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Historic Horse Drives

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It is common knowledge that many cattle were trailed great distances during the early days of the west.  Not so well known is the story of the numerous horse herds that were also moved across the mountains and plains.  In riffling through the pages of frontier history, I have come across records of several such little-known expeditions.

For example, in 1881, while hanging around Bismarck, Dakota Territory, 20-year-old Henry Nelson learned that a man named Robbins was looking for someone to take charge of trailing a bunch of horses to Deer Lodge in Montana Territory.  Robbins had sold 300 head of geldings, mares and 5 stallions to the Larabie Brothers.  Because saddle-broke horses would bring a higher price, these animals had to be broke on the trail.  Each rider would start with five horses in his string.

Nelson picked up eight men to help him.  One of these was to serve as a wrangler and cook's helper.  At 2 o'clock on the morning of July 1, 1881, the outfit left Bismarck and headed straight wet.  It took two full days of hard riding before the herd finally settled down to steady traveling.  Walking and trotting, they covered about 15 miles a day.

The nights, however, were much worse.  The horses drifted and scattered and gave the night herders no time to relax.  The following days were spent in gradually breaking broncs.

As the caravan approached the ford of the Little Missouri River, the horses became unusually nervous.  The sight of the white, glistening carcasses of skinned buffalo, and the smell of their rotting flesh, finally became too much for them.  They stampeded in all directions.  After three days of frantic hunting, 268 head were finally gathered.  The remaining 32 were given up as lost.

Days later they entered the Gallatin Valley and camped near Bozeman.  From there the herd was driven to Helena and on northward until the Mullen Road was reached.  There the outfit turned west and on through Mullen Pass which brought them across the Continental Divide.  At Kalispell the cavalcade swung in a southerly direction, passing to the left of Flathead Lake.  Several days later they approached Missoula where camp was made and the horses allowed to rest a day or two.  It was now September.  Their destination, the Larabie Ranch at Deer Lodge, was now only a three-day journey.  Larabie met the outfit there, and after noting the good condition of the horses after their long trip, he congratulated Nelson on his able handling of the animals, and handed over the wages for him and his crew.

* * * * * * * *

In the spring of 1898, Luke Sweetman bought 175 horses on the Big Dry River in eastern Montana.  With a mess wagon to carry the supplies and camp outfit, and a crew of several cowboys, he headed toward what he hoped would be a good market in Dakota.

The horses had just wintered on the open range and were in fair shape, though not fat enough to bring a good price.  Since there were no fences to interfere, the horses were allowed to graze as they were guided eastward.  Three hundred miles were covered before the first and only town was reached.  Within 20 minutes after camp was made, many buyers had arrived.  Schofield and Coleman, owners of the town livery barn, were the first to buy.  And before the sun had set, the whole band of horses had been sold.

Later that same year, on hearing that the L. S., a Texas outfit, was closing out their interests, Sweetman bought up all 354 head of their saddle stock.  after adding enough broncs to make an even 400, he drove them to Miles City, where they were all sold.

* * * * * * * *

Rounding up  650 horses in Lavaca County in southern Texas, another outfit, including a chuck wagon and an additional 55 saddle horses, began a long drive toward an expected market in Nebraska.  It was mid-February 1880 when the start was made.  The route pointed northward in as straight a line as grass and water would permit.

It took ten days and 150 miles to get the herd settled down to a controlled pace.  One night a severe sleet storm excited the horses, but the crew managed to prevent a complete stampede.  When daylight came, it showed that fifty horses had been killed.

The drive continued with occasional stampedes until it reached Fort Worth.  Here they encountered a maze of wire fences.  Camp was made and night guards put out.  Later that night something caused the horses to stampede.  The entire crew fought hard all night to gather the six hundred wild and frightened animals as they rushed and plunged through the invisible wire fences.  When the herd was finally stopped, it was discovered that, although no men were hurt, ten horses were dead and several seriously crippled by the wire.

On reaching Red River, the crew found it to be in flood.  The wagon was ferried across but the horses were forced to swim.  Here five horses were drowned but no men were lost.

When Indian Territory was reached, the Indians became quite bothersome.  They either begged for horses or demanded them for permission to cross their land.  Despite constant guard, several horses were stolen.

Several days of steady rain hampered the expedition.  It was still raining when they reached the Canadian River.  It was running bank-full and still rising.

After a huddled consultation, it was decided to risk a crossing.  Two stout logs were roped to the wagon wheels, then several mounted men plunged into the flooded water and towed the outfit to the other side.  Five of the swimming horse herd were lost.

No more trouble was encountered on this journey.  The herd passed Wichita and headed for Culbertson, Nebraska, where all the horses were sold.

* * * * * * * *

On hearing that horses were being sold in the Yukon for as much as $300 and $400 a head, two unknown Wyoming cowboys rounded up 70 head of carefully selected five- and six-year-olds.  They believed that Wyoming-raised horses could live and work in the north country.

With a chuck wagon to carry their camping outfit and food, and a few friends to help haze the horses along for a few days, they left the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming in September 1897.  They worked their way across Montana heading for Sweetgrass where they crossed the border into Canada after paying duty of $2 a head.

It was now November, so they planned to wait until the rivers froze, then to cross them on the ice.  But a continuing Chinook wind held back the cold and spoiled their plans, so they shipped the horses to Edmonton.

There they spent two months breaking the animals for use as pack-horses.  After selling twenty of the more stubborn animals, they traded their wagon for a bobsled and went on to Peace River.  It was now February.  On this winter trip the range horses proved that, when handled by experienced men, they could get through the winter on grass alone.  The sled team, however, did get a little grain.

The sled was left at Peace River.  All of their supplies were loaded onto the pack animals.  They crossed the Cassier Mountains in British Columbia, then headed north to Dease Lake.  They spent most of the summer in this area packing supplies from the head of navigation on the Stikine River to trading posts in the wild interior.  After a trip of more than two thousand miles and two months of heavy packing, the horses were still in good condition.

During the winter of 1898-99 they lost most of their horses to Indians, who killed them for food.  In the spring, with only 15 animals left of the original 70, the men pushed on to Pelly River, a tributary of the Yukon.  There they built a large raft, loaded their whole outfit, and started down the stream.  But disaster struck:  when they hit some large rapids, the raft capsized.  The men escaped the wreck with only three horses.  With these they finally managed to reach Dawson.  The experience of this adventure showed that range horses could survive and live well on grass alone.

* * * * * * * *

On 3rd May 1867, Sam McGannigan, Jim Begole, Jim Keller and his  young wife, and William H. Jackson, left Los Angeles with a pair of wagons and two hundred head of half-broke horses.  Their destination was Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where it was hoped that small Spanish mustangs would yield a profit of from 100 to 300 percent.  Sam McGannigan was in charge.

The first ten days were pretty lively.  Every man was bucked off several times.  The horses were hard to manage, especially for this group of inexperienced riders.

On leaving Los Angeles the outfit headed for Cajon Pass, then on to San Bernadino.  From there their route was across the Mojave Desert, then on to the Virgin River.  When an early start was made the following morning, a loose cinch caused one of the horses to break away while being saddled.  The saddle slid under its belly, then dragged behind his heels until it was pretty well kicked to pieces.  This was only one of many mishaps that the party was to suffer.

Sam and Jim were such poor ropers that on one occasion a member of the party had to walk all day because a horse could not be caught.  Later, when these same two tenderfeet were supposed to be on night guard, they managed to lose all the stock!  When they showed up in camp next morning, they didn't have the faintest idea of where the creatures might be.

They combed the surrounding country for several days before they found the horses grazing peacefully on a grassy flat ten miles from camp.

One evening all of the horses stampeded and smashed Keller's wagon so badly that it had to be abandoned.

In time, they entered Mormon territory near the town of St. George, Utah.  Although the rocks and soil in that area were red, in many places they were thickly coated with alkali.

Cedar City was passed, then came the Sevier River.  The water was so high that it overflowed the road.  The party encountered considerable difficulty in crossing the mud and mire before reaching the flooded river.  Here more trouble struck them when their horses balked and had to be forced into the rushing, muddy water.

The town of Nephi was reached on 15th June.  From here their course led them along the eastern side of Utah Lake.  A very cold rain caught them here which made the adobe soil soft, slippery and treacherous.

On 18th June they arrived at Spanish Fork.  The stream was only 20 feet wide but was too swift for fording with a wagon.  This had to be driven downstream a ways to where it could make use of a toll bridge.  With the help of a crowd of the town's natives, the horses were forced to cross that torrent.

When Salt Lake City was reached, the expedition made camp and rested for several days.  Here the party tried to join a covered wagon caravan that was heading back to the "States."  But their company was refused for fear that their many horses would become an attractive magnet to marauding Indians.

After several more difficult river crossings, Fort Bridger was reached on 1st July.  On 9th,  they approached Green River.  Although the green-tinted stream was normally about 100 feet wide, it was now a muddy flood at least 125 yards across.  The wagon was sent over by cable ferry, while they tackled the problem of getting the horses to the other side.  After an hour or more of fruitless effort, Sam, the leader of the expedition and a man who was tight-fisted when it came to spending any money, very reluctantly admitted defeat and was obliged next day to pay full fare on the ferry.

Days later the Continental Divide at South Pass as crossed.  En route the party went past two stage stations that had recently been burned by Indians.  When, on 21st July, Fort Sanders was reached, they learned that all wagon trains came under close military inspection.  No party of less than forty men was allowed to travel through that region.

On 25th July, just above Julesburg, Colorado, they came to the railroad just being built.  Here the long excursion ended.  They had a terrible time getting the horses into the cars.  Many of them had to be roped and dragged on.

The members of the party continued to Omaha by train.  There was considerable wrangling when the matter of payment for services came up.  At first, Sam offered to buy them each a suit of clothes.  Then, after more argument, he finally agreed to pay them $20 in cash for their three months of trials and tribulations.

 * * * * * * * *

On 1st March 1876, a dozen men swung into their saddles at the Santa Margarita Ranch at San Mateo, California, one of three great Mexican grants owned by Don Juan Forster, and drove ahead of them 1,100 head of horses, most of them unbroke.  Included in the herd were many saddle animals for the riders and mules for the cook wagon.

Juan Sepúlveda, who had driven 1,200 horses to Denver the previous year, was in charge of the expedition.  Seventy year old Jesus Guirado, the oldest of the riders, was second in command.  The youngest member was José Garibaldi Carrillo, who had just reached his sixteenth birthday.  The other riders, all experienced in stock work, were Indians and Californians.

They traveled along the Santa Ana River to the San Bernardino Valley, then across it and through Cajon Pass.  Two weeks later they moved along the Mojave River.  There was plenty of feed and water along the way.  They then followed the old Spanish Trail which had once connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles.  The horsemen followed the Mojave River as far as Camp Cady.  This was an old abandoned Army post.  From here they headed into the real, waterless desert.

Their route now led them northward about 40 miles to Bitter Spring.  Because the ground was stony and the horses were unshod, the tender-footed animals could not be pushed out of a slow walk that covered about two miles in one hour.  After moving all night and all of the next day, they finally reached their destination.  The water here deserved its name.  It was not good, but was better than nothing, and there was some feed in the vicinity.

The next jump was a long one.  It was 50 miles to a spring beyond the Amargosa River.  There was some water in the stream but it was too alkaline to drink.  When the spring was finally reached, it contained very little water.  Grass was also scarce.

At the slow rate of flow of the spring, it would have taken two or three days to water all of the horses.  So they were divided.  About half of them were allowed to drink, then started for the next watering place at Mountain Spring, Nevada.  Sepúlveda was in charge and had four riders to help him.  The rest of the herd was left in the care of Jesus Guirado with orders to follow two days later.

With water in their canteens and some food packed on a burro, the advance party started out.  The cook wagon was left behind.

Leaving camp about two o'clock in the afternoon, they headed in a north-easterly direction.  Mountain Spring was about fifty miles away.  By ten o'clock next morning all of their canteens were empty and the only food left was a small amount of pinole (cornmeal). 

Talamantes, one of the riders, was told to take the burro and the canteens, hurry ahead to Mountain Spring, fill them there, and return as fast as he could.  But Talamantes proclaimed that he was a horseman and would not ride a burro.  he was warned that a hose was liable to give out on such a trip, but Talamantes believed that his fine horse could stand any hardship of desert travel.

That afternoon, while he was still miles from the spring, his horse played out.  He then tied it to a desert shrub, collected the empty canteens and continued on foot.  Although darkness overtook him, he managed to find Mountain Spring, fill the canteens, and start back on his trail.  It was two o'clock in the morning when he reached the camp and found his companions.  While he was gone, the burro carrying their food had strayed away in the night.

At daybreak the weary party stumbled onto Las Tinajas (The Tanks) some distance from Mountain Spring.  Here, by using their hats as dippers, they managed to get enough water to refresh their weak and tired animals.  Mountain Spring was reached late that afternoon and so ended their miserable two-day journey.  Now they were in the mountains, there was plenty of grass and water and shade trees, but no food for the men.

The next day Sepúlveda, riding and leading a spare horse, went to help bring up the rest of the outfit.  That night he found them resting their horses and getting some sleep.  That day was costly because it resulted in the loss of a fourth of their horses before they reached Mountain Spring.  Those that gave out were left in the desert.

Next came a short easy move to the watering place at Las Vegas.  Because there was good grazing and plenty of water, the party rested there for a week and got into condition for the desert stretch ahead.

A hard drive of two days and nights, and they had covered sixty miles to Muddy River.  There they found the deserted Mormon town of St. Thomas.  The abundance of feed and water induced them to rest there for several days. 

Their route was now up the Virgin Valley to St. George.  This was the main Mormon settlement in southern Utah.  A number of stores were there, also a Wells-Fargo Express and a telegraph office.

From here Sepúlveda telegraphed Forster for money and instructions.  He was told to use his own judgement.  The drive had been headed for Denver, unless a better market was found in Utah.  Sepúlveda decided to go no further.

The Mormons, however, had little money for buying horses, but did have cattle to trade for them.  For a few head of horses, the Rock House Ranch near Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River was rented.  The horses were started in that direction and were traded along the way, the average trade being one horse for two cattle.  The cattle were not taken along at the time but left to be gathered later.  By the time they arrived at Rock House Ranch, they had only three hundred of their California horses.  To this number they added two hundred others they bought from a New Mexico trader they met at the river.  For two months they rested at the ranch.  The horses were now in fine condition, so they were herded north on a trading expedition.

The first town they came to was Kanab.  From there they crossed the mountains to the Sevier Valley, which they followed in a northerly direction.  They traveled as far as Provo, selling and trading along the way.  From Provo they drove their horses to another mountain ranch that had been rented.

It was now autumn.  The cattle that had been traded for were now gathered from different areas.  By November more than 1,200 head had been trailed to the ranch on the Colorado River.

Most of the crew had already returned to California.  Jesus Guirado and Federico, a Mexican, were left in charge of the horses and cattle for the winter.  Sepúlveda and Carrillo headed for home.  The return trip was easy compared to the one they had just made.  They arrived at the Santa Margarita Ranch on New Year's Day and so ended the hardships of a ten-month adventure

 * * * * * * * *

With no detailed particulars the following incidents are also a matter of record.  In 1830, Ewing Young drove 1,500 horses from San Diego, California, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  In 1870, David Bruhn with the help of forty wranglers moved 3,000 head from Los Angeles to Denver.

The above-cited ventures were remarkable in themselves, but none of them could equal the incredible journey made by Miles Goodyear and his brother, Andrew.

The Mexican War had just begun and the United States Army was greatly in need of cavalry horses.  So, early in the spring of 1848 the Goodyear brothers began combing southern California for the best horses they could find.  There is no record as to the number of animals that were rounded up, only the statement that they proved themselves to be of great stamina and endurance.

Leaving Los Angeles and crossing the Bernardino Mountains by way of the Cajon Pass, the band dropped down the other slope and headed for the Mojave River, striking it about where Victorville now stands.  Following this stream the group entered the Mojave Desert, one of the most barren wastes in the USA.  Its members suffered greatly as they struggled along what was then known as Jornada del Muerto until they finally staggered into Las Vegas.   After a brief rest, the tired horses were driven to the Virgin River, then onto Santa Clara.  From there they pushed through Mountain Meadows, across the Escalante Desert, and then north to the Sevier River.  There a trail was found which led them to Great Salt Lake.  As they approached that salty body of water they met emigrant trains heading west.  The well-rutted Oregon Trail now stretched before them.  This they followed to their destination, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they learned that their long journey had been made in vain.

The war had ended and there was no market for the horses they had driven more than half way across the continent.  Miles Goodyear was disappointed but not discouraged.  News had arrived that gold had been discovered at Sutter's Fort, near Sacramento, so he immediately decided to take the horses back to California!  But it was now late in autumn and winter would overtake them before they could complete the trip.  His brother agreed  that it would be wise to wait until spring before starting back. 

It was early in the season when the rested horses were put back onto the return trail.  They were now well broke to travel and gave little trouble along the way.  Fifty-four days after leaving Independence, Missouri, they arrived in Sacramento.

The miners were reluctant to buy any of the horses because of their gaunt condition.  It is a wonder that they survived at all after covering more than 4,000 miles, a good part of it over desert country and the last half of the distance at forced speed.  But it was a great test of horseflesh and horsemanship.

This trip may have been the most impressive, but by no means the last one made.  Until the coming of railroad transportation, driving horses long distance to market was a common occurrence.

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