On the Trail of Justin Morgan
by Helen Dodd
reprinted from Country Life in America, November, 1914
illustrations by the author, Howard Rathbone, George Ford Morris, and others
When Justin Morgan, school teacher and singing master, brought to Randolph, Vermont, his family, including his “spirited colt” that was later to bear his name, he did not know that he was starting a famous strain of horses. He died in 1798 before occasion had arisen for following the colt’s pedigree back into Massachusetts, for the animal had not yet arrived at maturity and his value as a sire was not yet known. Hence it has been said that the original Morgan horse was of “unknown parentage” or “without any pedigree.” But we learn from “Morgan Horses” by D. C. Linsley, published in 1857 – and certainly the letters reproduced therein, from men who knew the original horse and his owners, and the old town records agree on a chronology that verifies his statements – that Justin Morgan, the horse, was sired by True Briton, of famous thoroughbred and Arab blood, stolen in Revolutionary days from General DeLancey’s stables on Long Island, afterward sold in Connecticut, and later kept at Springfield, Mass., by John Morgan, uncle of the school master. Justin Morgan’s dam, sired by Diamond, was also of excellent Arab blood.
In 1795, Mr. Morgan, having no “keeping” for the three-year-old colt, let (or leased) him for $15 to Robert Evans of Randolph, for one year. That fall Evans undertook the clearing of fifteen acres of heavily timbered land, completing the job by the first of the following June, with no “team” but this colt. Already it had been found that he was able to out-draw, out-walk, out-trot, and out-run every horse matched against him. Undoubtedly his surprising triumphs over the longer legs, body, and stride of racing horses were due to great muscular development and nervous energy combined with small size, which gave him a decided advantage at the start of a race. The usual course for the small-stake races, then so common in Vermont, was eighty rods, the horses being started from a “scratch” or mark drawn across the road, and set off at “the drop of a hat” or some such signal. The “little horse” when brought to the line, eyes flashing and ears quivering with excitement, would grind the bit in his teeth, draw his hind legs up under him, every muscle trembling and swelled almost to bursting, and, at the signal, would dart off like the springing of a steel trap.
In trials of strength he seemed equally supreme. One day an impromptu log drawing contest was held near the sawmill. At dusk, after many unsuccessful trials had been made, Evans, returning from his logging, learned of the match and straightway challenged the company to bet that his colt could not draw the log fairly on to the logway in three pulls. This was promptly taken up and all went to the scene of the contest. Evans remarking “I’m ashamed to hitch this horse to a little log like that, but if three of you will get on and ride, I’ll pull it or pay the forfeit.” Accordingly three of the men climbed upon the huge log. At the word of command, Justin started – and log and men had covered more than half the distance before he stopped; with the next pull he landed them at the designated spot.
After Mr. Morgan’s death the horse was sold to W. Rice, of Woodstock, Vermont, where he was kept at ordinary farm work for two years. Then Evans became his owner and worked him until 1804, when he was bought by David Goss, of St. Johnsbury, who kept him at stud until 1811. During these years he was properly treated and well cared for, although kept at hard farm work. By this time some of his colts in Randolph had grown up and proven valuable, and eventually he was bought and taken back there. When he was nineteen his owners seemed eager to get rid of him, for fear he would die on their hands, and he was sold, first to Jacob Sanderson, and then to a Mr. Langmade who used him to haul freight from Windsor to Chelsea. Again he was sold and kept for a year at Claremont, returning then to Randolph to remain until 1819, when he was bought by Levi Bean who kept him until his death in the winter of 1821. And even after his hard, eventful life of twenty-nine years, it was not old age or weakness, but a kick by another horse, that caused his death. Those who saw him in 1820 described his appearance as remarkably fresh and youthful. “Age had not quenched his spirit, nor damped the ardor of his temper; years of severest labor had not sapped his vigor nor broken his constitution; his eye was still bright and his step elastic.”
Of Justin Morgan’s colts only six are especially recorded as sires, three having won fame as the founders of noted families. Sherman, a chestnut whose dam was a beautiful imported race horse, was the most graceful and the lightest, weighing only 925 pounds; yet he was kept constantly at farm work in summer, and in winter; with his half brother, he usually hauled freight from Lyndon to Portland, Maine. Sherman’s descendants were most numerous between Newbury and the Canada line. They were generally smaller than members of the next family, with short, hollow backs and wide, full, muscular loins, and deeper chest, lighter flanks, superlatively good legs. They were less commanding, but of a better temper for driving, and of unequaled courage on the road.
Woodbury, or the “Burbank horse,” weighed 1,020 pounds, was dark chestnut, bold, resolute, a good driver, but best under the saddle. Militia officers were eager to ride him, and no “muster” passed without his being seen. Yet he, too, was kept regularly at farm work until taken to Alabama in 1838. Unfortunately he never recovered from the effects of the sea voyage. His Vermont descendants remained in the central part of the state and along the Connecticut River. They kept his lofty, resolute style and overflowing energy, were full of ambition and activity, and so were always favorites for parades.
Bullrush, born in 1813, at Randolph, was dark bay, less lofty and high-spirited than the others, but thicker chested and a better trotter than either. Nevertheless, he, too, did ordinary farm work until after he was ten years old. His endurance was proverbial, and his progeny resemble him, having large limbs, sometimes a little coarse, great development of muscle, and iron constitutions.
These horses never knew thick blankets and warm stables, nor had they better care than the common horses of the country. In fact, they were common horses. Though they carried their sire’s qualities and conveyed them to the hardy, native, Vermont stock, they and their offspring for many generations were simply the “business horses” of a pioneer country. With such horses – “not quite fifteen hands high” – the 120-mile journey from Boston to Portland was always accomplished, with heavy stages and eight or nine passengers, in one day. In 1853, four fifths of all the car horses on the Sixth Avenue Railroad in New York City were Morgans.
In the early 1840’s our family lived on a hill farm in Newbury. Their Morgan colt was often in requisition by the old doctor next door, and many is the trip we have been told about when the present Patriarch of our clan, then a boy, rode him long distances through storms and over rough, unfamiliar roads with a can of leeches hugged close under his waistcoat to prevent their freezing. Like Sherman, my grandfather’s horses made regular winter freighting trips, carrying on sleds to Boston markets the surplus products of the farm homes, and bringing back white sugar in big cones, tea, black broadcloth, etc.
In 1857 the new railroad to Bradford carried westward my grandparents, their family, and the Morgans that have figured in our bedtime tales. Fanny was a Bullrush mare, six years old when she went out to Wisconsin, of Arab type, with small head, delicate, shapely legs, and rounded flanks; but she yielded nothing to Morgans of bulkier build in strength of bone and steeliness of muscle. She could plow all day, and at night, going to town with a buggy, she would run away if she got a chance. Yet with all her work for more than twenty years, with all her runaways, with all her colt bearing, she never lost her beauty nor carried herself less proudly or resiliently. She was a bundle of energy, courage, and beauty from the cradle to the grave.
Rosy, too, was all Morgan, but too thoroughly in sympathy with her human friends ever to run away. Once when the littlest boy was riding, he slipped off her smooth, round back. As children, listening to the tale, we, too, could experience his horror in looking up at the under side of the familiar body and realizing the proximity of those hard hoofs. But she stepped safely by and presently came back to smell him over as he lay in the ditch.
In all probability the “Morgan type” existed before Justin Morgan came to Vermont, in the results of crossing an Arab strain on basic New England stock. What Justin Morgan brought – the one element that fused all the rest and crystallized the type into a lasting great family – was personality. Some call it “spirit” and believe it to be akin to the factor that makes human beings dominant among other beings. Anyway, the Morgan still stands as a symbol of vigorous horse personality, the true blood always declaring itself – usually through the look in the eyes, an intelligent appreciation of people who understand. With this intelligence will go always some of the strong points of Morgan conformation; and good Morgan conformation means that an individual of good form should seem “big for his size,” and should reach 1,000 pounds. His head is small, with ears set well forward; his nose lean, eyes far apart, forehead high, and expression open and winning; his neck is curved, his crest high (though less often now than in the 1850’s) and the neck should be full at the oblique shoulders. The chest is wide, the muscles of the forelegs increasing the appearance of width; the body is deep with great lung capacity, and the ribs spring from the backbone to form almost a perfect circle; the ribs and haunches are so compactly set that he never looks bony, nor are the hips ever prominent; the flank suggests another circle, and the hind legs tend to be drawn up under the body ready for a sudden turn or spring. Steep hills and stony pastures have developed surefootedness, springy ankles, and well set hoofs that never change even in a lifetime of hard work.
This, then, is my conception of the true Morgan, inherited from Vermont ancestry, and gleaned from opinions that have matured for generations here among his native hills.
Those who have bought and taken away our best Morgans must not blame Vermonters for the almost total extinction of the true type. It was so gradual – when different buyers came from far away – that taking out of the country of the best individuals, that the farmers did not realize, as we do today, that nothing was being left good enough to carry on the line. It is said that there are only eighty real Morgans in Vermont today – that is, horses whose pedigrees on both sides trace to the original stock. Morgan colts are not as generally saleable, locally, as heavier horses, because farmers cannot afford to raise and keep horses that do not earn their way, and modern agricultural machinery is designed for heavy horses. Yet drafters have not supplanted the Morgans on our farms; they have rather taken on the tasks of the oxen. The Patriarch says “If I wanted to make a record day’s mowing I’d take a Morgan team every time. It can turn quicker, keep going faster and more steadily, and control the machine better than heavy horses, especially on small hill fields.” But he admits that Morgans could not haul what we call a good load of hay. The old freight teams did not attempt to haul a ton to the horse as we expect a modern team to do. The old Morgans plowed tilled ground rapidly and well, but for heavy work such as breaking new ground, oxen were hitched to the plow and the Morgans put on ahead.
Morgans have shown how economically they can be fed, and have proved their fitness for a climate that makes imported heavy drafters grow small in succeeding generations. But they cannot be raised in idleness and luxury, as mere playthings or hobbies.
The only Morgan horse fit for breeding purposes in our farm communities is one that is worked hard all the time, not only to keep him in condition and prove his capacity, but also to keep alive that endurance, indomitable spirit, and power to beget vital, forceful animals such as those that made the breed famous.
The hope for the modern Morgan rests in making him once more the “business horse” of the hill farms, where we can approach again some of the living conditions that created the greatest of the Morgans – and their masters.