Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Sled Dogs of the Early Canadian Fur Trade

This article originally appeared in Mushing magazine. I reserved electronic publication rights in order to share it here.

Sled Dogs of the Early Canadian Fur Trade
by Thom "Swanny" Swan

            There is good evidence to suggest that the first domestic dogs to enter North America did so while pulling sleds of some sort.  In the early 1990s archeologists unearthed an ancient hunters’ encampment on Zhokhov Island in the Novosibirk archipelago, and discovered the remnants of a dog harness, some dog sleds, and a very well preserved dog bone.  Radiocarbon analysis of the findings showed that their approximate age was 7,800-8,000 years.

            North America's historical 'Eskimos' (Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik, &c) have been driving sled dogs since the dawn of human memory yet there is no evidence to indicate that Native American or First Nations people, historically referred to as Indians, used dogs to draw sleds prior to the introduction of the European fur-trade.  While the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, historical Native American and First Nations dog driving equipment and methods were much more similar to those of Europeans rather than Eskimos, which contributes to a strong case.  Comparing observations recorded in the narrative journals of John Franklin's first overland expedition with those of his second expedition shows that the Dog Rib people of the Mackenzie River District did not start mushing sled dogs until some point between 1824 and 1826. 

            The best available evidence suggests that French colonists were the first to harness dogs to sleds in the boreal regions, combining types of harnesses and rigs that were well known in their homeland with the Native-invented toboggan.  Dog power was an important feature of daily life in Lower Canada from the 17th century.  In 1688-89 LaHontan observed sleds "drawn by great dogs" were in common use.

            Sled dogs became even more important to French colonists in the 18th century.  Peter Kalm wrote the most descriptive early 18th century account in 1749.   "In winter it is customary in Canada, for travellers to put dogs before little sledges, made on purpose to hold their cloathes, provisions, &c.  Poor people commonly employ them on their winter-journies, and go on foot themselves.  Almost all the wood, which the poorer people in this country fetch out of the woods in winter, is carried by dogs, which have therefore got the name of horses of the poor people.  They commonly place a pair of dogs before each load of wood.  I have, likewise seen some neat little sledges, for ladies to ride in, in winter; they are drawn by a pair of dogs, and go faster on a good road, than one would think.  A middle-sized dog is sufficient to draw a single person, when the roads are good."
             Once introduced, the practice of driving dogs caught on fast among Natives.  In order to trap enough fur to trade for the most desirable and expensive items, Natives had to travel further and faster and needed a more efficient means of transporting their furs to trading posts and their purchases back to their camps.  They already had toboggans and suitable dogs, all they needed to do was put the two together. As Native people visited and traded among each other, the practice of dog mushing was introduced, typically about a decade or so before the first fur traders entered a new trading region.

The "Indian" Dogs:

            The most common dogs pressed into sled service in the fur-trade, by Natives and Whites alike, were Indian dogs.   Originally kept by aboriginal people for hunting, packing, religious sacrifices, security and in some cultures even as mobile meals, many of the Native dogs were already well suited for the job of drawing a sledge.   Natives often enjoyed a surplus of dogs and were willing to trade them, sometimes quite cheaply.  For example, on September 16th, 1800 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote that he purchased 3 trained sled dogs for three quarts of watered down liquor.

            In those rare fur-trade documents that mention breeds or types of sled dogs, Indian dogs (often referred to as Indian mongrels) were far and away most common, but those business records did not describe the dogs in any great detail.  The narratives, letters, memoirs and other documents written by explorers, missionaries and other visitors to the fur-trading region during the 19th century are often more descriptive.

            One of the best first hand descriptions of the Native sled dogs used in the fur trade was provided in the memoirs of H.M. Robinson, who wrote, “These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiry hair.  White is one of the most usual colors, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow, and white marked with spots of black, or of the other various hues, are also common.  Some of them are black with white paws, others are covered with long rough hair, like Russian setters.  There are others of a light bluish-grey, with dark, almost black spots spread over the whole body.

            James Carnegie (Earl of Southesk) described his team during the winter of 1859-60, writing, "My team consists of three middle-sized Indian dogs, sharp-nosed, bushy-haired and wolfish.  Chocolat, the leader, is dark red; Casse-toute, grey, shaded with black; and Fox, reddish fawn-colour."

            Robert Kennicott and some other historical authors referred to Indian dogs as "geddies" or "giddies", to differentiate them from sled dogs developed by Whites in the later years of the fur trade.  Kennicott wrote that the Indian dogs of the Mackenzie River District.  "... look a good deal like a fox, only heavier and stronger in every way.  They are hardy to a wonderful degree."  Frank Russell wrote, "Most of them are of the wolfish breed known as Indian dogs, or, in the far North, - giddes; these are smaller and more uniform in color than those kept by the whites."

            Pure blood Indian dogs were already nearing extinction as a result of diseases and interbreeding with European dogs prior to the age of photography.  I know of only 2 historical photographs that we can be reasonably certain are of pure Indian sled dogs.  The copyright of one of these is in private hands, but an on-line search for 'Horse Creek Mary' and 'dogs' will usually provide copies of the image as a result.  The second, an image of a nearly starved dog in summer coat is from an expedition report published in1898, is included as an illustration of this article.

A First Nations dog in summer condition, by Frank Russell, published in 1898.

         The demise of purebred Indian dogs was noted even before 1914, when Alaskan missionary Hudson Stuck wrote "The 'Siwash' dog is the common Indian dog; generally undersized, uncared for, half starved most of the time, and snappish because not handled save with roughness.  In general appearance he resembles somewhat a small malamute, though, indeed, nowadays so mixed have the breeds become that he may be any cur or mongrel."

            My own team consists primarily of dogs that are similar to the historical descriptions and images of Indian dogs. They have been difficult to find even in the remote bush regions of Alaska and Yukon Territory.  Artist Veryl Goodnight's painting "March On The Mail Trail" depicts the author's team in a late 19th century context.  My dogs Orion and Capella are representative of the historical descriptions of 18the and early 19th century Indian dogs.

Painting of the author's most historically authentic dogs by Veryl Goodnight.

Orion and Capella are representative of historical descriptions of late 18th and 19th century "Indian" dogs.

The "Eskimo" Dogs:

            During the late 18th through the 19th century, a few "Esquimeaux dogs" found their way into the boreal regions.  Compared to the Indian dogs, the Eskimo animals (called "Eskies" and later bastardized to "Huskies") were selectively bred for thousands of human generations for genetic traits specific to hauling heavy loads over long distances.  It's no surprise that the historical Nor'westers regarded the Eskimo dogs as the very best of sled dogs. 

            Archaeological findings on Zhokov Island and other sites indicate that the ancestors of the modern Inuit Sled Dogs likely drew their owner's goods and supplies across Beringia 7800 to 8000 years before modern time.   Professor Jean Aigner, head of the University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropology department, has asserted that there is firm evidence that Alaskan Natives have been using dogs to draw sleds for at least the last 1,000 years.   An illustration on the frontspiece of the 1657 edition of Martin Frobisher's Historia Navigationis includes an image of an Eskimo dog in harness drawing a sled.

            In 1749, Kalm was describing the Eskimo people in the region of Labrador when he wrote, "For many centuries past they have had dogs whose ears are erected, and never hang down.  They make use of them for hunting, and instead of horses in winter, for drawing their goods on the ice.  They themselves sometimes ride in sledges drawn by dogs.  They have no other domestic animal."

            In describing the array of dogs at a Hudson's Bay Company post, H.M. Robinson wrote, "It sometimes happens, however, that among this howling pack of mongrels there may be picked out a genuine train of dogs.  There is no mistake about them in size or form, from foregoer to hindmost hauler.  They are of pure Esquimaux breed, the bush-tailed, fox-headed, long-furred, clean-legged animals, whose ears, sharp-pointed and erect, spring from a head embedded in thick tufts of wooly hair.  These animals have come from the far-northern districts, and have brought a round sum to their owners.  They are of much more equable temper than their wolfish brethern, and frequently have a keen appreciation of kindness."

            Describing his own Eskimo dogs, missionary Egerton R Young wrote "The pure Eskimo dog is not devoid of beauty.  His compact body, well furred; his sharp-pointed, alert-looking ears; his fox-like muzzle; his good legs and firm, hard feet; his busy tail, of which he often seems so proud; and his bright, roguish eyes, place him in no mean position among the other dogs of the world.  His colour varies from the purest white to jet black.  I owned two so absolutely white that not a coloured hair could be found on either of them. ...  The working weight of my Eskimo dogs ranged from sixty to a hundred and thirty pounds.  It seemed rather remarkable that some of the lighter dogs were quite equal in drawing power to others that were very much larger and heavier."  

Drawing of an Eskimo (Inuit) dog by Edwin Tappan Adney, published in 1900.

            Although still referred to as the Canadian Eskimo Dog by the Canadian Kennel Club, the preferred term for pure blood Eskimo dogs is "Inuit Sled Dog".  Among dog mushers they are known by their Inuktituk name of "qimmiq".  It has been estimated that in the 1920s some 20,000 such dogs were living in the arctic regions of Canada alone.  A combination of cross-breeding, disease and an apparent attempt by the Canadian Government to eradicate the breed resulted in fewer than 200 animals left alive.   The breed might have gone extinct if not for the efforts of the Eskimo Dog Research Foundation created by William Carpenter and John McGrath.  The foundation purchased dogs from remote Inuit camps and began breeding them to increase their numbers. 

            Most modern Inuit Sled Dogs are found in the arctic regions of Canada and a few working kennels in the upper Midwest region of the United States.  A few mushers in Alaska have some Canadian Inuit dogs or mixes as well.  One of my own dogs, a mix of Canadian Eskimo Dog and Yukon River Dog named Innoko, has the general appearance and temperament of the ancient Eskimo dogs.

Innoko is a Canadian Inuit Dog, similar to historical descriptions of "Eskimo" dogs.


The Mixed Breed Dogs:

            By the early 19th century, European breeds of dog were present at least in small numbers at some of the furthest and most remote posts of the fur-trade.  In 1805, Alexander Mackenzie, nephew of Sir Alexander Mackenzie who explored the river that bears his name, was headquartered at Great Bear Lake.  Among his personal possessions was a retriever who amazed the local Athabascans by fetching shot birds from the water.

            In 1814 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote, "Mr. Franchere brought down the dogs belonging to this place (Fort George, formerly Astoria)....  They are of an excellent breed of the Mastiff kind....  The bitches are of the Hound kind, all famous watch dogs."  Seven years later Captain John Franklin observed European dogs at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River.  Franklin wrote, "This morning the sporting part of our society had rather a novel diversion: intelligence having been brought that a wolf had borne away a steel trap, in which he had been caught, a party went in search of the marauder, and took two English bull-dogs and a terrier, which had been brought into the country this season."

            In the early 19th century fur-trade dog mushers began intentionally mixing European breeds with Indian dogs in hopes of creating dogs more suited for the job at hand.   Reduced staffing and more efficient business practices instituted by the Hudson Bay Company's George Simpson provided incentive because fewer laborers, longer distances and heavier cargoes demanded larger, stronger dogs.

            There appears to have been a strong preference for large, molosser type dogs such as mastiffs, Newfoundland Dogs, Saint Bernards and similar breeds.  That is evidenced in the DNA of modern racing Alaskan Huskies, a majority of whom carry genes normally associated with Anatolian Shepherd Dogs. The Anatolian is a large molosser livestock guardian breed developed in Turkey, but not known in North America before the 1950s, and even today is still quite rare.

Seamus is an Anatolian Shepherd Dog x Alaskan Sled Dog cross

            The most notable of the crossbred dogs were the dogs of the Hudson's Bay Company's Mackenzie River District.  By the 1860s the Yukon River Dogs (later referred to as "Mackenzie River Huskies") were known and respected throughout the Northland, even at locations far removed from modern Yukon and Nunavut Territories. 

            In 1861 Robert Kennicott described his Yukon River Dogs. "The original stock has probably been some large, strong dog, and they have become hardier by a very slight intermixture with Indian dogs.  Of course the best dogs are bred from, and thus at last the general stock has come to possess peculiar strength and powers of endurance.  This breed of dogs is now carefully kept distinct from the Indian dogs, or "geddies" as they are called, even though they have originally been improved by an intermixture of geddie blood....  Two of mine are quarter geddies, and one of them, though very large, is almost exactly the shape of a geddie....  My other two dogs are pure-blooded 'Yukon dogs,' as a particularly fine breed, mostly found at this post, is called.

            Frank Russell wrote, "The dogs of the Mackenzie District are the largest and best trained of all that I saw in the North.  They have been bred especially for hauling upon the established routes of travel, where weight, rather than endurance, is desired."

            The fame of these dogs continued well into the 20th century, even as more out-crossing with European breeds created additional confusion.  This is demonstrated in Hudson Stuck's 1914 description.  "Many years ago the Hudson Bay voyageurs bred some selected strains of imported dog with the Indian dogs of those parts, or else did no more than carefully select the best individuals of the native species and bred from them exclusively - it is variously stated - and that is the accepted origin of the 'husky.'  The malamute and the husky are the two chief sources of the white man's dog teams, though cross-breeding with setters and pointers, hounds of various sorts, mastiffs, Saint Bernards, and Newfoundlands has resulted in a general admixture of breeds, so that the work dogs of Alaska are an heterogenous lot today.  It should also be stated that the terms 'malamute' and 'husky' are very generally confused and often used interchangeably." (Stuck 392)

            Today the famous Mackenzie River Huskies are exceedingly rare though a few dedicated fanciers are making every reasonable effort to preserve the breed. 

When the Job Changes - the Dog Changes:

            Three 20th century events combined to threaten the existence of the historical working dog breeds that were once common throughout the far north.  The first of these was the development of organized sled dog racing. 

            Established in 1908, the Nome Kennel Club held the first "All Alaskan Sweepstakes" race - from Nome to Candle and back - offering serious prize money to the winner.  In 1909 the first teams of Siberian huskies were imported to Nome by Charles Fox Maule Ramsey.  Those two teams took first and second place in the 1910 event.  The winning team, driven by John "Iron Man" Johnson, set record that stood until the centennial reenactment of the race in 2008.   With serious money on the line, so many Alaskan dog mushers sought out Siberians for their breeding programs that today it is nearly impossible to find a racing sled dog without some degree of Siberian husky in his or her DNA.

            Developments in the field of aviation in the 1920s led to dog teams being replaced by airplanes for the long distance transportation of mail and freight to many of the isolated bush villages of Alaska and Canada, considerably reducing the demand for freight hauling teams.  This led to the demise of the big mail and freight hauling operations, though smaller "trap-line" or "village" dog teams remained plentiful until mid-century.

            Finally, during the last quarter of the 20th century the widespread adoption of mechanical snowmachines  changed the role of sled dogs forever.  As the older, traditional dog mushing trappers and travelers died off, so did their dogs.

            Today the roles of sled dogs in the North are primarily racing, followed by backcountry touring - particularly in regions where snowmachines are not legally permitted to travel.    The modern racing Alaskan Husky is a mix of any type of dog who loves to run and pull.  Although Alaskan huskies are incredibly athletic and tough, most bear little resemblance to the sled dogs of history. 

            Currently tourism combined with a strong interest in preserving Inuit tradition and culture in the Canadian arctic, especially Nunavut Territory and the area around Churchill, Manitoba seems to be sufficient incentive to maintain a viable population of Inuit Sled Dogs.  A handful of bush-dwelling trappers, a few back-country tour operators and a handful of fanciers such as I are trying to maintain breeding populations of "village" or "trap-line" dogs similar to historical Indian types, though such dogs they are becoming increasingly rare and difficult to obtain.  Whether our preservation projects will succeed is seriously questioned.

            There are days when I despair for the future of the historical types of sled dogs that contributed so much to the fur-trade and to everyone who lived in the boreal regions of North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.  When those dark clouds of doubt start seeping into my brain, the only sure cure is to don my historically authentic clothing, harness a team of my most authentic "Indian" dogs to my 'cariole' or 'traveling sled' and pull the hook.  As the team settles into the mile eating trot that is their preferred pace and the sunlight filters through a cobalt sky and sparkles off the hoar frost coating the bushes and trees, the experience refreshes my mind and my spirit.  Some worries just can't compete with the timeless experience of mushing the dogs.

Illustration Credits:
Adney, T: The Klondike Stampede:  Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York and London: 1900.

Russell,  Frank: Explorations in the Far North; Being the Report of an Expedition Under the Auspices of the University of Iowa in the Years 1892, 1893 & 1894: Univeristy of Iowa: 1898.

Goodnight, Veryl; "March of the Mail Trail", painting 2014.

Historical References:
Carnegie, J (Earl of Southesk): Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.  A Diary and Narrative of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson's Bay Company Territories in 1859 and 1860: Edmonston and Douglas: Edinbrugh: 1875.

Coues, E (ed): New Light on the History of the Great Northwest; The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson: Francis P. Harper: NY: 1897.

Franklin J: Narrative of a Journey to the Shorts of the Polar Sea in the years 1819, 20,21, & 22:  M. C. Carey & I. Lea, A. Small, Edward Parker, McCarty and Davis, B. & T. Kite, Thomas DeSilver, and E. Littell: Philadelphia: 1824.

Franklin J: Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Seas in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827: Carey, Lea, and Carey: Philadelphia: 1828.

Kalm, P: Travels Into North America: John R Forster, translator: Volume II: T. Lowdes, London: 1772.

Keith, L; North of Athabasca; Slave Lake and Mackenzie River Documents of the North West Company, 1800-1821; McGill-Queen's University Press; Montreal; 2001.

Kennicott, R: Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences: The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Chicago: 1869

Robinson, HM: The Great Fur Land or Sketches of Life in the Hudson’s Bay Territory: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York; 1879.

Russell, F: Explorations in the Far North; Being the Report of an Expedition Under the Auspices of the University of Iowa in the Years 1892, 1893 & 1894: Univeristy of Iowa: 1898.

Stuck, H: Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled; A Narrative of Winter Travel in Interior Alaska: Charles Scribner's Sons: New York: 1914.

Young, E: My Dogs in the Northland: Fleming H. Revell Company; New York, Chicago, Toronto: 1902.

About the Author:

            Thom "Swanny" Swan is a recreational dog musher and historical reenactor. He, his wife Trish, 23 dogs and two very cautious domestic cats share the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska.


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