This image of three brace of Grand bleu de Gascogne hounds comes from Gilbert Valet’s La chasse du chevreuil (“Deer hunting”).
These dogs are used to hunt deer in the traditional French way, which is very illegal in most of the United States. Running deer with hounds is a tradition in most of the South, but most states in the US have banned hunting deer with running hounds. Many states, like New York, allow leashed tracking dogs to track wounded deer, but the state doesn’t allow hunters to release every strong dog in the county into the woods in hopes of driving out a big ‘un.
The French still have a tradition of running hounds on deer, and they still celebrate their deer hounds– every bit as much as Southern white-tailed deer hunters do.
This particular breed is from the Midi region in the southwest of France. Gaston Febus, Comte du Foix, is said to have run packs of ticked hounds on deer, wolves, and boar in the fourteenth century. Traditonally, it is said to be the primary ancestor of the bluetick coonhound in the United States, and there is even a type of heavy bluetick-type hound that is called the “American blue Gascon hound.” It is the original heavy hound type that was once common in the bluetick coonhound, but because coonhound trials require a particularly fast hound, the functional conformation standard for that breed required a rangier, harder driving hound. However, there were splinter groups within blueticks that fought to preserve the original heavy type.
But here’s the thing: Although the old-type bluetick looks a lot like a Grand bleu de Gascogne, I have not seen any evidence that these dogs are of the same lineage.
One problem that I have with the theory is that the number of French settlers to the southern United States that came directly from France was very small. Most of the French Cajuns in Louisiana came to Louisiana via Acadia– in Maritime Canada. There are no indigenous blueticked hounds in Quebec or the French-speaking parts of the Maritimes. And when the French colonized these regions, these types of hound were not readily accessible to the majority of the populace. It is unlikely that any free French yeoman could easily procure hounds from a nobleman and take them to the New World.
Of course, the other theory is that the blueticks all derive from Grand bleu de Gascogne that were given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette. This is possible, but the pack was only two and half brace– and the bluetick coonhound is far too common and not inbred enough to have derived from just that small number of hounds.
The center of this breed’s development has been Tennessee, not Virginia or Louisiana. That state has no real connection to widespread French colonization, though there were French trading posts in the state in the early eighteenth century. The bulk of the state’s population has been Scots-Irish in origin, and the French trading posts disappeared before Anglo-American settlers moved in. It is doubtful that packs of French hounds could live wild in the Tennessee wilderness until the Anglo settlers arrived in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Because of they think another more parsimonious origin is that the dog is derived from a British dog.
And we do have a breed that fits the bill– the Southern hound of England.
This breed was very common in England south of the River Trent until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it disappeared. It partly was absorbed into modern scent hound breeds, but it was very common in England. It would have been widely imported to the American colonies, for it was such a common hunting dog that it would have been very common for well-to-do colonists to bring over large numbers of them.
What did a Southern hound look like? Well, here’s the best known image of one. It comes from The Dog in Health and Disease (1852) by Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh):
This image clearly shows a dog of the heavy scent hound type. It appears to have been between a foxhound and a bloodhound– two breeds that absorbed it.
This same description also fits how we understand certain more “bloodhoundy” coonhounds to be. In addition the American blue Gascon hound type, there are plenty of black and tan coonhounds that are of this type. Granted, most of these black and tans are actually AKC show stock and are not widely used as hunting dogs.
Very few sources talk about the color of the Southern hound, but I came across this gem in Henry Anderson Bryden’s Hare-hunting and Harriers (1903). In the text, Bryden discusses the origin of the “blue-mottle” (bluetick) coloration in the harrier and traces it to the Southern hound:
The colour of the Southern hound has been much debated, some asserting that it was originally black and tan, while others maintain that blue mottle was the true Southern hound colour. Personally, after a good deal of research, I am inclined to think that the old Southern hound ran in many colours, black and tan, red, the varied colouration which we now attribute to foxhounds, blue mottle, badger pie, hare pie, pure white, and even slate colour. In Devon and Sussex, which seem to have been always strongholds of the Southern hound blood, blue mottle is still a very noticeable colour in some of the best of the old harrier stock, which owe their ancestry largely to the Southern hound strain.
I think this description suggest that the heavy black and tans and blueticks/American blue Gascons (and perhaps the Redbones) are actually derived from this blood, not any French hounds or the bloodhound.
Some sources describe the primary color of the Southern hound as “blue mottle.” Henry William Herbert described the Southern hound in The Complete Manual for Young Sportsmen (1857), which included a description of the various scent hounds of Britain:
The Southern hound, though somewhat lighter framed and not much, has the same general characteristies [as a bloodhound], but is often, if not generally, blue mottled with patches of black and tan (pg. 226).
That description sounds very much like the old bluetick coonhound type or the American blue Gascon hound.
The large immigration to England’s North American colonies from the British Isles also coincides with the large-scale adoption of the foxhound as the primary pack hound in England. Prior to the adoption of foxhunting as the primary rural sport, the southern hounds were more common, but they were not nearly as good at chasing foxes as the lighter foxhounds were. With these heavier dogs being replaced by the foxhounds, it would have been easy for settlers to the American colonies to procure these dogs and establish strains of them there.
Judging from the descriptions of the dogs, perhaps the heavy blueticks/American blue Gascon hounds are the closest things to living Southern hounds.
This theory is much more likely than the Grand bleu de Gascogne theory that is so widely promoted.
There just weren’t that many French colonists and settlers, and those that did come were mostly of Canadian origin.
There is very little evidence of large packs of French hounds being brought to this country at any time.
And because blueticks are so common, it would have required large-scale importation– much more than the hounds that Washington received. There is no evidence that these French hounds were Grand bleu de Gascogne either, and there are plenty of other French hound breeds that these dogs could have been.
It’s just a very murky story. The evidence just isn’t there, and there is another competing hypothesis that has not been considered more carefully.
In the end it, it may be that the French origin of the blueticks may be as fanciful as the Russian origin for the golden retriever.