Canines To Canaan

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Sometimes, at the beginning of the crossing, one of the self-appointed sentinels might go about his job with excessive zeal, leaving the camp red-eyed from lack of sleep. Reuben, a big dog accompanying some forty-niners, took exception to “sundry persons passing on the road & sundry pigs seeking their living among our leavings” and “kept up a most faithful watch all night barking like all possessed.” At the other extreme, the “savage (?) bulldog” given to one of the “Wolverine Rangers” as an excellent guard dog was a complete failure. “He would jump out of a three-story window to attack a cat or hog—but he was not fond of guns!”

Overland dogs were also popular as hunters. Some emigrants brought highly trained animals, greyhounds or otherwise, and witnessed some exciting chases between canine speedsters and antelope along the Platte. The antelope could run “a mile before you could see the dust rise,” according to one observer, and invariably won, though an especially fleet dog could make them “get right down to business.” Dogs working together hunted wolves with success; they flushed rabbits in Utah when food was low; and they helped bring down buffalo, sometimes with remarkable skill.

More than once, when in dire straits, starving overlanders tried to stay alive by eating anything available—roots, rosebuds, crows, even dogs. Since the time of Cabeza de Vaca, westering types had in adversity resorted to dog flesh, though not without squeamishness and misgivings about “slimy pupmeat” or “barking mutton,” as some of the early skeptics called it. The tragic Donner party of 1846 (see “Winterkill, 1846” in the December, 1976, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE ) included at least seven dogs, among them Patrick Breen’s Cash, the pet of the Reed children. In the end, all the dogs went into the kettle—even Cash, on whom the family lived for a week. And a fair number of travelers could understand the moral dilemma faced by J. Goldsborough Bruff, who lay sick, weak, and without food in his tent in the Sierras, accompanied only by the bull terrier he had acquired near the Western end of his journey. Bruff spent many an agonizing moment. “Must I eat my faithful watch?—My poor little Nevada, who has shared my sufferings?—for one meal, and then die regreting it?—I will not!” And they both survived.

Pay tribute then to the hardy, loyal, and often badly used dogs of the Western trails. They brought out both the best and the worst in their human companions. They, too, took their chances with wind, snow and dust; with deadly snakes, fierce wolves and Indians. They, too, forded dangerous streams, panted across parched deserts and padded over formidable mountain ranges. They, too, suffered from ticks and lice and mosquitoes big as woodpeckers. A high percentage never lived to see California or Oregon. But, uncounted and largely unheralded, Tiger, Old Cuff, Ring, and all the unsung others were part of the flow of migration to the Pacific; part of the conquering of the American West.