Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 80-94.
One of the most vivid and symbolically expressive legends in the annals of the American West is that of the White Mustang. Inhabiting the vast reaches of the western plains, the Stallion was said to have "paced from the mesas of Mexico to the Badlands of the Dakotas and even beyond, from the Brazos bottoms of eastern Texas to parks in the Rocky Mountains," during an interval extending from about 1825 to 1889.1 Alternately known as the "White Steed of the Prairies," the "Pacing White Stallion," the "Phantom White Horse," and "Ghost Horse of the Plains," his story occurs again and again in sources dealing with the frontier.
In A Tour of the Prairies, a record of his 1832 excursion into the plains of what is now the state of Oklahoma, Washington Irving described the White Steed as he had heard about him one evening around the campfire. In his journal entry for that day, Irving related that his party had been eagerly anticipating a buffalo hunt. There had been keen excitement among the hunters when a faraway object was sighted and believed to be a buffalo. At closer range, however, the animal was found to be a wild horse.2 The manner in which this event is described gives the reader the sensation of first visualizing the unidentified object off in the distance and makes one aware of the overwhelming vistas of the western plains as they appeared to an easterner. As the narrative reveals the object to be a horse, there is the sensation of a telescope suddenly bringing the image into close range and sharp focus. In describing how the horse was initially mistaken for something else, the narrator adds a sense of mystery, a feeling of remoteness from his subject, making it seem unapproachable, a thing apart. This sighting of an ordinary wild mustang during the day, Irving wrote, prompted evening campfIre stories of the superb White Steed who had been frequenting the area for six or seven years. The basic characteristics of the White Mustang are then set forth: his sex, color, bodily proportions, beauty and grace, his wildness and solitariness, and the pacing gait which gives him such great swiftness that he has never been caught.
George Wilkins Kendall's Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, resulting from his 1841 journey into the Staked Plains of Texas, also contains a description of observing "one day at sundown a drove of mustangs." Again, seeing them dimly at twilight imparts an aura of romance and mystery; they are not seen sharply, clearly, or close at hand. Once more the horses are first mistaken for other objectsin this case, mounted Indians. Thus suspense is introduced, a moment of wonder and a sense of the unexpected. Kendall, like Irving, describes the campfire setting as the backdrop for the stories told "by some of the old hunters, of a large white horse that had often been seen in the vicinity of Cross Timbers and near the Red River." Although he expresses the opinion that some of the stories "told by gossiping campaigners were either apocryphal or marvelously garnished," still he finds "no reason to disbelieve." Kendall notes that the "White Steed of the Prairies" is "well known to trappers and hunters by that name"-a rather poetic title, I think, for such men to have used in common speech, and thus an indication of his evocative power over their imaginations.3
A significant aspect of the White Mustang tale is this element of its circulation by mountain men, hunters, and trappers. Of course, these were the men whose occupations took them to the wild country where the horse might be seen. A deeper meaning, however, seems to lie in the fact that such men lived intimately with nature and were often imputed to have a particularly keen understanding of the natural world not possessed by people more removed from wilderness. Such men might have a special feeling of kinship with the White Mustang, making his story peculiarly expressive of their ethos and way of life.