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The Legendary 1833 Dragoon Saddle
by: Todd Holmes
The 1833 dragoon saddle, used from very late 1833 until the intro of the Ringgold and Grimsley patterns in the 1840s, was a common horned Spanish saddle. The initial contract saddles were purchased from Thornton Grimsley in St. Louis until 1836, after which they were made primarily in Philadelphia. (from what info is currently known - other contractors are probable). The image shown here is from a mid-nineteenth century publication showing a typical spanish saddletree.
The legendary 1833 dragoon saddle has been one of the most mysterious of the U.S. military saddles. First obtained for the 1st Regiment of Dragoons in late 1833, it was used until it was replaced by the Ringgold pattern @1844/45. One of the reasons for this mystery has been the continued mis-identification of this saddle by the most well known and cited references, the various published works of Randy Steffen. In two of his best known works on the subject (U.S. Military Saddles, 1812-1943 and The Horse Soldier, Vol. I), he describes a saddle that is essentially an english style flat saddle. Understanding how he came to these errant conclusions is an interesting study.
Mr. Steffan's theory about the english style was actually adopted from one of his contemporaries that wrote a few articles for The Company of Military Historians back in the 1950s and 1960s, Stanley J. Olsen. Mr. Olsen first put this forward in an article titled "The Development of the U.S. Army Saddle" in the Spring 1955 issue of "Military Collector & Historian". He directly referenced the 1834 publication titled "A System of Tactics...for the Cavalry and Light Infantry and Riflemen of the United States; By Authority of the Department of War" (Francis Preston Blair, 1834). A plate in this book shows an example of the extravagant-looking French hussar saddle, and what looks to be an added image of a typical flat saddle. Click here for a more detailed examination at this particular source.
Mr. Steffan accepted Olsen's premise in leiu of conflicting evidence, and took the theory another step in 1962 by identifying a saddle in the storage area of the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Ft. Riley, using that description alone. The problem is this - that particular saddle had no provenance to speak of - many knowledgeable persons who have seen this saddle believe it to be a common flat saddle from around the 1850s. I've looked at it myself, and it certainly appears to be a typical civilian style with little about it to give an indication of military design and utility. If you would like to see for yourself, check out these photographs taken of this very specimen. In short, no provenance and not practical for military usage - which tells us that it is not likely to have been this elusive dragoon saddle.
The problem is that the basic assumption drawn by Olsen regarding the 1834 militia manual is flawed. James S. Hutchins at the Smithsonian Institution did quite a bit of research into early nineteenth century western horse equipment, and wrote a section on this subject in "Man Made Mobile", published in 1980. In this publication, he included significant portions of the actual contract letters for the 1833 dragoon equipment, and published the relevant sections verbatim - these letters included detailed descriptions. Dr. Hutchins work is solid, and evidence continues to reinforce his propositions regarding the earliest dragoon saddle.
Randy Steffan researched massive amounts of information and contributed greatly to the knowledge of the equipment and uniforms of the U.S. mounted soldier. For that he must certainly be recognized and applauded. However, that should not mean that his occasional errors should be carried on into perpetuity - I'm sure he would have welcomed new information and analysis, so that the "picture" presented would be as accurate as possible.
Following is additional information that will give you a very rough idea of what this saddle looked like.
"A System of Tactics...for the Cavalry and Light Infantry and Riflemen of the
United States; By Authority of the Department of War", Francis Preston Blair.
City of Washington in 1834