Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs

Two Rivers, Alaska











Chiens du Traineau - A Brief History of North American Sled Dogs


There is good evidence to support the thesis that the first domestic dogs to enter North America did so while hauling a traineau (sledge) of some sort.  In the early 1990s, a sensational finding was made on Zhokhov Island, which is part of the Novosibirsk Islands archipelago. Archeologists unearthed an ancient hunters’ encampment 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 in the arctic regions since the dawn of human memory yet there is no evidence to indicate that Indians (Native American / First Nations) living in the boreal, fur-producing regions used dogs to draw sleds prior to the introduction of the European fur-trade.  While absence of evidence does not always constitute evidence of absence, the fact that Indian dog driving gear and methods were more similar to those of Europeans than of Eskimos contributes to a strong case.  Comparing observations of the Dog Rib people recorded in the narrative journal of John Franklin's first overland expedition with those in the narrative of his second expedition provides evidence that the Dog Rib people of the Mackenzie River District did not adopt dog driving until some point between 1824 and 1826.  (Franklin - Journey & Franklin - Second Expedition)

The best available evidence indicates that French colonists were the first to harness dogs to sleds in the boreal regions, combining technology that was 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, and in 1740 Lebeau noted "The Recollects use another form of sledge which they have drawn by dogs, when they go out collecting alms."

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. (Kalm)

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.  They also needed a more efficient means of transporting their furs to trading posts and their goods back to their camps.  They already had toboggans and suitable dogs, all they needed to do was put the two together.

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 Indian's 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.  On September 16th, 1800 Alexander Henry the Younger recorded, "The Indians having camped not many miles above us,...  I purchased 3 trained dogs from them, for three quarts of mixed liquor."  (Coues)    

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 most primary documents from the trade were business records or correspondence, and 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 primary description of the sled dogs used in the Northern 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. (Robinson)

James Carnegie (Earl of Southesk) described his team during the winter of 1859-60 as follows:  "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." (Carnegie 337)

Robert Kennicott and some other 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 described the Indian dogs of the Mackenzie River District.  "The geddies 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 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 and is included as an illustration of this article. (Russell)


[Insert image "Gidde by Russell"]

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.  (Stuck 394)

Although I have been actively seeking sled 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.  I only now have enough such dogs to provide the foundation for a breeding program with a goal of preserving their positive attributes to the greatest degree possible.

[Insert image "Orion & Capella 9-8-11"]

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 owners 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. (Noel)

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." (Kalm, 366)

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." (Robinson 225)

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."   (Young 19)

[Insert image "Eskimo Dog by Adney"]

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 and thus force nomadic Inuit to move to centralized villages 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.

[Insert image Innoko 11-5-11]

Modern Alaskan Malamutes are believed to be descendants of historical Eskimo dogs from Western Alaska.  Writing in 1914, well before the Alaskan Malamute was recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club, missionary Hudson Stuck wrote "The malamute, the Alaskan Esquimau dog, is precisely the same dog as that found amongst the natives of Baffin's Bay and Greenland.... There was never animal better adapted to environment than the malamute dog.  His coat, while it is not fluffy, nor the hair long, is yet so dense and heavy that it affords him a perfect protection against the utmost severity of cold.  His feet are tough and clean, and do not readily accumulate snow between the toes and therefore do not easily get sore - which is the great drawback of nearly all "outside" dogs and their mixed progeny.  He is hardy and thrifty and does well on less food than the mixed breeds; and, despite Peary to the contrary, he will eat anything." (Stuck 394)

Even a single Alaskan Malamute can manage a load of 150 to 250 pounds on a toboggan if trained and conditioned to do so, and a nice team of two to four Alaskan Malamutes would be an eye-catching enhancement to any hivernant's outfit and could take you, your outfit, and maybe even a buddy or two just about anywhere you wish to go in snow country.

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 posts of the fur-trade.  In 1805, Alexander Mackenzie, nephew of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, was in charge of the NWC's operations in the Mackenzie River District, managing the district from his headquarters at Great Bear Lake.  Among his personal possessions was a retriever who amazed the Gwitch'n Athabascans of the lower Mackeznie River by fetching shot birds from the water. (Keith 238, 241). 

In 1814 Alexander Henry the Younger recorded, "Mr. Franchere brought down the dogs belonging to this place (Fort George)....  They are of an excellent breed of the Mastiff kind....  The bitches are of the Hound kind, all famous watch dogs."  (Coues)  Seven years later Captain John Franklin observed European dogs at Cumberland House.  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." (Franklin - First Expedition 51)

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

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

The most notable of the crossbred dogs were the dogs of the HBC'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. (Kennicott 184)

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. (Russell 15)

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.  Regardless of bloodlines, it is not unreasonable for a fur-trade reenactor to include a large, flop-eared, mixed breed dog or two in the sled team.

When the Job Changes - the Dog Changes:

Three 20th century events combined to virtually guarantee the extinction of the 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 was imported to Nome, Alaska 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 somewhat smaller "trap-line" or "village" dogs remained plentiful.

Finally, during the last quarter of the century the widespread adoption of mechanical snowmobiles (called snowmachines in the North) changed the role of the sled dog forever.  As the older, traditionalist dog mushers died off, so did their dogs.

Today the roles of sled dogs in the North are primarily racing, followed by backcountry touring - mostly 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.  Though incredibly athletic and tough, they 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 everyone who lived in the boreal regions of North America.  When those dark clouds of doubt start seeping into my brain, the only sure cure is to don my moccasins, leggins, capote and 'mittains' and harness a team of my most authentic "Indian" dogs to my cariole.  As the team settles into the mile eating trot that is their preferred pace and the sunlight filtered through a cobalt sky 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 experience of running with the dogs... On The Trail.


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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.

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