Friday, January 30, 2009

"Where the Rivers Run North"

Where the Rivers Run North by Sam Morton

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

During the 20th century, Americans learned about the “wild west” by watching cowboy and Indian movies and television programs featuring one-sided and often inaccurate versions of the events which shaped the western United States. Fortunately, historical documents and recorded personal histories exist which tell more of the whole story. Sam Morton, a horse trainer who splits his time between Palm Beach County, Florida, and Wyoming, was fortunate enough to meet some of the descendents of the old-timers and through them heard stories of the humans and horses who made history in northern Wyoming and southern Montana – a place once called Absaraka. He embarked on a multi-year research project to collect these stories and knit them together with imagined conversations based on his understanding of the main characters. The result is a highly satisfying and insightful version of what happened – when, why, how – and who was involved.

The histories of America and horses are as tightly woven together as a tapestry. Modern horses arrived on this continent with European explorers. Some managed to escape domesticity and form great wild herds. Others were stolen or captured by Native Americans. The natives quickly became master horsemen, riding with neither saddles nor bridles into great battles against competing tribes and, inevitably, the white encroachers on their ancestral lands. While there were some unprovoked acts of aggression on the part of the Native Americans – Shoshone, Crow, Blackfoot, Lakota Sioux, et al. – against the white settlers, the natives were mostly on the defensive, clinging desperately to their way of life on lands that had always provided everything they needed to survive.

Waves of white men moved west in the 1800s following the Louisiana Purchase, including soldiers commissioned to “eliminate the Indian problem”. For the natives, this was a time of great confusion and pain. Everything changed very quickly: game disappeared, once friendly tribes turned on each other, and weapons which had been employed since the stone age became obsolete. Moreover, the natives did not understand the white Americans’ notion of land ownership, nor did they quickly enough learn how deceitful and corrupt many of these people could be in their desire to lay claim to land for cattle grazing and homesteads. The result was genocide with the surviving natives being herded into small and inhospitable “reservations’ overseen by tribesmen who had been co-opted, as a matter of pragmatism, by the victorious United States army. Mr. Morton takes a journalistic approach to the history; he describes the events objectively and does not apologize for the tragic and wanton acts of some of the more notorious characters, but rather lets the facts speak for themselves. There are moments in the book when he could easily have slipped into sentimentality as people of all stripes recognized that something precious was being lost to them forever. By avoiding this trap, Mr. Morton allows the reader to focus on the stories and absorb the lessons.

Crazy Horse, a Lakota Sioux warrior, figures prominently during the period when worlds began colliding. In Mr. Morton’s book, he was something of a loner and did not care to accumulate resources. Rather he shared what he had with needy members of his tribe. His reasoning was that he could always steal more horses and kill another deer. This did not endear him to the father of the girl he loved, and so he lost out to a lesser man. Rather than pursue another woman, he redirected his energy and became one of the fiercest and most cunning warriors in American history.

Crazy Horse saw battle against Generals Terry, Custer, and Crook – at Big Goose Creek, Little Bighorn, and Rosebud Creek – and survived them all. He was a master strategist and equestrian athlete who tempted fate daily. Crazy Horse set up numerous ambushes which gave the battlefield advantage to the Native Americans. In the end, however, there were simply too many white soldiers with too much firepower and after decades of increasingly defensive fighting, the remaining Indians surrendered and gave up their land. Crazy Horse eventually accepted his fate and reported to the Red Cloud Indian agency, however when he saw that he would be a prisoner, he changed his mind.

With the Native Americans out of the way, rich and powerful Europeans and Americans set up massive horse-breeding and cattle ranching operations. Horses had always been integral to ranching, but in the aftermath of the Civil War, a horse shortage led to conflicts arising between cattlemen and horse-breeders over grazing rights. Mr. Morton explains these conflicts and through anecdotes brings the principal characters to life. The result was that open range lands were fenced and wild horses were hunted for bounty.

Great fortunes were made for a time by top horse breeders. At their peak, some ranches could boast as many as 30,000 animals. Horses were in great demand for cavalry, agriculture, and industry. In addition, big cities needed horses to pull cabs, streetcars, and wagons. With plenty of people working these very profitable ranches, horse sports became a popular past time. Rodeos came about because cowboys enjoyed showing off their bronco-riding and calf-roping skills. At the same time, horse racing in the United States became formalized as did the ancient game of polo. Breeders improved the quality of horses which were suitable for different types of work and sports. The people behind these enterprises had money to burn and as in Europe and Asia, polo, hunting, and dressage became elite activities, accessible only to the very wealthy.

Where the Rivers Run North chronicles the lives of some of the founders of American horse sports: Oliver Henry “Noll” Wallop, the 8th Earl of Portsmouth, is one of the main characters. In early adulthood, he came to America and fell in love with the land at Little Goose Canyon, near Big Horn, Wyoming. In 1889, he bought several hundred acres and called it OH Ranch. He lived on this ranch, forsaking his title in England, until his father’s death required that he either return to England or abdicate – a wrenching decision. His contemporaries included Edith and Geolet Gallatin who, in addition to horse breeding, recognized the value of Crow culture and collected the tribe’s art and artifacts. Their collection now resides in the museum at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT.

The Boer War, World War I, and World War II consumed hundreds of thousands of horses for cavalry as well as horsepower. American breeders couldn’t produce horses fast enough to keep up with the demand. Then came the rise of the automobile and the demand for good, useful horses collapsed. The big western ranches scaled way back or ceased to exist. Without the existence of large organizations dedicated to promoting equestrian sports, it is likely that the equine population in the United States would be much smaller than it is today.

Where the Rivers Run North tracks the American story of humans and horses through the present time, but the full story began in prehistoric times. It is hard to imagine the human race evolving beyond hunter-gatherers without these great animals. They gave us speed and power which enabled our species to cultivate vast tracts of land so that we could stay in one place and form civilizations. Horses moved us and our possessions across great distances allowing us to expand our population and find new food sources. Without cavalry horses, many wars might have ended differently and warfare would likely not have moved beyond hand-to-hand combat.

While this book is enjoyable and informative, it suffers from a too-thin bibliography. Polo, drill team riding, and dressage all derive from cavalry training and I found myself wishing to know more about how the organizations behind these sports came to be. In addition, Mr. Morton cites many statistics regarding the equine and Native American populations, but does not provide his sources for this information. My final criticism of this book concerns the editing: numerous typographical, grammatical, and usage errors throughout the book suggest that the book was rushed to print and/or published on a very low budget.

Within the last 100 years, the importance of the horse to humanity has been greatly diminished as the internal combustion engine replaced true horsepower in agriculture, industry, and transportation. It is quite likely that a child growing up in the new millennium might never see or touch a horse, let alone ride one. We humans have short memories and don’t give much thought to the role horses have played in our history. Where the Rivers Run North gently reminds us that who we are is largely because we tamed and learned to love these great beasts. Now that horses are used almost exclusively for pleasure and sport they often enjoy long, healthy, and happy lives. The flip side of this is that their very survival depends on our willingness and ability to support them. The days of open range land are long gone.

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