Historical Freight Dogs

“Marche”: Sledge Dogs in the North West Fur Trade

Original article by Thom “Swanny” Swan

When modern dog sled racers aim their teams toward the finish lines of the North Country’s great races they are following the long obscured tracks of historical Canadian hivernants. (Hivernants was used during the North American fur trade to describe Métis who spent the winter months hunting and trapping on the Canadian prairies where they built small temporary villages. The word is French for “winterer”.) (Métis were, (especially in western Canada) persons of mixed American Indian and Euro-American ancestry, in particular one of a group of such people who in the 19th century constituted the so-called Métis nation in the areas around the Red and Saskatchewan rivers.) If the prize money offered to the winners of Minnesota’s “John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon”, Alaska and Yukon Territory’s “Yukon Quest” and even the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Classic were all combined, that healthy sum would pale in comparison to the vast profits earned as a result of the work performed by the dog drivers of the historical North American fur trade.

No one knows who might have been the first human to harness a dog to a sled. But in the early 1990s, a sensational finding was made on Zhokhov Island, which is part of the Novosibirsk Islands

Until the late nineteenth century sledge dogs were trained to respond to only two voice cues. These were the traditional French “marche” (often mispronounced “mush”) to set the team in motion and “whoa” to tell the team to stop.
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. Historical records of the use of sled dogs in the Siberian Sub Arctic appear in Arabian literature of the tenth century; in writings of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century; and of Francesco de Kollo in the sixteenth. (Coppinger L) An illustration taken from the 1675 edition of Martin Frobisher’s “Historic Navigations.” shows a dog in harness pulling what appears to be a canoe-like sled. (Noel)

Dog power was quickly adopted by early colonists in New France (Canada) and the use of dog sleds was very common by the eighteenth century. Traveling in Quebec in 1749 Peter Kalm wrote, “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 448-9)

French Canadian dog teams saw military service during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War). Louis Antoine Bougainville’s journal entry for the period of February 17 – 28 includes the note, “Each of them (the soldiers) has assembled his dog team to draw the sleds, some have even taken horses. Dogs, at the time departure, cost up to one hundred livres.” (Bougainville 87)

By 1775 many of the men who would steer the destiny of the Northwestern fur trade were already in place. James McGill, Benjamin Frobisher and Maurice Blondeau outfitted twelve canoes at Michilimackinac in a new partnership, which they named “The Northwest Company”. During their travels through the wilds that winter they met with Alexander Henry (the Elder), Peter Pond, Joseph and Thomas Frobisher, Charles Patterson and Jean Baptiste Cadot. (Armour & Widder 40) Not only were these men competing against each other for the trade, they were also in fierce competition against the long-established Hudson’s Bay Company.

As competition increased among the traders it became necessary to take the trade directly into the Indian encampments. In some cases this was accomplished by sending junior clerks to live among the nomadic bands of Indians. This practice called “tenting” was already the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In other circumstances traders played the role of traveling salesmen by going en derouine,traveling to Indian camps with a selection of trade goods and then return with the furs purchased during the trip. Both tenting and going en derouine required that goods and furs be transported between the trading house and Indian encampments. Fisheries and hunting grounds that provided food for the traders and their employees were often distant from the posts, and even firewood frequently had to be transported several miles. As with modern corporations, lines of communication were necessary not only to ensure the flow of inventory and furs from one place to another but also the most important resource of all, information. During the long winters, dog drawn sledges proved the only practical solution to the transportation needs of the fur trade.


The Dogs:

The Nor’westers didn’t use nearly so many dogs in their teams as do today’s mushers, who may start a major long distance race with more than a dozen dogs in harness. The majority of primary references I’ve found documenting practices between about 1750 and about 1880 indicate that historical dog teams (called traineau or “trains”) ranged from only 2 to no more than six animals. No one single breed dominated the sled dog scene in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One contemporary writer noted this fact as he wrote “Dogs of high and low degree were brought for inspection; for dogs in the North have but one occupation – to haul. (Robinson 4)
The majority of sled dogs used by Nor’westers were apparently of random breeding and some carried more than a little bit of wolf-blood in their veins. On August 10th, 1801 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote “…(one) of my men brought in six young wolves he had found in one hole; they were very tame, and we proposed to keep them for the trains, as they are of the large species.(Henry 175) In 1819 an observer at Cumberland House noted “They (the dogs) resemble wolves, both in appearance and disposition. {Hood 46)

By far the best primary description of the sled dogs used in the Northern fur trade was provided in the colorful memoirs of H.M. Robinson, who wrote, “These animals are mostly…large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiryhair. 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…. Most of them are very wolfish in appearance, many being half or partly, or all but entirely, wolves in blood. One frequently sees dogs which are said to be almost pure wolves.” (Robinson 224-225)

Although the historical dog teams were relatively small compared to those of modern dog sled drivers, they routinely drew considerable loads. Daniel Harmon provided several journal entries describing the loads hauled by his animals. On December 21st, 1801 North West Company fur trader Daniel Harmon recorded, “Each man had a Sledge drawn by two Dogs loaded with one hundred & fifty pounds wight (weight) of Furs, and Provisions, for man & beasts to perform the trip.” On December 13th, 1812 he elaborated on capabilities of the Company’s dogs. “Our goods are drawn on sledges by dogs. Each pair of dogs drew a load of from two hundred, to two hundred and fifty pounds, besides provisions for themselves and their driver, which would make the whole load about three hundred pounds. I have seen many dogs, two of which would draw on a sledge, five hundred pounds, twenty miles, in five hours. For a short distance, two of our stoutest dogs will draw more than a thousand pounds weight.” (Harmon 40 & 147)

By the middle of the nineteenth century larger teams (as many as 4 dogs) were becoming more common. H.M. Robinson noted that, “An average train of four dogs will trot briskly along with three hundred pounds’ weight without difficulty. Trains loaded to travel short distances with a barrel of liquor and two sacks of flour, or about six hundred and eighty pounds avoirdupois, are not an uncommon sight.”(Robinson 228) In 1862 missionary John McDougall used a team of four dogs to haul “about 250 pounds of a load, consisting of ammunition and tobacco.” (McDougall)
Until the late nineteenth century sledge dogs were trained to respond to only two voice cues. These were the traditional French “marche” (often mispronounced “mush”) to set the team in motion and “whoa” to tell the team to stop. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Hudson’s Bay Company employee William Miller trained the first team of “Eskimo dogs” to respond to turn right (gee) or left (haw) (Anderson 21) John McDougall described the manner in which he trained a team of one year old pups: “My plan was to hitch the pups to a toboggan, and attached to this I had a long line, the end of which I kept in my hand, and as I ran behind I could, when I said “Whoa,”, stop the dogs.” (McDougall 231) Many others simply hitched the young dog into a team of veterans, and let the older animals take care of the training (Bush 151)

The Dog Driver’s Tools:

The most common vehicle used for hauling freight during winter was most often referred to as a “sledge” and is the same vehicle we call a `toboggan’ today. Robinson described a typical freight-sledge as follows: “It is made of two thin oak or birch-wood boards lashed together with deer-skin thongs. Turned up in front, like a Norwegian snowshoe – scarcely a quarter of a circle – it is from nine to twelve feet in length, and sixteen inches broad. Along it’s outer edges a leather lashing is passed to tie down tightly to its surface whatever may be placed upon it.”(Robinson 226) Historical dog sledges were typically narrow enough to fit within the trail broken by a man on snowshoes. John McDougall wrote that during one of his earliest freight runs he loaded “some four hundred pounds of (buffalo) tongues and cakes and bladders of grease and bags of pounded meat, on a small toboggan, some eight feet(long) by one foot (wide) in size.” (McDougall 25)

Rind4_sThe “cariole”, or passenger-sledge, was a variation of the freight sledge adapted to carry a passenger. It was the vehicle of a bourgeois and was as much a symbol of the man’s status as it was a tool of transportation. On December 28, 1803 Daniel Harmon wrote that he sometimes rode about the country “in a cariol (sic) drawn by a Horse when there is not much Snow, but when the depth is too great by Dogs….”(Harmon 71) Alexander Henry the Younger rode in a cariole when he journeyed from Rocky Mountain House to the Continental Divided in 1811. He described this vehicle as “…made by stretching a wet parchment of mooseskins over a few timbers, to which it was well secured with a line. This forms a comfortable voiture, prevents the snow from gathering in the sled, and keeps a person snug and warm, wrapped in a buffalo robe.”(Henry 192 & 677)

H.M. Robinson’s memoirs provides a more thorough description of a cariole. “A cariole consists of a very thin board, usually not over half an inch thick, fifteen to twenty inches wide, and about ten feet long, turned up at one end in the form of a half circle, like the bend of an Ojibway canoe. To this board a light frame-work. resembling a coffin, or a slipper-bath, is attached, about

If the eighteen days that Henry’s men spent breaking trail were at all typical, they were probably very long days indeed. The dog-sledge traveling day usually began many hours before sunrise and didn’t end until well into the long winter nights.
eighteen inches from the rear end. This frame-work is then covered over with buffalo-skin parchment, and painted and decorated according to taste. When traveling, it is lined with buffalo-robes and blankets, in the midst of which the passenger sits, or rather reclines. The projecting end or floor behind the passenger’s seat is utilized as a sort of boot upon which to tie baggage, or as a platform upon which the driver may stand to gain temporary respite when tired of running.(Robinson 225-226) Like freight sledges, carioles were quite narrow, “just broad enough to admit one person.” (Ballentyne 187)

Those driving dogs in the plains and woodlands hitched their teams in tandem so they might negotiate the narrow trails most efficiently. “Four dogs to each team form a complete train, though three and even two are used, and are harnessed to the cariole by means of two long traces. Between these traces the dogs stand one after the other, with a space intervening between them of perhaps a foot. A round collar, passing over the head and ears and fitting closely to the shoulder, buckles on each side to the traces, which are supported by a back-band of leather.” (Robinson 226-7) McDougall noted that harness for dogs were made of moose skin as opposed to those for horses, which were made of partly tanned buffalo hide. (McDougall 18)

The Routine of Dog Sledge Travel:
The voyageurs driving the dogs rarely rode on the sleds. On a well packed trail the drivers ran on snowshoes, following the sleds. Sometimes the drivers used tag lines to help control the vehicle and they always brandished a whip which was combined with a healthy dose of strong language to control the team. If no packed trail was available the drivers hiked ahead of their animals, using their snowshoes to pack the trail. Sometimes drivers had to break trail for days at a time. On January 13, 1802 Alexander Henry set out from his Red River post for the Assiniboine, by way of Riviere aux Gratias and upon his return he recorded, “Each of my men had a train of two dogs, with my baggage and provisions, and I a train drawn by three stout dogs. Snow very deep; my men were obliged to beat the road all the way on snowshoes. We were one day going to Riviere aux Gratias; five thence to Portage la Prairie; five thence to Riviere la Souris; two thence to Delorme’s house in the Hair hills ; four to Langlois’ house; and one back to Panbian (Pembina) river. All this distance my men walked hard upon snowshoes.” (Henry 193)

Rind4_sIf the eighteen days that Henry’s men spent breaking trail were at all typical, they were probably very long days indeed. The dog-sledge traveling day usually began many hours before sunrise and didn’t end until well into the long winter nights. Alexander Henry was no stranger to this routine. His journal entries made while traveling from Rocky Mountain House to the continental divide in 1811 show that on February 4th the party started at 4:30 am, and on February 12th they were on the trail at 3:00. On that day they made camp early, at 3:00 p.m. because the dogs were too exhausted to continue.(Henry 698) More often than not the voyageurs stayed on the trail until daylight had long been replaced by the feeble glow of the Northern Lights.

Trying to control a pack of untrained dogs is one of life’s more frustrating tasks and it requires an especially colorful vocabulary. Even the most worthy of Christian missionaries gave vent to their anger when dealing with the mutts. “…it is said that one of the missionaries on the Saskatchewan, a most worthy and pious man, when travelling with some of his flock in the winter, astonished and horrified his companions by suddenly giving vent, in his distraction, to most dreadful anathemas against his dogs. They were lying coolly down in the most aggravating manner, with their heads turned round narrowly watching him, but without making the smallest effort to help themselves and him out of the difficulty into which they had fallen.”(Bush 82) Another anecdote concerns a bishop making an extended winter tour of several hundred miles through his diocese. When the bishop complained that his team was falling behind those of his companions, the driver replied that the dogs did not respond to his whippings unless he also swore at them, but that “out of respect to his reverence he had abstained from using strong words.” The bishop ordered to driver to swear away to his heart’s content, and promised he would give full absolution at the end of the journey.(Young 12)

Having endured the punishment of long hours upon the trail, man and beast were beyond exhausted when the time finally came to make camp for the evening. When on the trail the hard working dogs were fed once each day, shortly after the men had finished their own supper. “In the plain-country, a daily ration of two pounds of pemmican is thrown him; in the region of forest and stream, where fish forms the staple food, he receives two large white-fish raw.”(Robinson 15) Robinson’s sledge dogs were quite well fed compared to many. Other dog food recorded in historical sources include “the offals of dried and stinking fish”, “as much tallow as we took ourselves”, and “a caribou hind and forequarter per day”.

Distances covered during those long, hard days of running was noteworthy. Daniel Harmon noted that his teams typically traveled 20 miles in five hours, for an average of four miles per hour (Harmon 147). Robinson wrote that four miles an hour was a common “dog trot”, but he also noted that extraordinary distances were sometimes obtained. He cited an instance in which the driver of a mail-sledge between Fort Garry and Pembina made the round trip of one hundred thirty five miles in a single night, with the same team of dogs. ( Robinson 228)

Perhaps the most impressive feat of historical dog drivers was the delivery of the annual Winter Express which reliably carried the important news of the trade from Athabasca to Lake Superior each winter. According to Roderic Mackenzie, the first winter express left Fort Chipewyan on October 1, 1798 and arrived at Fort William on May 17, 1799.(Innis 245) As they gained experience, the teams carrying the express were able to reduce the transit time considerably. Word of the amalgamation of the XY and Northwest companies reached Alexander Henry at Lower Red River on January 1st, 1805, only 56 days after it had been signed. Harmon, at Ft. Alexandria received the news on February 8, over a month later.(Innis 245)

On July 3, 1806 McGillivray issued a memo intended to regulate the route and schedule of the winter express. According to that memo, the express was to leave Peace River on January 3, 1807, Isle a la Crosse on January 12th and Fort Augustus on the 24th, with the expectation that the three teams would meet at Fort Vermillion on or before January 30th. From Ft. Vermillion the express was expected to be back on the trail February 1st, ultimately being delivered to it’s final destination in April.(Innis 245) Although twice the distance expected of most freight teams, 40 miles per day was not unusual for the hard running men and dogs assigned to carry the winter packet.( Bush 70)

As winter wore on into spring, the changing conditions associated with longer days and warmer weather required a change in the dog-sledge traveler’s routine; they worked the graveyard shift. On March 14th, 1804 Alexander Henry the Younger recorded, “We returned home, traveling in the night;at this season we prefer always to do so, to prevent sore eyes, and to take advantage of the frost; the dogs travel much better than in the daytime, when the snow is soft and they are soon fatigued.”(Henry 239) Sixty years later John McDougall was continuing the night-shift tradition. “As expressteamthe days grew warmer, we who were handling dogs had to travel most of the time in the night, as then the snow and track were frozen. While the snow lasted, we slept and rested during the warm hours of the day, and in the cool of the morning and evening, and all night long, we kept at work transporting our materials to the site of the new mission. The night-work, the glare or reflection of the snow, both by sun and moonlight; the subsidence of the snow on either side of the road, causing constant upsetting of sleds; the melting of the snow, making your feet wet and sloppy almost all the time; then the pulling, and pushing, and lifting, and walking, and running – these were the inevitable experiences.”(McDougall 43-44)

The End of the Trail:

As we reach the end of any trail, it’s natural to reflect upon the experiences of the journey. In March 1820, while recovering from a two month long journey by dog sledge from Cumberland House to Fort Chipewyan, Captain John Franklin recorded his reflections of a long, arduous journey by dog sledge: “Thus has terminated a winter’s journey of eight hundred and fifty-seven miles, in the progress of which there has been a great intermixture of agreeable and disagreeable circumstances. Could the amount of each be balanced, I suspect the latter would much preponderate; and amongst these the initiation into the practice of walking in snow-shoes must be considered as prominent. The suffering it occasions can be but faintly imagined by a person who thinks upon the inconvenience of marching with a weight of between two and three pounds constantly attached to galled feet, and swelled ancles [sic]….There are other inconveniences which though keenly felt during the day’s journey are speedily forgotten, when stretched out in the encampment before a large fire, you enjoy the social mirth of your companions, who usually pass the evening in recounting their former feats in travelling.” (Franklin 140-141)


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