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Horses: An Exceptionally Important Commodity in Early Atlantic Trade

Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.


By Myranda Grecinger

One of the commodities prominent in Atlantic trade was horses; they played a key role in the Atlantic economy. The horse was perhaps the most important commodity involved in the Atlantic Trade Route. It was singularly responsible for a total transformation of the Americas. The introduction of horses provided new means of transportation, access to new means of subsistence, the potential for improved war tactics, opportunities for improved agriculture, increased trade options, significantly impacted the course of interactions between various groups, and without question led to a complete Socio-cultural and economical revolution in the new world which had a notable effect on some aspects of European society.

While many people may associate the horse with ancient Native American traditions, the truth is, no such animal existed for early Amerindians. The closest thing they had to beasts of burden was dogs and llamas, respective to their locations (Jones, 1991). Equine related creatures had long since become extinct in the Americas (McNeill, 2013). Eventually however, as everyone is aware, horses did end up back in the Americas, they arrived along with early European explorers and settlers.

While nonexistent in both North and South America, horses were essential to various aspects in society across Europe. European horses are believed to have been originally domesticated “during the Neolithic, Eneolithic or Early Bronze Age in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe, or Western Europe” (Levine, 2002). In the early years horses were domesticated and bred primarily for meat and riding, later though, they would be utilized as pack animals, to pull wheeled carts, to assist in agricultural endeavors and as early war machines. They were a key element of European civilization, so it is certainly understandable that when the Europeans began to travel to lands across the Atlantic that they brought horses with them. Considering the fact that the Europeans intended that the animals should only be brought for their own use, there was no way that the travelers could have possibly have comprehended the vast depths of the impact that their decision to bring the creatures which they so readily relied on, would have on the lands to which they brought them or the people who would encounter them for the first time.

Horses and an Overview of the Socio-Cultural Revolution They Caused

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, whether North or South, their goals were simple, to search for gold and other items that may contribute to the economic wealth of their respective nations and to settle the land in efforts to expand their respective nations. Of course upon arriving they soon learned this would not be as easy a task as initially believed because the lands were already inhabited and contained far less riches then they had been led to believe. Their interactions with Early Amerindians were hostile from the start for the most part; typically, however, they swiftly dominated the native populations. That situation would eventually shift somewhat in the Amerindian’s favor and the heaviest factor, was their obtainment of horse, creatures they had once regarded with fear and mysticism (Jones, 1991 and McNeill, 2013).

As more horses were brought across the Atlantic, they began to escape the custody of their owners, effectively creating a new wild population that exists today. Along with escaped horses which could be captured and tamed, horses were sometimes stolen by Native Americans from their European visitors, but still, they were not much more than a coveted commodity, controlled by the same people who were controlling the majority of commodities available on the Columbian exchange, the Spaniards and the British, soon enough, that would all change though. While some tribes may have obtained horses earlier, they really did not become wide spread until after the Pueblo revolt in 1680, at which time many were taken from the Spanish and began to be traded among neighboring tribes (Jones, 1991). As soon as Native Americans received access to horses, conquest and colonization efforts in the Americas would never be the same and neither would Native American life. Horses enabled some Native tribes to hunt more efficiently, others focused on perfecting use of the horse for war efforts and still others made use of it for travel, however they used it, one thing was clear, a transformation had taken place.

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Final Thoughts

Horses remained an important part of Native American life as well as immigrant life from the first time they were brought across the Atlantic. Eventually, they would be utilized to carry the post, enabling long distance communication. Horses would be used to pull the first firefighting equipment, protecting the settlements against extensive loss. They even begin being utilized as a form of direct trade, often being used in place of tender to satisfy a debt, the terms of an agreement or even an inheritance. Horse thievery in the Americas was listed in many areas as a hanging offense, the reason, horses were indispensable and essential. Horses were valued above the wayward African slaves they were often employed to recover. In the year 1500 a single horse could buy as many as nine slaves (Anti-Slavery International, 2009). They were bred and traded all over the world on the Atlantic Trade Routes. They could be bred on plantations in the Appalachians, driven south where they could be sold or traded for slaves or other commodities which had traveled up from South American or Caribbean ports, brought over from Africa where they had been received in exchange for goods from the Americas or Europe. In reality, though the trade route is most notably known for its role in the trafficking of slaves, sugar and tobacco, it is quite possible that aside from precious metals, horses were the most valuable thing traded in connection with the Atlantic Triangular Trade Route.

In the United States today, horses, for the most part have very little relevance in modern society, they are typically kept for pleasure or out of preference rather than necessity, but that is far from having always been the case. At one time in the history of the Americas, Horses were the most important commodity that one could own or trade. The growth and development of the Atlantic world was clearly heavily dependent on the introduction of the Horse. It had already led to major transformations and advancements in nearly every aspect of civilization in Europe and did the same almost from the moment of its arrival in the Americas. Horses created a whirlwind transformative revolution across the Atlantic, leaving few aspects of the human existence untouched.

© 2013 Myranda Grecinger


JG11Bravo on November 17, 2013:

Interesting topic choice, and quite informative.

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