Homer Davenport and His Wonderful Arabian Horses

Copyright by Charles C. Craver
Arabian Horse News August 1972
(used by permission of CCCraver)

We look back on American life at the turn of this century with nostalgia, thinking of “River City” and waltzing strawberry blondes. That was before world wars, International communism, or television. The breeding of Arabian horses started in America in that decade. An important element of that start was provided by one man’s lifetime adventure. It was not a great event. It stirred no history. But it was the sort of thing that each of us would like to do once. Having done it, maybe we would be remembered afterwards by a few.

Pal-Ara WildfireThe year of this adventure was 1906. The name of the man was Homer Davenport. He was 39 years of age. He had become a national figure as the best known political cartoonist of the day. In 1906, this was a much more prominent position than it is now because newspapers were small, and the political cartoon was a big part of the pictorial presentation in most issues. If you took the paper, you saw the cartoon.

Davenport had previously supported the Democratic party, but, during Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign for the presidency, he decided to switch sides. The two men had a friendly interview. Shortly after that, Davenport brought out a cartoon showing Uncle Sam standing behind Roosevelt with his hand on his shoulder saying “He’s good enough for me,” The cartoon was extensively used in the campaign. As a political man, Roosevelt had good reason to be grateful for a powerful stroke of publicity.

Whether this was a factor or not, there was a favor which Davenport wanted. It would cost the United States taxpayers no money, and someday it might benefit them. The favor was nothing less than that the President use the influence of his office to aid Davenport in the importation of Arabian horses from the Arabian desert, from which such exportations were then forbidden by the Turkish government. Arabian horses in 1906 were more creatures of fiction than fact. Almost no one had ever seen any. There were less than a hundred in the country. They were supposed to be wonderful animals but more in the realm of exotic creatures than mere horse flesh. The President was being invited to endorse a project that bordered on being “far out.”

It was not an unusual kind of project for Homer Davenport because this was a man who lived in a somewhat different dimension than most. He had the quick sense of humor that one would expect in a cartoonist, and this ran through his written work as well as his art. He was a vegetarian. He did not care to use coffee or tobacco. He enjoyed a good idea. He enjoyed people, too, and he seems to have had the gift of letting social occasions expand as far as they could. His friends from his home town in Silverton, Oregon, tell that on trips home from his more urban life is in the East, he would dress himself in formal calling clothes and then take a buggy ride through the countryside to call on old neighbors, which must have made quite an impression in the informal air of the Northwest.

Davenport had an unusual sense of the beauty and individuality of animals. One entire chapter in his book on the trip to Arabia is written most sympathetically — though with humor — about a dog that decided to come along, too. He had a collection of exotic birds which in 1906 contained over four hundred species. In addition to the birds, there were several kinds of dogs, angora goats, Persian sheep, Sicilian donkeys, and — even before the importation — a collection of Arabian horses numbering sixteen. (1)

He had first become interested in Arabian horses as a little boy when his father had told him tales about Bedouins on their wonderful horses. As he grew older, the interest was reinforced. Finally at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 he saw the exhibit of Arabians. They fascinated him, and on learning that the horses had been sold at auction after the Fair, he began inquiring as to where they had gone. Eventually, he found most of them in the possession of a wealthy horseman, Peter Bradley, of Hingham, Mass.

Fairfax KHIf the love of Arabian horses is a disease, and maybe it is, there is a typical pattern to it. After first exposure, there is usually an incubation period of varying lengths of time. Once the acute stage breaks out, the victim becomes very quickly and totally involved with the subject. It does not take long for the neophyte to develop as much of a stable as his pocketbook will support. In addition, he reads everything he can find about Arabian horses and gets to know all of them that are within possible travel distance.

One can safely assume that the malady followed its usual course with Davenport. On his first visit to see Mr. Bradley’s horses, he bought one of them. By 1904, he had gone so far as to import a stallion from England, *NEJDRAN, a handsome chestnut, and by 1906, prior to his trip to the desert, he tells us that practically all of the horses remaining from the Chicago World Fair were in his stable. (2) He may not have owned all of these because at some point he and Mr. Bradley seem to have struck up some form of partnership as regards Arabian horses, but at least he had them on his farm and was in a position to learn about Arabian horses from a first-hand study of desert-bred individuals.

In the thirteen years between the Chicago World Fair and his importation of 1906, Davenport had had other excellent opportunities to educate himself on the subject of Arabian horses. Arabian bloodlines in this country included imported individuals representing the bloodlines of England, Egypt and Russia in addition to animals coming directly from desert Arabia. In connection with his newspaper work, he had traveled in England, and it is not too much to assume that he was familiar with the activities and horses at Crabbet Park. Almost all of the original source material on which we draw at present concerning the breeding of asil horses in Arabia had already been published in his time, the main exception being the works of Carl Raswan.

A further advantage that Davenport enjoyed in becoming educated about Arabian horses was that he was spared some of the distractions that cloud our vision today. Most of the horses he knew were far closer to desert sources than our horses are. There had not been as much time for them to be shaped by non-Bedouin standards of excellence, and from his book it is obvious that he made the effort to learn and adopt these Bedouin standards. Today we are more apt to seek our standards in the show ring where there is variation according to what style of registered Arabian is in vogue as well as who happens to be acting as judge.

In all, Davenport had good opportunity to familiarize himself with the differing forms of excellence which the Arabian horse can embody. From his writings before and after the importation and from his drawings of horses, we can see that he recognized standards of excellence in the Arabian horse that are shared by the better breeders of today. This is as it should be because we have these standards in part because of the legacies in writing and Arabian horses which he left to us.

We do not know many of the details by which his trip to Arabia was arranged. The key one, of course, was that President Roosevelt’s help was successfully solicited. In requesting support for the expedition to Arabia, Davenport was not simply seeking gratification of a personal taste for the collection of exotic animals. No doubt he had such a taste, but he still articulated a very clear view of the useful place which he anticipated the Arabian horse would fill in the American economy. Shortly before his trip, he wrote:

“In this, the beginning of the horseless age, it seems idle to advocate horses of any sort; yet I must maintain that the Arabian horse has a distinct place awaiting him…. The place is the family stable, where by virtue of his size, strength, speed, sweet temper, docility and thriving habit he is especially qualified to be the friendly comrade and servant of women, little children and elderly people.” (3)

In the same article, he goes on to discuss the value of the Arabian for reinvigorating the thoroughbred horse.

The early Arabian breeders in this country felt that one of the important uses of their horses would be in producing breeding stock for cavalry remounts. Davenport and Bradley anticipated that the main sales would be for this purpose and for the production of polo horses. (4) Roosevelt’s backing of the proposed importation seems to have been based upon the condition that the imported horses be used in a U.S. Government cavalry stud which was projected. (5) At the time, it was still not recognized by many military men that the machine gun, barbed wire, and the gasoline motor had made cavalry obsolete. One would like to think, too, that the project appealed to the President because it had elements of adventure, romance, and hazard. Maybe he did not escape the feeling that the charge up San Juan Hill would have looked better if it had been lead by a man on a white Arabian charger.

With Roosevelt’s help, a permit from the Sultan for export from Turkey of six or eight mares was secured. Subsequently, this was amplified to include stallions. Davenport was joined in the venture by others. Two young New Yorkers volunteered to come along for the trip. They were Charles Arthur Moore, Jr., and John Henry Thompson, Jr. The Woman’s Home Companion magazine contracted for articles about the trip. The most important partner was Peter Bradley. He is credited with having furnished most of the financial backing, and following the importation, his interest in the horses continued, lasting into the 1920s.

Davenport was not a man to delay putting a scheme into action. His notification that he had permission to export mares from Arabia was dated June 4, 1906. By July 5th, which must have been within a month of receipt, he and his two companions were aboard ship and enroute to the desert.

About August 4th or 5th, the three arrived at the town of Aleppo, Syria. This was an ancient gateway to the Bedouin country where they hoped to buy horses. Aleppo itself was not an encouraging place. Before arriving, Davenport had imagined a pretty desert oasis. The town turned out to be made of stone and mud, smelly, and with narrow streets. He reported that the temperature was 125 degrees, with the sun “as hot as it possibly could be, without burning things.” (6)

Up to this point, Davenport’s trip had been well planned and carried out. He had secured the backing of the President in making it and had been successful in getting permission to export mares from Arabia. He had obtained financial help from Peter Bradley. He had enlisted two able helpers in Arthur Moore and John Thompson. Within two months of receiving the permit for exportation of mares, he was at the edge of the desert in Aleppo, and he had the equipment necessary for the trip into the desert. He had arranged for shipment to America of any horses purchased. He had added a competent interpreter to his group in Ameene S. Zeytoun, a staff member of the American Consulate at Beirut.

But at Aleppo, his plans ceased. It has always been easy for westerners to buy horses in Arabia from horse dealers and others, but most such horses are not what students of the Arabian horse consider to be authentic and are not, of course, the bloodstock which Davenport wanted. Until fairly recent years, there was a kind of Bedouin aristocracy in the desert consisting mainly of nomadic camel breeding tribes whose way of life was very dependent upon the quality of their horses, which were used mainly for hunting and tribal warfare. These tribes represented a life culture that had existed in the Arabian desert since very ancient times. Part of that culture was a fanatical devotion to certain methods of horse breeding. It was from these tribes that Davenport wanted to make his purchases.

The trouble was that, having arrived at Aleppo, he had no plans for making contact with the tribes who had the horses he wanted. To make matters worse, his trip schedule did not contain much time to make such contact. Other importers had solved this problem by extensive travels in the desert, as had been partly the case with the Blunts who had imported horses some years earlier, or by working through agents, as the Blunts had also done and as was the typical method of purchase of the wealthy Egyptian collectors.

For lack of an advance contact, Davenport had arrived at a place in the expedition where the whole project seemed about to flop. In his book, he comments that

“when you’re at home sitting on the shady side of your porch and planning the exportation of Arab horses, there are some details which you overlook while seated in a comfortable, rocking chair.” (7)

Just as the situation became most discouraging, an extremely lucky thing happened that was beyond planning and could not have been improved upon. Like any American in a foreign town, Davenport had decided to go shopping. In a saddlery he happened upon a Bedouin who offered to take him to the hours of the diplomatic representative of the Anazeh tribes to the Turkish government, a man named Akmet Haffez. Having nothing to lose, Davenport, of course, accepted. He was taken to a two-story mud and stone house on the outskirts of town. The audience room of this house showed signs of wealth, and, from Davenport’s discussion of events of it, it must have been the focal point of an entourage of people.

Davenport was introduced to the owner, Akmet Haffez. His description of this man is worth noting as an indication of the estate and character of the person who subsequently provided his entry to the desert:

“Then slowly and with a stride like that of Sir Henry Irving, a noble, elderly looking Arab came forward. Anywhere he would have attracted instant attention. He looked like a bronze Grover Cleveland in his last years. His eyes fairly glowed with smiles as he bowed low on the magnificent silk rugs.” (8)

To understand the visit between the two men which followed, we will have to consider the political situation in that particular part of the Ottoman Empire. The Bedouin Arabs, whom Akmet Haffez represented were really a subject people, forcefully held by the Ottoman administration. Their loyalty was to their own tribal structures, and there was resentment towards the government the Turks had imposed upon them. (This same resentment was nurtured into open rebellion only a few years later by T.E. Lawrence as a part of World War I.)

Akmet Haffez was a person of importance as far as the Bedouins were concerned. He served as the contact point between several of the tribes and the Turkish officials and also seems to have had some part in arranging sales of camels, horses, and doubtless other produce of the desert. One wonders, however, if he seemed as important to the Turkish officials with whom he dealt as he did to himself and to his Bedouin clients. After all, he was an illiterate old man living on the outskirts of town in a house that was no palace, and he had no uniform and no great appointment from the Sultan. He was likely treated with official condescension. For a proud man, this rankles. Akmet Haffez appears to have endured it for thirty years, which is the length of time he had been away from his desert tribes.

Even before meeting Davenport, the old Bedouin appears to have learned that a man from far off America was in Aleppo to buy horses and that this man had an unusual authorization for export signed by the Sultan and a supporting letter from “the one Great Sheikh of all the Americ tribes.” (9) This was an unusual kind of visitor for the town of Aleppo with its mud houses, narrow streets, smells, and the temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

In some countries, the first thing that a foreigner should do upon entering an area of government is to report his presence to the governing authorities. This is what Davenport should have done upon entering Aleppo. The governor, a handsome man by the name of Nazin Pasha, no doubt expected this. Had Davenport been properly advised by his interpreter, he would have made the appropriate call. By impulsively calling on Akmet Haffez first, he completely turned around the diplomatic protocol of the area. As the important visitor, he had paid his first respects to the representative of the Bedouin tribes rather than to the Turkish governor. This was not a small matter among a people with an acute sense of personal honor. Akmet Haffez’s reaction was

“…you have called on me before calling on the Governor of Aleppo and Syria. No such honor was ever paid to a Bedouin before, and if I should live to be one hundred years old, my smallest slave would honor me more for this visit.” (11)

One of the traditional ways in which Arab sheiks and kings have honored visitors has been by the gift of a horse. This is how some of the finest Arabian horses have left Arabia for foreign lands. Akmet Haffez was so affected by the honor which Davenport’s breach of protocol had brought to him that he gave the artist a gift that probably could not have been bought. It was the seven-year-old mare WADDUDA. She had been the personal mount of one of the most powerful Bedouin sheiks, who had presented her to Akmet Haffez.

In addition to giving Davenport the mare, Akmet Haffez told Davenport he would accompany him the next day on an expedition to the Anazeh tribe, which was the tribe from which the best horses could be bought. It happened that this tribe in its annual path of migration was only about ten hours’ ride from Aleppo. It would be the first return of Akmet Haffez to his tribes in many years. Davenport could not have solicited anywhere a better guide to the desert.

Numerous travelers from Desert Arabia have reported that once a visitor has claimed the hospitality of the head of a household, even though he may be an enemy, it is extended to him without reserve. This may have been part of the underlying code of conduct governing Akmet Haffez’s actions. Davenport had paid him an honor to be sure, but beyond that the call constituted a request for help, which was then furnished in ample proportion to the need.

Having given WADDUDA to Davenport and after informing him that he would act as guide on the trip to purchase horses, Akmet Haffez accompanied him on the call to the Governor of Aleppo that should have been made earlier. Perhaps a little “one ups-manship” was involved here. The old Bedouin had received the visitor first. He had given him a valuable mare, and he had arranged the further business of the expedition. This left little for the Governor to do but be a social functionary. The next day, the score was evened somewhat when the Governor gave Davenport a stallion of equal value to the gift mare.

During the following trip to the desert, Davenport placed himself completely in the hands of Akmet Haffez. The governor of Aleppo offered him a guard of twelve soldiers. It would have been prudent to have accepted the offer because the party carried a substantial amount of gold currency as well as supplies, all of which would have been attractive prizes for Bedouin raiders. Davenport refused the guard on the grounds that the presence of Akmet Haffez was worth more than an army. As much as was consonate with his own life style, he made the effort to fit in with the Bedouin way of life, eating as his hosts did, following their ceremonies. His companions, Moore and Thompson, adopted the Bedouin clothes, but Davenport stuck with his western attire. In general, however, and with enjoyment and a sense of propriety, he allowed himself to fit into the lives of his Bedouin hosts. This was not the usual role for a foreigner from western lands. Perhaps a traveler without Davenport’s warmth of personality and love of the unusual social situation could not have done it. Perhaps, too, there were few of Davenport’s contemporaries from New York City who would have had the nerve to set off into a reportedly wild section of the world such as the Arabian desert in the sole custody of an old Bedouin whom he had met only an hour or two before. Davenport was either a fool rushing in where a wiser angel might draw back or he was a fine judge of character and circumstance who had appraised his man and knew what he was doing. There was more at stake than the purchase of Arabian horses. If Akmet Haffez was less than Davenport took him to be, then Davenport and his two traveling companions might find their trip into the desert a one way affair.

Ace BPAIt turned out that faintheartedness would have been an entirely inappropriate reaction. Akmet Haffez was received as a person of importance by the desert tribes. As guests, Davenport and his party shared in the warmth of reception given their host. The friendship between Davenport and Akmet Haffez grew. Before the trip was over, the two men went through a blood brother ceremony. This may seem a little like a college fraternity rite to present day Americans, but, in the context of Bedouin Arabia, 1906, it was a serious matter, having important implications as regards the relationship between the two men. To Davenport, it was at the least an interesting and symbolic incident in the whole romantic trip. For the old Bedouin, it meant that Davenport was a part of his personal family and claimed the rights of kinship.

The actual mechanics of the purchase of horses was handled by Akmet Haffez. He arranged for horses of interest to be brought for Davenport’s consideration. He established what he felt to be a fair price and bargained towards it. Davenport called him the “wisest old horse trader of the desert.” (12) The manner in which horses were exchanged was of particular interest in that it was so different from our procedures in western society.

“When the Bedouins were showing a horse, or mare, it was quite a relief to see an animal where the defects, if any, were never concealed. they just brought the horse and squatted down by him. No attempt was made to straighten his mane. If he had a blemish, they were more than likely to back him up to you so the blemish was the first thing you saw: (13) “Arabs will never set a price on their horses. Unless your price suits him he will lead his horse away, not will the desert Bedouin under any condition tell a lie about his horse’s breeding.” (14) “When a price was finally agreed upon, Haffez always called me and the Bedouin to him. Taking the right hand of each of us, he would join them; then laying one of his hands over ours and pointing up, he would ask the Bedouin if he would swear before God as a witness, to ask the Sheikh of the tribe to put his seal on the bargain. Then if the Bedouin said yes, Haffez would toss the hands up and the deal was closed.” (15)

The point of vital importance to this manner of completing a bargain was that Akmet Haffez was establishing that the animal purchased was acceptable by the strictest Bedouin standards for breeding purposes. Such an animal was called “asil” or “chubby.” At one place, Davenport was shown an attractive filly in the absence of Haffez. He asked the owner, a Circassian, if the animal was “chubby” and the owner told him that she was. Then Haffez came along and, finding out what was happening,

“gripped the Circassian by the right hand, and asked him to say to God that she was “chubby.” If you ever saw a fellow pull loose quick, it was this Circassian. He yelled in his efforts to get away, and at the same time say the mare was ‘chubby’ to me (Davenport), but not to God.” (16)

The trip to the desert was not a lengthy one, but by the happy accidents of finding the perfect guide in Akmet Haffez and of arriving at Aleppo at a time when the tribes were concentrated and close at hand he was able to accomplish his purpose. Though there were, of course, complications, the trip from the desert to Alexandretta, the port of embarkation and thence to America via Italy were without major incident. Only one horse was reported as lost, a young stallion. His pedigree was retained with the notation that he had died. One particularly noteworthy bit of drama did occur. At the beginning of the return trip from the desert, Davenport purchased two young stallions. Their mother was a celebrated mare among the Bedouins. Akmet Haffez tried to buy her for Davenport without success, the owner riding away to consult his family about the sale and promising to come back the next day. He did not return but a messenger came with the word that the mare could be bought for an increase in price. Davenport sent the money, but the messenger returned without the mare, saying that the owner now wanted a revolver which one of the party had been carrying. This, too, was sent, and the messenger this time was Akmet Haffez’s son, Fariot, accompanied by a soldier. This time they returned with the mare. The owner had again refused to close the deal, but the mare had been taken from him by force. Eventually, he was put in jail in Aleppo for having broken his word about wanting to sell the horse, the poor fellow clearly being the victim of insult added to injury. The name of the mare which was the occasion of all this was URFAH. She and her son, HAMRAH, turned out to be two of the most influential animals of the entire importation.

There was also unmistakable evidence of the value which the Bedouins placed on several of the other horses for their own use. WADDUDA, the gift mare, had been the personal mount of Hashem Bey, the “supreme Sheikh” of the Anazeh. HALEB, the horse which the Governor of Aleppo had presented to Davenport, was in extensive use as a breeding stallion by the Arabs between Nejd and Aleppo. (19) Thirty female camels had been offered for the repurchase of another of the mares, RESHAN. (20) For one 20-day-old filly which had been purchased at the side of its mother, the former owner offered 65 pounds Turkish. (21) This was about half what Davenport had been advised by Akmet Haffez to pay for a first class Saqlawiyah mare, and it was a substantial price for a baby filly which would have to be raised as an orphan.

It was of great importance to Davenport to get bloodlines which were in use among the Bedouin. This was easily enough determined by observation with the mares, which were mostly of useable age. The stallions, however, were for the most part little more than colts in age, and Davenport made the particular point in his catalogue that

“no colts were taken except those whose mothers had been of distinguished character in their war performances.” (22)

In an interview for the New York Times shortly after the importation reached this country, he commented that

“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.” (23)

(1) Robert Hobart Davis, “Davenport and His Farm,” in Woman’s Home Companion, November, 1906, p. 23
(2) Homer Davenport, My Quest of the Arab Horse, Best Publishing Company, Boulder, Colorado, p. 14.
(3) Homer Davenport, “The Arabian Horse — Its Present Place and Mission,” in Country Life in America, (V. X, No. 4), August, 1906, p. 429.
(4) Homer Davenport, letter to Tom Davidson, July 9, 1906. (This letter furnished by Mr. E.J.Hathaway.)
(5) Albert W. Harris, The Blood of the Arab, The Arabian Horse Club of America, Chicago, 1941, p. 118
(6) Homer Davenport, My Quest of the Arab Horse, Best Publishing Company, Boulder, Colorado, p. 72.
(7) Ibid, p. 197.
(8) Ibid., p. 80.
(9) Ibid., p. 81.
(10) Davenport Desert Arabian Stud, catalogue for years 1909 and 1910. Best Publishing Col, Boulder, Colorado, reprint of 1967, p. 24.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid., p. 170.
(13) Ibid., pp. 114,115.
(14) Ibid., p. 170.
(15) Ibid., pp. 121,122.
(16) Ibid., pp. 131,132.
(17) Davenport Desert Arabian Stud, catalogue for years 1909 and 910, Best Publishing Co., Boulder, Colorado, reprint of 1967, p. 30.
(18) Albert W. Harris, The Blood of the Arab, The Arabian Horse Club of America, Chicago, 1941, p. 109.
(19) Davenport Desert Arabian Stud, catalogue for years 1909 and 1910. Best Publishing Co., Boulder, Colorado, reprint of 1967, p. 30.
(20) Ibid., p. 27.
(21) Ibid., p. 25.
(22) Ibid., p. 10.
(23) Homer Davenport, letter to editor New York Times, November 25, 1906, p. 8.