|The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain:
The Story of the Choctaw Pony
|The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain:
The Story of the Choctaw Pony
|Contributed by Francine Locke Bray, 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 misconception 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
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
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 1998wrote 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 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
700 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.
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.