Commercial and Catalog Saddles of 19th & Early 20th Century America



By Ken R Knopp (originally published NORTH SOUTH TRADER’s CIVIL WAR, Dec. 2008)


CRITICAL NOTE: The information contained in this article is very dated!  I have purposely left out some photos and updates due to the fact my newest book AMERICAN RIDING & WORK SADDLES (And Horse Culture) 1790 – 1920 is more accurate and far more complete.  While this article was the inspiration for the subsequent book the material contained herein is no longer considered accurate. Its a good read but suggest you buy the book!  


     Aside from being tools of transportation it could be said that old saddles and old cars have no obvious similarities. To even the most experienced collector and certainly to the casual observer, an old saddle is picturesque and quaint but otherwise mostly anonymous. Or worse, its an afterthought of dried leather, wood and stirrups often with little or no value. However, to the untrained eye could not the same be said for the antique automobile which is really nothing more than a metal body, windows and four tires? If classic cars have identities then why can’t saddles?
The fact is, civilian riding saddles of the 19th century clearly evolved with distinct patterns, styles and names that are often difficult to the untrained eye to detect but were well known and understood by the people of the period. Today sadly, these are usually lumped together in that all encompassing, over-used and erroneous term “Plantation saddle”. Yet, these saddles have a colorful story of evolution, purpose and identity that deserves to be told. In short, many an old saddle sits gathering dust in the far corner of an otherwise fine collection simply awaiting the glorious recognition of its value and its respectful place in American history.

Beginning in the 1820’s, two basic influences evolved significantly shaped by the fanciful whims and necessities of civilian economic pursuits. One generally west of the Mississippi River born of Spanish heritage and increasingly “Americanized” by the realities of rugged overland travel and the working cowboy trade. The other, of old world origins and predominantly east of the river. Several studies have been done on 19th century American military or western (cowboy), stock saddles but little has been written about the common pleasure riding patterns for the city, town and country. While saddle makers of the era generally offered all the fashionable designs of their day the focus of this study is on identifying the most popular and influential commercial patterns that targeted the large “riding” market including those used for work and pleasure.


Photo: English saddles apparently have not changed much over the years. This photo of a British officer during the 1854 Crimean War is one of the earliest known photographs of saddlery. Library of Congress.
Drawing: English trees were made of simple two piece construction. From the 1883 catalog of Peters & Calhoun Co. Newark, NJ and New York City.
Illustration: By the 1880’s Gentlemen’s Riding Saddles came in dozen’s of variations including seat sizes, knee pads, cantle rolls, under padding, moveable panels, varieties of flaps, stirrups and accoutrements- even rawhide covered trees. Courtesy: 1880’s D. Mason & Sons Catalog, London, England

ENGLISH SADDLES: Although definitive details are obscure, from the 1700’s to early 1820’s variations of old world English influenced saddles were apparently the dominant patterns used in colonial America. Even trappers roaming the west rode English type saddles often with fur robes thrown over and held in place by surcingles or straps. During this period one popular saddle made in America was called the “American”. While similar to common English patterns it was likely larger and heavier but how it differed in other aspects is unclear. (1). Despite the emerging popularity of other saddle patterns the basic English saddle continued to be made here and imported with little change throughout most of the 19th century. Catalogs illustrate them with many names usually for their intended usage including “gentlemen’s riding” saddles, pony saddles, polo saddles, racing saddles, fancy and traveling saddles, etc. (2). Then very late in the nineteenth century, the development of the “forward seat” for jumping initiated a subtle evolution in the English saddle that over time saw a narrowing of the gullet and a curved, more forward flap. Nevertheless, excepting manufacturing materials today’s English riding saddles generally remain strikingly similar to their 19th century ancestors.
Photo: English saddles apparently have not changed much over the years. This photo of a British officer during the 1854 Crimean War is one of the earliest known photographs of saddlery. Library of Congress.
Drawing: English trees were made of simple two piece construction. From the 1883 catalog of Peters & Calhoun Co. Newark, NJ and New York City.
Illustration: By the 1880’s Gentlemen’s Riding Saddles came in dozen’s of variations including seat sizes, knee pads, cantle rolls, under padding, moveable panels, varieties of flaps, stirrups and accoutrements- even rawhide covered rees. Courtesy: 1880’s D. Mason & Sons Catalog, London, England

Early eagle pommel horned saddle. John Ashworth Collection.

EAGLE POMMEL SADDLES: Horned saddles date back at least to 17th century Europe. Eagle pommel, (horned), saddles made in America apparently proceeded the California and Texas horned saddles and may have originated as far back as the 1700’s. Built on English trees they were generally high quality and custom made before the days of mass production with their peak in popularity in United States from about 1820 to 1840. (3). Although very similar to “Half-Spanish” saddles (see below) they were not a catalog pattern as they apparently fell out of favor before the Civil War and the prolific post war commercial catalog business.

Photo: Early eagle pommel horned saddle. Note the ornate iron stirrups and the imitation schabraque. A popular mid-19th century component was to have decorative leather or woolen saddle cloths simulating schabraque’s or mochillas permanently attached to the underside of the saddle. Eagle motifs varied from ornate to “mock eagle” imitations. John Ashworth Collection.

SPANISH/ HALF SPANISH: American saddles did not have horns as we know them today until about the 1820’s or so when they were adopted from the Mexican saddle. Their emergence into broad acceptance was greatly enhanced by St. Louis saddle maker Thornton Grimsely who probably originated the Spanish saddle in the 1820’s. Grimsely used a horn borrowed heavily from Mexican influences but added a distinctive English look to the saddle including leather covered trees, long tapered skirts, padded seat treatments and under-padding. By the late 1830’s they were being made all over the country including many of the east’s big cities of Philadelphia, Newark and New York. Grimsely or other St. Louis saddle makers also apparently developed the “Half-Spanish” saddle in the 1830’s probably as a marketing ploy. This hybrid saddle was built on an English tree and featured a tapered, more refined horn than that found on the Spanish saddle. (4). Both patterns were highly popular before the Civil War but gradually faded from favor yet were still occasionally found in catalogs as late as the 1890’s. Nevertheless, the Spanish pattern was an innovative and instrumental early step in popularizing what eventually evolved into the western saddles of our modern era.

Illustration: Typical Spanish saddle as from 1876 DeCamp Levoy & Co. Cinn. Oh. catalog.

Note the Spanish style horn and bars of the tree extending beyond the rear of the cantle.

Drawing: Half Spanish (half English) saddle tree used an English tree with a horn. From an 1842 advertisement for St. Louis saddle maker J.B. Sickles & Co.

Photo. The Half Spanish saddle used an English tree. Note the lack of bars and the graceful, leather covered horn as compared to the traditional horn of the Spanish saddle. John Ashworth Collection.

Photo: 1850's gold rush pioneer Orlando Ballou and his California saddle. Note the tooled, heavy leather Mochilla, matching tapaderos and of course, the half-chaps necessary to protect his legs. Photo courtesy Gary W. Ewer and the Oakland Museum of California.

CALIFORNIA SADDLES: One of the two “classic” American horned saddle patterns of the 19th century, the California saddle adopted liberally from the Mexican saddles of the far west. Their exposure among Americans was assured by the 1849 Gold Rush. At the peak of their popularity in the 1850’s-60’s the characteristic California saddle was distinctive by its large angled horn, low, oval cantles and their fine, Mexican influenced tooled leather mochilla’s. Most, looped the wide one-piece stirrup strap through the split between the two bars and also included decorative taparderos or, carved wooden stirrups. (5). Eventually, the heavy mochillas and fancy stirrups faded from favor. Eastern saddle makers rarely included California saddles in their catalogs favoring instead Texas or Morgan saddles, (see below), however, those found in late 19th century catalogs were still differentiated from other saddles by their tree configurations and Spanish influenced decorative embellishments. By the 1920’s however, the California saddle as a separate pattern was being obscured by other horned patterns. While their features survive in today’s western saddles their lineage to the California pattern is largely forgotten.

Photo: 1850’s gold rush pioneer Orlando Ballou and his California saddle. Note the tooled, heavy leather Mochilla, matching tapaderos and of course, the half-chaps necessary to protect his legs. Photo courtesy Gary W. Ewer and the Oakland Museum of California.

Illustration: California saddle trees were rawhide covered and further recognized by their wide, often angled horn and, a low, oval cantle leaving a somewhat shallow seat. This usually differentiates it from the Hope or Texas which was generally observed with a higher horn, cantle and deep seat. This California tree from the 1882 catalog of Riser & Reitz Co., Chicago, Ill. exemplifies the common characteristics of many California saddles. Horns were often more narrow and with steep angles.

WAGON SADDLES (a.k.a. “Conestoga”) As the forerunner to the “Prairie Schooner” of the 19th century, the famous Conestoga wagon was first built by German Mennonites of the Conestoga Valley in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1730’s. The “Conestoga Wagon Saddle” originated somewhere in this history then became synonymous with all wagons and came to be simply “the wagon saddle”. Although in practical use the wagon saddle could be replaced by other patterns these long skirt saddles were important in protecting horse and rider when “jerk line” driving freight wagons, working field teams or for settler’s moving west. Often multiple teams of horses or mules were driven in this manner by a “waggoner” who rode from the saddle on the near, (left), wheel horse. This method of moving heavy loads was at its peak in the 19th century but remained practical well into the early 20th century. (6).

Interestingly, the basic wagon saddle remained fairly consistent in appearance throughout its existence. Usually built on English trees with padded bars they were other wise well constructed for hard use including heavy leather seats and thick harness leather skirts fourteen by twenty-eight inches, (or longer), and with few fancy embellishments. Early ones often had high cantles with schabraques and iron stirrups but after the Civil War heavy bent wood stirrups were common. Beginning in the 1880’s “cut back” pommels were a popular feature on many riding saddles including wagon saddles. (7).

Photo: Typical early Wagon saddle. Although an important commercial saddle pattern for over one hundred years wagon saddles were only occasionally found in retail saddle catalogs. Photo by author.

SOMERSET: As a separate pattern the Somerset saddle originated before our Civil War but it is not clear where or when. Their distinction is that they utilized an English tree but with pommel and cantle modifications allowing for a slightly deeper seat and a wider variety of enhanced leather treatments than typical English saddles. In appearance, the Somerset is a transition pattern between the harmonious, flat English saddle and, the higher pommel and cantle of the Kilgore saddle, (see below). Often appearing similar to the Kilgore it is differentiated by a more modest pommel and a low, graceful, (almost flat), seat and cantle closer to English saddles. Variations and enhancements depicted in catalogs were many including with or without stitched down seats, under padding, fancy tooling, assorted skirt treatments and sizes, open wood or metal stirrups but rarely with fenders. Catalog saddle makers of the period blended so many styles the Somerset can easily be confused with both the English and the Kilgore and, occasionally even Spring Seat saddles however, the basic configuration of an English tree with varying pommel and cantle is what makes a Somerset. (8).

Illustration: Common “plain” Somerset saddle from the 1888 catalog of Perkins Campbell Co., Cinn. Oh. Very similar to the basic English tree the Somerset allowed for variations in the height and shape of the Somerset’s pommel and cantle.

Illustration: Fancy Somerset saddle from the 1890 catalog of Graf, Morsbach & Co. Cinn. Oh. Somerset pommels were more pronounced than English saddles. They also tended to have fancy finishes such as quilted and padded seats, cantle rolls, and long, often tooled, leather skirts. While in general, English saddles tended to be more flat and plain.

KILGORE: While one of the most popular 19th century commercial saddle patterns it is not clear where or when the Kilgore originated but it was likely just prior to the Civil War. With the explosion of the catalog saddle business after the war the Kilgore became one of the best selling saddles with fanciful variations found in nearly every riding saddle catalog well into the 20th century.

The Kilgore tree configuration varied by maker but is noted for a higher, (often knobby), pommel and deeper seat than the two-piece, English style Somerset. In fact, its four-piece construction including pommel and cantle are often very similar to the McClellan tree. Even more than the Somerset, the Kilgore seemed to enjoy many style variations and fancy embellishments by its makers. Like many riding saddles of the day most included thick under padding of the bars and skirts for use without a saddle blanket. (9).

Drawing: Kilgore tree from the 1883 catalog of Peters & Calhoun Co. Newark NJ. Note the four-piece construction. The Kilgore can be differentiated from the Somerset and other similar appearing saddles by its tree.

Illustration: Typical Kilgore finished with a fancy quilted seat etc. From the 1876 DeCamp, Levoy, Co., Catalog, Cincinnati, Oh. Kilgore’s are noted for their pronounced, often quite knobby pommels.

SPRING SEAT (Kentucky Spring Seat) : Spring seat applications probably date back to the 18th century although several patents are noted between 1802 and 1840. As one of the most popular commercial riding patterns the 19th century Spring Seat saddle was made on English or Somerset trees, usually heavily padded and built for comfort by the addition of a simple web, leather or light steel spring application under the seat on the waist of the tree. Almost always found with fancy seat and skirt treatments their appearances varied widely with makers. The spring seat’s comfort and attractive appearances made them one of the most popular riding saddles of the period.

In the late 1800’s Eugene Minihan of Owingsville Ky. is credited with inventing and patenting the “Kentucky Spring Seat” saddle. It appears Minihan improved the flexibility in the saddle with a unique, solid leather tree design. (10). The Kentucky Spring Seat saddle innovation was soon copied by many makers and usually included stitched and padded seat treatments and, were frequently accompanied with a pronounced cantle roll, (and sometimes a pommel roll). It should be noted however, that in outward appearance the Kentucky Spring Seat saddle was often constructed virtually the same as common spring seat saddles. In fact, comparison of numerous catalogs often show little perceivable difference between the two except in name only. (11).

Drawing: “Spring tree”: Saddlery by E. Hartley Edwards

Illustration: In outward appearance the Spring Seat and the Kentucky Spring Seat saddles, (and even Kilgore’s), were often indistinguishable. Only their tree design and their names can differentiate them. This typical Kentucky Spring Seat Saddle includes a stitched down seat, cantle and knee roll. Iron stirrups were very common. 1890 catalog of Graf, Morsbach & Co. Cinn. Oh.

McCLELLAN: While primarily a military saddle the McClellan is included here because of its widespread popularity after the war as a popular riding saddle sold by commercial catalogs. Introduced in 1858 as a light weight yet durable cavalry saddle the McClellan evolved but remained the army’s primary saddle until the end of the cavalry in 1943. Its widespread use on both sides of the conflict in the Civil War transcended into the post war commercial boom as well. Most riding saddle catalogs of the late 19th century included variations of McClellan’s with commercial knock offs of all of the military patterns remaining popular well into the 20th century.
McClellans available from the catalog market utilized both military surplus trees or their own makes. Their finish ranged from nearly identical and fully rigged military patterns to “commercialized” variations that featured English rigging, fancy leather tooling, cantle and knee rolls and, occasionally even under padding. (12).

Illustration: While offered by Miller, Morrison Company of New York in 1880 this McClellan could easily be misidentified today as a Civil War officer’s saddle. Some makers often gave honorary names to their saddles such as “Sherman”,“Stonewall”, “Morgan” and “Mosby” named after famous wartime figures. Harbison & Gathwright’s 1876 McClellan “Pride Saddle” may well have been named after Louisville resident Capt. Henry Pride, Superintendent of the Confederate Ordnance Harness Shops in Clarksville Va..

TEXAS/STOCK SADDLES: As the second of the two “classic” American horned saddle patterns, the Texas saddle appears to have originated in Texas as early as the 1840’s. Its not clear who first constructed the saddle but nearly from the outset it was called the “Hope” saddle. A moniker that apparently can be traced back to the Texas saddle making family of Aldolphus Hope. Nevertheless, while many Texas saddle makers made them the “Hope” was the name applied to these Texas-made horned saddles of the 1840’s and later periods. However, by the 1860’s this began to change as the term “Texas saddle” was more often being applied to this pattern of horned saddle- at least by non-Texans. (13). The Civil War and the saddle’s general comfort and utility provided the opportunity for wide exposure of the pattern and precipitated a huge increase in its popularity. After the war many innovations appeared that were soon embellished by catalog saddle makers of the period such as double rigging, Samstagg rigging and varieties of skirt and fender patterns.

Like the California saddle the Hope and Texas saddles evolved from Mexican influences but with clear and distinct differences to the California as noted above. Early ones were not rawhide covered but had Mochillas and higher horns. As the Texas saddle evolved it came in many configurations but is generally observed with squared jockey’s, a higher horn, cantle and deep seat largely attributed to its practical applications for working cattle and riding broncs. (14).

Note: Applehorn saddles with/without Mochillas were popular from the 1850’s through 1870’s. The large Mexican “dinner plate” cap horns apparently came into fashion in the 1860’s but were never very popular with most Americans. Steel horns were a useful innovation but did not appear with regularity until about the 1880’s . Heavy steel stirrups came into fashion in the 1890’s then faded away by the 1930’s. Over the decades catalog Texas saddles grew larger, heavier and by the 1920’s, eventually morphed into the cowboy’s trademark “stock” saddle albeit still primarily designed for the casual riding trade. It should be noted that the typical catalog Texas and stock saddles as noted above were not generally of the same quality as stock or ranch saddles by other makers that specialized in that “working cowboy” genre.

Illustration: Texas saddles were wildly popular and were found in nearly every eastern saddle catalog from the 1870’s through 1920’s. They varied widely but usually had a high horn, deep seat and squared skirts. Most seem to employ the Samstagg rigging (leather twist around the horn) and double girths while horns, seats, stirrups, skirts, jockeys, fenders and leather tooling varied among makers. This is a rather typical catalog Texas Saddle as offered by Jacob Straus Saddlery Co. of St. Louis from their late 1880’s catalog.

MORGAN SADDLES/MORGAN MULYS: While horned and so called “muly” pattern saddles pre-date the Civil War it is believed the Morgan saddle was invented by Josiah B. Gathwright. Gathwright was a Lieutenant in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry under the famous Confederate raider Gen. John Hunt Morgan. In early 1864 Gathwright found himself a quartermaster in charge of a detail of mechanics assigned to make saddles in Decatur, Alabama. With their assistance, Gathwright is reputed to have manufactured saddles he later named the “Morgan” in honor of the Southern hero.
After the war, Gathwright returned to his native Louisville, Kentucky where he opened a saddle manufacturing firm, (later “Harbison & Gathwright”), that grew to be the South’s largest by the turn of the century. Gathwright patented several things including saddles in the post war years but by the 1870’s one of the firm’s most popular selling items was the “Morgan” saddle equipped with, or without a horn. Gaithwright is credited with popularizing the Morgan and making alot of money from it but he never patented the saddle wihch suggests the pattern predated his adaption and therefore he could not patented it as his own. The Morgan quickly became a wildly popular saddle in the post war made by most commercial saddleries and with a wide variety of decorative trim and embellishments. (15).

Early Morgan’s blended the low, wide horn styles of the California and Mexican saddles, were single rigged and were otherwise generally differentiated from Texas saddles by their abbreviated, often circular skirts. By the 1890’s however, the differences in these two saddle patterns began to blur. Morgan’s were often found double rigged and made with higher, more narrow horns similar to Texas saddles. Over the next several decades both Morgan’s and Texas configurations eventually melded into the “stock” saddle. (16).
Simple, sturdy, inexpensive and easy to make the basic Morgan saddle had bars and cantles similar to the California but either with a varying style of horn or with a rounded “muley” pommel-top. In essence, in the east the Morgan simply replaced the California pattern saddle. Nevertheless, Morgan’s name become synonymous with this basic saddle configuration. The same simple saddle tree Gathwright had made for Confederate troopers during the War.

Illustrations: Common Morgan’s found in most catalogs of the day varied widely but were generally simple, low cost affairs made with exposed rawhide trees, single rigged and their signature abbreviated skirts. Morgan saddles offered by Harbison and Gathwright were known for their fancy embellishments like the horned and muly saddles seen here from their 1876 catalog.

PARK (Whitman & English) SADDLES: The term “Park” saddle was a name commonly applied to simple pleasure riding saddles and seems to first appear in catalogs in the 1880’s. Today, the term Park Saddle is more closely identified to general purpose English saddles but in the 19th century the common catalog “Park Riding” saddle was usually built on either a Whitman or English tree and occasionally even on McClellan trees. The Whitman, (with and without a horn), was first invented by Col. R. E. Whitman and offered to the U.S. Army in 1879. Although field tested it was not adopted until 1906 and then only as an officer’s pattern. In the meantime, Whitman had retired from the army and started the Whitman Saddle Co. Under the management of William C. Mehlbach the company flourished widely expanding its line of saddles to include many non-military commercial variations of the Whitman and other popular patterns as well as other horse equipment. Incorporated as the Mehlbach Saddle Company of New York in 1901 the company grew to be one of the nations largest saddleries. In the early 1920’s the company sold to Perkins Campbell Company of Cincinnati Ohio where production of Whitman saddles continued for a few more years. (17).

Drawing (L): Original military Whitman saddle tree’s like the one above left came with or without horns and included their trademark indented pommel and sometimes a duck tail much like Jenifer saddles. Commercial versions varied widely including with and without horns, duck tail, embellishments to skirting, seat treatments, leather tooling and more.

Illustration (R): Park saddles were simple, lightweight and very popular for the pleasure riding class. Above right is a Whitman “Park” Saddle from Mehlbach Saddle Co’s. 1919 catalog. Despite its Whitman tree note its similarities to common English saddles.

It is very important to note that as the most popular and influential designs the above patterns were routinely blended together by their makers. For example, Kilgore type pommels could be found on Spring Seat or even Wagon saddles, Eagle saddles often looked like Half-Spanish saddles, Texas saddles could be dressed like Morgans, Whitman’s like English saddles, etc. etc. The type leather adornment, seat treatments, skirt patterns, girthing, embellishments, sometimes even their pommels and cantles, were often interchangeable. To the untrained eye its confusing however, it is critical to the understanding of saddles that tree configuration remains the most reliable method in establishing a saddle’s historical identity. Despite their frequent overlapping styles and multiple variations most commercial riding saddles of the period can be traced to one of the above distinct patterns. Hundreds perhaps thousands of each were made in many variations by small saddler’s and by large catalog companies well into the 20th century.


Shaftoe: In general, the Shaftoe was any casual riding saddle pattern of the period made all or in part of hog skin including seats and flaps. Hog skin was considered high quality and durable but difficult to work with and therefore costly. As a leather application they would include variations in the seats or skirts and were popular from the earliest days until well into the 20th century. There is some references found to a “Shaftoe tree”, (an English variation), however, Shaftoe saddles sold by commercial catalog were usually built on English, Somerset or Kilgore pattern trees. “Demi-Shaftoe” saddles were part pig skin and part leather. Cheap, imitation hog skin Shaftoe saddles were available in catalogs made of stamped or enameled leather yet still called Shaftoes. (18).

John Ashworth Collection. Jenifer: Patented and presented in 1860 to the U.S. Army as a cavalry saddle by Lt. Walter H Jenifer its design utilized both Spanish and American features and a cantle emulating that of European Hussars saddles. It was made by both sides during the war but was adopted by the Confederacy as their official cavalry saddle in 1861. Many thousands of varying appearances were made during the war. While originally a well designed pattern poor construction by the South tarnished its reputation from which it never recovered. After the war it appears only a few, (often in the abbreviated Confederate style), were made for the retail public and then faded fast however, the Jenifer has remained a classic saddle in American history. (19).

Mosby: Appearing in catalogs shortly after the Civil War very little is known about these saddles except that they were almost certainly named after Confederate partisan ranger, Col. John S Mosby. The Mosby had its own unique tree design with pommel similarities to the Whitman, Morgan and sometimes the Kilgore. Other normal distinctive features were rounded skirts, heavy wood stirrups and its trademark decorative quarter strap rigging with rounded leather hand loops, (for reins or halter leads). A very popular and inexpensive saddle the Mosby was nevertheless, usually offered only by the larger catalog companies including Sears Roebuck. (20).

Ferguson: The origins of Ferguson saddles is unclear except they were clearly a variation of the Mosby saddle and sold in large numbers through Sears Roebuck Co. (21).

Granger Saddles: Appear in catalogs in the 1870’s to the 1890’s. Its name may have been a marketing ploy to the many Granger Associations (local agricultural societies) then popular around the country. Granger saddles appear simply to be Somerset or Kilgore riding saddles under a different name.

Buena Vista: Made on “Wilbourne” (or “Wilburn”) trees. Also known as the “Wilbourn Saddle”, the Buena Vista saddle was never a Confederate pattern saddle however, it was a very common and popular commercial saddle pattern that was manufactured from 1883 until the early 1960’s.

The Wilbourn/Buena Vista Saddle was invented by William Wilbourn of Virginia. Legends, folklore and possibly inaccurate information suggests the following story of the Buena Vista saddle: Apparently, Wilbourn served in the Confederate army during the war. Upon returning home he opened a saddle making shop in Lexington Virginia. In 1883, it is known he patented his “Wilbourn” saddle tree with the U.S. Patent Office. Its unique design involved the tapering of the tree at the base of the cantle for the comfort of the rider which was different from any other saddle tree of the time. Its wide, under-base at the gullet of the tree also made it particularly less stressful to the horses’s back. At some point, William’s son Samuel took over the business and moved the saddle operation from Lexington to Buena Vista, (Rockbridge County), Virginia. The company was called “The Wilbourn Saddle and Harness Factory” and subsequent saddles were renamed “Buena Vista saddles”.

The Wilbourn/Buena Vista saddle was often made and sold to outside contractors for finishing or even sold to individuals as “kits”, complete with leather and hardware. Made as late as the early 1960’s they remained consistent in appearance throughout their history. Knock-offs are made today although the old original Buena Vista saddles were very durable and are occasionally still found in regular use.

Jack Melton Photo, Courtesy Mike Kent Auctions

America’s commercial riding saddles most certainly had a traceable historical evolution. Early in the 19th century riding saddles were being made in small shops and of largely monolithic English patterns. The introduction of horned Spanish patterns and construction methods in the 1820’s unleashed meaningful changes that were quickly adopted. By the 1840’s the expansion west and a growing affluence of the masses had created a wider market for utility and variety in saddles. In addition, the Mexican War and then the Civil War had a major impact on the public exposure of various saddle styles, patterns and manufacturing capacity. After the war, large retail catalog companies exploded across the country dominating the pleasure saddle trade. Then, beginning in the 1880’s discount houses like Montgomery Ward and later more effectively, Sears Roebuck Company increasingly commanded the retail business. However, by the 1920’s the growing afford-ability of the automobile inevitably brought decline to the industry. Ironically, today pleasure riding saddles have been re-born with sales many times larger than in the 19th century. However they are no longer purchased as a necessary means of transportation or work but for recreational pursuits. Nevertheless, most saddles made in America today can still trace their heritage to one or more of these patterns.


Photos by Author

During the 19th century saddle makers routinely blended and combined popular features making time dating a saddle difficult at best. Nevertheless, in addition to the tree configurations and patterns noted above there are distinct methods that saddle historians use to generally authenticate and date saddles. Here are a few:

RIVETS: Saddle makers commonly used copper, brass or iron rivets with burrs until tubular or “split” rivets were invented in the early 1870’s. Much cheaper, they were routinely used on inexpensive commercial saddles beginning in the mid 1870’s and thereafter but never on military saddles.

STIRRUP STRAP HANGERS: For Kilgore, McClellan and some Spanish and Whitman saddles: (L-R) 1. Early stirrup strap hanger. Some had rollers. 2. Pre 1880’s iron wire loop hanger. These were common on 1859 McClellans. 3. In 1885 the army went to a trapezoidal shaped iron wire loop and then a cast one in 1896. About the 1880’s, commercial manufacturers appear to have adopted a cast iron or brass trapezoidal, or, square shape hanger like the one pictured at right.

LEATHER “STAMPING” or “CREASING”: Hand tooling leather was expensive and time consuming while decorative machine stamping or creasing of leather was a cheap, quick and easy alternative often seen on inexpensive, post war catalog saddles.

MAKER’S MARKS/ NUMBERING: Independent makers and cowboy “stock” saddle makers often marked their saddles but most large eastern catalog houses of the late 19th century did not. Some however, would stamp their saddles with their identifying catalog numbers usually found on the left front pommel, skirt or jockey.

STIRRUP STRAP BUCKLES: (L-R) 1. Iron or brass cast and wire horseshoe buckles were more common before the war but less so after. 2. While not foolproof, early to mid-19th century stirrup strap “roller” buckles can sometimes be identified by their shapes. 3. Another roller buckle variation as seen here was more common late in the century and into the next one.

Of course, employing the historical record found in old saddle catalogs is extremely helpful to identify and date saddles. Several are reprinted and available today. See footnotes.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: This article is dedicated to two fine saddle historians Ralph Emerson and the late James S. Hutchins. Special thanks go to John Ashworth without whom this article would not have been possible and, the following knowledgeable saddle historians Howard Crouch, R. Stephen Dorsey, Doug Kidd and Ken McPheeters. NOTE: for more information about these and other saddles please refer to


1. Man Made Mobile, Early Saddles of Western North American. Ahlborn, Richard E. ed. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980. The most notable section is “Western Saddles Before the Cowboy” by James S. Hutchins., Pgs, 41, 67
2. Study of popular trends, evolution and manufacturing details of saddles from a compilation of original and reprinted 19th and 20th century saddle catalogs hereafter referred to as “The Catalogs”, including: Harbison & Gathright, Louisville, Ky. 1875; JT Gathright & Look Louisville, KY. 1879; Decamp, Levoy Saddle Company, Cincinnati, Oh. 1876. Eugene, Or: (Collectors Library, 1997,; Miller, Morrison & Co. NYC, NT, 1880; Riser & Eritz, Co. Chicago, Ill. 1882; Peters & Calhoun Co. Newark, NJ & NYC 1883: C.J. Cooper & Co. Chicago, Ill. 1885; Perkins Campbell, Cin. Oh. 1888; Jacob Strauss Saddlery, St. Louis, Mo. 1887-1899; D. Mason & Sons, LTD. Walsall/Birmingham England, 1880’s; Graf, Morsbach & Co. Cin. Oh. 1890; S.R. & J.C. McConnel Saddlery, Burlington, IA. 1893, (Collectors Library, 1997); Moseman’s Illustrated Guide for Purchasers of Horse Furnishing Goods, Catalog of 1889. Charles Kaufman and Bracken Books, 1976; New York: Cresent Books, 1990. Sears Roebuck 1902, 1906 & 1908; Lerch Bros. Saddlery, Baltimore, MD. 1904; English Edwardian Goods, London, NYC, Washington, 1907; Victor Marden, Dalles, Or. 1917; Mehlbach Saddle Co. Successors to the Whitman Saddle Co. 1919, (Collectors Library, 1997); Perkins Campbell Saddlery, Cinn. Oh. 1925; Francis Bannerman Catalogue of Military Goods, 1927. (Northfield,Ill: DBI Books, 1963)
3. Beatie, Russel H. Saddles. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1981, Pgs. 50-52;
Dorsey, R. Stephen and Kenneth L. Mcpheeters. The American Military Saddle, 1776-1945, Eugene, Or. Collectors’ Library, 1999. pgs. 11-15)
4. Man Made Mobile, Early Saddles of Western North American. Ahlborn, Richard E. ed. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980. Pgs, 45- 48.
5. IBID, Pg. 59.
March, Randolph B, Capt. The Prairie Traveler, Handbook for American Pioneers Published by the U.S. Army War Department, 1859. Pgs 118-120. Re-printed by Applewood Books, Bedford Mass. 1993.
Johnson, Drew H., Eymann, Marcia, Silver & Gold, Cased Images of the California Gold Rush. University of Iowa Press for the Oakland Museum of California,1998.Pgs, 94, 146, 172.
6. Reist, Arthur L., Conestoga Wagon, Masterpiece of the Blacksmiths, Lancaster, Pa., Brookshire Printing, 1975.
7. The Catalogs. Perkins Campbell Catalog, Pg. 40.
8. IBID.
9. IBID.
10. History of the Kentucky Spring Seat saddle,
Edwards, E. Hartley, Saddlery, A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc. Cranbury, N.J., 1963. Pgs, 96-98.
The Catalogs
11. IBID.
12. IBID.
13. Man Made Mobile, Early Saddles of Western North American. Ahlborn, Richard E. ed. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980. Pgs, 59-60, 67-69.
14. Beatie, Russel H. Saddles. Norman, Okla., University of Oklahoma Press, 1981, Pgs. 57.
15. Knopp, Ken R. Confederate Saddles & Horse Equipment, Orange, Va. Publishers Press, 2001, Pg. 80,
History of Kentucky, The Blue Grass State,, Vol. IV, S.J. Clarke Publishing, Chicago, Ill. 1928
16. The Catalogs. Perkins Campbell catalog/McConnel catalog.
17. 1919 Mehlbach Saddle Co. Catalog; 1925 Perkins Campbell Catalog,.
Dorsey, R. Stephen and Kenneth L. McPheeters. The American Military Saddle, 1776-1945, Eugene, Or. Collectors’ Library, 1999, pgs. 87, 107.
18. The Catalogs
19. Knopp, Ken R. Confederate Saddles & Horse Equipment, Orange, Va. Publishers Press, 2001, Pg, 59-60
20. The Catalogs
21. Sears Roebuck Catalogs, 1902, 1906 & 1908;