Horses pivotal to Johnson’s cattle operation and film depiction

by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

Release Date: November 30, 2021


The importance of livestock to the Chickasaw people and rancher Montford T. Johnson

Horses and cattle play a huge role in bringing authenticity to the Chickasaw Nation Production “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher.”

Montford T. Johnson was a Chickasaw who managed a sprawling cattle operation in Indian Territory beginning in 1858. His business acumen led to great success and admiration among his peers.

He was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s “Hall of Great Westerners,” joining many famed national figures including Stephen F. Austin, who helped colonize Texas; Henry Bellmon, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator; and western entertainer Gene Autry.

The museum has honored more than 200 vitally important American ranchers since 1958.

Steed Evolution

Horses proved pivotal to ranching and to First Americans for hunting forays or in battle during early American history.

Pinpointing when the Chickasaw people first acquired horses is difficult to determine.

Nevertheless, educated approximations are possible.

Renowned tribal historian, artist and “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher” Content Producer Jeannie Barbour believes the tribe may have first observed horses when Hernando de Soto arrived in the Chickasaw Mississippi Homeland in winter 1540.

“We don’t know the very first time (the Chickasaw owned horses), but we do know we had the Chickasaw Horse at the Battle of Ackia (Hikki’ya’) in 1736 during the French and Indian Wars. We were breeding them. We used them a great deal as pack animals,” Barbour said.

“I would say the first time we came in contact with horses was during de Soto’s time period. That’s when it was (first) documented.”

“I personally believe with as much trading as we did, we saw horses prior to de Soto. Conquistadors were going into Peru, Mexico, (and) Central America long before they came to us – and they were bringing their horses. I do know we were breeding horses and making use of them probably as early as the late 1600s or (early) 1700s, but mainly it was for trade or pack animals,” she added.

Chickasaw Horse

Chickasaws have revered horses for centuries.

Steeds introduced to them by conquistadors included the Spanish Barb, Iberian, Andalusian and Lusitano, among others. Collectively referred to as the Colonial Spanish Horse, these breeds contributed traits evolving into present-day Quarter Horses.

James Adair provided the first written description of how horses were used in Chickasaw society in his book “The History of the American Indians” in 1775. Chickasaws bred horses as pack animals, to clear fields and race.

Racing horses became a cultural pastime for both Chickasaws and American colonists. Horseracing was an important component in celebrations and ceremonies.

“The Chickasaw Horse was smaller than the (English) thoroughbreds. They were quick and had a lot of stamina,” “Chickasaw Removal” author Dr. Daniel Littlefield said. “They could go long distances without as much food as other horses. It was a phenomenal animal.”

Relations between Chickasaw and English traders began in the 1600s.

The English were enthralled with the speed and agility of the Chickasaw Horse, while Chickasaws were inquisitive of the characteristics of English Thoroughbreds and Cleveland Bays. They began trading horses.

Thoroughbreds were fast and considered “hot-blooded,” while Cleveland Bays provided stamina, a gentle temperament and intelligence to existing Chickasaw breeds.

During the early 18th century, the French and Chickasaw were at war. Illustrating the value of horses to Chickasaws, French prisoners were traded at a rate of one captive for one horse. This further enhanced Chickasaw herds by introducing French breeds into the stock.

Barbour would write: “With generations of selective breeding of the Colonial Spanish Horse, later crossbred with other European strains, a unique horse was introduced that would make Chickasaws renowned in the American Colonies. Known as the ‘Chickasaw Horse,’ it was described as small – about 13 hands tall – with a well-developed muscular structure. The horse’s neck was so short that many would have to spread their front legs to bend down and graze, much like a zebra.”

Breed Disappears

Following Chickasaw removal to Indian Territory – 1837-1850 – the breed slowly disappeared.

By the time Johnson began his ranching operation and was in need of many horses to manage it, he attended an auction in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1874. His preference was more toward stallions and Kentucky whipstock breeds.

Johnson also raised horses; tamed wild Mustangs captured on the Plains and purchased ordinary cattle mounts trained for “cutting,” a term used for herding bovines.

Drovers working the Chisholm Trail used cutting steeds to keep cattle from straying during the long trek to Kansas slaughterhouses in Wichita, Caldwell and Abilene.

Johnson’s ranch played an integral role with the Chisholm Trail by virtue of its proximity to it. The gamut of personalities traversing the territory ranged from traders, hunters, cattlemen, cowboys, outlaws, misfits, businessmen and down-on-their-luck drifters.

Thusly, Johnson mingled with this menagerie throughout his ranching career.

He disliked Longhorn cattle because they were primary carriers of “Texas fever,” a disease that sickened other breeds. Portions of the Chisholm Trail closed due to the fever and some major Kansas communities stopped accepting Longhorn cattle briefly.

Private property dotting the Chisholm Trail would result in landowners charging a fee for herds to cross. Such encounters were expensive since herds sometimes numbered up to 3,000 head.

Additionally, Longhorn cattle were known for endurance, not for the quality of meat at slaughter. Longhorn meat can be tough and virtually tasteless due to the fact flavorful fat was “walked” off the animals during the 800-mile journey from Texas to Kansas.

European crossbred cattle – like those raised by Johnson – slowly cornered the market to feed affluent northern patrons.

“Montford’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, saw how upset Montford was with the federal government’s treatment of Southwestern tribes like the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa. “He saw the near extinction of the bison as part of the federal government’s plan to drive tribes onto reservations by eliminating their primary food source,” Barbour said.

“He would come home distressed about this. Together, they decided they could help. As part of an agreement made with tribes, starving First Americans could cull Johnson’s herd to feed themselves. In return, Johnson could graze cattle on their land,” Barbour said.

Pueblo Revolt

First Americans of the plains initially acquired large numbers of horses following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, notes famed Chickasaw historian, archeologist and author Towana Spivey. The revolt pitted First Americans, along with several desert southwestern tribes, against Spaniards who enslaved them near present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico.

However, the revolt would have little effect on Chickasaw since they were in what is now the southeastern U.S. in 1680.

Johnson’s mission to ensure Plains First Americans were fed properly when the government failed its treaty obligations was an opening for improved relations between Plains tribes and Chickasaws.

So important were horses to Chickasaws during Removal, news organizations reported how many Chickasaws – and horses – arrived in various communities along the route.

“A party of 516 emigrating Chickasaw Indians reached the bank of the Arkansas River … yesterday afternoon, on their way to their new homes in the west – all in excellent health. In the train are 551 Indian ponies and 13 wagins [sic], and we understand there are 30 more of the same tribe behind, who are not enrolled, and who are expected to join the main party at this place,” the “Arkansas Gazette” reported July 25, 1837.

“Montfort: The Chickasaw Rancher” is now streaming on Netflix. For more information, visit ChickasawRancher.com.

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