Wild Horses in the Tulares

Horses found the abundant food supply and few natural enemies of the Tulares very favorable and great numbers resulted. By 1810, it was estimated that there were over 25,000 head. Value of these horses was not great, as the were used only for riding and mostly, for food.

The Tulare valley probably had more wild horses and mules than any other place of its size in the world. These animals ran in herds of a dozen to several hundred. Each herd was lead by a stallion, who was heavy and slow. The mares were small, full-chested, thin-flanked and clean-limbed. No attempts were made to improve the original stock although some were positive that a cross breeding of these horses with stock from Virginia would produce the finest of all stock.

The number continued to grow until it was considered that many needed to be exterminated to keep the level down. Soon mass slaughters occurred; 7,500 head in San Jose, 7,200 head in Santa Barbara, 3,302 head in Monterey. Near Santa Barbara, the method was to force the horses over cliffs to be dashed on the rocks below, but the usual means was to catch the animals in a pen where they were killed.

No where in the world, did people love horses more than the Californians. No one walked unless it was absolutely necessary. A dismounted Californian was not only a rare sight, but a pathetically helpless individual.

Californians were lackadaisical business men that never knew the size of their herds. Animals were taken and run into the Tulares so easily that almost anyone could be a successful horse thief. Horses had no great monetary value, but had a sentimental value that was dear. Some of the better known horse thieves were Peg-Leg Smith, Jesus Villapando and Wakera. Many well known mountain men openly participated in stealing. Villapando drove off one thousand head of stock, assembled the herd in the Tulares and dove them out of the country. Around 1840, Villapando and Peg-Leg Smith made a daring raid on the southern ranchos that netted some three thousand head of stock. Sometimes the raiders were pursued, but the pursuit was made in the spirit of the exciting hunt, not as a capture of stolen goods.

Corrals similar to the one built by Fremont were a common sight on the west side of the Tulares. They were made of willow stakes, lashed together with thongs of rawhide. Some were built by travelers like Fremont, but most were built by Mexicans who came for the direct purpose of taking wild horses.

The arrival of the Americans and the final acquisition of California by the United States put an end to horse stealing on a grand scale. Even Peg-Leg Smith declined to steal horses, not from any patriotic sentiment, but because he knew the law would be enforced under the new regime.

The final disposition of the wild herds of horses is one of the most interesting pages in the annals of the Tulares. Their dispersion is not altogether a mystery for they were taken to replenish stock, used as food by the Indians, and driven out of the country to be sold to the western trade.

Peg-Leg Smith, aka Bald Hermit and El Cojo Smit, had the given name of Thomas Smith. The acquisition of the name, Peg-Leg is an example of his character. In a fight with some Indians, a rifle ball shattered his leg just above the ankle. No one had time to help him so he went on fighting what he chose to call "them thar varmits." When the scrap was over, he tried to get someone to amputate his foot, and as none of the men had the courage, he did the job himself. His friends were sure he would die but the amputation was done so roughly that the bleeding soon stopped. He spent the winter with some friendly Indians and whiled away the time pulling out bone splinters and whittling a peg leg. When he appeared on the scene some months later, his friends dubbed him Peg-Leg, a name he bore until he died. Incidentally his peg-leg became very famous as a lethal weapon, for whenever he was in a fighting mood he would yank it off and swing it around without much regard for the heads of by-standers.