First Encounters

Part of the Horse exhibition.

Although horses evolved in North America, by the time Spanish soldiers invaded in the 1500s, horses had been extinct in the Americas for thousands of years. To the native peoples, the Spaniards' horses must have seemed like frightening monsters. The Spanish made the most of this advantage by spreading rumors that horses were magical beasts.

Horses were certainly not the only reason for the conquest of the Americas--disease, civil war and steel weapons were probably more important in the long run. But in early encounters, horses were an intimidating and unstoppable force. Hernn Corts, who led the conquest of what is now Mexico, is said to have claimed that, "Next to God, we owed our victory to the horses."

Slaughter On Horseback

In 1532, 168 Spanish soldiers, including 62 on horseback, faced off against the huge Inca empire at Cajamarca, in western South America. Although vastly outnumbered, the Spaniards launched a surprise attack on the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who was surrounded by about 80,000 Inca soldiers. The Spanish charged into the crowd on horseback, their steel weapons easily cutting through the Incas' quilted armor. The massacre went on for hours until some 7,000 Incas lay dead. Yet through it all, the Spaniards could not reach Atahuallpa. He was held aloft on a litter by his subjects, and as they were killed, more rushed in to replace them. Finally the Spaniards toppled Atahuallpa's litter with their horses, and the one-sided battle was over.

drinking vessel horse
Inca-style drinking vessel, Peru, Early 1700s.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

A King's Ransom

After the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa, who until 1532 ruled the largest and most advanced empire in the Americas, Pizarro demanded the largest ransom in the history of the world. The Incas handed over enough gold to fill a large room, piled more than 8 feet (2.5 meters) high--but the Spaniards killed Atahuallpa anyway. Most of this treasure was melted down to make gold coins.

Spanish Only

The man shown riding on horseback on this Colonial period Inca-style cup from the early 1700s is not an Inca--he is actually one of the Spanish conquistadors. The Incas were not allowed to ride horses for centuries after the Spanish occupation began. The Spaniards wanted to keep the power of horses for themselves--and with good reason. When Native peoples acquired horses in Chile, Argentina, and the U.S. Great Plains, for example, they quickly became superior riders and used their horses to fight off the European invaders for years.