The US Dragoon Saddle of 1833

One of the most mysterious of the U.S. military saddles is the one selected in 1833, obtained for the 1st Regiment of Dragoons.  Despite clear descriptions of the saddle in both frontier explorers’ accounts and in actual government purchasing contracts, the lack of actual specimens and rampant speculation has muddied the waters for many years.  Indeed, the publication of a widely distributed and popular series of books by Randy Steffen, which are periodically re-issued by their publisher, continue to promote a completely inaccurate representation of this pattern. In these books (U.S. Military Saddles, 1812-1943 and The Horse Soldier, Vol. I), Mr. Steffen describes a saddle that is essentially an english style flat saddle.

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 ’60s, Stanley J. Olsen. Mr. Olsen first outlined this concept in an article titled “The Development of the U.S. Army Saddle” in the Spring 1955 issue of “Military Collector & Historian”. He directly referenced a 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). 1834 Tactics manual plateA 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 on this thumbnail image for a more detailed look at this source.

Text from 1834 plateThe rub comes in that this book was actually a direct reprint of an 1826 publication for militia organizations in the U.S., and does not actually show the saddle that was contracted for the new dragoon regiment in 1833.  Considering that the potential market among regular army dragoon officers might be a maximum of perhaps 40 officers, the far more massive militia market was the usual target for tactics publishers in this time.

That being said, a single plate in a tactics manual does not constitute irrefutable evidence of the actual saddle being used by the then existing dragoon regiment.  Indeed, if one was to suppose this to actually be the case, why not consider the larger of the two images ( a fanciful european hussar saddle ) as the accepted style?  The manual actually recommended the French hussar saddle, and refers to the added flat saddle image as being “commonly in use in the United States”.  “Commonly in use in the United States” very clearly does not hold the same meaning as “in use by the US Dragoon Regiment” or “in use by the United States”.

Mr. Steffan accepted Olsen’s theory at face value and added another layer in 1962 – by identifying a saddle in the storage area of the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Ft. Riley, using that presumptive description alone. The problem is this – that saddle had no details associated with it, and many knowledgeable persons who have seen this saddle believe it to be a common flat (or park) saddle from about 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.

The problem is that this cascading collection of assumptions drawn from the 1834 militia manual is inherently flawed – there is no authoritative corroboration by independent evidence.

James S. Hutchins, at the Smithsonian Institution, did quite a bit of original 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.

The 1833 dragoon saddle, used from very late 1833 until the introduction of the Ringgold and Grimsley patterns in the 1840s, was a common horned Spanish saddle. They 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).

Spanish treeThe image shown here is from a mid-nineteenth century publication showing a typical spanish saddletree from 1850s.  They featured a high rounded cantle, a tall one-piece wooden pommel arch featuring a relatively modest ‘horn’ or ‘knob’ as it was sometimes described.  The leading edge of the sidebars did not project much beyond the front surface of the pommel, if at all.  Stirrup leather slots were not cut into the sidebars, the saddle using typical iron hardware of the time, which consists of triangular shaped loops stapled into the sidebar near the rear edge of the pommel.  Strap loops made of simple iron staples were driven through the cantle and clinched.  The stirrup loop on these spanish/dragoon/wagon saddles appears to invariably be attached near the base of the pommel arch, where the bottom tip meets the sidebar.

The difficulty for most researching this subject is that there is almost no photographic evidence of this saddle, and it's near-lookalike, the wagon drivers saddle adopted in 1847 and used thru 1875.

Dr. Samual Woodhouse holding the reins of horse- Mayhew Daguarrotype 26July1850However, through the generous sharing of a forum member, a fine image has come to my attention that shows what is very likely one of the only clear photographs of a 'dragoon saddle' in actual use.  While this image was take a few years after the 1833 dragoon was replaced by the Grimsley dragoon equipment, it's form and composition is visually identical to the descriptions of the 1833 dragoon equipment.  Given that this particular saddle was used on a military surveying expedition by a naturalist/doctor who was soon commissioned, it's a far more reasonable assumption than the Olsen/Steffens one described earlier.  There are numerous references in contemporary accounts that speak of travellers using 'an old dragoon saddle', which was nearly synonymous with 'old spanish saddle'.  Just because these facts are important, the horse's name was 'Davy'.  We appreciate Davy taking a siesta while the photographer was doing his thing.

haysdragI will show this in tandem with another image that shows a partial view of an early dragoon saddle, in a quite famous image of Lt's Alexander Hays and Ulysses Grant, taken in 1845 at Camp Salubrity, La.  You can see the high cantle and metal stirrup, much of the other detail covered by a fabric shabraque.  I believe the small bump at Lt. Hays' shoulder strap is the top of the saddle's horn cap.


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