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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Fine Texas Horses

by Clay Coppedge

Austin's Colony had a horse problem. On May 30, 1830 the fledgling local government passed a resolution stating that as of June 1 "no stud horse should be allowed to run at large."

The municipality's ayuntamiento - sort of an early day commissioner's court - further decreed that any horse owner violating the ordinance received a notice the first time, but the second time "it shall be lawful for any person, assisted by two inhabitants, to alter the said horse at the expense of the owner."

The late Texas historian Malcolm McLean noted this in his 1966 book "Fine Texas Horses: Their Pedigrees and Performances, 1830-1845" and commented, "We can well imagine the scene that would have ensued if some public-spirited citizen, after enforcing this ordinance, walked up to the owner of such a horse and said: 'I have just altered your stallion, Colonel. That will be ten dollars, please.'"

McLean's book sets forth the proposition that horse racing was the first recreational activity in Texas and the breeding and selling of blood horses was among the first businesses. His wife, Margaret, an esteemed scholar in her own right, read every issue of every newspaper published in Texas between 1830 and 1845 as part of Thomas W. Streeter's "Bibliography of Texas, 1795-1845." Her research is the basis for much of the book.

One reason the book begins in 1830, aside from Margaret's research, was the fact that the first Texas newspaper article on horses appeared in that year. He ends it in 1845, when Texas joined the United States.

As for that notice from the first Texas commissioner's court, McLean surmises that the regulation and harsh consequences intended for a second violation were meant to increase - or possibly decrease - the activities of Bellair, a "a fine blooded horse" owned by David Hamilton, a native Mississippian and one of the Old Three Hundred Colonists.

Hamilton placed a notice in "The Texas Gazette" to the effect that Bellair would stand stud beginning the first of September at Josiah Bell's place in Marion, now known as East Columbia, and continue servicing mares on alternating weeks at Bell's place and that of Andrew Roberts on Oyster Creek. The cost was $6, $12 to insure a foal. Two years later, the Gazette announced the commencement of the "Spring Races on the San Felipe Turf."

Of all the types and breeds of horses, the McLeans found the only one active in Texas more than a century ago was the quarter horse. According to their findings, "the first quarter race in Texas was run over the Houston Course in 1840, or exactly one hundred years before the American Quarter Horse Association was formally organized."

Houston, an early day capital of Texas and a hotbed of horse racing during the years of the Republic, had its own jockey club in 1838, which followed on the heels of others like the Planter's & Farmer's, Columbia, Washington and Velasco clubs. Early Texans were betting the ponies long before they did a lot of other things we might think of as more important, and McLean's book even lists the results of some of the state's earliest horse races and the horse racing records of that era.

McLean intended "Fine Texas Horses" to be a true reference work and not a book to be read once and discarded. But hidden among a multitude of sires and dams and other deep minutia are curious nuggets of forgotten state history.

For instance, he documents that the first horse that anybody reported stolen in the state belonged to George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Childress ran an ad in the May 31, 1836 "Arkansas Gazette" offering a $50 reward for a "Bay Roan saddle-horse about six years old, walks and gallops finely, and has black legs, mane and tail. He was stolen from the undersigned at the falls of the Brazos, in Texas, about the 1st of February last, and is supposed to have been taken to upper Red river, or into Arkansas. The above reward, and all reasonable expenses, will be paid for his delivery to Col. R. Childress of Little Rock, or to the agent of Mr. Robert Hamilton, on Red river."

McLean wraps up the book with a section on Leviathan, which he deems the most famous Texas horse of the period. Leviathan, born in England, came to America in 1830 and exerted a strong influence on blood horses in Tennessee and Kentucky as well as Texas. He's sort of the granddaddy of them all.

We don't know if Leviathan ever actually stepped hoof on Texas soil, but his royal blood flowed here through the efforts of S.A. White, who bred one of Leviathan's sons to 80 Mexican mares and produced a new breed called the "Texian Horse."

McLean concludes: "The chances are good, therefore, if you own a horse, that he already has in his veins some of the royal blood of England, as transmitted by Leviathan, even though you may not be able to afford a horse sired by a Texas King."

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" April 16, 2017 column

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