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Posts Tagged ‘George Cartwright’

George Cartwright with his greyhound in Labrador. They have bagged a melanistic red fox.

One probably doesn’t think of the ancestors of retrievers hunting things like polar bears and wolves, but in their native land, the ancestral retrievers were used to hunt these animals. One wonders exactly how common it was for these dogs hunt such dangerous animals, but we do know that the people who lived on Newfoundland and in Labrador during these days would have to deal with large predators on a regular basis.

These two accounts come from Captain George Cartwright’s journal.   These accounts come from the early 1770’s, and one should not assume that the Newfoundlands mentioned here are the big, shaggy Newfoundlands we know now.  Richard Wolters was the first person to figure out that the original Newfoundland dog was more like retriever– a dog that is usually referred to as the St. John’s water dog. This dog is the primary ancestor of all the retrievers–with the exception of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever– and the large Newfoundland dog.

Cartwright was an explorer and fur trader who operated in Newfoundland and then in Labrador. These accounts of his tenure in Labrador, where hunted and trapped with a Newfoundland dog and a greyhound. Yes.  A greyhound– the perfect breed to take into a subarctic climate!

Here is Cartwright’s account of some “Newfoundland” dogs being used to pursue a wolf that was caught in a trap and managed to escape with the trap still attached to its foot:

Monday, April 8, 1771. At ten o’clock Milmouth came from the Lodge to remain with me. Soon afterwards two of the sealers called to inform me that they had killed a wolf at the East end of this island, which had got into one of their traps upon White-Fox Island [Tilcey Island, Labrador] this morning. He travelled at such a rate with the trap upon one of his fore feet, that they had much difficulty to overtake him, though assisted by a couple of stout Newfoundland dogs; for the wolf so intimidated the dogs, by frequently snapping at them as he ran, that they were afraid to attack him. I went with them to take a view of the beast, and a large old dog he was, but very poor; for he had been impelled by hunger to haunt about the sealers’ house for some time past, to eat the seals’ bones which had been left half picked by their dogs. Milmouth and I were employed all the rest of the day in cutting boughs to sewel the harbour, in order to cause the deer to come close to a point of Eyre Island, where I intend to watch for them (pg.74).

This wolf had been scavenging the seal carcasses that were cast off to feed the many working dogs on the Labrador coast.  This wolf was quite in poor condition, but it still gave the dogs quite a bit of trouble.

Wolf hunting probably would have always been an incidental activity for the water dogs. Their main utility was in hunting ducks, sea birds, and ptarmigan.

However, it was on a duck hunt that Cartwright saw some Newfoundland dogs take on even more formidable prey than a wolf.  It was while duck hunting with two Newfoundlands and his greyhound that Cartwright and his party came across a “white-bear.”

Wednes., May 8, 1776. At three o’clock this morning I took John Hayes, his crew, Jack, the greyhound, and two Newfoundland dogs with me, intending to launch the skiff into the water, and go a duck shooting. As they were hauling her along, I went forward to Pumbly Point, from whence I discovered a white-bear [polar bear] lying on the ice near Huntingdon Island; we left the skiff, and all hands went towards him, but finding the ice extremely weak in the middle of the channel we stopped. I then sent one man round to drive him towards us: in the mean time the bear went into a pool of water which was open near the island, and the man got on the other side and fired at him; but as he did not come out so soon as I expected, I sent the rest of the people back for the skiff, intending to launch it into the water to him. He soon after got upon the ice, and came close up to me. I could have sent a ball through him; but as I wished to have some sport first, I slipped the greyhound at him, but he would not close with him till the Newfoundland dogs came up; we then had a fine battle, and they stopped him until I got close up. As I was laying down one gun, that I might fire at him with the other, I observed the ice which I was upon, to be so very weak that it bent under me; and I was at the same time surrounded with small holes, through which the water boiled up, by the motion of the ice, caused by my weight. As I knew the water there was twenty-five fathoms deep, with a strong tide, my attention was diverted, from attempting to take away the life of a bear, to the safety of my own; and while I was extricating myself from the danger which threatened me, the bear bit all the dogs most severely, and made good his retreat into the open water, which was at some distance lower down (pg. 199-200).

Hunting such dangerous quarry as polar bears and wolves would have meant that the St. John’s water dogs were very tough animals.

The water dogs of Newfoundland were truly multipurpose animals.

They had to be.  The people needed dogs that were capable of working in the cold water as setters and haulers of nets and as retrievers of hooked fish.  They also needed dogs that were capable of hunting birds and other game in the interior, and dogs that could retrieve sea birds and ducks from the water.  They also needed dogs that could haul sleds and carts that were loaded down with fish, furs, lumber, and other raw materials.

This ancestral Newfoundland or St. John’s water dog was a local adaptation of the rough cur dog that was so common among the English working class.   This same cur was also adapted to fit different regions of the United States, and the actual dog upon which Old Yeller was based was actually some regional variant of the American cur– most likely what we have come to call a black-mouthed cur.

It is a little strange to think of the ancestors of golden and Labrador retrievers baying up polar bears and chasing down wolves.

But they are descendants of a much rougher dog.

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