Wild Horse Plains, now known simply as Plains or Plains Town, is a town in Sanders County in north-western Montana. According to the 2010 U.S. census, it had a population of 1,048. Plains is one of the largest communities in the Clark Fork Valley. The name “Wild Horse Plains” is a reference to the fact that herds of wild horses and horses owned by local Native American tribes, once roamed the valley. Before the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans wintered their horses in the relatively warm Clark Fork Valley, allowing them to feed on the valley’s bunch grass.
The Wild Horse Plains area has been frequented by various Native American groups since prehistoric times. These peoples were nomadic hunters and gatherers who followed bison and other game. The wild and Native American horses that roamed the Clark Fork Valley and the Wild Horse Plains area in the 19th century were introduced to North America by Spanish colonists after the 16th century.
In prehistoric times horse species roamed both North America and Eurasia. Around the time that the earliest Native Americans were colonizing North America, however, North American wild horses became extinct. It is possible that this extinction was due to human activities. It may have also been related to climate changes at the end of the last Ice Age. Whatever the case was, by about 7,000 years ago, horses had disappeared entirely from the Americas.
Wild horse populations in Eurasia also gradually disappeared over time. Today the last surviving truly wild horse species- horses not descended from feral domestic horses- is the rare Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), which inhabits the Central Asian steppes of Mongolia and China.
But horses were domesticated by humans in Eurasia, and the domesticated horse spread from the Pacific rim of Asia to the Atlantic coasts of Europe and West Africa in historical times. So even while the populations of its wild relatives diminished, the horse was never in danger of extinction in the Old World.
For centuries the Americas and the Old World were largely separated from one another, with the exception of small scale contacts such as the Greenlandic Norse expeditions of North America in the 10th and 11th centuries and the Eskimo-Aleut or Inuit people on either side of the Bering Strait. In 1492, however, the Spanish-sponsored Italian navigator Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas and claimed the region for Spain.
Columbus was soon followed by other Spanish explorers, settlers, and adventurers. Among these was the famous Conquistador, Hernan Cortes, who conquered the powerful and wealthy Mesoamerican Aztec kingdom in what is now Mexico. The military success of Cortes and other Spanish Conquistadors was facilitated by the fact that they had horses while their Native American rivals did not. While some Spanish conquerors, colonists and administrators established themselves in Mexico and Central America, others founded settlements in Florida. St. Augustine, in northern Florida, was founded by the Spanish in the second half of the 16th century, making it the oldest extant European settlement in the United States.
As the Spanish established themselves in the southern reaches of the North American continent, some of the horses they brought with them escaped into the wild and became feral. These Spanish horses were of Andalusian, Arabian, and Barb stock. These feral horses gradually moved northward and into the Great Plains. Some of these wild mustangs were domesticated by Native American tribes. Access to horses greatly altered the lives of Native American tribes in the plains. Horses provided them with increased mobility and made it much easier for them to hunt bison (buffalo).
By the 1800s, when increasing numbers of Europeans began to arrive in western Montana, the wild and domestic horses that gave Wild Horse Plains its original name seem to have been fairly well established. The first European visitors to western Montana came in the early 1800s. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) crossed western Montana. In 1809 British-Canadian North-West Company fur trader David Thompson established Saleesh House, a trading post near modern town of Plains. The historic Kootenay trail, an important trade route, ran near the present town site.
It was not until the second half of the 19th century that permanent European settlers began to arrive in the Wild Horse Plains region in significant numbers. The first permanent European settlers arrived around 1867, after the end of the Civil War. The population of Wild Horse Plains grew significantly after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883. It was around this time that the town’s old log schoolhouse was completed. This building was used as a schoolhouse until around 1898. Since then it has served a variety of functions. In 1976 it was moved from its original location to the center of town. Another notable historic building is the Old Horse Plains Jail at the corner of Blake and McGowan. The name “Wild Horse Plains” was soon shortened to “Horse Plains”. The name was subsequently shortened to “Plains”.
Wild Horses in North America:
Plains, Montana 2010 Census Information:
Photograph of the Old Horse Plains Jail:
Michael McCoy. Montana Off the Beaten Path. Guilford, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 2007., p. 8.
W. C. McRae, & Judy Jewell. Moon Handbooks: Montana. Berkeley, California: Avalon Travel/Perseus Books, 2009., p. 45-46.
Federal Writer’s Project. Montana: A State Guide Book. New York: Hastings House, 1955., p. 335.