Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation
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Contributed by Francine Locke Bray (flbray@iupui.edu), research consultant and great-granddaughter of Victor and Susan (McKenney) Locke

On April 30, Bryant Rickman, president of the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association, and I gave a presentation at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Annual Meeting in Durant. The title of the presentation was, “The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain: The Story of the Choctaw Pony.” Over the past year, it has become evident that there is quite a bit of misunderstanding about how and why we call the horses that lived on Blackjack Mountain, “Choctaw ponies.”

This strain of Colonial Spanish horse claimed the mountain as home in Pushmataha County for well over 120 years and was developed from horses purchased and collected from Native Americans in the region in the early 20th century. The discovery and documentation of their origin includes four important aspects: 1) oral and written history; 2) location; 3) phenotype evaluation; and 4) genetic testing.

Written history of the horses, of their use and value to the Choctaw people has been sketchy. However, one of the most important sources is the missionary journals. Henry C. Benson (1860) was a missionary at Fort Coffee between 1842 and 1845; and H.B. Cushman (1899) grew up among the Choctaw in pre-removal days. Both published their memoirs. In addition, James Taylor Carson (1995) has done extensive studies and writings on Choctaw horse culture.

In the 1600s the Choctaw probably obtained their horses through raids on the Caddo and several other tribes living west of the Mississippi. Throughout the history of the Choctaw in Mississippi, the horse played a very integral part in the social, economic, and spiritual life of the people. While they at first used horses for food, their value as pack horses was quickly recognized. Before acquiring horses, the women would carry the food home from the hunt on their backs and were responsible for the movement of the household goods during their seasonal relocations. With the evolution of a horse culture these practices changed and the horse became important to not only these daily activities but also as a means for transporting trade goods, thus widening the range of trade.

When a Choctaw child was born, it was customary to give that child a pony, a cow, and a hog. Thus, when reaching adulthood, the young adult would now have herds of his own. Cushman (1899) tells of the use of the “famous little Choctaw pony” as a means of transportation for children. Once a child was too large for his/her mother’s back sling, he/she would be placed on the back of one of the ponies and secured to the saddle. At approximately the age of four or five he/she would be considered old enough and skilled enough to ride without any restraints. “They were all equestrians, men, women, and children; each had his pony and saddle, and to ride on horseback was the first lesson ever learned” (Benson 1860).

According to Carson (1995), the Choctaw horse played an important role in the funeral practices of the Nation. In the 18th Century, when a man died and after his bones were placed in the “village bonehouse,” the horse(s) of the deceased were slaughtered and a feast held in honor of the deceased’s passage, reaffirming the bonds of community and kinship. By the late 18th Century, the Choctaw were beginning to bury their dead men, including in the grave the deceased’s guns, tomahawks and favorite horse(s). The above practices ceased sometime in the early 19th Century as both men and women began to depend on the horses for their transportation and livelihood. By 1828 the Choctaw herd is said to have numbered 15,000, a ratio of 0.7 per capita, similar to Mississippi’s 1840 ratio of 0.8 per capita. The missionaries estimated the average horse’s worth at $60, putting the value of the Choctaw horse herd, in 1828, at $900,000 (Carson 1995).

There are numerous records on the removal of the Choctaw horse during the migrations to Oklahoma Territory in 1831, 1832, and 1834 in the National Archives Indian Emigration records. One of interest is a letter cited in Forman (1932). “Nine hundred Choctaw horses crossed the Mississippi river that winter; 500 passed Little Rock, 300 going to the Kiamichi river, and 200 to Fort Smith; 400 went to the Red river country by way of Ecor à Fabri (Brown to Gibson, April 30, 1832, ibid., 444, and OIA, “Choctaw Emigration”).”

We have been able to trace ownership of herds of Choctaw horses, since removal, through one Choctaw family, the McKenney-Locke family of Antlers. John McKenney owned a stand on the Robinson Road in Mississippi and was captain of a group that emigrated in the first removal in 1831. In 1836 he was elected Chief of the Mush District. The National Archives has a letter John wrote discussing the stock held by himself and his neighbors. In addition, in the 1835 claim filed by the Choctaws against the government for lost horses, John is listed as having lost several horses on that emigration. All told, over 2,300 horses are listed in this document as “lost,” worth approximately $80,000.

In 1871, Susan, Thomson’s daughter, married Victor M. Locke from Ten Mile Stand, Tenn. They raised a large family in the Pushmataha County area and founded Antlers. We have traced their land holdings throughout the county, specifically in the Blackjack Mountain area. This was a very large family, including Victor’s two brothers who followed him to the Territory and married Choctaw women. Most family members had extensive land and stock holdings, many original allotments.

Victor and Susan’s children were prolific storytellers and writers. Dollye Locke Archer, in the late 1940s, wrote her nieces of her mother, as a young “girl,” riding across Winding Stair Mountain from Skullyville to Fort Towson on her “pony.” She concluded the story, saying, “…after all, not a small feat, it was 100 miles and she rode side-saddle.” Dollye’s brother, Ben, wrote while a patient in the Muskogee VA Hospital stories of his childhood, most of which include the use and love of the horses. Ben’s grandson, in 1998 wrote a letter telling of going to the Antlers area in the late 1930s to see if he and his Dad could find some of his father’s horses. They had been branded “VL” and, much to their surprise, they did find one being used by an Indian family as the family pet. One Locke family treasure is a photo album, predating 1913, which includes a number of pictures of the horses with riders.

Gilbert Jones came to the Antlers area in the early 1950s and subsequently owned and lived at Medicine Springs on Blackjack Mountain. He was an owner and breeder of Spanish Mustangs and began to search out the “elders” of the area and collect what he could of the oral history of the horses. Many of his findings are scattered throughout his large collection of books, including the statement that the Locke family at one time owned a herd of over 1000 horses. During this time and up until his death, Gilbert also collected and bred the best of the horses he found on Blackjack Mountain, preserving the strains that were owned by the Indian families of the area. In the late 1970’s Gilbert began working with Phil Sponenberg of both Virginia Tech and the American Livestock Breeders Conservancy (ALBC) to conduct phenotypic evaluations and DNA testing on the herd. Sponenberg’s initial physical evaluations indicated that the herd had strong Spanish-type conformation across the board and, to his trained eye, were classic Colonial Spanish horses. To support these findings DNA testing was then conducted with the end results proving that the Choctaw horses on Blackjack Mountain were indeed direct descendents of the horses that first arrived with Spanish settlers in the 1500’s. The scientific findings combined with oral and written history and location prove that these horses are the animals Native American tribes would have kept and raised in the region.

Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the help of Jeannette Beranger, Research and Technical Programs Manager, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for her assistance with this article, especially for the comments on the phenotypic evaluations, DNA testing, and the scientific findings.

References cited: Archer, Dollye Locke (Unpublished Letters). To Susan and Her Sisters. Benson, Henry C, A.M. (1860). Life Among The Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe, Cincinnati. Carson, James Taylor (1995). “Horses and the Economy and Culture of the Choctaw Indians, 1960 – 1840. Ethnohistory, Vol 42, No. 3. (Summer, 1995), pp. 495-511. Cushman, H.B. History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. Edited, with a Foreword, by Angie Debo (1999). Originally published in 1899. Foreman, Grant (1932). Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, Normal. P. 53: Brown to Gibson, April 30, 1832, ibid., 444, and OIA, “Choctaw Emigration” Schedule of horses alleged to have been lost during removal, Horses and the Choctaw Indians 5138 October 1837, United States, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Choctaw Agency West, 1825-1838, M234.

© Francine Locke Bray (2010)