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Canines To Canaan

July 2024
11min read

The Story of Some Forgotten Four-Footed Pioneers

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.…”


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.”

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.

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.

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