In the early sixteenth century, Spanish invaders conquered and colonized much of present-day Central America. Drawn by rumours of great wealth and rich deposits of gold and silver, the Spanish pushed farther north into the present-day American southwest in the 1590s. After overcoming the resistance of the indigenous Pueblo population, the Spanish established the colony of New Mexico. Spanish soldiers, missionaries and colonists brought with them the animal that would revolutionize life on the North American Plains over the next century-and-a-half—the horse.
The ancestors of the modern horse had disappeared from North America by at least 6,000 BCE. With horses unavailable, the original inhabitants of the Great Plains had to travel by foot and rely on domesticated dogs as pack animals. Horses offered a much superior option for both transportation and work, and indigenous people were quick to acquire them. Through a combination of trade and warfare, the horse spread gradually across the North American Plains and reached present-day southern Alberta by the 1720s. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Cree, Blackfoot and Assiniboine peoples had all integrated horses into their lifeways.
The extent of the political, social and cultural impact of this so-called “horse revolution” on various First Nations is a hotly debated topic. Without question, the arrival of the horse dramatically altered patterns of work and transportation among indigenous peoples. Horses quickly displaced dogs as the favoured pack animal: indeed, the
names given for the horse by the Cree (misstutim, or “big dog”) and Blackfoot (ponoka-mita, or “elk-dog”) point to the early identification of the horse as a larger version of their traditional work animal. Horses also transformed the nature of the bison hunt, by far the most important economic activity for First Nations people living in present-day southern Alberta. Bison jumps, which had been used as a means of hunting bison on the prairies for thousands of years, fell into disuse as Plains First Nations people increasingly hunted on horseback. Most significant, however, was the impact on transportation; horses allowed for a much greater range of travel, resulting in more frequent contact with other tribes and greater access to trade.
Yet the impact of the horse was not entirely positive. Competition for horses often resulted in horse raids, which, in turn, sparked increased violence and warfare between different First Nations. More horrifically, the arrival of the horse inadvertently paved the way for the terrible smallpox epidemic of the early 1780s. Prior to the arrival of the horse, indigenous people on the prairies were largely sheltered from epidemic disease because of the region’s low population density and the limitations of travel on foot. The increased use of the horse for transportation meant more frequent contact between different bands and the greater potential for the spread of disease. The smallpox epidemic reached present-day Alberta by 1781, taking a horrible toll on the population as it spread across the prairies.