The Gila Herd
Introduction : It is a rare event to happen upon an unfound ancient civilization in today’s modern world or even relics that are from ancient times, yet this story about to be told is just that – a rare find in modern times.
With historic and genetic testing, the findings point to the fact that these wild horses may well be one of the last original descendents of the Spaniard’s march through Arizona in the 1500’s. Today, all of these animals reside at Sunka Wakan, the National Wild Horse Heritage Center located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Background Information : It began in 1996, when ISPMB was notified about a proposed removal of approximately 75 wild horses that were located near Gila Bend, Arizona. These wild horses were not protected by the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act and therefore were going to be gathered and sold at auction. In simple terms, this means being sold to the highest bidder for meat consumption in Europe.
Intrigued by the news that an unidentified group of wild horses existed on public lands, ISPMB’s president, Karen Sussman, began a search for historical facts that could identify the origins of these horses.
Gila Bend is a small community of 2000 people located in central Arizona just 55 miles southwest of Phoenix. Interstate 8 passes right next to this farm community that has its usual rest stops for hungry and thirsty travelers. The outlying farms grow cotton, alfalfa, and grain with a healthy irrigation system from the Gila River that is dry now most of the year because of surrounding dams. The town was named for the Gila River that takes a sharp bend in that area. The temperatures range from 107’ in the summer to a low of 36 degrees in the winter.
The Painted Rock Dam that was constructed by the Corp of Army Engineers contains the Gila water but is so contaminated by pesticide use from the local farms that federal, state, and local governments refuse to lay claim to the waters. It is here at the Painted Rock site where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for the protection of wild horses and burros in the United States, manages a very small herd of wild burros. The Painted Rock Herd Area consists of 178,000 acres of land with 37,000 acres of non-BLM land. With limited rainfall in the region, it takes over 100 acres of land to support one grazing animal. The range is located 11 miles west of Gila Bend.
Ranchers and farmers in the area, with irrigation do have lush green fields that attract wild animals. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 protects ranchers who have free-ranging cattle by giving the burden of responsibility of fencing out cattle to private landowners.
There are no fines or ramifications for cattle eating local planted fields but ranchers can shoot horses or other federally unprotected wildlife that may intrude on their crops. For years, the Gila wild horses were managed by these ranchers and were shot to keep populations from growing or eating the rancher’s profits.
Hohokam Indians : From 300 BC to 500 AD, the Hohokam lived in villages composed of widely scattered, individually built structures of wood, brush, and clay built over a shallow pit. They lived on maize (corn), beans, fruits, and some hunting. During this time, the Hohokam built the first irrigation canal along a three-mile-long channel in the Gila River Valley and directed water from the river to their fields. This agricultural engineering was one of their greatest achievements. Their culture continued through four different periods from 300 BC to 1500 AD.
Tohono O’odham Indians : The native populations along the Gila River were known as the Papago Indians until the 1980’s when they changed their name back to Tohono O’odham or Desert People, as they were always known amongst their tribe. It was the Spaniards who called them Papago meaning “Bean Eaters.” The Tohono O’odham believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam civilization. The Tohono O’odham live on the second largest reservation in the United States, which stretches over 100 miles along the Mexico/Arizona border and far into southern Arizona. In early days, they were a semi-sedentary tribe who farmed corn, beans, and cotton and gathered wild vegetable products such as mesquite beans and the fruit of the giant cactus and they utilized the Gila River for irrigation. They were known as excellent basket makers in which they stored both food and water. The suffered dreadful depredations from their enemy the Apaches and many died of diseases brought to their lands by the Spaniards. Today there are approximately 17,000 Tohono O’odham living in the United States.
Pima Indians : The Pima are close relatives to the Papago Indians. Both tribes speak the Uto-Aztecan language and both utilized irrigation for early agricultural practices. The Pima Indians were found along the Salt River in what is now Phoenix. From the time of their earliest recorded contacts with whites, the Pima have been regarded as a friendly people. At the time of the California Gold Rush (1849-50), the Pima often gave or sold food to white emigrants and gold seekers and provided them with an escort through Apache territory. They also served as scouts for the U.S Army from 1861-1886 during the Apache wars.
Such close contact with the white culture contributed to the disintegration of their aboriginal Pima culture. Today they number less than 10,000 people and are located on the Pima and Gila Reservations.
Apache Indians : During the 1540’s at the end of aboriginal times there was no southern Athapascans (Apaches) threat to the northern Pimans (The Pima and the Papago were river Indians) of any significance in the American Southwest. In 1645, again there was no evidence of violence from the Athapascans. By 1680, the northern Pimans remembered Spaniards coming from New Mexico to trade with them. Even in the early 1700’s the northern Pimans remembered western Pueblos from the Hopi villages coming south to trade fairs until the northern Pimans killed some of them one year. The trade terminated not because Athapascans cut it off but because the northern Pimans proved untrustworthy trading partners. Speculation is that the Athapascans had not yet reached the area as of yet otherwise trade between the Hopi and the Pimas would have been interrupted. The date of arrival of the southern Athapascans in the American Southwest has long been a subject of debate among historians and anthropologists.
The turning point in the Apachean advance southward was apparently the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that furnished the Apache trading partners of the Pueblos with a new abundance of Spanish horses and arms. From 1680 to 1692, Apaches moved southwestward and arrived at Sonora. The Apaches fought aboriginal style as late as 1698 whereby they came openly and challenged their opposition to battle. In order to survive, the Apaches changed their war techniques and resorted to ambushes, sneak attacks, raids on fields and horse herds and kidnapping, avoiding frontal assault or defense whenever possible.
The Apaches posed little threat to the Spanish settlements until 1766 when many outlying settlements were abandoned in face of increasing Apache hostilities. The latter half of this century found the European traders and settlers shoving the Comanche and Plains tribes west at a fast clip that may account for the Apache move into Pueblo and Piman territory.
Apache attacks and Spanish counter-campaigns continued until 1786, when the new Viceroy of Spain initiated a pacification policy to resettle friendly Apaches. More than 100 Apaches were settled at Tucson in 1793, allowing increased Spanish migration to the area.
The domination of the native cultures by the Spaniards in their quest to extort the riches of the new world resulted in a slave trade from Central America through South America. The native cultures often tried to accommodate the White Man, but the White Man was relentless and overran the original inhabitants. The Apaches were trying to protect the land from invasion and were fierce fighters. They could not compete with the waves of immigration and White Man’s state of the art artillery.
In 1858,Geronimo vowed to take revenge on the Spanish after his wife, mother, and children were murdered. Geronimo, the great Apache Chief, spent the majority of his life raiding the Spanish settlements in southern Arizona to Sonora, Mexico. He brought back horses, cattle, mules and any stock that was available. The Apaches used the mules and cattle for food and kept the horses to ride and carry supplies. Geronimo’s own horse was so well trained that he came when he called him.
Father Eusebio Francesco Kino : Eusebio Kino was born in 1645 in Segno, Italy. (His family name was originally Chini.) In 1663, he suffered a severe illness that almost cost him his life. He promised his patron saint, St. Francis Xavier, that if he should live, he would become a missionary. He became a Jesuit (Society of Jesus) and spent two years in Seville where he perfected his Spanish and learned about the new world. Father Kino was solidly built and 5’6” tall.
In 1681 Kino arrived in Mexico where he first served on the Baja California peninsula. Kino, a cartographer and astronomer, drew the first accurate maps of the Pimeria Alta (now northern Mexico and southern Arizona), Sea of Cortez, and of Baja California.
Kino’s achievements were many. From his base in Sonora, he made more than 50 journeys and started mission programs creating twenty villages. He was the foremost European peacemaker, pathfinder and pioneer of this “rim of Christiandom.” He established good relations with the indigenous peoples among whom he worked. He received permission from the King not to enslave the Pimans in mining for silver. He learned the language of the Pimas and helped them to come together to resist the fierce Apaches. He quelled the Pima revolt of 1695 and reestablished peace. Under Kinos guidance and encouragement, the Pima Indians improved their agricultural techniques and expanded their farms. He set up the foundation for modern agriculture and livestock raising. Kino brought thousands of cattle, droves of mares and quite a number of horses and mules, sheep and goats to the area. By 1702, stock raising was so prosperous in Arizona that Padre Kino requested permission from the Order to open missions in California.
Father Kino, a great friend to the natives, died in 1711. Jesuit work in the region slowed down and some missions were abandoned. The Spanish military presence increased, and the mission’s philosophy of Indian sovereignty gave way to the military’s need for Indian labor.
Spanish Influence post Kino : Although Father Kino may have been the first cattle rancher in Arizona, his accomplishments were largely swept away by the revolt in 1751. Any cattle the northern Pimas kept were handled on a semi-wild hunting basis for subsistence and not for profits. Ranching as a business activity had to be re-instituted after Tubac (The Royal Fort of St. Ignatius) was founded.
Until 1754, civilian cattle and horses were kept separate from the guarded post remount herd. With increasing raids by Apaches, animals were kept in the missions but were still expected to remain separate from each other and herded by civilians and soldiers.
By 1766, there was widespread stealing of the Spaniards horses by the Apaches and all missions had to protect their horse herds ranging as many as a thousand animals within one mission.
Because of increasing friction between the order and the monarchy, the entire Jesuit Order was expelled from the Spanish dominions by 1767 and were replaced by the Franciscans (Order of the Friars Minor)
In 1781, Ensign Santiago de Islas led a small group of Spanish families across the Camino (Devil’s Highway) to Yuma, where they founded two short-lived and ill-fated settlements on the Colorado River. These colonies were not self-sufficient and expropriated food from the Indians. The Indians became disenchanted with the arrangement and when new colonists arrived, they attacked the colonies, killing the priests, all the soldiers, and the male settlers.
From 1781 until 1820, the Spaniards focused their attention on the Apaches promulgating peace treaties with gifts and rations. A golden history of Pimeria history dawned. Toward the end of this period marked the end of the Spanish rule because of the successful Mexican revolution. Where all had been peace and prosperity now was ruin and abandonment.
1848, the new United States gained possession of the territory and in 1853 through the Gadsden Purchase, the northern part of Pimeria Alta was purchased (southern Arizona).
The Road of the Devil : El Camino del Diablo, the Road of the Devil, runs from Altar, Mexico and goes through the Barry Goldwater Range to Yuma, Arizona. This route was used for millennia by prehistoric peoples. The first known historic trip was that of Melchoir Diaz, a Spanish soldier in 1540 who was ordered by Franciso Vasquez de Coronado to go to the mouth of the Colorado River. According to historical accounts, Father Eusebio Kino traveled this route once, when he mapped several places where water could be found. In 1779, Father Garces crossed the treacherous trail and established a mission on the east side of the Colorado River in Yuma.
Gila Bend : The area that is now Gila Bend was occupied by the Hohokam Indians and lived there for centuries before Father Eusebio Kino established the first farm in 1699. In 1774 Father Garces and Juan Bautista de Anza passed by and discovered the rancheria and named it Pueblo de los Santos San Simon y Judas. It became a popular place for those passing through. By 1858, Gila Bend became a stop along the overland stage route. During the 18th century, the Gila Trail became the major thoroughfare in Arizona.
Juan Bautista de Anza Trail : Captain Juan de Anza established an overland route from Sonora, Mexico to Monterey in California. This land route was in line with Spain’s plan for occupying California. Attempts to occupy by sea had failed because of a lack of nearby bases for food and supplies. 1776 witnessed the foundation of the great port city of San Francisco. Protection of this route at Yuma failed with the uprising in 1781.
Yuma : Yuma is located in southwestern Arizona on the eastern bank of the Colorado River near the confluence of the Gila River. Early missions were built in this area by Fathers Kino and Garces, yet settlement did not occur until nearly a century later when Fort Yuma was built in 1850.
Present Day History (1900 – Present) : Thousands of wild horses roamed from Mexico throughout the southwestern parts of Arizona during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These animals were reintroduced to North America by the Spanish explorers who were fast claiming the lands from the aboriginal cultures for their monarchy. As quickly as the lands were claimed, Jesuit priests Christianized the native populations.
During the 20th Century of American history, wild horses became survival oriented against white man’s determination to eliminate them. (Toby add button to Wild Horse Annie here.)
It wasn’t until 1915 that Ike Hocker moved to Gila Bend from Texas. Hocker became the most famous mustanger in the area. He gathered wild horses on his motorcycle and often took his son, Sam, with him. Although Sam was a baby, when the horses neared the trap, Ike left his son with his bottle under a tree until he returned. Ike Hocker was responsible for removing nearly all the wild horses from Gila Bend through Ajo and Yuma. Just from 1933 until 1936, he gathered more than 4000 head of wild horses. These horses were shipped to the French Foreign Legion, to Fort Riley in Kansas and a good majority to California for dog food. He also provided 350 wild horses for Rudolf Valentino’s movie, The Shiek, filmed in Yuma. Hocker received $5.00 per horse to bring the horses to Yuma and $7.50 to remove the horses from the film site. The horses were later driven into Mexico. Ike Hocker’s last gather was in 1936.
There were a bunch of horses that hid in the salt cedar according to Sam Hocker on the north side of the Gila River. The salt cedar, an imported plant, was grown along the Gila River to protect its banks. Literature places the planting in the late 1800’s under approval by Teddy Roosevelt. It was this Salt Cedar that gave cover and protection to the remaining wild horses. Salt Cedar can grow from 9-12 feet in one season. It ranges from 5 to 20 feet. Although most wild horses were water trapped by the senior Hocker, these particular animals had water along the river. The cedar was so thick that no man or motorcycle could easily take on the agility of these mustangs. Soon, shooting the animals would be the only way to remove them from their safe habitat and that continued right up through 1997.
In 1997, the BLM agreed to address the issue of protecting these horses under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act in their Lower Gila management document as amended. ISPMB provided the BLM with sufficient information proving that these horses existed on public lands prior to 1971. After public comment, and if the BLM made the decision to manage for these horses, they would be included in the Painted Rock Herd Management Area with the burros.
The ranchers in the area expressed concern that the BLM would create more wilderness areas where the horses roamed. Although this would not happen, it did affect the strategy that the ranchers would use to try to eliminate the horses.
In October of 1999, 36 of these wild horses were removed by the BLM after a rancher complained that the horses were eating his hay field. The law provides for removal of horses immediately from private lands. However, the law does not stipulate that the horses have to be removed from their herd management area. BLM elected to permanently remove these horses since the rancher did not have his property fenced.
Without a census of the wild horses being completed, it was thought that half the population was removed. Therefore, ISPMB and the BLM worked collaboratively to protect this population’s gene pool by the ISPMB’s adoption of these 31 wild horses.
During the gather, the BLM euthanized a Buckskin stallion that had been surviving in the wild with a broken front leg. The horse also had suffered a bullet wound in the neck that was healed. (Reports by local ranchers confirmed that one method of capturing wild horses was to graze them along the neck to stun them. Most often it either killed the animal or left bullet wounds in the horse.) There were three other wild horses accidentally killed during the gather. One stallion was adopted privately while ISPMB adopted the 31 remaining wild horses.
Connection: From the Past to the Present : After capture of the Gila horses, genetic blood testing of the horses was carried out by Dr. Gus Cothran, a leading geneticist from the University of Kentucky. Dr. Cothran has shown a relationship between the Gila horses and the Cerbat wild horse herd located more than 200 miles, as the crow flies, from Gila Bend. The Cerbat herd is an isolated herd located in the Cerbat Mountains outside of Kingman, Arizona and is home to less than 75 wild horses. Historical documentation and genetic testing show the Cerbat horses to be descendents of the Spanish horses.
Dr. Cothran states about the Gila horses, “The combined evidence involving the low variability of the herd, the lack of recent genetic introductions into the herd and the observed genetic relationship between the Cerbat herd to the Gila herd and their geographical distance from each other, one would have to assume that these wild horses are descendants of the Old Spanish Horse.”
Historically, one can make the assumption that these horses remained pure through the early 1900’s. Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses were being introduced onto ranches in Gila Bend during this time. Most ranchers were careful not to let their “breed” stock run with the wild horses as they believed them to be “inferior” animals. After extensive interviews with the ranchers who ran cattle on the permitted BLM land where the horses roamed, ranchers confirmed that these horses were more than likely those horses that roamed the area in the 1800’s. Although during one interview, a ranch hand claimed that he had a stallion with the wild bunch. It is unlikely that the stallion would dominate the wild stallions in order to take a harem of mares. It is more likely that registered mares would have to be stolen by wild stallions if any introductions of “breed horses” are to be found in these wild horses.
The ranchers claimed that these wild horses were very difficult to gather because they lived in the thick salt cedar so in turn they were shot to keep populations down. Mr. Hocker believes that these horses are descendants of those horses that his father could never gather in the salt cedar as late as 1936. Other ranchers in the area claim that these horses were there as long as they can remember which would date back to the early 1900’s.
Genetic testing shows that there are NO introductions of outside blood in the recent past.
The combined historical and genetic evidence points to the fact that the Gila horses are the descendants of the true Spanish mustang which dominated the Southwest until the turn of the 20th century when other types of horses were introduced into the Spanish wild herds throughout our country.
The Gila horses managed to survive the holocaust that befell nearly two million wild horses, mostly slaughtered for pet food in the United States. However, although they may be recognized as a wild free-roaming herd under the 1971 law soon, the BLM census, post gather, shows that there were no wild horses left in the area. The ranchers do claim that they have spotted 6 horses. The fate of those six horses remains unknown. Although a very genetically narrow population, the Gila horses can thrive at Sunka Wakan where they will be monitored closely and protected forever. ISPMB is honored to be guardians for this rare and magnificent herd of wild horses.
Description of the Gila Horses
Color : The Gila horses look very similar to each other and are mainly duns. There are several grullo horses, two roan duns and one black stallion. All the horses have primitive markings that consist of zebra stripes and webbing noted on their legs. They have a rather thick dorsal stripe down their backs with some as wide as three inches. Many of them have dark faces and their ears are outlined with a black stripe. They have dark shading over their withers. Their coats are short and thick during the winter while the summers find them smooth and slick.
Confirmation : These horses are 14 hands high and weigh approximately 800 to 850 pounds. Their eyes are set high and wide apart. Their head appears somewhat long with a slight convex profile. Their ears point to each other and their withers are well defined. Their chest is narrow and their legs are straight. Their croup is sloping and their tails are set perfectly, not too low or too high. They have very small chestnuts. Their manes and tails are not long and are soft and somewhat thick
Preserving the rare herd and how you can help : The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros is committed to the preservation of these rare wild horses on Sunka Wakan. One of the best determinants in protecting this herd’s viability is to allow them to continue to survive as nature originally intended, without interference by humankind. The wild horses will determine their own breeding program while ISPMB will provide enough land and space to insure protection of their habitat. This herd has literally survived 50 years with reduced numbers and being extremely related to each other. The next 50 years will help scientists to determine how animal populations survive with minimal numbers at onset. The herd remains healthy and strong.
The ISPMB’s continual observation of these animals and logging of data will provide important details in understanding the nature of wild horses. The ISPMB is working with different Universities as we develop the best management program to continue to understand and sustain these animals. It is our goal to develop a “model management program for all wild horses in our country.”
Funding is extremely important in attaining this goal. Your contribution will help us save this unique and rare herd of wild horses. Your name will be located on our wall of donors at Sunka Wakan as a tribute to your kindness and generosity. The future will bring millions of tourists to our area where they will see the efforts of all involved in “The Journey to Save a Legacy.”
PO Box 55
Lantry, SD 57636-0055