Canines To Canaan


Until recently the history of the American West has been dominated by the elite, the spectacular, and the gaudy, not by the ordinary folk—the “little people with dirty faces,” who are only now beginning to get their due. The same generally has been true of canine history. Where dogs have been mentioned in the winning of the West, they have for the most part been the glamourous, highly trumpeted few: the intrepid Newfoundland explorer, Scannon, who sniffed his way to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark; San Francisco’s early favorites, dudes at that, Lazarus and Bummer; or Balto, the Northern sled dog who carried diptheria serum to Nome in 1925. Unsung are the average dogs of Western America who faithfully followed their masters and mistresses on the Overland Trails, sometimes limping, coats unkempt, with noses eagerly testing the breeze.

Mongrels and purebreds alike, these trail dogs left few tangible monuments. Census takers ignored them; their names are not carved on Chimney Rock or Independence Rock, that “great register of the desert,” as Father De Smet once called it. Neither the august Dictionary of American Biography nor Howard Lamar’s fine Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West contain entries for them. Observers might count men, women, children, livestock, and occasionally even turkeys, ducks, and guinea fowls as they passed in procession across the prairies, but rarely did they add up the number of mongrels yelping underfoot. But they were there, unenumerated perhaps, yet often noted by contemporary travelers and artists, and even mentioned in popular California Gold Rush songs:

Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsey from Pike, Who crossed the big mountains with her lover Ike, With two yoke of cattle, a large yellow dog, A tall shanghai rooster and one spotted hog.

Some travelers doubted that the dogs they saw could survive the desert, but many believed that with due care they could reach the Pacific Coast. Countless dogs did indeed leave their bones to bleach along the Platte or the Humboldt. Forty-niner Charles Hinman wrote cautiously to his wife: “I have seen a great many dead Dogs by the way. And am told that but few live to travel over 600 miles, but I dont allow Chum to run about. [I] tie him under the Waggon every night and I think he will stand it through.” Chum lived to “see the elephant,” but it was nip and tuck across the Nevada desert. “He lay down to Die one night and howled for some time,” Hinman reported. “I tried to coax him along but he would not get up.” Hinman’s last pint of water revived Chum momentarily and he traveled seven miles before collapsing again. Another pint, borrowed, gave him strength to finish the ordeal, although later he lost his master in Sacramento.

Travelers on the Hastings Cutoff told of a “big, beautiful black dog,” desperate with thirst, who finally reached a spring, leaped into it, drank his fill—then dropped dead. On the southern routes dogs half-crazed for drink frantically chased mirages of water on the horizon. And more than one dog that rushed blindly “to quench his avid thirst and bathe his wearied limbs” in one of the boiling hot springs in southern Idaho or northern Nevada was lucky to escape with only a temporary scalding.

There were other hazards. Rattlesnake bites or scorpion stings might be painful, if not fatal; a dog traveling with forty-niners across Arizona was bitten by a tarantula and “swelled up and died in less than an hour.” For a single dog, wolves also posed a danger. Tiger, a big, ugly, short-legged half-bulldog with the Lienhard party of 1846, usually slept near the meat at night to protect it from wolves and other predators. But occasionally, according to Lienhard, “our civilized Tiger wanted to teach some manners to this insolent, impertinent rabble” and it was fortunate that his master arrived in time to keep him from being torn to pieces. On the Humboldt, Tiger simply disappeared one night; only wolf tracks and an empty meat pan marked his passing.

Indians also posed a real menace. Many tribes considered dog meat a delicacy and stole or purchased animals from white travelers for table purposes. And since dogs usually gave first warning of intruders, they were fair prey to marauding bands. A party of Pawnees moving along the Platte in 1852 swooped in on an emigrant camp, killed four guard dogs, and dashed off. Or sometimes an innocent mutt received the full brunt of the frustration Indians dared not direct against the whites themselves. In 1842 several hundred Indians surprised Lansford Hastings and his party near Independence Rock, taking their guns but not harming them. Instead, when an unfortunate dog followed the whites, in “one universal burst of indignation or exultation,” the Indians fired upon it, then “rushed in quick succession, in single file, towards their slain victim, each as he passed which, either thrust his spear or lance into the dead carcase, struck it with his arrow, the rammer of his gun, or kicked it; the thrust, blow or kick … attended with a most demoniac shriek. They continued to repeat this frightful scene, for fifteen or twenty minutes.…”