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George Catlin
"Smoking Horses," a Curious Custom of the Sac and Fox, 1835–36
oil
19 5/8 x 27 1/2 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.


“When General Street and I arrived at Kee-o-kuk's village, we were just in time to see this amusing scene, on the prairie a little back of his village. The Foxes, who were making up a war-party to go against the Sioux, and had not suitable horses enough by twenty, had sent word to the Sacs, the day before (according to an ancient custom), that they were coming on that day, at a certain hour, to ‘smoke’ that number of horses, and they must not fail to have them ready. On that day, and at the hour, the twenty young men who were beggars for horses, were on the spot, and seated themselves on the ground in a circle, where they went to smok-ing. The villagers flocked around them in a dense crowd, and soon after appeared on the prairie, at half a mile distance, an equal number of young men of the Sac tribe, who had agreed, each to give a horse, and who were then galloping them about at full speed; and, gradually, as they went around in a circuit, coming in nearer to the centre, until they were at last close around the ring of young fellows seated on the ground. Whilst dashing about thus, each one, with a heavy whip in his hand, as he came within reach of the group on the ground, selected the one to whom he decided to present his horse, and as he passed him, gave him the most tremendous cut with his lash, over his naked shoulders; and as he darted around again he plied the whip as before and again and again, with a vio-lent ‘crack!’ until I the blood could be seen trickling down over his naked shoulders, upon which he in-stantly dismounted, and placed the bridle and whip In his hands … [the beggar] could afford to take the stripes and the scars as the price of the horse, and the giver could afford to make the present for the satisfaction of putting his mark upon the other, and of boasting of his liberality” (Letters and Notes, vol. 2, pp. 210–14, pl. 292).

Sketched at the Sauk and Fox village in 1835. The scene is repeated in cartoon 205 (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon).



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