Abraham Lincoln ran using the image of himself as a frontiersman.
And while he and his family lived in Springfield, Illinois, he kept a frontier dog named Fido.
He was a mid-sized, yellow-colored dog that looked something like a small Labrador retriever.
Many have conjectured about what his breed was, but mid-sized yellow dogs from that region at that time in history could only be one thing: Fido was a cur.
More specifically he was part of the cur landrace that range from the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley into the lower parts of the Midwest. This is the gene from which the now-standardizing mountain cur breed is derived.
Curs were not and are not mongrels. They are multi-purpose farm dogs that had a great utility in parts of British Isles. When they arrived in America, they were used hunting and herding, and bloodlines that included German and Dutch dogs mixed with those British and Irish curs. A few strains may even have a bit of Native American dog sprinkled in, and in some other strains of cur, like the Lacy dog of Texas, wolf ancestry is often claimed.
Fido was not a working dog of any sort. He was a beloved house pet. He often accompanied Lincoln as he walked the streets of Springfield, often carrying a newspaper in his mouth. He occasionally engaged the time tested canine activity of tail chasing. When Lincoln stopped by the barber for a trim, the Fido would wait on him outside the shop.
So loved was Fido that Lincoln gave him a rolling horsehair sofa on which he could lounge. Not bad work for a cur.
Lincoln deeply loved Fido, but when he was elected president in 1860, he decided to leave Fido with friends in Springfield. Lincoln was going to arrive in Washington, D.C., via train, and as his train went through the various towns, church bells and cannons were going to be fired.
Poor Fido was gun shy, and he doubted that he would enjoy the trip that much at all.
Because Fido enjoyed playing with the LIncoln children, it was decided that Fido should stay with the Roll family. The Rolls had two young boys that would give Fido all the attention he needed. According the Poodle and Dog Blog, the Rolls were given the following instructions for caring for Fido:
- He was not to be scolded for entering the house with muddy paws.
- He was not to be tied up alone in the backyard.
- He was to be allowed into the Roll home whenever he scratched at the front door.
- Since he was accustomed to being fed by members of the family during mealtime, he was to be admitted to the dining room during those times.
I don’t know of too many curs on the frontier who got that kind of attention or were given those special privileges.
Fido lived with the Rolls while Lincoln was in Washington. However, poor Fido met as tragic a fate as his master. Within a year of Lincoln’s assassination, a drunken man stabbed him to death.
Such a terrible fate for such a great dog.
One strain of cur, developed in Kentucky, often produces yellow dogs that look so much like Fido. It is called Mountain View Cur. From the photos on its breed club’s website, many of these dogs look a lot like Fido.
I don’t know why curs are not more celebrated in our national history. These dogs were ubiquitous on the frontier, and in some parts of the country, they are quite common.
They are not standardized breeds in the way that AKC dogs are. That’s probably how the term cur got confused with a randomly-bred dogs. They are also not specialized in the way many working breeds are and didn’t really fit into the culture of stock dog trials or coonhound night hunts.
They were the dogs that the settlers knew. Natural selection and the necessity of having a versatile dog on the frontier drove their breeding.
It is only recently that they have begun to standardize into distinct breeds, which is a mixed blessing. As standardized breeds, they may be recognized and appreciated more fully in their country of origin, but also as standardized breeds, they will cease to exist within the framework that maintained them as a working landrace.
I have always admired these dogs. My neighbor growing up had one that he used as a coonhound, and he was a tough little dog.
I have often thought that if West Virginia should ever need to declare a state dog, it should be the Mountain Cur. This was he dog of the mountaineer, the frontiersman, while the foxhound remained mostly the purview of the Tidewater Tuckahoes in the Old Dominion. Virginia’s state dog is the foxhound, and our should be a true creature of the mountains.
For they are every bit as much a part of the wildness that was once the frontier as black bears and coonskin caps.