiana Territory and Canada. Horses are what interested him, feral horses that over the previous century had spread across the Southwest and had now, alongside bison and prairie dogs and pronghorns, become an integral part of the ecology of the southern high Plains. The French/Spanish traders in Louisiana had shown Nolan how to build corrals and catch these mestenos (“wild ones,” mustangs), and Nolan was becoming good at it. But after two years with the Comanches, he had come to understand that just as traders in the north could barter with the Indians for processed furs, American traders didn’t have to build pens and corral the wild herds. They could buy horses, and the mules that did so well on the humid southern frontier, directly from the Comanches, who had so many animals that, as their headmen put it, they were “to us like grass.”

That information, along with the skills he’d developed running and corralling wild horses, was all Nolan needed. He would mount a second expedition into the country he called the “Great Plains” in 1794–95 and a third one in 1795–96. When he returned from his third trip, Nolan took 250 mustangs all the way to Frankfort, Ky., where his striking Western animals brought as much as $150 apiece. In 1797 Nolan, now underwritten by sponsors, and his multicultural party of Americans, French/Spanish Louisianians, free blacks and Indians (“12 good rifles and…but one coward,” he wrote) set out on a fourth expedition with $7,000 in trade goods. And this time when he returned in 1798, they were driving a herd variously estimated at between 1,000 and 2,500 horses. Although he found “the savage life…less pleasing in practice than speculation” (he could not “Indianfy my heart,” as he put it), Philip Nolan was on his way to becoming a legend. He had begun something destined to outlive him by decades.

With that first two-year journey to within sight of the Rocky Mountains, the man who became known in Jeffersonian America as “the Mexican traveler” had launched one of the intriguing yet unknown Big Stories in the history of the early American West. On the great horizontal sweeps up the Red, Arkansas and other rivers of the southern Plains during the decades when Americans were first venturing west, this horse trade would become the southern equivalent of the fur trade on the northern Plains. Through tax and license fees on their capture, mustangs had been providing Spanish Texas with a revenue base since 1787. Under the tutorship of French and English traders, the horse trade had even schooled many diverse Indian peoples in the nuances of the market economy. Now it was about to fascinate a famous American president and draw American mustangers under U.S. flags into a Southwest whose future arc was not yet set. By mid-century the horse trade would even become a major diplomatic issue between the United States and the new Republic of Mexico. Like much of the trade in animals, this one had implications for empire.

The early Western horse trade has remained little known for several good reasons. For one, during the period when Spain was clinging to the Southwest—until the success of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, in other words— removal of wild horses was illegal without Spanish authorization. In the 1780s Spain had proclaimed such horses the property of the king, an action that discouraged corporate interest of the American Fur Company or Rocky Mountain Fur Company kind. Further, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase would fail to clarify a boundary between Spanish and American possessions, although events demarcated the Red River as the presumed boundary. Nonetheless, American horse traders like Anthony Glass, William James and the scores of others who followed in Nolan’s footsteps never bothered to acquire either a passport or license from Spanish authorities. Eventually the horse trade would acquire an unsavory reputation for supplying Indians with guns and encouraging raiding. Thus, for nearly its entire history, the Western horse trade was an underground economy carried on by people who largely did not wish to draw attention to themselves. Consequently, only a few stories survive of secretive trade that for decades may have dominated the southern West.

The historical sequence that made the early horse trade possible was not an overnight phenome- non. In fact, its origins stretched far back into the continental past in a way neither Philip Nolan nor Thomas Jefferson nor any of the Indian peoples involved in the trade could have fathomed in 1800.

Euro-Americans understood that their ancestors had brought horses to the Americas. And the peoples of the southern Plains still told stories about how, after an initial fear of the horse, their recent ancestors had adopted the animal into their lives, where it had transformed Indian cultures. And yet, back into depths of time that neither Jeffersonians nor Indians suspected lay a surprising story. The Barbary horses that danced and nickered under saddle when the Spaniards made their first settlements in the West were actually returning to their Western homeland. Horses had evolved in the Americas. They were not exotic animals arriving in a “New World,” a fact highly significant to the history about to unfold. The ancestors of the horses Nolan sold in Kentucky had emerged some 55 million years ago as American natives and had then spread around much of the world. Ten thousand years ago they died out in the Americas while surviving elsewhere. When the Spaniards rode horses into New Mexico, Texas and California in the 1600s and 1700s, the animals were in fact pre-adapted to the countryside stretching around them. And since the ecological niche ancestral horses had occupied remained unfilled, Spanish horses soon recorded a staggering population explosion.

When the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico for a dozen years, the Pueblos famously traded liberated livestock and the knowledge of how to handle them northward up the Rockies to the Navajos and Utes. Those horses passed on to the Shoshones, Salish and Nez Percés and, by 1730, to the Blackfeet, Crows, Cayuses and Crees throughout the Northwest and Canada. But in the chaos of the Pueblo Revolt, many animals also escaped to the Plains and turned feral. Another source of wild horses in the Southwest were the abandoned early missions of Texas, from which the Franciscans turned out both mares and stallions.

Escaping into the very landscapes that had shaped their ancestors’ hooves, teeth and behaviors, wild horse herds by Nolan’s time had grown to astonishing numbers, a phenomenon stunning to everyone who experienced it. One mid-19th-century Texas rancher reported wonderingly of “immense herds all over the western country, as far as the eye or telescope could sweep the horizon. The whole country seemed to be running.” Wrote Texas Ranger John Duval, “Nothing over the dead level prairie was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hooves sounded like the roar of the surf on a rocky coast.” After a 10,000-year absence, the horse had returned to its wild state in the West, and from Texas and New Mexico westward they seemed to be overspreading the countryside like dandelions after a spring shower.

Such huge herds had not only profound ecological effects on the West but also profound cultural ones, and it was the latter that laid the foundations for the horse economy. Useful animals in unfathomable numbers filled the human mind with wonder but also generated images of wealth, status and power. Such potential drew Indian peoples from all over the West to what seemed the wellspring. The resulting “Great Horse Funnel,” whose flared end took in thousands of horses and mules from the southern Plains and then funneled them to markets in the United States, was in a real sense an economy Indians created. And to the very considerable extent they could, they controlled the product at its source from the 1780s into the 1850s.

Many Indian peoples participated in the horse trade, but when American traders entered the game, the Comanches more than anyone designed, controlled and put their stamp on it. Shoshonean-speakers from the Great Basin/Central Rockies, the Comanches were one of the groups that horses levered onto the southern Plains. It took less than a century and just four generations for them to seize the region from Colorado to Texas, the epicenter of the mustang plains. Through the 18th century they effected a cultural and economic transformation, becoming not merely bison hunters and raiders but the most horse-centric people in all of Western history. The Comanches caught, bred and raided for horses, and they managed their swelling herds using Indian and European captives as a labor source.

When Americans first encountered the Comanches (initially calling them “Hietans”), they were astonished not only at the numbers of horses and mules they owned but also at their multiethnic makeup. Jeffersonian Indian agent Dr. John Sibley wrote in 1808, “Many of them, both men and women, are nearly as fair as Europeans, with long straight sandy or light hair and blue eyes and freckles.” Their inclination to absorb captives into their ranks was the explanation, and it helped swell their population to more than 30,000 by the 1780s. Historians have long marveled at their domination of the southern Plains, Pekka Hämäläinen most recently arguing for a great “Comanche Empire,” although on the ground Comanche designs seemed more individualistic than imperial. Horses became their specialty. They traded them north to horse-poor peoples and gifted them to cement alliances with the Kiowas and Cheyennes and with the Wichitas in their gateway villages on the Red River.

By the 1780s, aware that enemies like the Osages were acting to prevent St. Louis and Illinois traders from reaching them with guns and other metal goods, the Comanches made it known they would welcome American traders interested in horses. As young Nolan had demonstrated, demand for animal-powered energy among frontier homesteaders between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River was on the rise. The trick was to safely transport the horses from the high Plains of the West to those woodland farms.

Wild horses and the Western horse trade first came to the attention of the new U.S. government at the close of the 18th century. From the moment Thomas Jefferson heard of it, the subject especially intrigued him. Initially he thought it an incredible scientific opportunity, a chance to study the horse in its wild state at “the only moment in the age of the world” that was possible. Then he began to realize that, as with the fur trade, there could well be geopolitical implications. As vice president, Jefferson first heard about Philip Nolan and wild horses in conversations with such Southwesterners as surveyor-naturalist William Dunbar, Louisiana Territorial Governor James Wilkinson and diplomat Daniel Clark Jr. What he learned—that Nolan was an eccentric, flawed romantic who nonetheless had roamed farther west than any other American and whom, in Clark’s words, “Nature seems to have formed for enterprises of which the rest of mankind are incapable”—convinced Jefferson he needed to meet the man.

Thus in 1799 Jefferson wrote Nolan, asking to buy one of his Western animals, “which I am told are so remarkable for the singularity and beauty of their colors and forms.” Jefferson’s account of such a meeting would be a wonderful record of Western history, and in May 1800 Nolan actually left for Monticello with letters of introduction and a beautiful paint stallion for the future president. Alas, something went wrong. Possibly someone in Kentucky offered Nolan more money for the paint than he could refuse, or he lost the horse in a game of chance. However close they got, Philip Nolan and Thomas Jefferson never met.

And their chances had run out. That fall Nolan left on his fifth wild horse expedition to the West. Before leaving Natchez, he told a confidant he had two-dozen good men and was taking a large quantity of trade goods. This time, however, he lacked a passport from Spanish officials, who had grown increasingly alarmed at Nolan’s contacts among the expansionist Americans. To his confidant, Nolan enigmatically added, “Everyone thinks that I go to catch wild horses, but you know that I have long been tired of wild horses.” That December the Americans visited a Comanche village on the Red River and then returned to Nolan’s favorite mustanging country south of present Fort Worth, where they built corrals and began to run horses in the Grand Prairie. In March 1801, a Spanish force sent out to arrest him located the American camp. When Nolan refused to surrender, the Spaniards attacked, a single shot hit Nolan square in the forehead, and mustanger resistance collapsed. The Spaniards captured more than a dozen of Nolan’s men, although seven of them—including experienced mustangers Robert Ashley and John House—escaped.

Nolan’s adventures were over, but word had gotten out: The West bore wealth in the form of horses. It was dangerous business—Nolan had lost his life, others had been arrested— but he and his patrons had made as much as $60,000, a significant fortune, on their previous trip west. No Spanish edict would be able to stem this trade, especially since Jefferson and subsequent U.S. presidents were willing to let the horse trade play the same kind of economic, diplomatic and geopolitical role in the southern West the fur trade did in the northern West. American traders, in other words, were to become private agents of expansion, traveling under the American flag, winning Indians to alliances with the United States and using those alliances to help the country in its contest with Spain (and later Mexico) to control the Southwest. As Indian agent and horse trade proponent Sibley put it, “Whoever furnishes Indians the best and most satisfactory trade can always control their politics.”

So it is that for much of its early history, the horse trade remained clandestine, an underground economy. It’s best imagined as hundreds of small parties of Americans spread across the years, emulators of Philip Nolan who slipped onto the southern Plains along rivers like the Red, Canadian and Arkansas, built corrals and ran wild horses. These men also sought out the Wichitas in their agricultural villages, as well as specific bands of Comanches whom they knew, often from prior trades, ran stock in large numbers. Dodging Spanish patrols (at least until Mexican independence), they drove herds of a few dozen or, rarely, a few hundred horses to markets in Natchitoches or New Orleans or St. Louis, or across the Big River to Frankfort or Lexington for sale in horse and mule auctions. In the first decade of the 19th century, one Spanish official estimated the volume of the trade at 1,000 horses a month. Probably he was too conservative.

While the West’s early mustangers and horse traders understandably kept a low profile, some of their stories and adventures have come down to us. In 1794–95, 27-year-old Philadelphia gunsmith John Calvert spent 14 months pursuing horses with the Wichitas and Comanches before a Spanish patrol snagged him. Calvert was followed in 1804–05 by active Plains trader John Davis and partner Alexandro Dauni, a Corsican carpenter, who also prospected for minerals in the Wichita Mountains. Then came former Nolan man John House, who drove a herd from the Plains in 1805, at age 25. Also on record were trading parties led by Francisco Roquier in 1805 and John Cashily in 1806; the latter cleverly planned to tell Spanish officials he was driving horses east so he could bring his family west as new Spanish emigrants.

About the time Lewis and Clark were returning from the Pacific, in the fall of 1806, Sibley licensed a horse-trading party led by John Lewis and William Alexander and guided by Lucas Talapoon, an interpreter and sign language expert. Lewis and Alexander were the United States’ first experiment with traders as official government emissaries: They took American flags to the Western Indians and, in Sibley’s name, invited the tribes of the southern Plains to a grand council in Natchitoches in 1807. In June the traders arrived in Louisiana, driving a herd of mustangs and guiding some of the Western Indians to Sibley’s council.

Murkier trader references abound. Mustangers Ezra McCall and George Schamp were on the Plains in 1810 and hauled back a giant meteorite. The Osages plundered Alexander MacFarland and John Lemons’ mustanging party in 1812. Auguste Pierre Chouteau, Jules DeMun and Joseph Philibert opened up a significant horse trade with the Comanches and Arapahos between 1815 and 1817. Caiaphas Ham and David Burnet became horse traders to the Comanches in those same years, as did Jacob Fowler and Hugh Glenn. When Mexico finally achieved its independence and opened its markets to the United States, the man who blazed the Santa Fe Trail—William Becknell—knew the route because he, too, was an old plains horse trader. The Comanches welcomed all these men and more, and it became a wilderness adage that no one was safer among Indians than a trader.

Two horse traders from this era stand apart, as they left firsthand accounts of their experiences. In a journal of his 10-month expedition west in 1808–09, Anthony Glass described the sort of adventure Nolan must have had. Glass was another quasi-official representative of the American government, sporting a captain’s military jacket and traveling through lands claimed by Spain while flying a U.S. flag, which he delivered to the Wichitas. He left a fascinating representation of the horse trader’s life, describing the difficulties of bartering with the Wichitas and Comanches, their reluctance to trade their best horses and the risk of Osage raids (Glass lost his personal mount to one). Meanwhile, the party encountered many thousands of wild horses. On Texas’ Grand Prairie, Glass attempted the ultimate mustanger’s art —to construct a well-disguised corral and pen in the wild herds. This kind of capture was highly dangerous to both men and animals; even skilled mustangers were known to lose as many as 800 of every 1,000 wild horses they captured as the panicked animals trampled and suffocated one another. Glass and party faced an additional challenge: “The buffalo were so many and so in the way,” he wrote, “we succeeded badly in several attempts.”

The other scent-of-life account comes from horse trader Thomas James’ book, Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, which describes James’ two forays onto the Oklahoma plains between 1821 and 1824. On his second trip, up the Canadian River with $5,500 in trade goods, James and his 23-man party first traded with the Wichitas under a headman named Alsarea and later with a Comanche band led by Big Star. There was no guarantee the Comanches wouldn’t immediately steal back the horses they’d just traded, and in a country with “no sheriffs or marshals; no hypocrisies or false friendships,” there was little to be done. Eventually James’ party did put together a herd of 323 top animals and started back to St. Louis. But a horse trader needed luck, and James seemed fresh out. Disasters—stampedes, hordes of horseflies, theft—fell one atop the other. By the time the party made St. Louis, James retained just five horses.

What Philip Nolan had started grew and shape-shifted for much of the 19th century. The horse trade never became an economy to rival the fur trade, but for decades the Comanches and other tribes received hundreds of shadowy, itinerant traders, who then drove small bands of traded or captured horses and mules to the settlements. By the 1830s—when Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas opened in the heart of horse country and Texas traders Holland Coffee and Silas Cheek Colville ran a post on the Red River to tap the horse trade—Mexican officials were complaining that demand from American horse and mule markets had encouraged Comanches to lay waste to Mexico’s ranches and drive thousands of animals north every year.

Having spent decades surreptitiously leveraging the horse trade to pry the Southwest into its orbit, the U.S. government clucked sympathetically at Mexico’s protests but did nothing. Horses, wild or otherwise, were not merely a valuable resource, and they had not yet become the romantic symbol of the frontier they are in our time. Instead, like so many other animals in the early West, they had become powerful agents of geopolitics and empire. Philip Nolan may have anticipated that all along.


Dan Flores, who divides his time between Montana and New Mexico, teaches the environmental and cultural history of the West at the University of Montana. He has written eight books. Among other honors, Flores won a 1998 Western Heritage Award for the article “When the Buffalo Roamed” (April 1997 Wild West).

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here