Canines To Canaan

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Josiah Gregg recounted “a tremendous uproar” at a night camp of the Santa Fe Trail in 1831 when a barking dog stampeded the oxen, who went “scampering over the plains, as though Tarn O’Shanter’s ‘cutty-sark’ Nannie had been on their trails.” On the Platte River route, one forty-niner found a “very handsome, well bred setter” on the trail and took it into his wagon. But its whining frightened the livestock, causing seven teams to run away; whereupon the good Samaritan reacted: “I threw the dog immediately out of the wagon,” he said. On another California-bound train, Joe Batton’s loose dog ran among the cattle and was shot by an alert member who thought it was an Indian. At that point the cattle stampeded and “the Old Harry was to pay.” All next day was spent rounding them up; a drunken Batton demanded one hundred dollars for the loss of his dog and made threats against the shooter; a special court found against Batton, who stamped off in a huff to join another party. Only three days later, dogs again stampeded the stock, smashing several wagons and injuring a boy. The train’s captain ordered the offending dogs killed, which created more trouble.

Dogs on the trail made themselves unpopular in other ways. On the Santa Fe Trail, a dog bit trader James Webb on the cheek. When the owner wanted to shoot the animal, Webb intervened; subsequently the dog repaid the debt by keeping away from camp buffalo herds drifting before the wind. “All were glad he was spared,” reported Webb.

 
 

Occasionally the transgressions of a particular dog mixed embarrassment and hilarity, as described by a California forty-niner who witnessed an episode one rainy night on the central trail: “Doct. R[iggs] has a little dog with him, which not liking the appearance of the weather found his way into our tent, & unknown to any one ensconsed himself at [Sam] C[ross]’s head. During the storm Sam felt a stream running down his face & neck very unlike the rain water to which he had become accustomed, it being quite warm . This naturally excited his curiosity somewhat & he was not long in tracing it to its source, between his rage & our amusement! with dilated eyes muscles distended he braced himself for a terrible kick at the unfortunate offender. Tis delivered, but missing his mark some two inches Sams leg is nearly jerked off by its monstrous turn, & he capsized backward, having made a very good attempt to throw his heels as high as his head, & then the fury of his second attempt. When the poor doggy ‘catches it’ with a … succession of pedal applications from Sam.…”

As had been the case for ages, dogs provided devoted companionship and a sense of security. Most emigrants traveled the trails in groups but a few individualists moved along alone, often with a dog trotting beside. Forty-niners at Fort Kearney, for example, noticed a grizzled old Maine veteran “sponging” his way to California on foot, rifle over his shoulder and “a savage-looking bull-dog” by his side. For the loner, the comradeship between man and animal was one of the factors that made the long journey bearable.

If many masters abandoned their pets when the going became difficult, adversity brought out the best in others, who made personal sacrifices on behalf of their dogs. One man on the Santa Fe Trail waded the icy Arkansas to bring across a frightened dog in his arms. On the southern route to California an army deserter brought with him a large dog that “seemed to have been born hungry.” Dog and master alike stole from the already short rations; whereupon, a member of the party quietly shot the animal, which soon crawled back wounded, but tail wagging. All the way to San Bernardino, the deserter continued secretly to filch food and to tighten his own belt that his pet might survive. “Both were worthless,” said one who was there, “and their Ishmaelitist life seemed to bind them together closer and closer.”

Susan Magoffin was very fond of her “Mr. Ringling,” and when his fierce barks silenced the nocturnal yipping of wolves and coyotes, she “felt like caressing him for his kindness … I felt safe with this trusty soldier near me,” she said. Dogs on the trail did indeed provide security, both moral and actual, against four-footed as well as two-footed predators. Manly’s Cuff was considered “a great protection” to the children in the party; Hinman’s Chum, according to his owner, “was so good a Guard he would not let any one come round in the night, nor an Indian in the day time.” Heinrich Lienhard admitted that by the time his party had reached the Humboldt Valley, they had given up the night watch completely and depended on “Tiger the big, husky, alert fellow,” who was soon to vanish, as if swallowed up by the sink itself.