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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Early American Hoof Boots: Lewis and Clark Needed Buffalo Hide Moccasins for Their Barefoot Horses in 1806



Once again, many trips to the library and late nights on the Internet yield evidence that ingenious and impromptu hoofcare--or perhaps untimely hoof problems--may have changed the course of history.

One of the most remarkable documents of American literature isn't anything like a Mark Twain novel or a Walt Whitman poem or an Arthur Miller play. It's the real thing, a day-by-day account of one of the bravest and most extraordinary undertakings in the young USA: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's river and overland expedition to explore the west and see what was at the headwaters of the Missouri River--and beyond. And it was recorded in a journal covered in elkskin.

The journal survives today. Buried in the pages are beautiful drawings of fish, birds and antelope that had never been seen east of the Mississippi. But if you can read the script, it's also a heck of a horse story.


In 1806, the Corps of Discovery, as the Expedition was officially called, was on its way home, headed more or less eastward. The group split into smaller parties to explore some tributaries of the Missouri; Clark's group was traveling through what is now Bozeman and Livingston, Montana on the Yellowstone River.

While other early American expeditions into the West diligently shod and re-shod their horses from a stock of iron shoes carried along, Lewis and Clark used horses only for part of their trip. While they wrote about seeing herds of wild horses in the journal, there was only one source for broke-to-ride horses in this part of the world.

Luckily the expedition's legendary heroine guide Sacajawea had a brother, the Shoshone chief Cameahwait, who happened to be capable of masterminding a horse deal, of sorts. He set up a transfer of tribal horses to the expedition in what is now Idaho. Did he fleece the explorers? Not at all, the horses were donated.

They were also repeatedly stolen back along the route.

As you read a few snippets related to the dilemma Clark faced with his Indian-sourced horses, you'll find that barefoot horses 200 years ago faced many of the same challenges that barefoot horses today face. It's interesting that the two most frequent mentions of the horses is their lameness and that they kept escaping during the night. Once escaped, they might be found seven or eight miles away.

William Clark's spelling is preserved in these transcripts.

A page from William Clark's journal earlier in July.

Sunday, July 13, 1806
...with 49 horses and a colt. the horses feet are very sore and Several of them can Scercely proceed on....

Tuesday July 15, 1806
I have yet 10 horses remaining, two of the best and two of the worst of which I leave to assist the party in taking the canoes and baggage over the portage and take the remaining 6 with me; these are but indifferent horses most of them but I hope they may answer our purposes... 

The horses feet are very sore many of them Can Scercely proceed on over the Stone and gravel in every other respect they are Sound and in good Sperits.

Wednesday July 16, 1806
...we did not Set out untill 9 A M. we had not proceeded on far before I saw a buffalow & Sent Shannon to kill it this buffalow provd. to be a very fat Bull I had most of the flesh brought on an a part of the Skin to make mockersons for Some of our lame horses. proceeded on down the river without finding any trees Sufficiently large for a Canoe about 10 Miles and halted having passed over to an Island on which there was good food for our horses to let them graze & Dine. 

Saw a large gangue of about 200 Elk and nearly as many Antilope also two white or Grey Bear in the plains, one of them I Chased on horse back about 2 miles to the rugid part of the plain where I was compelled to give up the Chase two of the horses was So lame owing to their feet being worn quit Smooth and to the quick, the hind feet was much the worst. 

I had Mockersons made of green Buffalow Skin and put on their feet which Seams to releve them very much in passing over the Stoney plains.

Sunday July 20th 1806
We set at sunrise and proceed through the open plain as yesterday up the North side of the river. the plains are more broken than they were yesterday and have become more inferior in point of soil; a great quanty of small gravel is every where distributed over the surface of the earth which renders travling extreemly painfull to our bearfoot horses

the soil is generally a white or whiteish blue clay, this where it has been trodden by the buffaloe when wet has now become as firm as a brickbat and stands in an inumerable little points quite as formidable to our horses feet as the gravel.
(and later that day)

The horses being fatigued and their feet very Sore, I Shall let them rest a fiew days. dureing which time the party intended for to take them by land to the Mandans will dress their Skins and make themselves Clothes to bare, as they are nearly naked. Tuesday July 22nd 1806.

We set out very early this morning as usual and proceeded up the river. for the first seven miles of our travel this morning the country was broken the land poor and intermixed with a greater quantity of gravel than usual; the ravines were steep and numerous and our horses feet have become extreemly soar in traveling over the gravel we therefore traveled but slow. (later) we wounded a buffaloe this evening but our horses were so much fatiegued that we were unable to pursue it with success.

The horses came in handy on July 26, when Lewis and companions shot some Blackfeet who were stealing their horses. They had to flee on horseback, at the gallop, and were pursued for 24 hours as they headed for the safety of the larger group with Clark. It was a day when a horse with sore or damaged feet would have possibly cost one of America's greatest explorers his life.


From William Clark's journal, it is difficult to tell whether the moccasins for the horses failed or perhaps they didn't sew enough for all the horses so some remained sore-footed. 

Were Lewis and Clark lacking in horse experience? Could the horses have been suffering some sort of laminitis? Were the horses lame from the ground or were they overworked or were they perhaps being grazed on grass that caused their feet to be tender? Even in July, there was frost in the morning, and Montana is known to have native high-fructan "quack grass" that can cause laminitis.

Another possible theory is that the horses were grazing on high-selenium plants and fields. This was put forth as a reason for General George Custer's hoof problems before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Authors Doug Butler and Frank Gravlee cite some interesting ideas in their book, Laminitis and Founder: Prevention and Treatment. They write that Sitting Bull was known to have avoided grazing his horses in certain areas because the grass was known to cause problems.

Author George Fleming described North American Indian hoof boots in this passage in 1869: "Iron shoes are never worn on the hoofs, but when traveling over rock ground, and the unfortunate animals become footsore, a substitute for the metal is found in what is termed 'parflêche.'

"This is the untanned, sundried hide of the buffulo or elk, in which the pounded flesh or 'pemmican' made from these beasts is wrapped up and preserved, and on which these people largely subsist. The thick, hairy skin, I am informed, makes an excellent temporary covering for the foot, forming, when tied round the pastern, a convenient hoof-buskin, like that made from camel's hide in the Soudan."

Fleming also tells us of horses of his era and before shod with sheep's horn in Iceland and stag horn in Afghanistan.


Buffalo hide might have been the very thing that Clark's horses' hooves needed. Seventy years later, when the American buffalo was being slaughtered on the plains and an excess of buffalo hide flooded the market, an enterprising British entrepreneur experimented with compressing it and making it into horseshoes, which were deemed superior to iron, if the investment prospectus is accurate.

From the patent, submitted by inventor Walter Yates, we learn that people were experimenting with non-iron shoes of different types:

"I am aware that horseshoes have been heretofore made of rubber, and also of leather; but the rubber shoes are found to be objectionable, since they heat or draw, as it is termed, and consequently make the feet of the animal tender. 

"When leather shoes are used, the acids, tannin...resulting from the process of tanning are absorbed into the hoof and cause disease. By making the shoe wholly of rawhide both of these objections are removed."

Or maybe Walter Yates had read the newspaper transcripts of Lewis and Clark's journal and recognized a good idea when he saw one.

To learn more:

George Custer and Laminitis on the Little Big Horn

Walter Yates' patent for the rawhide shoe

Horse-shoes and horse-shoeing : their origin, history, uses, and abuses by George Fleming

Click here to order your poster online today!

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