Strait On: America’s transportation history Part 1: Native Americans

Walking on two feet got us started on the path to moving about the country

Reporter’s note: The San Jacinto Valley was once the gateway from all points east into Southern California, and I will discuss that part of our local history in an upcoming episode. In the meantime, first things first.

Photo by Rusty Strait/The Valley Chronicle
Rusty Strait, Senior Reporter.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

When discussing transportation, few of us realize that we human beings were the first form of transportation anywhere. Call it shanks mare or merely barefoot in the grass, Homo sapiens’ first form of transportation was by foot patrol and so the first method of Native Americans getting around was on foot.
It was totally impractical to attempt moving food or anything else in early commerce for any real distance. Domesticated dogs seem to have been used as the first ground transportation for any distance. They were harnessed up with contraptions that were composed of leather and pliable tree limbs. Although progressive, even the strongest dogs could haul no more than 60 pounds. That amount increased as they began harnessing dog teams. Still, until relay teams were employed, distances were limited.
Despite the use of dogs, the burden of carrying heavy loads was delegated to the women in the tribe, something quite common in rural Africa and parts of Asia. Canoes were a favored form of transportation by tribes that lived near rivers, lakes, and even oceans. They varied in size from single person vehicles to those made from the burning and carving out trees of various sizes, and some were capable of carrying greater loads, especially when they were assembled as commercial fleets. It was a reasonable means when trading with other tribes. Despite sporadic wars between the various tribes and nations, economics dictated trading with those with whom they may have been in constant conflict. Often once trades were made, the various tribes used instruments they traded for against those from whom they received them.
Canoes varied in size, often by the area where they were built. Indian settlements up and down the Pacific Coast built canoes that were more open. Often they were as large as one hundred feet long and seven feet wide. As public transportation, they were capable of accommodating as many as 60 people. Smaller canoes were built from sapling frames covered in bark, with birch being the most popular due to its light weight and strength.
During the early 1800s, the Blackfoot tribe contributed largely to the Hudson Bay fur trade, loading up canoes in tandem and carrying animal fur pelts to British fur dealers. Such bargaining went on up and down the north and south rivers from the upper Missouri down the Mississippi to all ports of call to the Gulf of Mexico.
The North American horse became extinct about 12,000 years ago. Domesticated horses were introduced into North America during the Spanish conquest. Horses that escaped spread across the continent and became the wild or feral horses that exist throughout the western states today. During the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadors explored the Great Plains and established a permanent colony in what is now New Mexico, in the midst of primarily Indian country.
Domesticated horse transportation had a great impact on tribal economy and, for long distance trade; the canoe was used less and less as a means of transporting goods. Trade between tribes long distances apart increased due to the ability of horses to carry heavy loads with the endurance to travel longer distances. Actually, they were the precursors to future railroad lines across the country.
Trails and rough paths created by herds of bison laid out the path for many Indian avenues of transportation and other movements. However crude, it was an infrastructure that would become the basis for more modern forms of commercial transportation.
Horses became as valuable a commodity as food and clothing. Because of the increasing demand for horsepower, fierce battles were waged between some tribes. Thievery of horses between the various nations increased and probably resulted in the introduction of horse thieves.
Horses were predominant, but even into the 1870’s mackinaws, canoes, and bullboats were still being used in the fur trade business. The steamboats took over the bulk of fur trading with various tribes in areas where fur was abundant and helped bring more Indian fur traders to river ports. In that way, tribes along the rivers were able to continue engaging in the fur business and helped improve their lifestyles. However they were becoming less self-sufficient as the white man’s transportation modes were intruding into their lives.
Population along the eastern corridor of the country began to expand beyond the Appalachians and other mountain ranges toward the west. Settlers moved up to and beyond the Ohio River and on to the Mississippi, further invading Native American lands and ever pushing them out of their homelands.
As tribes fought to protect their homelands, it was the beginning of a new age of transportation. But they were no match for the greedy and powerful white men.
And you thought transportation was all about making your way to the local grocery store in your van!

Just sayin’.

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