Canines To Canaan

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In the early phases of the journey, overlanding dogs had enough zeal to chase anything that moved. Like their masters, they were much intrigued with prairie dog villages, the denizens of which quickly wore them to a frazzle with their constant popping in and out of holes. But day after day travel proved hard on the feet and after a few hundred miles the canines usually ceased to worry about such frivolous game. Dogs like Old Cuff, who came from Wisconsin in 1849, would have some trying days once the preliminaries were over: “He was perhaps only one of a hundred that tried to cross the plains and had to be abandoned when they reached the upper Platte where the alkali dust made their feet so sore they could not travel, and, as they could not be hauled on wagons, were left behind. But this dog, Cuff, did not propose to be left behind to starve, but crippled along after us, we doing all we could for him, and proved as tough as the best of us.”

With J. Goldsborough Bruff and the Washington City Emigrating Company in 1849 was Bull, a “large yellow cur dog,” who suffered much from his feet, but who made his way along philosophically, cadging meals where he could and resting in the shade until the train caught up with him. Several other dogs in the same party “were not of much use,” according to one diarist. “They suffered with tender feet and even those that were provided with leather moccasins were often lame and sore of muscle.” Near Salmon Falls in southern Idaho, an Oregon-bound traveler in 1853 recorded as near an epitaph as any trail dog ever got: “Today our dog gave out, lay down and died. He suffered much on the road, thus far, but they are at an end. It seems like losing one of our crew.”

Since wagon space was at a premium, distressed or hunger-weakened dogs simply were abandoned, as were some of those “orphaned” when cholera or some other calamity struck their owners. More than one traveler commented on a fresh prairie grave “on which lay a live dog … howling away and paying the last tokens of sympathy to him who was resting there.…” Heading for California in ’49, young John Audubon recorded the last moments of one of his party in the Rio Grande valley:”… his dog, a Newfoundland, was walking about him, licking his hands and feet and giving evidence of the greatest affection; from time to time smelling his breath but it was gone.”

No doubt many such bereaved dogs were adopted by kindhearted emigrants. One, Old Bose, who had been badly torn by wolves when he returned to his master’s grave at night, was rescued, nursed back to health, and was supposedly the first of his kind to arrive in California. Granville Stuart found a gaunt, starved “large yellow dog, with a bushy tail” beside abandoned wagons and fresh graves on the Platte route, and “took him up on the footboard of the wagon, where he lay part of the time, all the way to California.” Members of a Santa Fe caravan set out food for a stray cur which followed them, while the newspaper correspondent Matt Field lamented the injustice of the open prairies: “The hand of nature had strewed there a lordly banquet for the untamed buffalo, but there was no provision for the poor bewildered dog.”

But the large number of strays along the trails indicate that many were less fortunate. Bruff, for example, noted at the Platte crossing, east of Courthouse Rock, “a … pointer dog, at the water’s edge, howling for its lost master on this side.” Later he saw a “large Newfoundland and a small spotted dog, lost or deserted … exceedingly wild, being often fired at, by mistake sometimes for wolves, and from deviltry by others.” East of Fort Laramie in 1850, a pessimistic California-bound emigrant recorded: “A large dog ran past us to-day going eastward. I believe he had started for home, having seen enough of the ‘elephant’ already to satisfy him. In this move I think the dog gave proof of a wise sagacity.”

En route west, man’s best friend suffered much—often from man himself. On the Santa Fe Trail one traveler shot his own dog, for which he had paid two plugs of tobacco, rather than see it run off to its former owner. An Oregon-bound party camped near the Kansas River in 1845 was thrown into turmoil when the night guard, “tired of their monotonous round of duty, amused themselves by shooting several dogs.…” Some were shot by error, mistaken in the dark for wolves or even Indians. Susan Magoffin’s Ring, a white and brown greyhound “of noble descent,” nearly came a cropper on the Santa Fe trip in 1846, when his “awful and unearthly yells and howling” caused the party to suspect rabies. Ring was spared only because Susan’s husband had no percussion caps at hand; subsequently the dog turned out to be perfectly healthy. Apparently it also was the fear of rabies in 1842 that prompted an Oregon group on the Platte to vote to kill its dogs and actually to dispose of some before the decision was reversed.

The fear, often translated into fact, that dogs might stampede livestock, induced some overland companies to put limitations on them. The bylaws of the Savannah Oregon Emigrating Society in 1845, for example, included sanctions against murder, rape, adultery, and indecent language, and in addition stipulated that “Every Dog found running about Camp at large shall be shot at the discretion of the Capt.”