Georgian Horsemen – Gurians in America

Georgian Horsemen – Gurians in America

The strange and tragic adventure of Gurian horsemen in America and Europe has been preserved and retold for over a century. Their journey abroad started in 1891-1892 after Thomas Oliver, a representative of the famous Buffalo Bill, came to Batumi to find the best horse riders, where he met Kirile Jorbenadze and Ivane Makharadze, who agreed to create a troupe with him.
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Who Were the Gurian Horsemen?

The 10-person troupe of Gurian horsemen who came to “conquer” the Wild West was mostly composed of young men from the villages of Chibati and Lanchkhuti, the majority of whom were part of the nobility. They underwent proper training, after which they had chokhas and akhalukhis made in different colors in Kutaisi

The Gurian Horsemen’s First Success

First, the Gurians took a ship to Marseille, before going to Paris, then Le Havre, and finally to England. At that time, there was a World’s Fair Exhibition taking place at Earl’s Court in London, where many different kinds of performance were held. Among those was the famous American showman Buffalo Bill Cody’s show, in which the Georgian troupe took part. 

The performance of the Gurians (or “Cossacks” as they were called at that time) aroused great interest, to the point that Queen Victoria invited them to Windsor Castle. On 25 June 1892, the Georgian horsemen, led by Ivane Makharadze, performed in front of the British royal family and other aristocrats. 

The captivated Queen presented the horsemen with a gold-trimmed album full of photographs of their performance, with their names printed on: Prince Eristavi, Aleksandre Tsintsadze, Giorgi Maksimenishvili, Rapiel Tvaladze, Gaston Matitashvili, Dimitri and Frida Mgaloblishvili (they are recorded as Prince and Princess Dimitri in their customs declaration), and others. One interesting fact is that in the column for “profession” they initially all wrote “horseman,” while later, in their declarations, they would put “artist.” 

The Second Troupe of Gurian Horsemen

On 10 April 1893, the second troupe of Gurian horsemen arrived in New York on the Monarch of Persia. The Gurians who came to the USA were as follows: Prince Ivane Makharadze, Luka Chkhartishvili, Kishvard Makharadze, Karaman Kalandarishvili, Ivane Makharadze Jr. (nicknamed “Chokhagrdzela”), Sergi Dgebuadze, Silibistro Makharadze, Giorgi Kalandarishvili, Ioseb Talakhadze, and Pavle Makharadze. Thereafter, about once every year, two troupes would travel to the USA. 

The owners of the showgrounds would happily invite the Gurian riders to their own performances. They sometimes performed under the name of “Russian Cossacks” since many local publications were not interested in the exact origin of the amazing horsemen. In later sources, they are called “Caucasian Georgians” and sometimes “a Caucasian tribe from Kutaisi.” 

The Gurian horsemen performed for more than 30 years at Buffalo Bill’s Circus and in other arenas. The horse-riding season lasted from March until October there. The appearance of Georgian horsemen was always awaited with great interest, and, even though representatives of many countries took part in the Wild West shows, including famous Native American horsemen and cowboys, the Gurians attracted a particular sort of  excitement. 

“Female Horsemen” 

Along with the famous male horsemen, there were also women in the troupe, namely Frida Mgaloblishvili, Kristine Tsintsadze, and Maro and Barbale Zakareishvili, who nobody could match. Essential aspects of the show were dances, songs, tools, and clothing. The Gurian horsemen wore colorfully-stitched chokhas, which in hindsight seems a commercial aspect of the show. 

American Media on the Georgian Horsemen

As the American press wrote at the time, the Gurian horsemen performed wonders in the arena, doing rare tricks while riding, so their popularity increased day-by-day. They were said to have had a great influence on the local cowboys too. 

The well-known historian Dee Brown’s opinion is interesting to note here. He wrote: “The daredevil Cossacks brought trick-riding on horses to the rodeo. Cowboys, fascinated by the dizzying tricks of the Cossacks, mastered them and then presented their own versions in the American rodeo. The Georgian horsemen would perform incredible tricks while riding.” 

Another famous horseman is also mentioned in historical documents – Aleksi Kartveli (Gogokhia), who emigrated to the USA in 1894, having been expelled from the Tbilisi Theological Institute. He learned English while working odd jobs in New York, and then, in 1897, he met Luka Chkhartishvili and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he remained until the end of the 1899 season. 

Later, in 1900, he continued working with his own troupe. It was during this time that he started to be called “Kartveli” but he was also known under the names “Capitan Kartveli,” “Polkovnik Kartveli,” and “Prince Kartveli.” From 1903 to 1905, he was the leader of nearly all of the troupes of Georgians. This colorful and interesting character was offered a post in the Georgian Embassy in the USA by the Government of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921), but he refused it. He died in Minneapolis (Minnesota) in 1949. 

American Presidents and the Georgian Horsemen

Some American presidents are known to have watched the shows with great interest and enjoyment, including Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, captivated by the tricks of one of the Georgian riders, Giorgi Chkhaidze, gave him a tray and a ring as a present, although later, after returning to his homeland, the horseman sold the ring in fear of reprisals from the Soviet government. The door to the White House was always open to the Georgian horsemen. For example, Aleksi Gogokhia-Jorjiani was received by William McKinley, and Dimitri and Frida Mgaloblishvili were hosted by Grover Cleveland. 

Life in a Foreign Land

Some of the Georgian horsemen performing abroad met tragic ends however. For example, while trick-riding in the city of Iron River on 3 July 1901, an unknown Gurian horseman participating in the Pony Billy Show died. Similarly, on 28 October 1907, an unknown Georgian participant fell from his horse and died in Amarillo, while another horseman Khalampri Pataraia was killed in 1914 in the state of Kentucky. 

The Fate of the Georgian Horsemen after the First World War

After the First World War, the fates of the Gurian horsemen played out differently. Some of them remained in the United States, continuing to participate in various shows, and cutting all ties with their homeland forever. Some became brave soldiers, who returned to Georgia, and were caught in the grip of the Bolshevik regime. 

They were treated as American spies, jailed, and viciously dealt with. Many of them were forced to destroy all evidence that they had ever been abroad. In contrast, the Americans have preserved the history of the Gurian horsemen and thankfully we still have photographs and personal items of those trailblazers, proudly connected to one of the world’s most famous Wild West shows.

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