THE AMAZING HISTORY OF LOCAL WILD HORSES & BURROS
Just a brief gallop across the Las Vegas Valley from today’s wild horse range lie the bones of their prehistoric ancestors. At the Tule Springs Archeological Site, (NV Historical Marker 86), paleontologists have uncovered extinct ground sloths, mammoths, the American camel and lion, bison, giant condor and at least two species of prehistoric horses. 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, these creatures utilized abundant springs in an area of sage brush and yellow pine forests. About 7,000 years ago desert people also utilized the springs, the plants and hunted game.
In April 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar discussed creating a Tule Springs Ice Age Park with NV Governor Sandoval, Clark County Commissioners and local mayors (http://www.lvrj.com/news/tule-springs-fossils-attracting-paleontologists-from-around-world-132906008.html) who unanimously support park creation. When this is accomplished, visitors on a half-day tour will be able to visit prehistoric horse remains at the Ice Age Park interpretative center and see present-day wild horses roaming the Spring Mountains.
Prehistoric horses are thought to have moved westward across a Bering Strait land bridge to Eurasia where they survived the Ice Age that may have ended the Pleistocene evolution of the North American wild horse. Scientists have not yet determined how or why prehistoric horses disappeared from Southern Nevada and North America. However, Dakota and Lakota Elders argue that some North American horses survived the Ice Age, were a vital part of their horse culture prior to the arrival of Europeans and their distinctly different ponies were killed by the U.S. military in the last part of the 1800’s to prevent the tribes from leaving the U.S. government reservations. There is evidence of these massacres but as yet no definitive research into their ponies’ origins.
In Eurasia, recent archeological digs at al-Maquar in Saudi Arabia show wild horses being tamed as early as 9000 years ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/aug/29/horses-art-war-peace) We do know that one of prehistoric horses’ descendants, the Spanish horses, returned to North America on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Over time, both burros and horses escaped from the conquistadors and were embraced by most Native American tribes.
Wild horses & burros most likely found their way back to Southern Nevada on the Old Spanish Trail as transport animals and objects of trade. In the early 1800’s diaries show caravans of between thirty and one hundred men leaving Santa Fe, New Mexico in the fall, arriving in Los Angeles, California, two and a half months later, then returning in the spring with several thousand horses, burros and mules. Who knows how many horses and burros actually completed the journey to New Mexico? Some would have been abandoned or escaped and then found water and forage in the aptly named Spring Mountain Range.
This route was predominately a footpath until 1847 when it was developed into an important wagon road (The Mormon Road) becoming one of the longest used in the American West between Salt Lake and Los Angeles. It was replaced in 1905 with the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad.
The Old Spanish Trail
“The first caravan over the trail left on November 18, 1829, with Antonio Armijo leading a group of 60 men. Like the caravans that would follow them, the party brought hand woven blankets and serapes–these they traded for horses, mules, and other livestock in southern California to be taken back in the spring. Increasing traffic along the Old Spanish Trail made life difficult for the Southern Paiutes. Imagine a caravan, perhaps a mile long, with a thousand head of livestock and two or three hundred Mexican traders. The food sources, plants and animals, the Southern Paiutes would usually hunt were now being hunted and eaten by the Mexican traders. There was a competition for the food in the area just as there was in early American settlement when England settled in Jamestown. Food that was once plentiful now hard to find because of the cattle and horses eating the plants along the way, the marsh land being trampled, and the animals being hunted by all along the trail. Slave traders among the New Mexicans and Ute Indians living east of Nevada often captured Paiute children, selling them as slaves to households in New Mexico and California.
From the Muddy River, the Spanish Trail faced a long, waterless jornada (a one-day journey) of over 50 miles. This was one of the most difficult trips on the entire route. During the years to follow, many animals would die on the trail and many hardships would be suffered. When the animals sensed the smell of water a few miles from Las Vegas Springs, they hurried along as fast as their tired bodies would allow. The muleteers loosened the ropes and removed the packsaddles carrying two to four hundred pounds. The animals then broke into a run to reach the water. Soon they would be grazing on the tender grass. When the caravan reached the “Diamond of the Desert,” they discovered two springs boiling with a force which would keep a man from sinking and then gush suddenly with a quick current, forming a creek about 3 feet wide and 15 inches deep. This flowed through a channel for 3 miles and spread out over the floor of the Vegas Valley, thus giving life to meadows in a 2 1/2 by 1/2 mile wide area. A forest of mesquite trees lined the water and stretched nearly to Sunrise Mountain. This forest provided beans for the Indians and fuel for the caravans.
The Mormon fort, which was established at the meadows in 1855, later developed into a ranch owned by Octavius Decatur Gass. He raised food for miners and people passing through during the Mormon Road Period. Later, Helen Steward and her husband owned the ranch from 1882 until 1905, at which time she sold the property to William Clark. The property then developed into a railroad town known as Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Old Spanish Trail heads southwest 16 miles to Cottonwood Springs, located in the center of Blue Diamond Village, which has good grass and an abundance of water. An alternate resting spot used was the Old Bill Williams ranch (Spring Mountain Ranch). Bill Williams, Peg Leg Smith, and other fur trappers set out to California to steal horses. They joined other renegades on the way and succeeded in capturing several thousand horses from the ranches and missions. They drove the horses over the desert back to Spring Mountain, but half of the animals died crossing the desert. The remainder were later sold at the Missouri Crossing.
The trail followed a rocky, sandy stream bed, quickly climbing to Mountain Springs summit at an elevation of 5,502 feet, the highest point reached in Nevada. Just beyond the summit, the trail reached Mountain Springs. Clear, cold water was available and located near the ruin of an ancient village. In the fall of each year, the Indians who lived there gathered pinion nuts from the pinion pine, Nevada’s state tree.
From Mountain Springs, the trail continues in a southwesterly course for about 20 miles to Stump Springs on the eastern side of Pahrump Valley. This area was a very poor, uncertain water source and poor food source for animals. Two miles from Stump Springs the trail crosses the border into California. The modern Old Spanish Trail Highway (from the California line to Tecopa) commemorates the trail. In 1830 Tecopa Hot Springs (Yaga) was the largest Indian village in the area, with about 70 Indians in residence…The Spanish Trail from Mesquite to the California border was a distance of 150 miles and 880 miles from Santa Fe. The trail followed the Armagosa River and continued to the Mohave River, Cajon Pass, and on into the San Bernadino Valley to Los Angeles.” History courtesy of http://www.daroldspanishtrail.com/history.html