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Cayuse tribe’s world-beating horses are now very rare

Cayuse horsemenBy Finn J.D. John

Joe Crabb was a gambling man - that much, at least, we know. And in 1871, he’d put his money down on an absolute ironclad sure thing.

It was a horse race, and Crabb was a horseman. He was matching his own best animal, a magnificent thoroughbred, against a smallish spotted pony belonging to Howlish Wampoo, the chief of the Cayuse Indian tribe.

The race was a big event in the Pendleton area, and everyone had turned out to watch it - shopkeepers and cowboys from the town as well as people from the Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Cayuse and other tribes.

The non-Indians seemed especially excited that day as they lined up to bet heavily on Crabb’s thoroughbred to win the race. Crabb himself ponied up (sorry about that) his entire wad - $1,500, or the equivalent of about $30,000 in modern greenbacks - plus his silver-mounted saddle and spurs.

But then, those betters were confident they weren’t going to lose that money. It would be like taking candy from a baby. Crabb and his friends were betting on a sure thing. You see, the night before this big race, a few of them had slipped over to the Indian camp and found Howlish Wampoo’s horse. They’d then borrowed the animal and brought him back to town for a little test run.

The horse, they’d found, was fast - an excellent saddle horse, as would be expected. But in a head-to-head race with Crabb’s champion, the Indian pinto was overmatched. It looked like the next day’s race would be a day of victory for Crabb’s horse and of dismay for Howlish Wampoo & Co.

One imagines the white guys grinning with anticipation as they stealthily returned the Indian pinto to the corral and slipped back to their camp. Once there, they no doubt got busy scrounging up every spare cent they could get their hands on. There would be money to be made the next day, money gained by betting on the equivalent of a fixed race. How could they lose?

Well ...

Historian William Lyman recounts, in his book, what happened the next day, as told to him by pioneer O.M. Canfield:

“Howlish Wampoo accepted the bets with seeming reluctance and Indian stoicism,” he writes. “When the horses were brought out, Crabb saw with some suspicion that the spotted Indian racer looked a little different and stepped a little different from what he did the day before. As he told Canfield in relating his experience, he ‘ felt a sort of cold chill go down his back.’ But it was too late to back out.”

The race was a four-mile sprint: two miles out to a stake, and two miles back again. At the signal, the two horses launched themselves, and it was immediately obvious that Howlish Wampoo’s horse was not the same animal the white guys had kidnapped the night before. In fact, as they later learned, the pinto they’d pinched had been the champion’s half-brother - and had been deliberately set out unguarded in an obvious location for the night.

They had been had. And they couldn’t exactly blame Wampoo for swindling them - after all, he could put whatever horse he wanted in his corral. He had done nothing but lay a cunning trap just in case they might try to cheat, and they’d stepped right into it.

“He (the horse) went like a shot out of a gun and reached the goal post so much ahead that his rider turned back to run again with Crabb’s champion, and then beat him into camp,” Lyman writes. “The Indians made an awful clean-up on the white men’s bets. Howlish Wampoo, with just a faint suspicion of an inward grin on his mahogany countenance, told Crabb that he might have his saddle and spurs back again, and enough money to get home on.”

Pendleton bettors lost so much money on this race that the event became known for years afterward as “the day Pendleton went bankrupt.”

Never again would anyone in or around Pendleton sell a Cayuse Indian pony short

The Indian tribe that Howlish Wampoo led is not very numerous today; it’s one of the smallest of the confederated tribes on the Umatilla reservation. But in the mid-1800s, they were one of the dominant tribes in the Pendleton-Walla Walla area. They were the tribe that sparked an Indian war with the famous Whitman Mission massacre (which, it must be noted, sprang from a misunderstanding rather than any general disposition to hostility; it was a panicky reaction to the outbreak of deadly German measles in the tribe).

The Cayuse were absolutely legendary as horsemen - both as riders and as breeders. In Central and Eastern Oregon today, half-wild horses of any breed are still sometimes referred to as “Cayuse ponies.” But technically, that name belongs to a specific breed - a world-beating breed that the horsemen of the Cayuse tribe developed themselves.

The breed that made the Cayuse famous - and Joe Crabb poor - was a short but powerfully muscled animal, usually roan colored and often with noticeable spots. How the Cayuse pony was developed isn’t clear; most sources say they were probably bred from Spanish Barbs and French Percheron draft horses - but all admit that’s at best an educated guess.

As for the ponies’ abilities - especially in the area of endurance - they were the stuff of legend.

“The Indian pony can cover distances of 110-130 kilometers, from dawn until dusk, without stopping,” Colonel Philippe Regis de Trobriand of the U.S. Army wrote in his journal in 1867, “while most of our horses are exhausted after 55 to 65 kilometers.”

Although serving in the U.S. Aarmy, De Trobriand was actually French, so he counted in kilometers rather than miles; but the real impact of his account is in percentages. If we can believe him, the Cayuse pony could run literally twice as far in one day as the average U.S. Army horse.

In modern times, Cayuse Ponies have become very rare. According to Rachel Berry of Oklahoma State University, there are just a handful of them left, mostly in California. As of the mid-1990s, historian Jeff Edwards, owner of Edwards Antiques and Gallery in Porterville, Calif., was scrambling to save the breed from completely fading away.

But then, it’s a pretty good bet that among the Cayuse people themselves, tucked away somewhere on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, some full-blooded descendants of these fabulous ponies are still quietly munching on bunchgrass, waiting for next year’s Pendleton Round-Up.

(Sources: Skovlin, Jon and Donna. Hank Vaughan: Hell-Raising Horse Trader of the Bunchgrass Territory. Cove, Ore .: Reflections, 1996; Lyman, William D. Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County, Vol. 1. Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1918; Arthus-Bertrand, Yann. Horses. New York: Artisan, 2008; Berry, Rachel. “Cayuse Indian Pony,” Breeds of Livestock Project, Oklahoma State University,

Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Image above: Lee Drake/ UO Archives. Cayuse Tribe members ride the track at the Pendleton Round-Up, probably sometime in the 1920s.


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