Where and how it evolved, flourished, and died out.
by Nancy Coggeshall
This article was originally published on the author's website, nancycoggeshall.com. It appears here with her permission.
One of the founding breeds of the Standardbred, the Narragansett Pacer has been extinct since the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Yet the Pacer was ubiquitous in colonial North America—as popular in its native Rhode Island as it was in South Carolina and the Caribbean. Oxen were used for heavy work and horses for transportation; this type was prized as a saddle horse for the ease of its gait, its surefootedness, and speed.
The Narragansett Pacers were small by modern standards, frequently listed in newspapers as no higher than fourteen hands, which is less than five feet at the withers, the highest point on the horse's back. These horses were lively and spirited, possessing tremendous stamina and endurance.
In color they were usually sorrel or light chestnut, liberally splashed with white markings—stars and blazes on their faces, stockings and boots on their feet, and spots and patches on their sides. The Narragansetts had breedy heads, held high on long thin necks. Their lines were slim: their limbs delicate, thin, and tapered. All written descriptions of these horses seem to suggest a pretty, little but altogether marvelous horse that performed beautifully: a smallish equine Rolls Royce, bred for the travelling conditions of the time.
Unfortunately, the origins of the once popular Narragansett Pacer are completely obscured. No studbook for the breed exists, nor are there any contemporary paintings or drawings. Some of the explanations of its foundations, though romantic and colorful, are the stuff of myth and legend. Nevertheless, some prepotent sire, such as Justin Morgan's stud, must have existed.
One of the most famous of the legendary sires was "Old Snip," said to be an Andalusian stallion found swimming at sea off the coast of Africa. According to the tale, he was taken aboard a sailing ship, brought to Narragansett and allowed to run wild on Point Judith. Yet another Andalusian stallion was said to have been imported by Deputy-Governor William Robinson. Another contributing strain was said to be the Irish hobby horse because of its similar size, gait, and color.
Whatever the origins, the breed had developed and was recognized in 1700. And by that time, the Narragansett Planters, who had developed the breed, had already established breeding farms and trading ties with the ready markets in the South and the Caribbean.
Named for its inherent gait and the area in which it evolved, the Narragansett Pacer paced. In a trot, the horse's legs move diagonally; in a pace, both legs on one side move at the same time. The Pacer did not trot at all. In fact, a purebred could not. Writing in the nineteenth century, Isaac Peace Hazard, whose father raised Pacers, noted that the backbone of the horse moved in a straight line. The rider did not post but merely sat to the easy, gliding action of the animal below. There was no movement from side to side nor any jarring from a trot or jog.
The rider could spend hours in the saddle, even all day, and often did. Before roads were built, overland transportation consisted of following rough trails, pathways, and Indian traces. "Carriages were unknown," wrote one chronicler of eighteenth-century life in southern Rhode Island. "And the public roads were not so good... all the riding was done on horseback."
In 1704, Mrs. Sarah Kemble Knight, who taught the young Benjamin Franklin in her school in Boston, journeyed from that city to New York. At the time, she was thirty-nine years old and had been widowed for a year. She covered the two hundred and seventy miles by horseback, accompanied by postmen and hired guides.
In the course of her trip, she had to ford rivers with her horse, cross a deep swamp, and ride in the dark. Her account of the experience reveals the necessity during that period for a sensible, hardy, surefooted mount.
James Fenimoore Cooper seats his heroine, Alice Munro, on a Narragansett Pacer in The Last of the Mohicans. As Cooper states, the Narragansetts were "sure of foot" and "greatly sought by females who were obliged to travel over roots and holes in the 'new countries.'"
No rider wants to be mounted on a horse with a bumpy gait or one that stumbles or trips, especially a woman riding side saddle through the woods on urgent family business or enroute to some large social function.
When Mrs. Anstis Lee was a young woman of twenty-six, she travelled with her brother Daniel Updike from the family home near Wickford, Rhode Island, to Hartford, Connecticut. She was eighty when she wrote about the journey which took place in May of 1791. "I was mounted on a fine Narragansett pacer of easy carriage and great fleetness."
Returning home, she and her brother rode forty miles on the first day and fifty-seven on the second. Though she was tired from so long a ride, she recalled, "But for the great ease, with which my pacer carried me, I could not have performed it."
In advertising the services of a stallion in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser on April 2, 1794, overseer Patrick Hayley mentions that the Narragansett Traveller "is a remarkably fine horse for the road, both as to gait and security." Hayley also adds that Traveller "can pace 12 to 14 miles in the hour; and goes uncommonly easy to himself and the rider at 8 miles in the hour."
The characteristic that gave the Pacer added popularity among the colonists, however was "Fletnefs and fwist Pacing." These progenitors of today's pacing and trotting breeds raced on ready made tracks provided by New England's shorelines—Revere Beach in Massachusetts and in Rhode Land on Easton's Beach in Newport and the beach at Narragansett. All races were pace races; "genteel horses were pacers." Trotting horses were deemed a base breed.
On Narragansett Beach the owners entered their fastest mounts for prizes of silver tankards, made locally, and bets were made on speed. Dr. James MacSparran, rector of Narragansett Church from 1721 until 1757, wrote that these "Horfes... are exported to all parts of English America," and he had "Feen fome of them pace a Mile in little more than two Minutes, a good deal lefs than three."
His parishioners were the wealthy Narragansett Planters whose estates consisted of three hundred to two thousand acres, sometimes manned by up to forty slaves. Their society, atypical of the rest of New England, is described by Isaac Peace Hazard, a descendant of that class, as a "horse-racing, fox-hunting, feasting generation." Their lifestyle was closer to the English country gentlemen who were their forebears or the plantation owners of Virginia and the Carolinas who were their trading partners.
The planters' vast estates, called plantations, were noted for livestock production: sheep for wool exported to England and France, goats and cattle for cheese and salted meat, and the famous Narragansett Pacers that were loaded directly onto boats as deck cargo at South Ferry. When Cuba began to cultivate sugar extensively, its planters sought Pacers for themselves, their wives, and daughters to ride. They wanted horses faster than they could be supplied. The horses were shipped immediately to the southern colonies or the Caribbean via Newport. The breeding and exporting of the Narragansett Pacers was the region's most lucrative commercial activity, bringing great wealth to Narragansett Country.
Besides the commercial exchange between the southern colonies and Narragansestt Country, the racing sportsmen of Narragansett traveled to Virginia with their horses for contests on the turf. Since these visits were reciprocated by Virginians, George Washington's interest in pace racing is not surprising.
On September 29, 1768, he recorded in his diary that he "Went to a Purse Race at Accotink." Washington entered one of his horses in a pacing race that day and paid Robert Sanford twelve shillings to ride for him.
John Hervey, the author of The American Trotter, tells us that we may assume that the horse was a Narragansett Pacer, "for elsewhere the partiality of the Father of Our Country for that breed is of record." Washington was supposed to have owned two Narragansett pacers, one of which caused the First President's only recorded fall from the saddle.
Another celebrated colonial rider associated with the Narragansett Pacer is Paul Revere. Esther Forbes, his Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, argues forcibly that the horse that Revere rode from Charlestown to Lexington was a Pacer.
His mount belonged to John Larkin, one of Charlestown's wealthiest residents who no doubt had a Narragansett stable in his barn. He turned over his best horse to Revere to spread the alarm. Given the speed with which Revere covered the twelve miles and the good condition of the horse afterward, one would think the horse was a Narragansett Pacer.
(Forbes's assertion is refuted by David Hackett Fischer in his Paul Revere's Ride, published by Oxford University Press, 1994.)
Revere was chosen to ride for the Whigs on the night of April 18, 1775, because of his discretion as a messenger and his ability as a horseman. The intrepid Boston silversmith had earlier ridden express for the Whig Party, delivering messages from its members in Boston. On his first mission in that capacity, he traveled from Boston to Philadelphia and back in eleven days, averaging sixty-three miles a day. (As a post rider, he most certainly would have been astride a Pacer.) Despite his equestrian skills, however, the night that Paul Revere rode from Larkin's barn into the Annals of American history, he left home without his spurs.
The Revolutionary War cast many American heroes and precipitated the birth of a nation, but it also signaled the demise of the Narragansett Pacer. England had imposed restrictions on trade with the French in the West Indies, yet another market for the breed. The numbers of Pacers fell precipitously. In 1763, however, there was enough concern to try and revive interest in maintaining the breed. A race was held on May 5, 1763, for a purse of one hundred dollars. It was open to any horse, mare, or gelding bred in the colony. The race was run, carrying weight for inches, on Easton's Beach in Newport.
Another factor contributing to the breed's near extinction was the Pacer's inability to adapt as a carriage horse when roads developed. Furthermore, the law of primogeniture was repealed so that the early planters' immense estates were being divided among all their sons, no longer bequeathed only to the eldest.
Mrs. Anstis Lee, recalling her journey to Hartford in 1791 some fifty-four years afterward, states that her mare, a Narragansett, "was the last of the pure blood and genuine gait that I have seen." Indeed, by 1800, there was only one Narragansett Pacer living in Rhode Island.
Two hundred years after the heyday of the Narragansett Pacer there are no reminders of the greatly touted breed of colonial times in the region where it thrived. Local history buffs might be aware of the Pacer, as well as some horse lovers, but there isn't even an historical marker to note the breed that was so emblematic of the town's colonial past.
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Freelancer Nancy Coggeshall has been writing most of her life. Her first book-length project, the award-winning biography Gila Country Legend, The Life and Times of Quentin Hulse, was published in 2009. A Rhode Islander by birth, she's lived in New Mexico since 1988.