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The Canny Cayuse

July 2024
9min read

The white man made certain his imported thoroughbred could outrun the red man’s pony, but the Indian chief was wise in the gambler’s ways

Among the Indians of the Plains and the Rocky Mountains the sport of horse racing was a product of necessity and passion—the necessity of mastering the breeding of the horse, on which their very lives depended, and a passion, seemingly inborn, for gambling. Wherever they came together—witli other Indians or with friendly white men of sporting blood—horse racing became the principal social event.

The Umatilla and Caynse tribes had since 1853 lived on the same reservation in northeastern Oregon. When they crossbred the horses they had acquired from otlter tribes with animals obtained from white men who came through their country, the result was a pony that was small, tough, and fast.

In 1875, A. R. Meacham, just finishing a six-year term as superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, published a now-forgotten book called Wigwam and War Path. In it I found the following account of a horse race in whicli white men tried to cheat their Cayuse adversaries—with results that were wholly unforeseen.

—John Clark Hunt

How-lish-wam-po, chief of the Cayuse, is the owner of several thousand horses. He is a stout-built man, has a dark complexion, wears his hair just clear of his shoulders, and is now past middle age. He is a natural horseman and a match for any man of any race in matters pertaining to horses. He is really king of the turf in the Umatilla country.

The racing habits of these people are well known, and many a white man has found them more than his match. A white man named foe Crabb once imported a horse for the express purpose of taking everything the Indians had. He made known his desire to race, and he soon found opportunity for an investment. The preliminaries were arranged: the race was to be run over the Indian racecourse, which was located on the bottom lands of the Umatilla river. The turf was smooth and level, and the track was over two miles and a half in length.

At one end of this course a post was planted, round which the racers were to turn and come back to the starting point, making a distance of a little over five miles and a quarter.

Joe Crabb had been present at a race months before, when, unbeknown to Crabb, How-lish-wam-po had permitted his horse to be beaten: and as Crabb had measured the distance, recorded the winner’s time, and subsequently tested the speed of his own horse against it, he felt he had a sure thing.

The white men came with groom and riders, making a camp near the Indians and standing guard over their own horse, to prevent accident. The Indians were not so careful of their horse (at least Joe Crabb thought they were not), and, since everything is fair in gambling as in war, he decided to know for himself how the speed of these two horses would compare. He thought, as thousands of other white men have, that it was no harm to cheat an Injun, no matter by what means.

There is a general belief that Indians sleep when their eyes are shut, and especially just before daylight. Sending a careful, trusty man to get the Indian horse (leaving another in its place), Crabb led the two horses out on the prairie and made a few trials of speed between them. The result was satisfactory. He found that his horse was able to outdistance the other.

Now How-lish-wam-po owned two horses which looked very nearly alike, one the racer, the other half-brother to him, but not so fleet. They were pintos—spotted horses—so the deception was complete.

The Indian horses are never stabled, groomed, shod, or grain-fed. Their system of training differs very much from that the white man uses. After a race is agreed upon, the animal is tied up to a stake or tree. If he is fat, they starve him down, giving him only water. If, however, he is in good condition, they lead him out to grass an hour or so each day, and at nighttall they run him over the course.

In this instance the half-brother was tied up and left unguarded, with the hope that Ciabb would steal him out and try his speed. Sure enough, he fell into the trap that How-lish-wam-po set for him. The real race horse was miles away, under proper training. The tame of this wonderful winner had spread far and wide, as did the news of the approaching contest.

When the morning of the race arrived, the roads leading to the valley of the Umatilla gave full proof of the interest the people of the surrounding country had in this important affair.

They came from places several hundred miles distant and from the settlements surrounding the Reservation. The little towns furnished their quota, and the fanners excused themselves for going, hoping, as they told their wives at home, that they should meet with someone with whom they had business. Through various devices nearly every man, and a part of the women also, found excuse to be there. People who never gambled with dollars, and would blush to own they were last people, found then way to the Umatilla.

The racecourse, which I have described, was parallel with a low range of grassy hills that rose by gentle slopes from the valley to an altitude of fifty to one hundred feet. Long before the time for the race, carriages, buggies, wagons, and horses might be seen standing on the hills or driving over the greensward, while at the standing point was assembled a great motley crowd, on foot and on horseback. The Indians were in then gala-day dress—paints, feathers, long hair, red blankets; in fact, it was a dress parade for white and red men alike.

The manner of betting at an Indian horse race differs somewhat from allairs of the kind among white men. One man is selected as a stakeholder for all the money bets. Horses that arc wagered arc tied together and put in the care of Indian boys. Other stakes—coats, blankets, saddles, pistols, knives, and all kinds of personal effects—are thrown into a common heap and tied together.

As the starting hour approaches, two judges are elected—one white man and one Indian. (Two are required, since the horses run out, turn the stake, and come back to the starting point.) The first horse to get home is the winner. No account is made of the start, each rider depending on his shrewdness to get the advantage in this part of the race.

Indians are enthusiastic gamblers, with a certain kind of pride and, to do them justice, honor as well in conducting their races. No disputes, either about the starting or the outcome, ever arise among themselves, and seldom with white men. They take sides with their own people always and bet, when the chances are against them, from pride. The prevailing idea that they are always cool and stoical is not correct. They become very excited at horse races, but not, generally, until the race begins. While the preliminaries are being arranged they are serious, even solemnlooking fellows, and with great dignity come up with the money to bet.

Capable of dissembling, I should think they were, from the cool face of How-lish-wam-po when the money was being counted out by the hundreds in twenty-dollar gold pieces—not a few, but handfuls of twenties. One could not have detected the slightest twinkle in his eye or any other sign that he knew that Joe Crabb had stolen his horse and run him secretly. Cool, calm, earnest as if he were saying mass, this chieftain came up and handed over his money to the stake-holder, while numerous bets were being arranged between the other Indians and white men. Horses were wagered, tied together, and led away. Many a fellow had brought extras with him for the express purpose of gambling, expecting, of course, to take home twice the number in the evening.

Crabb had confided the secret of his stolen run to a few friends, advising them to place bets and win all the horses they wanted. There was no danger; he knew what he was talking about. He knew the Indian horse’s speed by time and also by trial. This thing leaked out, and was communicated from one to another. Some pretty good men who were not accustomed to betting became anxious to win a pony or two and laid wagers with the Indians.

When someone told How-lish-wam-po about the trick Crabb had played, he and his people seemed anxious to have the race come off before more betting was done. This made the white men more anxious, and they urged, boasted, and ridiculed until, in manifest desperation, the Indians began to bet again; the noble white man generously took advantage of the Indian’s hot blood and forced him to make many bets that he appeared to shun.

The horses were brought out to start, and while Crabb’s imported horse looked every inch a racer, the Indian horse stood with head down, a rough-haired, uncouth brute that appeared to be a cross between ox and horse.

The presence and appearance of the horses was the signal for another charge on the Indians and their few white friends, who, having learned about Crabb’s trick from the chief, came in sympathy to the Indians’ rescue.

Money, coats, hats, saddles, pistols, pocket knives, cattle, horses, and all kinds of property were staked on the race. The Indians, in their apparent desperation, drove up another band of ponies, and in madness wagered them also.

When the final starting time came, a pure-minded, innocent man would have felt great pity for the poor, dejected-looking Indians at the sight of their faces, now so full of anxiety; and certainly the pinto, on which they had staked so much, did not promise any hope; he stood unconcerned while his competitor was stripped of his blanket, disclosing a nice little jockey saddle and silver-mounted bridle.

His whole bearing indicated his superiority. With his thin nostrils, pointed ears, arched neck, sleek coat, and polished limbs that touched the ground with burnished steel, he disdained to stand still while his gayly dressed rider, in a blue cap, crimson jacket, and white pants tucked into boots embellished with silver-plated spurs, was being mounted. This required two or three experts to assist, so restless was this fine thoroughbred to throw dirt into the eyes of his sleepy-looking rival. The Indian horse stood unmoved, uncovered, without saddle, bridle, or anything save a small hair rope on his lower jaw; his mane and tail were unkempt, his coat rough and ill-looking.

At his right side stood a little Indian boy, with head close shaved and a blanket around him. To all appearances he was unconscious that anything unusual was expected. Meanwhile, the other rider’s horse was making furious plunges to get away.

How-lish-wam-po was in no hurry, really; indeed, things were going very much to his satisfaction. He was willing to see the other man’s horse chafe and fret—the more the better; and he cared nothing for the sponge that was used to moisten the mouth of the great racer.

Look away down the long line of white men and Indians; and on the low hills above see the crowd eager to witness the first jump!

The chief gives a quiet signal to the Indian boy. The blanket drops from the boy’s shoulders, and the yellow-skinned, gaunt-looking sprite bestrides the Indian horse, holding in his left hand the hair rope that is to serve him for a bridle and in his right a small bundle of dried willows.

Presto! The stupid-looking Indian horse is instantly transformed into a beautiful, animated racer. His eyes seem almost human. His ears do not droop now, but by their quick alternate motions give signs of readiness; he stamps his feet, slowly at first, but faster and more impatiently the moment it is intimated that he may go; the other horse is making efforts to escape, his masters maneuvering him for the advantage.

The little Indian boy manages his horse alone as the chief gives quiet signs. Three times they come up to the scratch without a start. Crabb now seems very solicitous about the race. I think, probably, he has by this time found the hornet in his hat; at all events, he is pale, and his rider exhibits signs of uneasiness.

At length, thinking to take what western sportsmen call a “bulge,” he says, “Ready!” “Go!” says the little Indian boy, and away go twenty thousand dollars on the heels of the Indian horse, twenty feet in the lead before the other crosses the mark and making the gap wider at every bound.

Away go the flying horses, and several thousand eyes follow the yellow rider, still ahead, as the horses grow smaller and smaller in the distance, until the Indian horse turns the stake at the farther end. Now they come, seeming to increase in si/e as they approach, the yellow rider still in advance. Crabb gasps for breath and declares that his horse “will yet win.”

The eagle eye of the old chief lights up as they come nearer, his rider still leading. The excitement is now beyond description. Look again!—the Indian boy nears the starting point alone, rattling his dry willows over a horse that, considering the nature of the turf, is making the fastest time on record.

The Indians along the line fall in and run beside the victorious racer, encouraging him with wild, unearthly shouts while he crosses the finish line, having run the five and one-fourth miles and eighty-three yards in the unprecedented time of nine minutes and fifty-one seconds, and having won the race and the money, much to the joy of the Indians and their few friends, but to the grief of Crabb and his many friends. He, without waiting to hear from the judges, runs down the track nearly a mile and rushes up to the gayly dressed jockey in his silver spurs, white pants, blue cap, and crimson jacket. He has dismounted and is leading the now-docile, fine-blooded English racer by his silver mountings. Crabb inquires, “What’s the matter, Jimmy?”

“Matter? Why, this hoss can’t run a bit. That’s what’s the matter.”

Before leaving this subject, it is proper to state that How-lish-wam-po gave back to Crabb the saddle horse he had won from him, and also money to travel on; he added a word of caution about stealing out one’s competitor’s horse and having a race all alone, remarking dryly, “ Me-si-ka wake cum-tux ic-ta mamook ni-ka tru-i-tan klat-a-wa [You did not know how to make my horse run]. Cla-hoy-um [Good-by], Crabb.”

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