At the Beginning (Part I)

By Charles C. Craver III
of Craver Farms,
Hillview, Illinois
used by permission of Charles Craver
The Arabian Horse News May, 1974

The ultimate achievement for an Arabian breeder in the successful importation of breeding stock from Arabia. Nothing else comes up to it: numbers bred, champions shown, importations form other sources, books written—none of these together can compare with having made the importation directly from the desert. In modern times, the number of breeders who have had the distinction of making such importations is extremely small. Probably the really successful ones can be numbered on the fingers of one’s hands, if not on the fingers of a single hand.

When Homer Davenport returned from Arabia in 1906 with his importation of Arabian horses, he could not have been unaware that he was one of those few people who had done the big thing, that by going directly to the Bedouin tribes of the desert to obtain horses he had acted in the tradition of Abbas Pasha, Upton, and the Blunts. He arrived in America with the recollection fresh that the Bedouins themselves had told him that the horses he was bringing were the only horses within their memories of authenticated pedigree which had left the desert. Their lives were short, and their memories did not cover a long span of years, but it was still a statement of significance: an indication that what he had obtained was more than just a boatload of horses.

So, as he arrived in America, he had reason to be satisfied with himself and to be proud of his achievement. Probably he anticipated its acclaim by other Arabian breeders. Probably he expected to enjoy a certain amount of public glory and then to settle down to years of enjoyment in making use of the unique breeding stock which had been obtained.

As a matter of fact, things did not work out that way.

To understand why, one has to consider something of the background of Arabian breeding in America at that time. It had gotten off to a surprisingly good start. Even before the Davenport importation, there were something over eighty Arabian horses here which were subsequently registered by the Arabian Horse Club. They represented the efforts of dedicated breeders and importers who had no doubt each paid dearly to be patrons of the new breed of horses in this country. The horses had come form various sources: some from the Hamidie Society, some from Russia and Turkey, some from English breeders—most notably Miss Dillon and Lady Anne Blunt. There were a number of active, established stud farms. Four that were particularly noteworthy were those of Spencer Borden, Randolph Huntington, J.A.P. Ramsdell, and Peter Bradley.

Davenport, too, was one of the established breeders of Arabian horses, but, prior to his importation of 1906, perhaps he had not been considered by the other breeders to be a major factor. However, he did own Arabian horses and had been active with the breed for a considerable period of time. Prior to his departure for the desert, he had taken it upon himself to write an article for Country Life in America titled “The Arabian Horse—Its Present Place and Mission.” This article was published while he was abroad. It reviewed some of the romantic tales of Arabian horse lore which all of us would like to believe whether they are true or not, and in addition, it discussed the breeders of Arabian horses then active on the American scene. Concerning the Randolf Huntington breeding program, Davenport’s comments were of the sort that would bruise every nerve in a breeder’s sensibilities:[1]

“Mr. Randolph Huntington, of Oyster Bay, has been less fortunate: [than J.A.P.Ramsdell] “—possibly through too great effort to follow Arab methods, or rather a misunderstanding of Arab methods…. Mr. Huntington’s foundation stock came from Arabia by way of England, and was supplemented by the blood of the Grant stallions, yet by breeding too close he has lost the Arab type.”

It was not a polite thing to write about anybody’s horses, and subsequently Davenport would hear about it.

The arrival of the Davenport importation in the United States was reported in the New York Times issue of October 8, 1906. The reporter made an interesting story of a number of the details of the importation, and it was obvious that a bit of the romance of the desert had arrived in America.

Even in those days, the world was a pretty small place as far as transmission of news was concerned. Within two weeks, a remount official from this side of the Atlantic had called at Crabbet and mentioned that Homer Davenport had “been in Arabia and brought back equine treasures.”[2] Upon learning of this, Lady Anne Blunt wrote to her best American customer of the time, Spencer Borden, expressing doubts about the Davenport importation:

“These may be treasures but the bringer of them can hardly have been in Arabia, as that peninsula has been inaccessible of late for any sort of visitor or traveler—I am in constant communication with Bedouins coming from and going there and always hearing particulars of what is going on; the Bedouins themselves have great difficulty in getting about. If you think of it when you are writing to me I would like to hear the Davenport story in an authentic form.”

Apparently within the next few days she read a news account of the importation. She again wrote to Borden:[3]

“I… cannot help writing to say I saw with a mixture of amusement and annoyance the tone of the announcement of the 27 head of the best Arabian horses and mares that ever were seen now being imported to America by Homer Davenport. What is ‘bad form’ is the assumption that nothing good has ever gone out of Arabia before, and it is not true; … Some or all of the 27 head of horses may be good but the number seems considerable to have collected in so short a time (even at Aleppo and with the kind help of the Sultan and the American Government) when one remembers how the Austrian Govt in a longer time only got half a dozen good enough to export, and how difficult it was in 1878 and 1881 when we were there, actually in the desert, to find really first rate specimens. I shall be much interested in hearing what these are like, so please write and tell me about them.”

Lady Anne Blunt’s doubts about the importation were reasonable. On their surface, to her the preliminary public reports must have seemed improbable. They told of a man of no particular background in either horses or travel who had gone to Arabia and in a matter of weeks had come away with a large number of choice horses from the most inaccessible tribes, accomplishing more with almost no effort that other experienced importers had been able to do after long expeditions.

These doubts were fully matched by the doubts of some of the already established American breeders. Accordingly, the New York Times of November 16, 1906, contained a letter from Robert V.V. Sewell, president of the Huntington Arabian Stud. It will be recalled that this was the breeding operation which Davenport’s article earlier in the year had not treated in a kindly fashion. The Sewell letter was headlined, “Lady Anne Blunt Doubts Homer Davenport.” The text of the letter, in part, was as follows:[4]

“So much has been said in the press of late in regard to Arabian horses in general and an alleged importation of Arabian horses by Homer Davenport, that the writer has been requested by some of the breeders of Arabian horses in America to endeavor to clear the atmosphere in regard to the subject in general and Mr. Davenport’s importation in particular.

“Mr. Davenport’s methods of discussion of the question of Arabian horses, especially those belonging to his rivals, is regarded by them as not only of dubious taste, but calculated to injure the cause to which they are devoting their efforts….

“To Arabia, then, on July 5 last, with a great blare of trumpets departed Mr. Homer Davenport, bent upon pursuing the wily child of the desert to his native fastnesses and depriving him of his well known ‘steed’, immortal both in song and story.

“The intrepid cartoonist was forced to leave to others the care of his invaluable collection of ducks, drakes, and long haired goats… and as he bade an affectionate farewell to the gentlemen who were backing his enterprise he assured them that he would bring back ‘the goods’ or never again return.

“It was safe to say that Mr. Davenport would bring back horses, which he certainly did, to the number of twenty-seven. This marvelous success in getting what he went for when others failed has met with the chorus of praise which such a feat deserves. Besides an accomplishment like this, the production of a rabbit from a stovepipe hat in which no rabbit was pales in insignificance.

“It is unnecessary to add that the confiding syndicate, as well as the public, were regaled with tales of the sort proper to tell in regard to ‘Arab steeds,’ among which a modern version of ‘take back thy gold’ fiction figured, as it of course should.”

After this in the way of a foreword, Sewell presented fairly drawn extracts from the letters from Lady Anne Blunt to Spencer Borden, which apparently had been furnished to him by Borden. He concluded with “However, the horses are alive and at Morris Plains. They are real horses, and we have Mr. Davenport’s unsustained word that they are real Arabians. It is, therefore, our duty in accepting his word to congratulate him.[4]

It must be an established tradition of newspaper reporters never to let a good quarrel die. The day after the publication of the Sewell letter, an interview with Homer Davenport was reported:[5]

“Homer Davenport, cartoonist, and collector of Arabian horses, is to say the least, annoyed. That Lady Anne Blunt, another Arabian horse enthusiast, should even hint that he had not been to Arabia, hurts him. That Robert V.V. Sewell should question the genuineness of his horses’ pedigrees angers him. That anyone should inquire ‘Who and what is he?’ causes him to wonder.

” ‘Arab, Arab, who’s got the Arab’ is apparently the latest game in polite horse breeding circles. Mr. Davenport asserted yesterday that he had several Arabs, twenty-seven to be exact, and that all but one of them were the finest ever. He said, furthermore, that he had been to Arabia, and he produced photographs to prove both facts. In addition, his statements were corroborated by Arthur Moore of the firm of Manning, Maxwell & Moore, who made the trip to the land of wonderful horses with the artist and saw the particular animals in question purchased.

“Mr. Davenport was not in a particularly calm frame of mind when a Times reporter interviewed him yesterday. He had read Mr. Sewell’s letter quoting Lady Anne Blunt, and had been discussing it with friends. Kodak pictures were scattered all over his latest cartoon, and there was a large bagful of documents in support of his contentions on his desk. He had come from his home in Morris Plains prepared for the enemy, and was hurling broadsides indiscriminately and with vehemence…

” ‘I didn’t know that it was necessary to get the consent of the Blunts and Sewell and Col. Spencer Borden to go to Arabia. I thought that the President’s aid and the Sultan’s aid would do. And so I went there and I got horses, and twenty-six out of the twenty-seven horses I got are ‘chubby.’ That means that they are horses which the Anaza tribes would breed. This whole thing just shows the smallness of human nature. Now, here is a picture of one of the horses Sewell bought from Huntington. Look at it!’

“The picture was a half-tone of a very ordinary looking animal.

” ‘You see the tail: how it hangs straight down. Well, just after this was published, Sewell asked me about my horses’ tails; whether they always stood out from the hocks. I told him “yes.” Now look at this picture’ – another half-tone. ‘Same horse, same stone near the hind hoof. But the picture has been retouched to make the tail stand out. That’s the way Mr. Sewell gets real Arab horses.”.

“Mr. Davenport, greatly excited, showed several photographs of his own animals. As far as appearance went, they were unmistakably the real thing, beautiful pictures of beautiful animals. In one picture a Bedouin was riding one of the stallions of the Davenport stud….

” ‘That’s a slave—a Bedouin slave who can’t speak a word of English. He was given to me, and he’s out on my place in Morris Plains now. Never been in Arabia! (disgustedly)

” ‘How about your going only to Aleppo, a coast town?’ Mr. Davenport was asked.

” ‘Tisn’t a coast town,’ replied Mr. Davenport. ‘It is 160 miles inland from Iskenderoon. Any map will show that. We went there first, and then we traveled on down the Euphrates. We were bound for a place called Deyr. They told us we could get horses there, but we found plenty of horses before we got there….

” ‘It’s just this. We went in there in the Summer time, when everybody else went in Winter. In the summer the Arabs pasture their horses at the northern end of the desert. That’s why we found it so easy to get in and to buy horses. I suppose when Lady Anne speaks of it being dangerous she really means the peninsula, the southern part: what they call the Nejd. There always is a lot of trouble down there, fighting and all that. We didn’t go there. We didn’t have to.

” ‘And say! Arthur Moore and Thompson and I asked nearly every Bedouin we met and, do you know, we didn’t find a single one who even knew the Blunts. It’s thirty years since they were there, and, as Lady Anne says in her book, the people there are short-lived. I didn’t know they had put up a gate on the place and a sign: “You mustn’t go in here; it belongs to us” ‘ ….

…” In answer to the statement that the Austrian Government had found it hard to get a half dozen good animals in a longer time, he said that a representative of the German Government had been there two years previously and secured twelve stallions, while an Italian official had left the country only six weeks before Mr. Davenport’s arrival with seven stallions.

” ‘ “Hashem” (Bey) told me that out of about 6,000 horses about 600 belonging to the Anaza tribes were chubby. The Bedouins will not breed horses unless they know their pedigrees. When horses were taken in warfare, the captor did not know the pedigree of the animal, and would not breed it. Now, by arrangement, the defeated horses owner turns over to the man who has captured his horse a certificate showing the pedigree; exactly such a document as I have for each of my horses. Horses that the tribesmen know enough of and think enough of to breed are called chubby, and all but one of the horses I brought back are chubby. ‘

On November 25th another interview with Davenport was reported in the Times which contained further information about Arabian horses in Arabia:[6]

“We found many mares that we could not buy, as they did not allow all their female blood to pass out of the hands of the Anazeh tribe, but in all of those instances we bought horse colts from such mares. To get war mares you must go among the warring tribes of the desert, not on the piers of Beyruit, and during our visit with the Anazeh, which is the most warlike Bedouin tribe now in existence, living entirely from raids and robberies, I bought mares, one of which bore the scars of war. It was much prized as the war mare of the present ruler.”

In the days of old, when one gentleman said that another gentleman’s horses were no good and the second gentleman responded with the accusation that the first gentleman was a fake and a liar, there would have been ample grounds for a duel, and the matter could have been settled in a final sense with pistols or swords. By 1906, the simplicity of this form of argument had gone out of style. Gentlemen turned to other ways of settling their disputes, but the idea of settlement by some form of contest was still current. Mr. Sewell was not at all satisfied with Davenport’s explanations. In any case, the treatment of the Huntington horses had been an insult. In a letter dated November 21st to the New York Times, he issued a challenge:[7]

“Mr. Davenport’s reply … on the subject of his importation of Syrian horses said to be Arabian, contains so many ‘glaring inaccuracies’ that I hesitate to ask you for space in which to reply in detail.

“After all, the real proof is in the quality and the presence of racial characteristics in the animals themselves, as the Arabian blood and the degree of its purity are apparent to the trained eye.

“…We would gladly enter into a competition with Mr. Davenport to show any pair of horses against any of his before a jury of three, one of whom shall be Mr. Osborne or a scientist of equal distinction, for a purse of $1,000, to be contributed by the contesting parties.

“If our horses are the feeble and degenerate lot that Mr. Davenport represents them to be, now is the time for him to prove the superiority of his own.”

Now that the Times had succeeded in promoting the feud between Davenport and Sewell from a slow burn to a beginning fire, a reporter was sent to Davenport with Sewell’s challenge to see what further heat could be generated. He responded nicely to give about a column of further copy on the subject:[7]

“When this challenge was submitted to Mr. Davenport by a Times reporter… he demurred at first, saying that such a contest as that suggested by Mr. Sewell would not really show what there was in an Arab horse.

” ‘If there is one thing claimed for the Arab horse it is intelligence,’ said the cartoonist. ‘I think any contest to be arranged should be comprehensive enough to give scope for the manifestation of this quality in the horses. I have a counter-challenge to submit to Mr. Sewell, which will fulfill that condition and be a real test. Such a contest as I propose would enable even a layman to determine whose horses are superior.”

“Mr. Davenport then submitted a programme for ten contests, with a prize of $1,000 for each, open not only to the horses of the Sewell stud, but to all horses of pure Arab blood. Here is the cartoonists’ programme for the $10,000 contests under his challenge:

  1. Trotting, five miles.
  2. Running, two miles.
  3. Exhibition of three-year-old horse or filly.
  4. Exhibition of aged stallion.
  5. Exhibition of brood mare and foal.
  6. Exhibition of yearling colt.
  7. Team of horses, driven by child.
  8. Horse or mare, to be ridden by child.
  9. Contest for the best type of Arab horse, to be traced to the Anezah tribe.
  10. A $1,000 prize to prove that I went to the Anezah tribe in the northern desert of Arabia, and bought horses whose pedigrees bear the seal of the greatest Bedouin living, according to the mark of his standing as a Sheik of the Anezah tribe.

“…After Mr. Davenport had issued this challenge he bethought himself further and said that to give Mr. Sewell every opportunity to compete he was willing to accept his (Sewell’s) challenge as well under the conditions named for his own challenge.…

” ‘It’s almost robbery to drag Sewell into this.’ chuckled the cartoonist. ‘The police really ought to be notified. We will be there with the goods… If he had known what was good for him, Sewell would never have brought this onto himself.’ And Mr. Davenport chuckled again.”

It was a great challenge and counter-challenge. If the proposed competition had come about, America would have had its first all-Arabian show right at the time of the establishment of the breed in this country. The program would have offered an interesting and comprehensive view of the Arabian horse. In many ways it would have paralleled our Arabian shows of today, with performance classes, racing, halter classes, and contests for junior exhibitors. Modern exhibition would have been paralleled in another respect because both men were trying to set up events to be judged in their own favor. By requiring that Professor Osborne be one of the judges, Sewell was insuring that one member of the panel of three would be favorable to his cause, thus making it necessary to win over only one of the other two. According to Walter Russell, a former president of Sewell’s Huntington stud, Professor Osborne had pronounced that stud’s premier sire “the finest Arab stallion in the world.[7]

Davenport was making an equivalent effort to pre-determine results. Because his own horses had just been imported from the Anazeh tribe, they would be the most logical contenders for category nine. In addition, he was the only person who could possibly win the prize for proving that he had been to the Anazeh tribe to buy horses.

Obviously, neither man intended to lose any substantial amount of money. Unfortunately, Davenport’s proposal did not really satisfy Sewell’s point, which was something that no show ring extravaganza could settle. Sewell’s reply was:[8]

“…We fear that as yet he” (Davenport) “does not quite understand the nature of our controversy. We do not doubt that Mr. Davenport’s importation of horses of Arabian blood, claimed to be pure Arabians, includes many excellent, well-trained, and useful animals; the whole question to us is one of the purity of their Arabian blood, or, as it is more scientifically termed, the ‘Libyan’ blood of these animals. [Sewell apparently followed the Ridgeway theory that the Arabian horse originated in North Africa. — ed]

“We do not admit that the horses brought by Mr. Davenport from Southern Asia Minor are of pure or the purest Libyan origin….

“It is in this spirit… that we challenge Mr. Davenport to an immediate competition and comparison to decide the relative purity of the blood of his horses and ours….

“…If he will meet us we will enter the lists against him with one living horse and the mounted skeleton of another (his sire).”

Davenport did not care more for Sewell’s proposal than Sewell did for his. Perhaps the prospect of furnishing a mounted skeleton was too much for him since his newly imported horses had not progressed to that point yet. Further contact followed between the two sides, and finally, Davenport commented that

Sewell has not seen my horses, and I think if he were more of a sportsman he would come down to Morris Plains and look them over before doing so much talking.[9]

Sewell appears to have taken this as an invitation. From Davenport’s account, the visit turned out surprisingly well:[10]

“We thought a Winter cyclone had suddenly struck the Morris Plains Arabian Stud when Mr. Robert V.V. Sewell hit our happy home on Sunday last, and we anticipated nothing less than a stampede of all the horses. After being assured that our lives were not in danger, we ventured to submit our stock for his inspection, and we surprised to hear him assert that they were in his opinion real Arabians. There may be hope for Sewell after all.

“For my part, I am free to admit that my intimation in a former interview in The Times that Mr. Sewell was so ignorant of the questions at issue that he did not know a horse’s tail from his withers, was an exaggeration due to the heat of the controversy, as a more intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sewell convinces me that his knowledge of equine anatomy is less superficial than I had at first supposed.”

  1. [1]Homer Davenport, “The Arabian Horse—Its Present Place and Mission,” in Country Life in America, Vol. X, No. 4, August 1906, p. 430.
  2. [2]Anne Blunt to Spencer Borden, October 24, 1906.
  3. [3]Anne Blunt to Spence Borden, November 1, 1906.
  4. [4]New York Times, November 16, 1906.
  5. [5]New York Times, November 22, 1906.
  6. [6]New York Times, November 25, 1906.
  7. [7]New York Times, November 22, 1906
  8. [8]New York Times, November 29, 1906.
  9. [9]New York Times, December 1, 1906.
  10. [10]New York Times, December 4, 1906.