Friday, July 15, 2011

Found - Historian's Treasure

I've been doing miscellaneous things around the place the past few days.  A lot of kennel maintenance, some dog training, lots of free-running in the play yard to help keep canine brains settled, some driveway maintenance that's been hanging-fire for a couple of years, and so forth.

In and among all the little things that need to be done, preferably before freeze-up, I've stolen away a bit of time to do some historical research.  I've downloaded several documents from GoogleBooks and have been going through them, page by page, adding my margin notes so I can find pertinent information when needed them for articles I write for On The Trail magazine and other publications. 

Most of the time my research is a search for details that others may not find particularly interesting.  For instance, I'm interested in the details of how people drove sled dogs in the Canadian fur trade.  The most reliable sources of that subset of facts comes from the historical fur-trade itself, in the form of business documents, correspondence and of course archaeological evidence.

The published fur-trade documents that are most valuable are generally journals, which the major fur-companies required their "gentlemen" (managers) to maintain, inventories, sales records and so forth.  These primary (first-hand) accounts are extremely reliable evidence - so most of the information they contain can qualify as "facts".  Unfortunately, business records don't provide a lot of detail.  A journal entry may note that "3 men with dogs and trains (sleds) were sent away to fetch meat.", but they don't provide details about the harnesses, design of the sleds, the order of travel, the methods of preparing provisions or myriad other details that are important to one wishing to recreate that journey.  Those 'omissions' are understandable.  After all, records kept by modern businesses might note that goods were sent by truck, but don't need the details of how to drive that truck - it's assumed the reader has a basic understanding of the machine.

The best sources of such details come from records created by visitors to the fur-country.  Prior to the 19th century, visitors were rare and published accounts from the those visitors practically non-existent.  Perhaps as a means of generating popular support for expeditions in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, Sir John Franklin's journals documenting his first overland expedition (1819 - 1822) were published in 1824.  Afterward, memoirs of retired traders, journals of explorers, accounts of travel and especially accounts written by early missionaries became popular with common people and as a result are readily available today.  Because they were written by people who actually observed the methods described, they qualify as "primary sources", but the information has to be taken with a few grains of salt.  Memories sometimes fail and the veracity of the accounts deserves to be questioned.  Just as today, authors were interested in selling books and sometimes 'facts' were exaggerated, understated or completely altered to appeal to the perspectives and prejudices of their audiences.  Thus, a journal kept by an explorer can be considered very reliable, but memoirs are considerably less so.  Few can stand alone, but when several such documents describe similar methods and means it lends credence to the information.

'Tertiary' documents (third party accounts created by someone who was not an eye witness) have no evidentiary value at all, though they can sometimes provide clues to help the researcher find a primary source to document a historical practice or detail. 

Elusive details documented in solid primary sources qualify as 'treasures'.  I collect such treasure by making margin notes so I can find those details later.  Sticky notes are great for bookmarking hard-copy material, and most digital documents provide some means by which I can make a notation that renders the material easier to find when I need to prove a point.

My latest treasure has little to do with the northwestern fur-trade, but is nonetheless extremely valuable to me, because it settles a point of curiosity.  From the earliest records of dog driving by Europeans in North America until the Klondike Gold Rush I can only prove two methods of hooking up sled dogs, either a true tandem (single file) hitch, or in the coastal regions the Eskimo method of running dogs in a fan-hitch.  Today the vast majority of mushers run their dogs in pairs, hooked to a common gang-line.  That method is variously referred to as a 'Nome' hitch, an Alaskan hitch or rather inaccurately as a 'tandem hitch'. 

The Nome hitch is far and away the most common hitch used today, yet it was apparently unheard of prior to the very late 19th or early 20th century, so the question that nagged my brain was "where the heck did that come from?"  Who came up with the bright idea of doubling the size of a dog team by hooking up pairs of dogs to a common gang-line.

Based on a woodcut appearing in a book originating in the 18th century that I found on-line (and forgot to bookmark, dammit), my best guess was that it originated in Siberia.

18th century woodcut of Siberian rig, source has been forgotten
 My speculation was reinforced from time to time as I found snippets of information regarding Siberian dogs and methods, but I'm not a student of Russian or Russian-American history and I don't read the language.  English translations of historical Russian documents seem to be pretty darned rare.

To shorten what threatens to become a long story, last night I was surfing through GoogleBooks and stumbled across a 19th century book written by an American who had traveled extensively across Siberia as a member of the Russo-American Telegraph project (eventually abandoned) from 1865 through 1869, well before even the earliest of Alaska gold rushes.  The author describes big teams hooked up in what we know as a Nome hitch or Tandem hitch, to sleds remarkably similar to what we know as basket sleds.  He also describes some other practices that are remarkably similar to common practices of modern dog drivers.

To me, this book represents true treasure, as it provides very solid evidence that many of the methods commonly employed by modern dog mushers originated in Siberia rather than in North America.  It seems a small detail as I describe it here, but it certainly could form the basis for a fun magazine article.

1 comment:

  1. While perhaps not a treasure for which I have searched, I totally understand the delight and satisfaction at having now discovered the information you have. One of the good things in life.