By Carla Charter
The story of the Morgan horse, an iconic symbol of Vermont, began with a man named Justin Morgan who lived in West Springfield, Ma. Morgan was poor and came from a large family with many siblings, so it was unlikely he would inherit land from his family. When Vermont opened to settlers, Morgan moved to Randolph, Vermont .
One day Justin received a colt, named Figure, which would later become the first Morgan horse, as repayment for a debt from a person in Springfield, Ma. “Figure, the first Morgan, was a genetic anomaly” said, Amy Mincher, Museum Director of the American Morgan Horse Association. “He didn’t look like either of his parents He looked like a new horse breed.” Justin Morgan himself only owned Figure for several years. Morgan rather than being a horse breeder was actually an itinerant singing teacher. “There are 30 pieces of his music that are still played. I think he knew his horse was popular but I think he thought his music would be more popular,” Minscher said. A gravesite marker for Figure can be found in Chelsea, Vermont.
Morgan horses quickly gained popularity. Homesteaders coming to Vermont were faced with clearing forested land and pulling rocks from the soil. “They liked it’s size, it was very muscular and was an easy keeper. “said Mincher, explaining that at that time, a person was assumed to be well to do if they owned a pair of oxen, as the animals ate so much, they were expensive to keep. “The Morgan horse could do 80% of what Oxen could do, yet it was more economical as it did not each as much, ” Minscher said. The versatility of the Morgan horse also meant it could be used for riding and driving. “In the 1820’s and 1830’s New England was very religious and community work was important. People typically had three evening meetings a week. They needed a horse that could do that as well.” Mincher said.
Morgan horses also served during war time. Among the most famous of the war time horses was Rienzi, a Morgan ridden by General Philip Sheridan during the Civil War. On September 19,1864, General Philip Sheridan and his company of men woke up late and raced toward the Battle of Cedar Creek. When Sheridan arrived atop Rienzi, the general was able to rally retreating troops back to battle, thus winning the battle for the Union. After the war Rienzi was ridden in many parades. When the horse passed away, he was taxidermied and is on display at the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington, D.C . In the Battle of Cedar Creek Room at The Vermont State House a mural of the battle, including a depiction of Sheridan on Reinzi, is painted on the wall.
The Morgan Horse has also received official statewide recognition in both Vermont and Massachusetts. These designations came about in the 1970’s, when according to Mincher, there was a petition to make the Morgan Horse the official Massachusetts Animal, something which Vermont also wanted to do. However in Massachusetts the Morgan had a competitior, as many people thought the Cod should be the official State Animal. Eventually the Morgan found an official title in both states, with Vermont naming the Morgan the official State Animal and Massachusetts naming the Morgan the official State Horse.
Currently there is no Morgan Horse museum for the public to visit but, according to Minscher, the association is in talks with the Eastern States Exhibition in Springfield, who would like to erect a building to house the museum artifacts permanently. Minscher is also working toward digitizing the historical collection on line. Those interested in Morgan Horse history can visit morganhorse.com/museum
Know of a postcard that portrays a piece of new England History?Send it to Carla Charter, 125 Willis Rd. Phillipston, Ma. to be considered for a future blog post.