The arrival of horses had long-lasting effects on Wyoming Indians

The two biggest effects on American Indian tribes caused by white Americans were disease epidemics and the use of the horse.

The disease issue is so big it will be the topic of a future column. But the horse, oh my, how our Native American friends’ ancestors took to the horse! They called the animal God’s Dog, and it changed everything.

Between the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains and the Red Ochre potential world heritage site at Sunrise, Wyoming, Indian peoples roamed Wyoming for 13,000 years — and they did it on foot. Their beasts of burden were dogs, pulling travois, which could slowly carry small loads. They traveled thousands of miles, following buffalo herds and moving to and from hunting grounds.

Some amazing recent discoveries show that,  surprisingly, early Indian tribes in Wyoming spent a lot of time in the summer and fall at high altitudes, sometimes as high as 10,000 feet.

But I digress. Let’s talk about horses.

Horses first appeared in North America in 1540 when Spaniards Cortez, Coronado and DeSoto used them in present-day Florida and Mexico. As the Conquistadors moved northward, the Plains Indian tribes, including the Shoshone and Arapaho of Wyoming, stumbled upon this amazing creature and figured out its potential for them. First sightings of a Plains Indian tribe with horses were in 1745 in Kansas.

The horse immediately became their mode of transportation and their beast of burden and their animal of choice. Owning horses became the biggest symbol of individual wealth for Indians and for the tribes themselves.

I have been doing some research of early Indian times in Wyoming and there are some amazing statistics.

Back in December, we visited Torrington with our tour guide Brian Heinz. We visited a location south of town where a major meeting of Indian tribes was held near Horse Creek. The site was moved from the historic Fort Laramie site for a logical reason that seems mind-boggling today: too many horses.

Some context is needed here. Many tribes like the Arapahos were hunter-gatherers and were nomadic. They literally did not have a permanent home. Everything they owned moved with them constantly. And as much as they loved horses, moving the animals became a big oedeal.

The famous Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 between the U. S. government and the Arapaho, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribal nations had to be moved from Fort Laramie to an area 30 miles south at Horse Creek. Just getting the tribes together was a herculean feat organized by Indian agents.

Many tribes were traditional enemies, and one of their primary attacks was stealing horses from each other. Without fences, keeping track of horses was difficult.

The numbers describing that 1851 council are huge. The U. S. government budgeted $100,000. The council involved 1,500 Indian lodges and, astonishingly, included 45,000 horses.

Seven years later in 1858, a census by a government agent listed 2,400 members of the Arapaho Tribe and, listed among their possessions some 15,000 horses.

The 1851 treaty was designed to compensate Indian tribes for the loss of some of their hunting grounds in exchange for allowing settlers to travel the Oregon Trail through their territory. 

Over the next 17 years, some 400,000 people would travel the various Oregon, California and Mormon trails. This push to the Pacific Ocean was driven by “manifest destiny,” our nation’s desire to extend itself from sea to sea. 

The great trek westward not only negatively affected the tribes’ ability to hunt buffalo, but also in one case, actually was one of the reasons there is now a Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming and a Southern Arapaho Tribe in Oklahoma.

The trails cut right smack through the historical hunting and camping grounds of the Arapaho tribe. As a result, some preferred being south of the trail, and some north of the trail, hence the historic split.

The U. S. Senate ratified the 1851 treaty but reduced compensation to the tribes from 50 years to 10 years. Some tribes did not receive anything at all. Through it all were the ubiquitous horses.  The Indians became expert horsemen and astute breeders. Rarely in history has such an effect been caused by the introduction of a new animal in the mix.

Some facts from Cheyenne’s Virginia Cole Trenholm’s excellent book, “The Arapahoes,” were used in compiling this column.

Fort Laramie will be holding a 150th anniversary celebration in April celebrating another big treaty signed there, the Treaty of 1868.

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