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Did the first Spanish horses landed in Florida and Carolina leave progeny?


Thornton Chard

The author of this article, Thornton Chard, was a noted equestrian scholar of the early twentieth century.  In addition to this scholastic research paper into the origins of the wild horses of North America, which was presented to the American Anthropological Association in 1940, Chard also worked with Dr. Emilio Solanet, the legendary Criollo champion and expert, to document the history of the wild horses of South America

Thanks to Chard's meticulous research, more than 50 footnotes and a number of extensive appendices are provided in two separate documents.

The average reader cares little whether or not the recounting of material from the distant past is accurate provided the author writes entertainingly, but to one who has studied the records, errors and inaccuracies make the work unsatisfying.  In a recently published book, for example, the statement is made that the horses left by De Soto in North America contributed Arabian blood to the mustang [Note 1].  (See Appendix I.)    Another writer says that the horses that the Spaniard Allyón took to the Carolina coast left progeny that later were known as Chickasaws, because that tribe made use of them.  [Note 2]  (See Appendix V.)  Still another writer of prominence relates, with reservations, that La Salle and the French missionaries brought with them fine Arabian horses, some of which escaped and bred with the ponies of the plains.  [Note 3]  (See Appendix II.)  There are, of course, many other unintentional inaccuracies arising from faulty inferences, or from the fact that the archives, at that time, had not brought to light the fuller information.  Therefore, this paper, by reviewing the various landings, attempts to sift the truth from the prevailing legends.

America like many other countries owes much to the sixteenth century Spanish horse, a horse derived from a combination of Arabian and Barb stallions and Spanish native mares, and so fixed in its prepotency as to have been sought after by all European breeding studs for upwards of two hundred years.

De Solleysel, whose Le Parfait Maréchal was for more than a century the authoritative work on horses, describes the merits of the Spanish horse this way:

I have seen the Spanish Horse and have owned some of them;  they are extremely beautiful and the breediest of all, being portraits by a careful brush or fit for the mount of a king when he wishes to show the people his glory and majesty;  though they are not as slender as the Barbs, nor as thick as the Neapolitans, still they have the perfection of the two.  The Genet has a superb and bold walk, a lofty trot, an admirable gallop and a very fast run;  in general they are not very large, nor excessively broad;  if they are well selected it would be hard to find any horse more noble than they.  I have heard accounts of their remarkable courage;  they have been seen with their entrails hanging outside of their belly and while all stabbed and wounded, losing all their blood, yet they bring back the rider safe and sound, with the same ardour and spirit with which they carried him out, and finally, having less life than courage, collapse.  [Note 4.]  The best breeds are in Andalusia; and especially the breed which the Spanish King has in Cordova [Note 5] is the best; that of Cardonne is very excellent; also the Molina, as well.  [Note 6]

It was this horse brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Conquistadores [Note 7]  that gave its Baguales [Note 8] and Criollo types to South America, and its Mustang, Tackle, Chickasaw and other types to North America.

In the Northern sphere the Spanish West Indies were the first to be stocked and largely from this source all other parts derived their horses.  (See Appendix IV.)

The first Spanish horses to be brought to the Atlantic coast mainland were landed in Florida by Ponce de León who in 1521 [Note 9] arrived with 2 ships, 200 men and 50 horses.  These horses must have been shipped at Porto Rico as Ponce put in there en route to Florida.  As this colonizing expedition was a speedy and dismal failure, only one surviving to return to Cuba, [Note 10] such of the horses that did not die must have been taken aboard this ship, as horses not disabled were very important and at this early date, very valuable.  [Note 11]  So it is improbable that any progeny could have been left on the mainland from this lot.  

The second lot of horses taken to the mainland were landed in Florida by Allyón who sailed from Española, Haiti, in 1526 with 6 vessels, 500 men and women, some black slaves and 89 horses.  These horses like the first lot were obtained, undoubtedly, in the West Indies.  This expedition was also a great failure.  If any horses survived they must have been returned with the sad remnants of the men and women who landed after much distress at Santo Domingo.  [Note 12]  Again the evidence points to the improbability of progeny on the mainland from Allyón's horses.

The explorer and would-be colonizer Narváez brought the third lot of horses to the mainland.  He left Spain with 600 colonists and landed at Tampa Bay, Florida in 1527.  He went inland with 300 men, 40 officers and soldiers in armour mounted upon armoured horses - all from Spain.  There are very explicit statements that all these horses were slaughtered for food, the last one September 22.  [Note 13]    As all were destroyed there could have been no progeny.

We come, now, to a very important contingent of horses, the fourth lot to be put ashore on the mainland.  They came with the great captain and explorer De Soto, who sailed from Spain with 9 vessels and 600 men, in April 1538, for Santiago, Cuba.  After a short delay in Cuba he left Havana May 18, 1539, for Florida where he established a camp near Tampa Bay, leaving 50 footmen and 30 horses as a garrison.  The men and horses of this garrison joined him later at Apalache.  From the camp near Tampa Bay he set out, Aug. 1, 1539, on his westward exploring expedition, taking with him 550 men and 200 horses.  Of these 200 horses, 12 were killed in what is now Alabama, [Note 14] 70 were wounded and 50 perished at the Chickasaw battle in the now State of Mississippi, so that when De Soto reached the east bank of the Mississippi in May, 1541, there could have been left alive not more than 98 horses [Note 15] which number includes the equivalent of 30 that joined him at Apalache.  The greatest part of De Soto's horses, undoubtedly, were obtained in Cuba.  As all seem to be accounted for it is safe to say that they left no progeny east of the Mississippi.  [Note 16] 

Here we leave De Soto and his horses, because those that survived were ferried across the Mississippi never to return, so only very indirectly, if at all, might they bear on the subject here treated.  (See Appendix I.)

The next three expeditions, 1549, 1559 and 1560-1, all set sail from Mexico for Florida.  The last mentioned, which was the seventh, left a garrison at Pensacola, and sailed as far as the Carolina coast.  Later the garrison was removed.  [Note 17]  As these attempts to colonize and christianize were speedy failures and as there seems to be no record of horses, they do not help the subject of this investigation.  [Note 18

Another expedition from Mexico, with the definite aim of colonizing Santa Elena on the Carolina coast, was undertaken by Tristan de Luna [Note 19] who, with others, began extensive preparations in 1558, though it did not actually sail till June 11, 1559.  That this was no light undertaking may be judged from the fact that 13 vessels were required to transport 1000 camp followers, men, women, children, negroes and Indians, 500 soldiers, half foot and half horse, with 240 horses, "the latter," as the Chronicler relates, "by no means the least important;" but, "only 130 survived the long voyage" to be disembarked at Mobile Bay, whence they were sent overland to Pensacola Bay.  [Note 20] 

Like most of the early expeditions trials and tribulations harassed the men, women and horses from the start.  Thus, it appears that starvation faced the soldiers so that at one time they were reduced to eating the trappings of their horses and the leather of their shields.  [Note 21] 

By August 1560 there were "only about 50 or 60 horses and these are in such condition that it happens that when [our people] go out to hunt they come back on foot all tired out, the horses being unable to carry them because they have eaten no corn for a year."  [Note 22] 

Informed by Luna of the dire necessity of a supply of food and of fresh horses, Velasco, the vice-regent of Mexico, made great effort to send both, as appears from his letter to Luna, dated Mexico May 6, 1560, in which he advises that when Louis Daza arrives with his supply ships let them go to Havana "so that two voyages may be made this year with horses and cattle...."  Then, the letter continues, "If our Lord preserves the ships, they may be able to introduce this year at least 200 horses, besides those that go from here, and a reasonable number of cattle, for I believe they are the two most essential things... that you need."  [Note 23] 

Velasco states that he has sent from Mexico 8 pack mules and 60 horses, among the latter 4 belonging to Luna.  [Note 24]  And in another place he comments that:  "I wish very much that you had all your men mounted, for, I consider that 400 [mounted] would be more effective than 1000 [on foot]."  [Note 25] 

All the good will and efforts to send fresh horses - though, no doubt, some did arrive - seem to have resulted in little permanent relief, as may be gathered from an "Opinion of the Captains" to Luna written in 1560 as follows:  "The horses and mules which are here, which must number about 50, are so thin and weak from eating no corn for so long, that if any of us go hunting from this camp on them, it always happens that within half a league from here they become exhausted, and those who go on them have to leave them behind and come back carrying the saddle on their shoulders."  [Note 26]

Can any other inference be drawn other than that these horses were left in the wilderness to die?

Some of the horses that did not die from exhaustion and starvation were slaughtered so that horse meat was publicly weighed out to give rations to the people.  [Note 27]

This expedition that started out with such high hopes and elaborate preparations was such a failure that Luna was displaced for another commander who took what remained of the personnel to Havana where he induced a small group of volunteers to sail with him to Santa Elena.  But, it does not seem possible that any of the horses taken to the mainland survived because, before the last of the expedition left for Havana, in 1561, it was so reduced that the men had to eat all the horses.  [Note 28] 

After the Luna failure came three French attempts to colonize.  Two of them, 1560 and 1565, on the Carolina coast;  the third, 1562, on the St. Johns River.  They all ended in massacre and abandonment;  and no mention is made of horses.  [Note 29] 

In 1567 there was a fourth French expedition led by Gourgues.  As no horses are mentioned and as the real purpose was not exploration but the murder of Spaniards in the three coast settlements previously established by Menéndez, it is highly probable that no horses were transported on the hazardous trip direct from France.  [Note 30]  Anyway, they would not have been Spanish horses.

With the mention of Menéndez, who led the ninth Spanish attempt to colonize in Florida and Carolina, one might expect to find the true start of horse breeding in the Atlantic coast region, for here was a large scale enterprise which, in the year 1565, set sail from Cadiz with 2646 persons, among them the best Spanish horsemen, and, by the asiento of Phillip II, Menéndez "was ordered to take with him a hundred horses and mares..."  [Note 31]  Three permanent settlements were established, those of St. Augustine and San Mateo in Florida and that of Santa Elena in South Carolina.  The chroniclers of this expedition refer several times to the horses.  Thus, "Mirando [Menéndez's son-in-law] was despatched to Santo Domingo where he was to collect the horses and the men which the king had agreed to furnish.... He added another ship to his squadron, with 50 men and 20 horses."  [Note 32]

Menéndez also sent two sloops to Havana for reinforcements - expected to arrive from Spain with Los Alas - and for horses.  Upon the latter he especially counted in his campaign against the French forts, as he had lost all but one of those he had shipped in Puerto Rico.  [Note 33] 

It will be seen from this last reference that Menéndez was close to the end of his horse supply;  and, by reviewing the various statements of the chroniclers it would appear that by September 1565 all his horses were finished.

After 1566 Menéndez was not permanently at any of the three settlements, though he returned to Florida twice and sailed to Spain twice, the first time returning to Florida with supplies.  His last appearance in Florida was 1572, after which time he gave little personal attention to these settlements.  [Note 34]  However, while absent previous to 1572, he had received reports of the starved condition of the settlers, so that if by some chance a few horses had escaped destruction in fights and other rough usages, it does not require much imagination to believe that they were slaughtered for food and that none remained to produce progeny.

That this conclusion is not a mere surmise is borne out by ample testimony.  The colony was never prosperous and was daily falling into more dire straits.  There was desolation and misery caused by insecurity against the Indians, the pirates, European aggression, lack of aid from Spain and Cuba and the scarcity of products in Florida.  [Note 35]  All the trouble led to investigations conducted in Spain where testimony was given that brings out evidence to reinforce the conclusion about the horses.

When Los Alas, one of Menéndez' captains, was investigated in 1570 on his return Spain, he testified that "... in St. Augustine there were left 15 or 16 mares and ten or twelve cows;  that the said cattle cannot sustain themselves because the mosquitos eat them and the Indians kill them."  [Note 36] 

A soldier who had spent over six years at St. Augustine testified in 1573, on his return to Spain, that the colony had been stocked with cattle and mares but that all had been eaten by the colonists.  Another witness at the same investigation testified that there had been about 20 horses and mares besides cattle and hogs at Santa Elena;  that owing to famine all had been eaten.  [Note 37] 

Other soldiers who had lived for five, six, and seven years in Florida testified that food was so scarce that they were obliged to eat all the farm animals and that there was no increase among the cattle.  [Note 38]

In 1579 there would seem to have been no horses in St. Augustine for Pedro Marqués, governing Florida at that time, wrote to the Audencia of Santo Domingo that:  "I am sending this frigate to one of the ports of that island of Hispaniola to be laden, with horses, mares and other cattle in order the better to succeed in carrying out what his Majesty has commanded me."  He had found that some of the French fugitives, who had escaped one of the Spanish massacres, were with the Indians, "and for this I have need of the horses for which I am asking, because to think of overtaking these Indians on foot is impossible;  and if I have horses they can be caught and the French can be had."  [Note 39] 

From St. Augustine Jan. 3, 1580, Marqués wrote to Philip that the Frenchmen were captured, "and justice was done them," [Note 40] so, he probably got the horses.

However, these horses did not last long, for on March 6, 1580 the Royal Officials wrote to the King from St. Augustine that:  "Some who have seen it, say that the land in the interior is more fertile.  It could breed an abundance of cattle of all kinds and of horses, for the few head that have been put in have thriven well - except that they have all been eaten up because of necessity."  [Note 41]

Evidently, not quite all the horses were eaten up because a communication six months later reports that Marqués, on being told that there was a French vessel at San Mateo, "ordered a man known as Manuel Alvarez to go on horseback that night to San Mateo, a distance of twelve leagues, arriving there at dawn, when he could look if there were more than that ship...;  and he was to endeavour that they should not see him or his horse, and he was to return here early the next day.  The said Manuel Alvarez went, and returned next day, the nineteenth said month [July] at the time of the Ave Maria."  [Note 42]

These specific records of the starving colonists;  of the actual slaughter of the too few horses in order to supply food, are applicable in even a greater degree to the earlier expedition and attempted settlements about which the records in some cases are not as explicit.  The "descendants" of Ayllón's horses of 1526 evidently were not supplying the wants of the later expeditions and colonies.

This last point should be emphasized in view of some conclusions, which may appear rather arbitrary, about the earlier horses not having left progeny.  It was a matter of forty-four years between Léon and Menéndez, a lapse of time sufficient, as proved by The Islands and Mexico, [Note 43]  for hundreds of horses to have been propagated had there been progenitors, no Indian arrows, no predatory animals, and plenty of food for human and horse consumption.  But, it is a fact that the chroniclers recite the lack of food, the lack of planted crops and the fact that where the settlements were attempted there was little natural forage for horses.  [Note 44]

Another phase of Spanish occupation was that of the missions.  Menéndez had planted these all along the Georgia-Carolina coast and on the Florida coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  [Note 45]  Up to 1572, the missions occupied only temporary sites and the huts, serving as shelter for the missionaries, were destroyed by the Indians.  In 1597 a general massacre of missionaries took place and it was not till 1601 that missionary efforts were begun again.  From 1612 on mission progress was rapid.  [Note 46]  But unlike the Mexican and later California missions, they were not agricultural enterprises during the 16th century, so, they did not possess great herds of cattle and horses;  consequently they do not contribute material for the subject of this search.


It is easy and not unusual to speak of the abandoned horses of this or that Spanish or French explorer as being the progenitors of later horses about which there is full information.  But it would seem that the foregoing review of the various lots of Spanish horses put ashore on the mainland east of the Mississippi, leads to the reasonable conclusion  that up to the year 1580 none survived or remained to leave progeny, so that it is necessary to look to later arrivals and even elsewhere - as is the case with the true Chickasaw - for the Spanish horses that did survive to produce progeny for the use of the later colonists.

After the close of the 16th century, owing to the increasing complexity of the colonizing problem, involving the Spanish, English and French, it is difficult to determine definitely what group or groups of horses were responsible for the horses later used by the Indians and by the white colonists.  We know that the Seminole Indians had horses, that go by that name, that were descended from Spanish horses, probably from those that were supplied to the colonists of St. Augustine as that colony was the only Spanish settlement that, for a number of years, survived.  [Note 47]  The English settlement at Jamestown (1607) was meagerly supplied from England (1607-1611) with horses most of which during the early years were eaten by the starving colonists.  [Note 48]  The English who settled in Charlestown in 1670 came principally from the Barbadoes, [Note 49]  or from England by way of the Barbadoes.  If they brought horses with them it is reasonable to suppose that they were Spanish horses from the West Indies.

The sequence of breeds that were used in the Carolinas from 1682 on, is given by Fairfax Harrison as follows:  From 1682 to 1740 the Narragansett Pacer;  from 1740 to 1786 the true Chickasaw (originally from the plains west of the Mississippi);  from 1755 on, the English horse.  [Note 50]

For general use there developed combinations of these breeds, notably when the Seminole was crossed with the Carolina (Chickasaw) and the Chickasaw with the Thoroughbred.  [Note 51]

It would appear, then, that so far as the region of the South East United States is concerned the Spanish horse persisted in the Seminole horse and in the Chickasaw horse well into the 18th century though it is highly improbable that these were the descendants of any Spanish horses landed on the mainland during the 16th century.  As a corollary there could have been no horse culture among the Indians of this region during the 16th century.

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