From a piece by George Norbury Appold in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1885):
It is sincerely to be regretted, in view of his exceptionally valuable qualities, that suggested a close relationship to the otter-dog. His ability as a retriever emphasized this supposition. His superior qualities in this direction were so manifestly phenomenal that the few original specimens were eagerly purchased from their foreign owners by the gunners of Chesapeake Bay. The ability of this dog to withstand cold and exposure was far beyond that of the Irish retriever [Irish water spaniel]. Within a brief period he entirely superseded the last-named animal as a water-dog. For some unknown reason the Chesapeake duck-dog never became numerous; hence the owner of a pure-blooded specimen could hardly be induced to part with him at any price. In time this dog so identified himself with the waters of Chesapeake Bay as to be known by no other name than that borne by this estuary.
Twenty five years ago he was at the apogee of his fame. Nearly every family living in the bay counties of Maryland owned one or more of untainted blood. Through carelessness the breed was allowed to deteriorate; in consequence, to-day few, if any, of pure blood are in existence. A small number, however, remain of sufficient purity of race and perfection of training to almost equal in efficiency their distinguished and untainted ancestors. There were, in reality, two varieties of this dog, the long and the smooth coated, the latter not so popular as the former. The Chesapeake duck-dog is of the same size as the small Newfoundland [St. John’s water dog], head broad, nose sharp, eyes small and bright, ears somewhat insignificant and set high; coat in color dark sedge, strong and tigtlyy curled, with a peculiar under fur, so thick that the dog can remain in the water a long time without his skin becoming wet. The hair on the legs is not so long. It is particularly short about the nose and eyes. The Chesapeake duck-dog is used by sportsmen who shoot wild fowl either from points or from “booby blinds” set in the water a short distance from the shore.This dog so closely resembles the color of sedge-grass as not to be distinguishable except very near by. He remains in concealment until ordered to “fetch.” At the command he springs into the water, breaking his way even through ice of considerable thickness. The wounded birds he first retrieves. When these are all gathered in, he secures the dead. Ducks in the Maryland waters generally fly in long strings. It often happens that the gunner, armed with a breech-loader, puts in several shots while the gang of birds is passing. In this case the well-trained and sagacious dog has much hard work to do, particularly if the weather be rough. His endurance, however, is remarkable, and he never seems to tire at his task. This continuous immersion in the water would be impossible to any animal not provided with the thick and almost water-proof under fur of the Chesapeake duck-dog.
With his affectionate disposition, great intelligence, strength, and the peculiar physical qualities which he possesses, adapting him to the retrieving of wild fowl beyond any other known breed, it is a great misfortune that closer attention has not been given to the preservation of the purity of the race (pg. 36-37).
The Chesapeake Bay retriever is derived from the St. John’s water dog, as are all the other large retrievers.
This type of “Newfoundland” dog would have been commonly available in the United States, but it was only Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay that anyone attempted to turn this dog into a strain of retriever.
Unlike the St. John’s water dog-derived retrievers bred in the British Isles, the Chesapeake Bay retriever was selected for liver and yellow to red coloration. In Britain, virtually every gentleman had to have a black retriever for driven shoots.
American ducks, however, were always heavily gunned, and there was always a belief that one needed a brown or yellow retriever for camouflage.
Most Americans used water spaniels for retrieving ducks and retrieving setters to pick up land-based game birds, but on Chesapeake Bay there was a retriever culture that was very distinct from that in the British Isles.
In some ways, it was a southern equivalent of the Newfoundland culture which used those rugged water dogs to haul in nets and lines, hunt waterfowl and sea birds, and guard the home.
The Marylanders used their dogs in almost the same way, but a great many of these people were also involved in market hunting, a sort of American equivalent of the African bushmeat trade. Hunters would go out and kill as many ducks and other waterfowl as they could, which they would then sell to restaurants and markets in the growing cities.
It was bad for our wildlife, but the culture that thrived upon this slaughter created this dog.
In some weird way, the Chesapeake Bay retriever is a bit of a museum piece.
As the outports of Newfoundland have begun to dwindle away, the St. John’s water dog slowly disappeared.
But its descendants have wound up conquering the world. The Labrador retriever is the most common purebred dog in the world. Golden retrievers are also quite popular.
But only the Chesapeake Bay duck dog was essentially kept in much the same way as the dogs of Newfoundland.
This Chesapeake retriever culture got started in 1807, when two St. John’s water dogs were rescued from a British ship that had been working off the coast of Newfoundland. The dogs were placed in the homes of different owners, and one of these dogs wound up in the hands of Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd, a wealthy planter who was into importing improved breeds of domestic stock from Europe. The dog was actually traded for Merino ram at a time when America’s sheep industry was booming and everyone was trying to get Merino stock.
Like our Vermont strain of Merino, the Chesapeake Bay retriever became our variant of the St. John’s water dog.
Today, it’s not as common as its British cousins, the golden and Labrador retrievers, which were derived from St. John’s water dogs selected for estate shoots.
But it still has a devout following.