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The Narragansett Pacer
The key to a number of American breeds was an elite Rhode Island horse bred as a trade commodity in the 1600ís.
Article by Donna dePetrilio
Some 340 years ago, a breed of horses was bred and raised in the Narragansett Bay region of Rhode Island. They were
the finest little saddle horse ever known, not only for their unusual and remarkable ambling gait that gave pure comfort
to the rider, but because of their tremendous stamina, sure-footedness and speed.
They were said to be able to cover rough ground at their steady and fast amble for more than 50 miles in a single day,
often while burdened with both saddle, pillion and two riders, without fatigue to either themselves or rider.
This was the Narragansett Pacer, a true legend among horsemen for centuries. For a bit more than three quarters of a
century they were the most sought saddle horses in the Western world, and had they not disappeared due to the greed
of our ancestors they could have been the predecessors of all gaited horses in the United States.
So great was the value of the Narragansett Pacer that eventually all the quality horses were sold out of the country, thus
killing "the goose that laid the golden egg" and leaving all but a memory and a legend
Remarkable as it sounds, the Narragansett Pacer is responsible for both the foundation of today's Morgan and American
Saddlebred. The dams of three of Morgan foundation sire Justin Morgan's four best sons (Sherman Morgan, Woodbury
Morgan and Revenge) were Narragansetts, as was the dam of Gaines' Denmark, the greatest American Saddlebred
progenitor. John H. Wallace, founder of the Standardbred Register, was convinced the speed of the trotter derived from
the Narragansett Pacer ancestry. Today, breeders of some 30 modern horses are trying to re-capture the characteristics of
this amazing animal. Some have had more success than others, but none have ever able to duplicate the Narragansett
It all started in the mid-1600s when New England colonists began exporting Pacers to the other colonies, and increased
into trade with the West Indies. In the West Indies, the horses were used to run the rollers of the sugar cane-crushing
mills, haul the cane from the fields and transport sugar and supplies. The trade continued to grow and flourish until the
Revolutionary War, some 100 years later.
As the West Indies planters became wealthy, the demand for saddle horses spread to personal use. Planters became
willing to pay any price for these Pacers. The "best-riding beast" was valued at 300 pounds, but a "Sorrel Pacer," as the
Narragansett Pacer was known because of its brilliant color, was worth as much as 400 pounds. New Englanders began
breeding the horses by the thousands to accommodate buyers. The Colonies exportation spread to the French West
Indies, then later to the Dutch Islands, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Curacao, Bonaire, Aruba and Surinam.
Horses became the most desired commodity shipped, and vessels used for the equine cargo were soon referred to as
"horse jockeys." By 1731, the number of these "horse jockeys" had grown to 120. They were heavily built vessels, able to
carry two to three tons of cargo, rigged as sloops, schooners and brigs. But with their excessive weight, they were very
slow and able to make only two or three voyages a year. Ship captains tried timing the trips to avoid hurricane season,
but did so with limited success.
For each horse on board, an allowance of rations was made up of one puncheon of water (110 gallons), one bundle of
hay (500 pounds) and 10 bushels of oats. Despite their high value, many of the animals died in route and were used as
meat. But since only the strongest and fittest completed these long journeys, this brought a certain hardiness to the
breed by weeding out' animals unable to stand the rigors of the sea.
These horses were so prized, many countries created special laws to accommodate them. In Surinam, no vessel was
allowed to dock and trade unless it brought Narragansett Pacers as its main cargo. Many other islands did not charge
trade permits if the cargo consisted of at least 60 horses. Massachusetts Governor Robert Jenks placed these horses as
first in importance among the Colonies exports.
Trading horses for molasses became highly profitable for New Englanders. In Rhode Island, molasses was turned into
rum, and the area became the major distiller of molasses-based rum. With French home markets closed to rum, molasses
sent to the Colonies was a truly valuable commodity for both the trading of furs and slaves with the French.
The horse trade was so substantial that in one Secretary of Customs ledger record, in a single year the New England
Colonies shipped 7,133 horses to the British Islands alone. In 1745, Moses Brown, one of the most prominent of the
Providence merchants, sent out many vessels with horses as their main cargo even though his interest was in the textile
industry. His name is still prevalent in the area as the founder of one of Providence's most popular prep schools.
From the horse trade arose an aristocracy in New England society equal to the Southern plantation owners. Members of
this aristocracy lived in luxuriously large, isolated farms of several thousand acres. Their wealth differed from their
Southern counterparts only by instead of developing one staple crop such as cotton or tobacco, theirs came from
breeding droves of fine horseflesh.
They built great houses, filled them with masterpieces by Smibert and Copley, and works of art from the finest
silversmiths and cabinetmakers. Both herds and houses were cared for by multitudes of slaves traded from the West
Indies. It is no wonder the aristocracy felt apart from their less affluent neighbors to the North and East.
Self-sufficient unto themselves, the life of the New Englanders was one envied even today. The wealth and affluence of
Narragansett County increased steadily throughout the 18th century until the Revolution. The demand for this world
famous breed and brisk trading with the West Indies was a major cornerstone to the building of Rhode Island.
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