Smarts and Scents

"The dog was of the newfoundland breed
one that I prised much for his docility
and qualifications generally
for my journey."

Figure 1

Newfoundland Dog

From the Sportsman's Cabinet, 1803

Reinagle's Newfoundland: large dog with long hair

Ewell Sale Stewart Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

by Philip Reinagle, British, (1749-1815)
Engraved by John Scott (1774-1827)
5½ x 4 in

The Newfoundland dog, wrote the British naturalist William Taplin (1740?-1807) in 1803, was "not known amongst us, till imported from that country whose name it continues to bear." The Newfoundland "in a state of purity, uncontaminated by the blood of any inferior race," he declared, "is one of the most majestic and awefully [impressively] attracting of all the canine variety."

Taplin continued with a paean to the breed:

Docile beyond conception, and affectionate beyond description, the Newfoundland dog is easily taught almost every thing within the power of the human mind to inculcate, of which his own strength and frame are capable. Equally sagacious as energetic, he patiently perseveres in whatever he undertakes, and never relinquishes the attempt so long as there remains the most distant hope, or possibility of success. . . . The sagacity of this animal is so palpably blended with a peculiarly attentive attachment to the human species, and such an instantaneous sense of impending danger, that the inactive mind, lulled to an apathy, becomes immediately roused to action in the contemplation1

Philip Reinagle (1749-1815), the artist who created this portrait, was known primarily for his landscapes and depictions of familiar animals, especially sporting scenes containing dogs and birds. He created all the drawings for the engravings in Taplin's descriptive catalog of sporting dogs. He places an oversized dog against a background of exaggerated mountain crags, with the added dramatic detail of a working dog team that is just large enough to convey a message, even though it foreshortens the perspective.

Figure 2

Province of Newfoundland-Labrador
Land of the Newfie

Detail from Reinagle's "Newfoundland Dog"

Reinagle detail: Large dogs pulling a sled

Ewell Sale Stewart Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

The Newfoundland dog, wrote Taplin, "is habitually used in its native country, for the purposes of draught. They are easily broken in, and soon inured to the trammels of harness; three, four, or five are used in a sledge or other vehicle, and will convey a load of some hundreds weight for many miles with great ease."2

Figure 3

Working Dog

Map of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada

VIAs, Inc., 2012

Geographically, the most easterly part of North America is the island called Newfoundland. Named Terre-Neuve—literally "land-new," or "New-(found)-land"—by 15th century explorers. Northwest of Newfoundland, across the Strait of Belle Isle, is Labrador, the larger mainland, peninsular part of the old entities which, in 2001 were politically merged into the province of Newfoundland-Labrador.

West of Newfoundland-Labrador is the Gulf of St. Lawrence; to the southwest beyond Cabot Strait are Cape Breton Island and peninsular Nova Scotia ("New Scotland"). East and south of Newfoundland-Labrador are the plankton-rich waters of the historic, world famous fishing ground known as the Grand Banks—where the Newfoundland dog honed its water skills in behalf of fishermen from the nearby provinces and New England. Since 1990, a wide variety of technological "advances" have led to over-fishing and a corresponding decline of commercially viable fish populations.

With the arrival of Clark and his party at the "forks of Jefferson's River" on Saturday morning, 17 August 1805, and the erection of a shady canopy of sails supported by willow poles at the site the party would call "Fortunate Camp," the stage was set for the reunion of Sacagawea with her people, and the mutual embraces of two cultures, old Shoshone and new American.

Following Lewis's long harangue about the purposes of their visit, to which Chief Cameahwait cheerily responded with promises of friendship and cooperation, came the visitors' honorific gifts—peace medals, fine clothing, tobacco, and "some small articles" for the chiefs—followed by presents for others, a mixture of familiar Indian favorites such as paint, moccasins, and beads, along with tokens of some of civilization's benefits—awls, knives, and mirrors. The whole affair came off as a rousing success. The Shoshones seemed duly impressed. "They had indeed abundant sources of surprise in all they saw," Lewis exulted. "The appearance of the men, their arms, their clothing, the canoes, the strange looks of the negro, and the sagacity of our dog, all in turn shared their admiration."3

The Shoshones, like all other Indian people, had owned, bred, trained, used, and loved dogs from the dimmest days of their own origins. What was it, then, about "our dog" that thrilled them so? Certain it is that they recognized an ineffable quality that Seaman seemed to possess, both in his attitudes and his actions. We don't know whether the Indians had a name for it or not, but Lewis called it sagacity.

Quick of scent or thought

Noah Webster's definition of that word in his Compendious Dictionary4 tersely specified the two connotations it bore in Lewis and Clark's day: "quick of scent or thought; acute." The expression "quick . . . of thought" was an allusion to the mental processes of acute discernment, or to behavior indicating a capacity to relate means to ends, and anticipate outcomes. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, writers were quick to notice those attributes in any animal. Indeed, for some 200 years the sagacity of a wide variety of wild animals had been studied in order to measure their position in the Great Chain of Being by identifying evidence of seemingly rational—i.e., human–behavior.5 The habits and strategies of spiders and honey bees was admired in the late 18th century, for example. William Clark, without bringing up the word, admired the intricate engineering of a beaver dam (2 August 1805): "the brush appear to be laid in no regular order yet acquires a strength by the irregularity with which they are placed by the beaver that it would puzzle the engenuity of man to give them." Patrick Gass told of an unobserved but evidently sagacious pack of wolves: "At 9 [on 8 September 1804] I went out with one of our men, who had killed a buffaloe and left his hat to keep off the vermin and beasts of prey; but when we came to the place, we found the wolves had devoured the carcase and carried off the hat." What's more, the body of a white wolf was found at the scene, possibly the victim in a battle over salvage rights.6 However, the word "sagacity" was generally reserved for dogs, and especially for Newfoundlands.

For some reason or other the word must have been on Lewis's mind during the days he spent among the Shoshones, for he invoked it three times within two weeks, and never before nor afterwards. On 11 August 1805, after having anxiously sought the elusive Shoshones for more than a month, he was exasperated with Drouillard and Shields for not obeying his signals to stand still, which ruined his first opportunity to make contact with a lone Shoshone horseman. The lone Indian had almost reached speaking distance from Lewis, but he grew suspicious when he saw Drouillard and Shields approaching, and sped away. Lewis accused his two companions of not "haveing segacity enough to recollect the impropriety of advancing when they saw me thus in parley with the Indian."

Two weeks later, Charbonneau drew Lewis's wrath by failing to report some gossip he had heard: The Shoshones were thinking of heading out immediately for the autumn buffalo hunt and leaving their American visitors in the lurch. "I was out of patience with the folly of Charbono," Lewis grumbled sarcastically, "who had not sufficient sagacity to see the consequencies which would inevitably flow from such a movement of the indians." In other words, Drouillard, Shields, and poor old Toussaint in turn were each, at least in those crucial instances, dumber 'n a dog! Certainly dumber 'n Seaman!

Seaman not only had smarts. He was "quick of . . . scent," too. In Taplin's words, a Newfoundland dog had "an instantaneous sense of impending danger" that could take over when human watchmen were lulled into apathy. Seaman was true to his breed. He was quick to take action on 29 May 1805 when a bison rampaged through camp in the middle of the night. Needing no orders from his master, he fearlessly flew at the brute and turned it away from the heads of the men who were sleeping near the campfire. On another dark night he "barked very much and seemed extremly uneasy which was unusual with him," so Lewis sent three soldiers to reconnoiter the camp perimeter on the chance that either hostile Indians or ferocious grizzlies were lurking in the dark. It turned out to be a false alarm—merely a solitary bison that had tried but failed to swim the river near camp and had been swept downriver by the current. But Seaman had done his job anyway. Later, the Corps found the vicinity of the upper portage camp, at White Bear Islands above the Falls of the Missouri, to be infested with grizzlies. Seaman, Lewis reported, seemed to be "in a constant state of alarm with these bear and keeps barking all night." One night (17 June 1805), despite Seaman's alarums a "white bear" came to within 30 yards of their bivouac and ate "about thirty weight of buffaloe su[e]t which was hanging on a pole." And again, after Reubin Field wounded a moose one morning near the Blackfoot River (7 July 1806), Seaman, with the savvy of a veteran mountain man who would know that a moose could be as dangerous as a grizzly, was obviously "much worried."

The essence of sagacity is concentrated in a famous epitaph on the estate of the English poet Lord Byron (1788–1824) at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, England:

Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.

This Praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
If inscribed over human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
Who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
And died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.7


Originally supported in part by a grant from the NPS Challenge-Cost Share Program

  • 1. William Taplin, The Sportsman's Cabinet; or, A Correct Delineation of the Various Dogs Used in the Sports of the Field. . . . by a Veteran Sportsman (London: J. Cundee, 1803), 72-73. The author is indebted to Eileen Mathias of the Albert Greenfield Imaging Center for Collections, Ewell Sale Stewart Library, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, for directing his attention to this resource.
  • 2. Ibid., 54.
  • 3. Nicholas Biddle, The Journals of the Expedition Under the Command of Capts. Lewis and Clark, . . . Performed during the Years 1804-5-6. By Order of the Government of the United States; prepared for the press by Paul Allen, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1814), 2:165. In his original journal Lewis continued, "I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine." For a discussion of Lewis's dog's name, see Seaman's Creek.
  • 4. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. . . . (1806; reprint, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1970).
  • 5. The climax of anthropomorphism was probably reached early in the 20th century by William T. Hornaday, a founder of the New York Zoological Society, in his collection of essays on The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals (New York: Scribner's, 1922): "The wild animal must think, or die."
  • 6. For an instance of sagacity in another race and species of Canidae, see "Thomas Say's view of the Prairie Wolf."
  • 7. Henry P. Davis, The New Dog Encyclopedia, 3d ed. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole, 1970), s.v. "Newfoundland."