Sunday, November 29, 2009

Historical Sled Dog Harnesses (part 1)

Earlier this year my friend Dave Lukosik loaned me an antique dog harness that originally came from Dawson and was used during the gold rush. To show how generous Dave is, he even gave me permission to disassemble it if necessary to learn how it was originally constructed, though I refused to do so. Now he has given me the artifact as a wonderful early Christmas give. Dave also referred me to a book that provides excellent information on the construction of those old time harnesses.

The resources Dave provided allowed me to finally understand how those old historical harnesses were built, so I can reproduce them for my Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs team. Meanwhile, Dave recently send me an Email asking me to share some of what I've learned.

Being capable to taking almost anything to extremes I decided it would be a great opportunity to use this blog as an historical education tool.
In this series I'll provide a bit of historical information to help put the "Lukosik Harness" in context, and explore the basic construction of these early types of dog harnesses. In the next installment I'll post some photos of the harness Dave gave me, and offer some comments on the construction and especially hardware.

First, some historical background. The first people to use dogs to draw sleds in North America were ancestors of the various Eskimo peoples. Historically there was not a lot of interaction between the Eskimo and Indian peoples, and what interaction there was was limited to warfare.

The earliest records we have of dog mushing outside of the arctic region comes from the French colonies of Canada. The best available evidence (and it is admittedly scanty) is that the practice of dog mushing spread into the boreal regions along with the European fur trade. According to Dr. Patricia A. McCormick there is no evidence that Indians (American Native / First Nations) people routinely used dog teams until after the introduction of the European fur trade.

Once introduced to the Natives, dog mushing technology spread faster than the trade itself as Natives who traded with whites brought the practices home from the trading posts on Hudson's Bay and the St. Lawrence River, and adopted the use of sled dogs for themselves.
This explains why there is no significant difference between equipment used by Natives of the boreal forests and the Whites who also mushed dogs.

Apparently the harnesses used throughout the fur trade and well into the 20th century were patterned after historical horse tack. In 1748 Peter Kalm wrote "They had neat harness, like horses." In 1820 Doty wrote "Their harness is made something like the common dray harness." Although some earlier paintings depict dogs in harness, the most reliable historical image of these harnesses I've found is a field sketch, drawn by artist Frekerick Kurz in about 1846.

Historical horse harnesses used a pair of hames,
metal or wooden strips which take the full force of the pull, padded by the collar. The historical harnesses consisted of a single, circular hame of metal or other flexible but rigid material, sewn into a padded leather collar. Most harnesses made by Whites used an iron rod as the hame, but many Native collars used willow or other flexible hardwood. A pair of more modern freighting harnesses I acquired just two nights ago apparently use bamboo, like that in this image of a dog harness drawn in 1889.

In most early harnesses the traces were attached directly to the hame and held in place with one or more back bands. On many harnesses the hame tugs extended from the collar to a metal ring at the back band, and traces were then attached to that ring using a toggle or snap hook.
Details of a very similar type of harness constructed by Bruce Bachelor in the 1960s is shown below: It's time for me to water and tend my dogs. You'll have to wait until the next installment to see the photos of an actual artifact, used during the gold rush.

Doty, James Duane “Northern Wisconsin in 1820” (written in 1820) and published in the Wisconsin Historical Collections vol. VII

Kalm, P: Travels Into North America: J. Forester, translator: The Imprint Society; Barre, MA: 1972: ISBN 0-87636-025-8.


  1. Hi Swanny! I think I may have left you a message YEARS ago. I have my Dad's dog harness from when he was a boy and I believe it wasn't new when he acquired it when he was 9 years old, way back in 1928. I would never part with it but it was his pride and joy because it was a part of his childhood and a very special dog that would be there waiting for him when he got out of school - to faithfully take him home. I am interested though in what it is worth now-a-days. I will leave it to my grandchild as a very sacred keepsake of her great-grandpa. Have any ideas what it would be worth? I realize that I am probably assuming a lot, asking you this - but it doesn't hurt to ask - right?

  2. Nice blog and great information, Discussion was very useful. Thank You....

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