Northwest Mossback: Dogs That Helped Shape PNW History
The Makah and Coast Salish people kept two distinct types of dogs in their communities. One was the so-called “village” dog – with short brown hair and resembling a coyote. The other was a smaller, long-haired dog known as a “wool” or “woolly dog”, bred for its beautiful, thick, white hair. The two types of dogs have been separated to avoid crossbreeding.
The woolly dog produced a prodigious coat and was shorn annually in the spring, as were the sheep. The dogs’ white hair was used to weave Salish blankets, articles of great prestige that were also made from rare mountain goat hair. At the time of the first European contacts, explorers noted the thickness of the fleece of the woolly dog. George Vancouver wrote that the dogs looked like Pomeranians, but a little bigger. Early explorers were amazed at the quality of dog wire.
The introduction of commercial Hudson’s Bay Company woolen blankets apparently reduced the need for the woolly dog’s contribution to blanket art. Dog wool appears to have been phased out by the mid-19th century, and woolly dogs disappeared as a distinct breed with the advent of interbreeding with other dogs introduced by settlers.
Some scholars have dismissed the idea of dog blankets. But an 1859 pelt of a woolly dog is housed in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, though it wasn’t discovered until 2003. And the Burke Museum in Seattle has a verified one in its collection. . It was only discovered in 2016.
Interestingly, a dog that closely matches the description of woolly dogs was photographed on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula in the 1940s. So maybe they didn’t all disappear overnight.
A hero dog who arrived with the explorers was Seaman, a Newfoundland who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia River and back in the early 1800s. Seaman was owned by Captain Meriwether Lewis and is the only member of the animal expedition to make the entire round trip. I remember a dog came with a horseback expedition I once led in the mountains of Spain, and if Seaman acted like that dog, he probably traveled two or three times farther than he did. any human member of our group, with his running ahead, back and forth, and many sideways ramblings.
The journey hasn’t been easy for dogs or humans. Seaman was reportedly made miserable by swarms of mosquitoes, he was bitten by a beaver and required surgery, he was even briefly appropriated by some native admirers. And he survived being eaten. Expedition members reportedly ate more than 200 dogs on their journey, taking protein where they could find it when game was scarce. Only explorer William Clark abstained.
Clearly, Seaman’s journey was epic, and there are statues of him in many states along the expedition’s route.
Another great traveler was Owney, the Postal Service’s mascot. Owney was an adorable terrier dog from Albany, New York, who was adopted by railroad postmen in 1888. He later rose to fame traveling on railroad cars across the country. He wore a harness of tags and tokens detailing his travels – so many that it looked like loose chainmail.
But Owney was headed for bigger things than a mail car in Topeka.
In August 1895, Owney was put aboard a steamer at Tacoma bound for Asia and in the care of his crew. He crossed the Pacific and arrived in Japan, where he was allowed to disembark at Yokohama, his papers found to be in order.
He then took passage on a steamer bound for exotic ports. The “tourist dog”, as it was called, visited China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran, Suez, Algiers and the Azores. After quarantine, he was cleared to land in New York and was quickly put on a train to complete the round-the-world journey back to Puget Sound.
Owney made international news and was dubbed a veritable “globe trotter” in the minds of Nellie Bly and George Francis Train – other 19th century runners around the world. After returning to the United States, Owney continued his domestic travels, more famous than ever, only to be shot after biting a postal worker in Toledo, Ohio in 1897. The beloved dog’s travels were only however not quite finished: the canine celebrity was stuffed and displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and it is still on display at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
Which brings us to our final hero dog.
Lassie was a sensation – a major movie star – who debuted in the 1943 MGM pic Lassie comes home, with young Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor. The two were upstaged by an adorable rough collie named Lassie. The action of this first film was set in Scotland, but parts were actually shot in the remote valley of Stehekin on Lake Chelan, a landscape that Lassie traversed to find his way home after being sold to a English laird. Rainbow Falls was one such substitute for a “Scottish” location.
Although the scenes were brief, they inspired MGM to return to showcase more of Chelan’s incredible scenery in Technicolor. A suite, Courage of Lassie, again featuring Elizabeth Taylor, was filmed near Stehekin during World War II – in the fall of 1944.
Yes, there was a war, but MGM was helped by the military to mount a big production to boost morale on the home front. The cast and crew were lodged at the remote Moore Inn near Stehekin. The performers and crew numbered 80 people.
Additionally, there was a menagerie of about 50 animals. In the movie, Lassie grows from a puppy, so the production needed a bunch of different sized Lassies for all ages. Over the years, many dogs have played Lassie. The “wildlife” encountered by Lassie came from Hollywood and included a black bear, beavers, coyotes, skunks and chipmunks. They were dispatched to play their roles. Nothing has been left to nature except the stunning scenery.
Lassie is still trying to find her way home. In the Courage of Lassie she grows up happily in the wilderness of the Cascades after being separated from her family. At some point, she is injured and goes missing and ends up being picked up and taken to training with an army combat unit. She is wounded in battle after a heroic act. A damaged Lassie eventually returns home – she always finds a way – but her demeanor has changed after wartime trauma and she is treated. It was a poignant and timely story as the film was released in 1946 with its message of the damage war can do – even to a dog’s psyche.
As a film and TV star, Lassie and her message of resilience have proven to be incredibly enduring. More movies followed, as did a TV series from the 1950s to the 1970s and even more movies – even a PlayStation game. A succession of Lassies played the part.
Lassie is more than a dog that pulled Timmy out of a well. She touched people with the message of love, loyalty, courage and endurance. It never gets old. The North West was part of the backdrop of its history and was part of the stories of these amazing dogs that also have a place in our history.