Rhode Island

The Narragansett Pacer – the Lost Horse of the New England Colonies

narragansett pacer

It’s not exactly clear when the first horse officially called a Narragansett Pacer appeared in Rhode Island, though it was likely in the late 1600s and its emergence marked the first true American breed of horse.

In 1672, John Hull – the Massachusetts mintmaster who had properties in Narragansett and Cape Cod – wrote his partners with a proposal. If they fenced in part of their land and imported some particularly fine horses from Europe they might well produce a horse bred specifically for New England.

narragansett pacer

Race Horse and Trainer (unknown artist, National Gallery of Art)

The region had few streets and riders needed  horses different than English horses.

The most prized English horses were bred for speed in flat racing. And work horses had lanes in which to work. Neither breed could master New England's wilderness.

Within a couple of decades, Hull’s vision would become reality.

Narragansett Pacer

From the earliest days of New England’s settlement, horses had been important. They were brought from Europe on the earliest ships, coming from Britain, Spain and the Netherlands.

Over time, however, breeders in Rhode Island took a more active role in promoting the horse perfect for the new colonies: The Narragansett Pacer. Unlike a racehorse bred to produce quick, bursting speed over a flat course, it was a relatively small horse, but bred and trained to move swiftly over rough terrain with tremendous endurance. As a pacer, it had a somewhat awkward high step,  but it did not sway from side to side and could carry a man 50 miles or more in a day.

The British politician Edmund Burke wrote an Account of the European Settlement in America in 1857 that noted the emerging breeds of horses in New England:

They have, besides, a breed of small horses which are extremely hardy. They pace naturally, though in no very graceful or easy manner; but with such swiftness, and for so long a continuance, as must appear almost incredible to those who have not experienced it.

As a member of Parliament, Burke tried to convince his colleagues to avoid war with America. Instead, he wanted to grant the colonies the right to establish their own parliament and courts, while remaining under the umbrella of the British Empire. His efforts in this regard failed, but the word of the Narragansett Pacer spread.

By the early 1770s, horses were among the top 10 colonial exports. Shipments of horses regularly left New England for the southern colonies and the Caribbean.

The Narragansett Pacer soon became the gold standard of horses in the colonies. George Washington owned a pair, which he highly valued. Paul Revere was said to have ridden a Narragansett Pacer on his famous midnight ride, though proof is scant.

It is known that Narragansett Pacers, 'of extraordinary fleetness, and astonishing endurance' were ridden by governmental post riders during the American Revolution.  They were hitched outside the house and War Office of Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull in Lebanon, 'ready, on any emergency of danger, to fly with advices, in any desired direction, on the wings of the wind.'

On the beaches of Narragansett the pacers were raced. While Puritan Massachusetts frowned on sporting events such as racing, the more liberal Rhode Island allowed it. The horses also raced in Virginia.

Though they were highly popular for more than 200 years, the Narragansett Pacer is extinct today. Historians of horses do not really know why. It’s possible that they simply dwindled away due to changing times.

As American roads improved in quality and coaches became more widely used, the pacer’s gait and size would become less desirable. Meanwhile, the horse would only get more attractive in the Caribbean for work on plantations and on the rough island roads – leading some to suspect the breeders simply shipped away the last of the Narragansett Pacer over time.

Hat tip to: Historic Rhode Island Farms by Robert A. Geake. This story was updated in 2017.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Roger Bartlett

    Roger Bartlett

    May 11, 2016 at 8:11 am

    how about article about the morgan

  2. Charlotte Carrington-Farmer

    Charlotte Carrington-Farmer

    May 11, 2016 at 9:11 am

    I just gave two talks on the Narragansett Pacer (one at Brown’s Center for Slavery and Justice and the other at Newport Historical Society.) The talks were part of a book chapter on the Narragansett Pacer that will come out with the University of Chicago Press later this year. Part of the chapter explores why the breed disappeared. My research has also shown that Revere did not ride a Pacer during his legendary “midnight ride,” contrary to popular myth. Here is the write up from my talk at NHS. http://www.newportri.com/newportdailynews/news/local_state/ocean-state-was-big-player-in-th-century-horse-trade/article_3df2ab0c-6f65-5339-8b91-10085eb41c22.html I’m also giving a talk about the Pacer on 26th May at Smith’s Castle. Please feel free to email me ccarrington-farmer@rwu.edu if you would like more information on the Pacer. Best wishes, Charlotte Carrington-Famer.

    • New England Historical Society

      New England Historical Society

      May 11, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      Thanks for this good information! We’ll include your talk in our weekly ezine.

    • Karen Vincent

      March 2, 2018 at 1:30 am

      I have become fascinated with the Narragansett Pacer after reading an article in an old Western Horseman magazine from the ’70s. I would love to have any information you can provide!

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