Today there are two well-known breeds of woolly, or curly-coated, horse: the American Curly Horse which has a rexed coat, and the unrelated Bashkir Horse which can also have a curled coat. The American Curly horse was first reliably documented in Eureka, Nevada in the early 20th century among wild mustangs and captured in 1932. The coat varies from slightly waved to extremely curled. The Bashkir Horse was been known since at least the 19th century. Information on these can be foud online.
1888: THE KENTUCKY WOOLLY HORSE.
Mr. Dorsey Whittaker, of Muhlenberg county, was in the city yesterday, and showed the MESSENGER a picture of a woolly horse of which he is the proud possessor. The horse was sired by a gray stallion and foaled by a gray mare, but is as black as tar and as wool as nappy as a negro's head all over his body. His tail has nothing on it but a few hairs at the end, and his mane is as short as if recently closely shorn. The horse is well formed and otherwise a perfect animal.
1891: THE BOSTON WOOLLY HORSE
This is from the Boston Globe, 1st February 1891:
"CURIOS IN LONG ARRAY. Austin & Stone Offer Another Great Line of Features. The series of wonderful attractions that have kept Austin & Stone's Museum overcrowded thus far since the season opened will be followed up next week with an exhibition hall and theatre combination bill . . . The most remarkable freak of nature recently brough to the notice of the enterprising managers, Messrs. Stone & Shaw, will be presented here for the first time tomorrow. It is a genuine woolly horse. His coat is not hair, but is crinkly wool, and admits of being shorn, spun and woven into fabric as is the wool of the sheep. This is pronounced a most remarkable animal, as in every other respect it must be classed with the horse."
1848: BARNUM'S WOOLLY HORSE – THE ONE THAT BECAME A LEGEND
This woolly horse was a genuine freak of nature, purchased in 1848 by P.T. Barnum, while he was in Cincinnati exhibiting General Tom Thumb. It was probably a mutation similar to the American Curly Horse or the Bashkir Horse – however those 2 breeds have thick manes and tails, while Barnum's Woolly Horse had a curly coat, but had not mane or tail. Barnum hyped his curly horse by linking it to John C. Fremont who had famously just returned from an expedition across the Rocky Mountains into the largely unexplored west at the time. Barnum falsely claimed that Fremont's party had discovered the woolly-haired horse on one of the peaks of the Rockies, and that it was a new, unique American species.
The following are accounts of Barnum's genuine curly-coated horse with its fake back-story. In the accounts written by Barnum he tends to down-play the negative aspects of his ventures.
From "The Life of P. T. Barnum," Written by Himself, 1855, he wrote: "THE WOOLLY HORSE. – In the summer of 1848, while in Cincinnati with General Tom Thumb, my attention was arrested by handbills announcing the exhibition of a 'woolly horse.' Being always on the qui vive for everything curious with which to amuse or astonish the public, I visited the exhibition, and found the animal to be a veritable curiosity. It was a well-formed horse of rather small size, without any manner or the slightest portion of hair upon his tail. The entire body and limbs were covered with a thick fine hair or wool curling tight to his skin. He was foaled in Indiana, was a mere freak of nature, and withal a very curious looking animal. I purchased him and sent him to Bridgeport, Ct., where he was placed quietly away in a retired barn, until such times as might have use for him.
The occasion at last occurred. Col. Fremont was lost among the trackless snows of the Rocky Mountains. The public mind was excited. Serious apprehensions existed that the intrepid solider and engineer had fallen a victim to the rigors of a severe winter. At last the mail brought intelligences of his safety. The public heart beat quick with joy. I now saw a chance for the 'woolly horse.' He was carefully covered with blankets and leggings, so that nothing could be seen accepting his eyes and hoofs, conveyed to New-York, and deposited in a rear stable, where no eye of curiosity could reach him.
The next mail was said to have brought intelligence that Col. Fremont and his hardy band of warriors had, after a three days' chase, succeeded in capturing, near the river Gila, a most extraordinary nondescript, which somewhat resembled a horse, but which had no mane nor tail, and was covered with a thick coat of wool. The account further added that the Colonel had sent this wonderful animal as a present to the U.S. Quartermaster. Two days after this announcement, the following advertisement appeared in the New-York papers:
'COL. FREMONT'S NONDESCRIPT OR WOOLLY HORSE will be exhibited for a few days at the corner of Broadway and Reade street, previous to his departure for London. Nature seems to have exerted all her ingenuity in the production of this astounding animal. He is extremely complex – made up of the Elephant, Deer, Horse, Buffalo, Camel, and Sheep. It is the full size of a Horse, has the haunches of the Deer, the tail of the Elephant, a fine curled wool of camel's hair color, and easily bounds twelve or fifteen feet high. Naturalists and the oldest trappers assured Col. Fremont that it was never known previous to his discovery. It is undoubtedly 'Nature's last,' and the richest specimen received from California. To be seen every day this week. Admittance 25 cents; children half price.'
The building where he was exhibited, exactly opposite Stuart's immense dry-goods store, was mounted by several large transparencies representing the 'Nondescript' in full flight, pursued by the brave Fremont and his hardy handful of soldiers. The streets were also lined with handbills and posters, illustrating in wood-cuts the same thrilling event. On the next page is a facsimile of the picture. It was drawn by my favorite artist, T.W. STRONG. He is a regular original, as his popular 'Yankee Notion' abundantly proves. If the nondescript had made the fearful leap here represented, he would have jumped not less than five miles and if he was alive when he struck on the other side of the valley, I imagine that even the speed of the gallant Fremont's horses would have been inadequate to his capture. But the public appetite was craving something tangible for Col. Fremont. The community was absolutely famishing. They were ravenous. They could have swallowed anything, and like a good genius, I threw them, not a 'bone,' but a regular tit-bit, a bon-bon - and they swallowed it in a single gulp!
My agent tried 'Old Wooly' in several of the provincial towns with tolerable success, and finally he was taken to Washington city, to see if the wool could be pulled over the eyes of politicians. It was successfully done for several days, when Col. Benton, ever regardful of the reputation of his son-in-law, caused my agent to be arrested on a grand-jury complaint for obtaining from him twenty-five cents under false pretences, and the Senator from Missouri testified, that having no mention of this horse in any of the numerous letters received from his son-in-law, he was sure Col. Fremont never saw the animal.
Such testimony could not prove a negative. The complaint was ruled out, and 'Old Woolly' came off victorious. The excitement which Col. Benton unconsciously produced added materially to the receipts for the succeeding few days. But, always entertaining the greatest respect for 'Old Bullion,' and out of regard to his feelings, I ordered the horse back to Bridgeport, where in due time he gave his last kick. For some time, however, he was turned loose in a field lying on the public road, where occasional New-York patrons recognized their wooly friend in his retirement.
In his later autobiography, Barnum wrote: "With the same object - that is, advertising my Museum, - I purchased, for $500, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a 'Woolly Horse' I found on exhibition in that city. It was a well formed, small sized horse, with no mane, and not a particle of hair on his tail, while his entire body and legs were covered with thick, fine hair or wool, which curled tight to his skin. This horse was foaled in Indiana, and was a remarkable freak of nature, and certainly a very curious looking animal. I had not the remotest idea, when I bought this horse, what I should do with him; but when the news came that Colonel John C. Fremont (who was supposed to have been lost in the snows of the Rocky Mountains) was in safety, the 'Woolly Horse' was exhibited in New York, and was widely advertised as a most remarkable animal that had been captured by the great explorer's party in the passes of the Rocky Mountains. The exhibition met with only moderate success in New York, and in several Northern provincial towns, and the show would have fallen flat in Washington, had it not been for the over-zeal of Colonel Thomas H. Benton, then a United States Senator from Missouri. He went to the show, and then caused the arrest of my agent for obtaining twenty-five cents from him under 'false pretences.' No mention had been made of this curious animal in any letter he had received from his son-in-law, Colonel John C. Fremont, and therefore the Woolly Horse had not been captured by any of Fremont's party. The reasoning was hardly as sound as were most of the arguments of 'Old Bullion,' and the case was dismissed. After a few days of merriment, public curiosity no longer turned in that direction, and the old horse was permitted to retire to private life. My object in the exhibition, however, was fully attained. When it was generally known that the proprietor of the American Museum was also the owner of the famous 'Woolly Horse,' it caused yet more talk about me and my establishment, and visitors began to say that they would give more to see the proprietor of the Museum than to view the entire collection of curiosities. As for my ruse in advertising the 'Woolly Horse' as having been captured by Fremont's exploring party, of course the announcement neither added to nor took from the interest of the exhibition; but it arrested public attention, and it was the only feature of the show that I now care to forget."
According to the New York Daily Herald, 8th March 1867: 'we publish to-day, from the autobiography of 'P. T. Barnum, the worthy nephew of his uncle, 'Old Phin,' his statement concerning his adventures with that aforesaid woolly horse. Barnum, however, who does not stick at trifles, is too modest in this case. He says that after Colonel Benton failed in court to convict the woolly horse exhibitor as an impostor, obtaining money on false pretences, the poor beast, out of respect for the feelings of Colonel Benton, was withdrawn from Washington, after a profitable run of some days, in consequence of the sensation raised by this prosecution. We understand, however, from a person who was in Washington at the time, and who was taken in to see the woolly horse by Colonel Benton, in view of this prosecution, that the showman was let off, as deponent remembers it, on the condition that his woolly horse was to be shown no more in Washington; that the defendant accordingly shut up shop, and, to make both ends meet, got up a lecture against Benton, at which the chop-fallen showman afforded some amusement to the boys present in such calls as, 'Where's your 'nondescript?' 'Go on, Old Woolly!' 'Half 'horse, half alligator, and rans like a wooden clock!' 'Who shaved his tail?' and in other remarks in the same vein, interjected from the audience into the lecture. It was morally certain that had Barnum kept 'Old Woolly' a few weeks longer anywhere on the stage, as Colonel Fremont's nondescript, the showman, under a prosecution from Fremont himself (then in California), would have ended his woolly horse campaign behind an iron grating. It was, then, not 'respect for the feelings of Colonel Benton,' but respect for the Tombs, that turned the woolly horse out to grass. . . . The difficulty of proving a negative, which was the making of Barnum, failed him in his woolly horse. "
However, the association between Fremont and the woolly horse had entered the public imagination (Fremont was later nicknamed "woolly horse") as this article from the Vancouver Independent, Washington, 29th June 1882 shows; for it is now said that Fremont actually rode the woolly horse into California!
"Fremont'a Woolly Horse. C. V. Putnam of this city has a long- haired horse which is said to be the famous ''woolly horse' on which General Fremont rode into California in 1847, The horse came into the possession of its prevent owner two years ago. It was brought here from Colusa, and had been owned in San Francisco. That is all that Mr. Putnam knows of its antecedents, but it is asserted that the animal has been recognized by California pioneers as the original Fremont's 'woolly horse.' This would make his age at least thirty- eight years, as it must have been at least three years old when it crossed the plains. Its age is undoubtedly very great, as indicated by its teeth. The incisors are about three inches long out of the gum, and the upper and lower teeth meet at an angle about like this >>. In spite of its advanced age the animal enjoys good health and is in good flesh and spirits. It may be seen working nearly every day before Mr. Putnam's dray. The horse's appearance is remarkable, aside from historical associations and great age. In structure it is one of the most pronounced examples of a 'hollow-backed,' 'saddle-backed,' or 'sway- backed' horse ever seen. The top of its withers is at least six inches higher than the hollow in its back. For three months in the year, during the summer, this horse's body is covered by a coat of hair little different from that on other horses. But for the remainder of the year it bas that wooly look which made it remarkable in Fremont's day. Its hair is then no less than three inches long, and is as shaggy as a buffalo's. The mane of the animal is a wonder. It does not grow from the back of the neck any more than it does from the front and sides of the neck, but starts out in all directions, like a lion's. This peculiar mane has the same appearance, Winter and Summer. There is one tuft of hair under the animal's chin, a sort of beard, which appears to be a permanent growth. The animal has shed no hair from that spot since it came to Marysville. The horse's color is a dark sorrel, it weighs about a thousand pounds, and stands about fifteen hands high.
There is an account in The Daily Republican, 4th February 1884 (it appears in several papers at the time): The Woolly Horse. The Washington correspondent of the Cleveland Leader tells how Barnum came to exhibit the woolly horse, and how famous old Tom Benton skinned the animal. It was next door to Shillington's bookstore that Barnum exhibited his noted woolly horse many years ago. On my referring to Benton's action in connection with it, the old bookseller said, with a laugh: 'Yes, I remember it as though it were yesterday. Barnum, you know, was here in Washington some time before the event, and was looking with a friend at a little horse, which was going along the avenue. He said: 'I will bet you $500 that I can take that horse and make a pile of money out of him.' The friend laughed at the idea, and replied: 'Well, I will take the bet.' Soon after this there began to appear in the papers wonderful accounts of a wonderful horse captured by Fremont during his Western expedition. It was said the horse was covered with long wool, and that his like was not known cither by men or books. A short time later it was announced that Barnum, the great showman, had purchased this wonder, and that he would show him about the country, and, sure enough, soon Washington was flooded with bills saying the woolly horse was to be exhibited here. It came and was shown in a room just below this. A big sign, relating how it had been captured by Fremont, was plastered up outside and crowds came to see it. So it was when Tom Benton passed it on his way to the capitol. He was with some Congressman when the show bill caught his eye, and he remarked: 'I am going to put an end to this swindle' (Benton was, you know, Fremont's father-in-law), and the two started to go in. The ticket taker stopped them and asked them for their money. Benton handed him a quarter. He attempted to stop thein, still saying that was not enough, but Benton pushed him angrily aside, with: 'I have had enough of this foolishness,' and striding past him he went in and jumped over the rope which separated the woolly horse from its audience, and with a cut of his knife skinned half of his woolly cover off him, showing the same old bony, bay steed, with the ordinary fur on him common to horses, The affair was the talk of Washington for the next nine days. No: I don't know whether Barnum won his bet or not."
From the Daily Alta California, 28th July 1890:
"BARNUM'S WOOLLY HORSE. How Its Appearance in Washington Disgusted Old Bullion. The death of General Fremont calls to mind the famous Woolly Horse campaign, that being the designation applied to Fremont. Colonel Thomas H. Benton was in the height of his glory, serving his thirty years' term as United States Senator at Washington. He was the recognized leader of the Democratic party in Congress, possibly not a bigger man than old Jackson, but facile princeps in his party with that one exception. He was withal a portly, important-looking, loud-voiced person, with a full sense of his own dignity. He was also the father-in-law of General Fremont, then a young army Captain, building up a monument of fame as a path-finder in the Rocky -Mountains. Benton was exceedingly proud of this connection. In the course of his peregrinations, Barnum and his woolly steed arrived in Washington, and a commodious room was engaged near the Capitol. The front of the building was covered with wonderful transparencies, representing the perilous capture of the strange creature by Fremont, on the loftiest peak of the Rockies, the brass band began to play, and the exhibition opened. The martial sounds caught the ear of 'Old Bullion;' he looked up, saw the pictures and read the legend. His brow assumed its darkest frown. He stalked into the building disdainfully, hurling aside the ticket-taker. He looked at the woolly horse with withering contempt. Turning around, he cried out in a voice of thunder, 'Where's the man that owns that thing?' The proprietor approached, with his most obsequious smile. 'Do you mean to tell me,' roared Old Bullion, in his most stentorian tones, 'that that infernal, spavined, broken-winded old mule was sent here from Pike's Peak by Captain Fremont!' 'Certainly, sir,' was the reply; 'here's a certificate to prove it.' This was too much. ' Look here, my man,' said the Colonel, shaking his heavy hickory stick in the poor man's face, 'if you and your swindling exhibition don't get out of Washington before sundown I'll have that beast in the pound and you in the penitentiary.' And as he marched out he smashed in one or two of the most objectionable pictures with his stick. The exhibition closed immediately, but it is only fair to say that Barnum of late years pretends to deny that he was the exhibitor when the show opened in Washington."
The Windham Reformer, Brattlesboro, Vermont, 24th April 1891, contained the supposed real origins of Barnum's woolly horse (which differ from other accounts):
"The Hinsdale correspondent of the Sunday Republican digs up an interesting bit of local history there:
The death of the great showman, Barnum, recalls the story of the woolly horse he secured in New Hampshire. Many years ago he advertised among his attractions a 'woolly horse' which he claimed was captured by Gen. Fremont and his followers among the peaks of the Rocky mountains and was called 'Fremont's nondescript.' This prodigy was extensively advertised and proved a great card. This woolly horse was born and bred in Chesterfield, N H, and was owned by a man by the name of Goodrich. John Stearns, who dealt largely in horses, heard of this freak of nature and succeeded in buying him tor $30 and kept him on his stock farm one winter, and the woolly horse was frequently driven to and from the village by his son, Dr. Frank Stearns, The horse had really a coat of woo! in place of hair and possessed about as much animation as the average sheep. In some way Barnum heard of this curiosity and sent an agent to buy him, and the trade was closed for $100 in cash, and 'Uncle John' used to say 'that it was the best small horse trade he ever made.' It was in the bargain that 'Uncle John'' should keep the horse a fortnight before shipping him to New York, and in the meantime the city was flooded with posters announcing his capture in the Rocky mountains and his forthcoming arrival by the next steamer from California. At the proper time he made his debut in Barnum's and drew great crowds."
The El Paso Herald, 27th May 1958 ran an article on the woolly horse humbug. The details of its origin differ from the claims of the Windham Reformer article.
"Phineas T. Barnum's woolly horse must be turning in its grave . . . the 'woolly horse,'[was] one of Barnum's earliest circus exhibits and one of the zaniest frauds in American history. The story began in 1848 in Cincinnati, where Barnum . . . came upon this animal, exhibited on a side street and practically unadvertised. It was an ordinary barn horse, from Indiana, remarkable for its coat of hair . . . Barnum had his usual hunch. He bought the animal for about $500. Within two years it was to earn him $100,000. As with many Barnum triumphs, the secret was timing. He hid the woolly horse in a shed on his farm in Bridgeport, Conn., and waited for a break. It came in February, 1849, when the noted explorer, Col. John Fremont, got himself lost in the Rocky Mountains, later escaped from the snow and got to California.
Barnum secretly shipped the horse to an obscure livery stable in New York City, swathed in blankets to hide his woolly pelt. Then Barnum began writing anonymous notes to newspapers. 'The mail was said to have brought intelligence that Colonel Fremont had, after three days' chase, succeeded in capturing near the river Gila a most extraordinary nondescript,' Barnum recalled later. 'This somewhat resembled a horse but was covered with a thick fur or wool.' Later stories indicated the strange beast was on his way East by train, though Fremont himself remained cut off in California by trackless snows. The story began to spread that this creature had in fact saved the Colonel's life, leading him through an unsuspected path to safety. 'Public curiosity was positively famishing,' Barnum gloated 20 years later when he finally admitted the hoax, 'They would have swallowed anything, and like a good genius I threw them a tid-bit.'
Handbills soberly heralded the animal as 'made up of the elephant (tail), deer (haunches), a fine curled wool of camel's hair colour, and easily bounds 15 feet high.' When the 'woolly horse' finally was exhibited in New York it drew more fans than a cross between Silky Sullivan and an Abominable Snowman. In Washington, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri Democrat, delighted Barnum by suing him for fraud, on the grounds that Fremont, who was Benton's son-in-law, had written him nothing about any horse, woolly or otherwise. Barnum cashed in on the publicity, then actually won the court case on grounds that Benton couldn't prove it wasn't Fremont's horse. Later, crowds in most major cities cheered the horse, though even Barnum didn't dare show it in Cincinnati. When Fremont finally came back within complaining range, Barnum quietly retired the freak to stud in Bridgeport, where it grazed with his private herd of buffalo."
Barnum's horse seems to have had the last laugh because Fremont was called a "Woolly Horse" in the Confederate song "Richmond is a hard Road to Travel." And in "Sam. Houston and the People" are the lines "For I saw Old Brown on a new Wooly Horse, / And I thought that Barnum was a-coming."