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First Posted: Oct 26, 2009
Aug 4, 2013

Cayuse Native Americans and Their Horses

Umapine (Wakonkonwelasonmi), a Cayuse chief, September, 1909

Chief Five Crows

Cayuse Native Americans and Their Horses

Religion: Animism

Related Ethnic Groups: Umatilla, Nez Perce

The Cayuse are a Native American tribe in the state of Oregon in the United States. The Cayuse tribe shares a reservation in northeastern Oregon with the Umatilla and the Walla Walla tribes as part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The reservation is located near Pendleton, Oregon at the base of the Blue Mountains.

The Cayuse call themselves the Tetawken, which means "we, the people." Originally located in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, they lived adjacent to territory covered by the Nez Perce. Like the Plains tribes, the Cayuse placed a high premium on warfare and were skilled horsemen, often using their horse-riding prowess to intimidate other tribes. Skilled horsemanship proved beneficial to the Indians and the neighboring cowboys who adopted the Cayuse pony. The Cayuse moved to the Umatilla Reservation after signing a treaty with the U.S. federal government in 1855.


The Cayuse Indians are a nomadic tribe that occupied territories at the heads of the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Grande Ronde Rivers and from the Blue mountains to Deschutes River in Washington and Oregon. The tribe has always been closely associated with the neighboring Nez Percé and Walla Walla. They were considered linguistically independent. The Cayuse have always been famous for their bravery and constant battles with the Snake and other tribes, which were weak in numbers. There were few pure-blood Cayuse left in 1851, intermarriage, largely with the neighboring Nez Percé, having been so widespread that even the language was dissipating. In 1855, the Cayuse joined the treaty by which the Umatilla Indian Reservation was formed, and since that time have resided within the reservation's limits. Their number is officially reported as 404 in 1904; but this number may be misleading, as counting in 1902 failed to discover a single pure-blooded Cayuse on the reservation and found the language almost extinct. The tribe gained wide notoriety in the early days of the white settlement of the territory. In 1838, a mission was established among the Cayuse by Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, at a site about seven miles from the city of Walla Walla. In 1847, measles brought by a rapid influx of white settlers killed off a large part of the tribe, and the Cayuse were convinced the missionaries were the cause. This, along with growing animosity due to cultural differences, resulted in the Cayuse attacking the missionaries, murdering Whitman, his wife and twelve others. They captured 54 women and children and held them for ransom. They also destroyed the mission. This attack began the Cayuse War. For one month three of the young girls were raped repeatedly, and the rest of the captives were forced to work and make clothing for the tribe. The hostages were released when the Hudson's Bay Company brokered an exchange of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 Hudson Bay rifles, 600 loads of ammunition, 7 pounds of tobacco and 12 flints for the return of the now 49 surviving prisoners. The Cayuse eventually lost the war and were forced to share a reservation with the Umatilla while the whites moved onto their land.


The Cayuse Indians were located in the Columbia Basin and were nomadic, even moving day by day. They lived in teepees, which many nomadic tribes used. Cayuse women would have to assemble and disassemble the teepees, either of which process could take an hour. The Cayuse were skilled horsemen, and used horses for catching animals and for their trip over the Rocky Mountains each year to bring a supply of buffalo back to their women and children. They hunted salmon and picked berries. The women would use the animal skins for food, shelter and clothing. The men considered bravery to be an important quality, with brave warriors being held in high esteem. The strongest would be made chief. The Cayuse experienced great difficulties as white settlers moved in Mantilla large numbers following the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1842, and the discovery of gold in California after 1848 and then in Eastern Oregon in 1862.


The Cayuse language is a language isolate. It has been proposed in the past that it may be related to Molala, making up a Waiilaptuan family ultimately related to the Penutian stock. This proposal is currently unproven. The language has been extinct since the 19th century.

Cayuse Indian Pony - A Gaited Pony

Country of Origin: Thought to be French-Norman


One little known horse from the "Old West" period of American history is the Cayuse Indian Pony of the Northwest. Although the settlers called most horses raised by the American Indians "Cayuse Ponies," the Cayuse Indian Pony of the Northwest is a distinct breed which originated in the 1800s. Its conformation and its background set it apart from the Mustang, Spanish Barb and other wild horses.

Physical Description

Small and stocky, the Cayuse Indian Pony has high withers and an unusually long canon bone. In addition, its distinctly sloped pastern gives it a broken walking gait. Any rider, especially younger children, will find this an extremely pleasant and easy seat.


The breed's history is obscure and difficult to trace. It has been generally accepted that the Cayuse Indian Pony descended from the French-Norman horses imported into Canada in the 1600s. Most of these French horses were Percherons, which the Canadians used to improve their domestic breeds. The Percheron was a good choice, it continues to be one of the only work horses which can easily trot for extended periods of time.

Years later, the French Canadians brought their horses into what is now American territory. It was recorded that they bartered their horses in St. Louis with the Pawnee Indians, who then took them further west. Eventually, the Indians crossed their sturdy French horses with the lighter Spanish Barbs to produce a horse which had not only speed, but endurance.

By the 1800s, the Cayuse Indian Pony had become a separate breed. The Cayuse Indians, known throughout the Northwest for their expert horsemanship, continued to develop this French-Spanish Barb strain through selective breeding. Because the French horse had the ability to pass on its tendency for spots or a profusion of white markings, the Cayuse Indians were able to produce some very colorful horses. In fact, the Appaloosa, Paint and Pinto breeds have all been influenced by the blood of the Cayuse Indian Pony.

Interesting Facts

Frederic Remington, who is famous for his artistic representations of the Old West, sketched many of the wild horses he found in the late 1800s. He described the Cayuse Indian Pony as "generally roan in color, with always a tendency this way, no matter how slight." Remington wrote that his subject was heavily muscled, and while only about fourteen hands high, was still very powerful.

Influences: Percheron and Spanish Barb