Canis familiaris, Var. sensilis1
Hand-colored lithograph (1830)
"From Nature and on Stone by T. Doughty"
The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports (1830)
"Extremely docile and affectionate, this Dog may be taught to perform actions which appear almost incredible, and which, seeminglly, require no slight exercise of the reasoning faculties. Equally sagacious as persevering, he never relinquishes an undertaking as long as there remains the most distant hope of success. . . . The great pliability of his temper, peculiarly fits him for the use of man, as he never shrinks from any task that may be assigned him, but he undertakes it with an ardour proportioned to the difficulty of the execution."2
Those must have been the qualifications Lewis recognized and felt assured of when he bought Seaman.
Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) was a well-known Philadelphia artist whose landscapes were especially popular, though some critics dismissed him as "a leaf painter." The setting of Doughty's conception of the Newfoundland is almost identical with that of Philip Reinagle, yet historians have recognized him as one of the initiators of the American "Hudson River School" of artists. It was neither an institution nor an organization but a view of nature common among a number of different artists, most notably Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). Typically, they placed their subjects in imposing wild settings beside noble rivers. Their towering mountains were chiefly based on sketches made among the palisades on the Hudson River, but conceived in the rarified atmospheres of their respective imaginations within the sanctuaries of their studios.
by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73)
Oil on canvas, 1856
The biological evolution of the Newfoundland is virtually impossible to trace because many members of the family Canidae, especially Canis familiaris, the domestic dog, are by nature undiscriminating in their mating. Moreover, for countless generations humans have interjected their own values and concepts into dogs' mating impulses. The black-and-white is said to have been artist Edwin Landseer's personal preference. In any case, he elevated it to supreme popularity with his portraits of "Lion, a Newfoundland Dog" (1824), "A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" (1831), "My Dog" (1840), and most notably with the mawkish "Saved," which emphasized the epitome of the animal's sagacity: No master is present in the scene, so the Newfoundland has rescued the child on his own volition, but neither the child—evidently a girl, although the reputed model was a boy—nor the dog appear to be water-soaked.
By the end of the 19th century the black-and-white Newfoundland was firmly established as the most heroic variety of the species, not only on the basis of the rich anecdotal history of its sagacious deeds, but also on the evidence of Landseer's paintings. As a result, the artist's name was permanently linked with it. Unquestionably, however, there were both parti-colored and monochromatic Newfoundlands of various colors and color patterns long before Sir Edwin Landseer's paintings began to appear in the 1820s. Admirers today can identify a genuine "Landseer" not only by its colors but also by their arrangement—a white chest is a basic feature—plus its physical conformation, which differs somewhat from any other Newfoundland.
Newfoundland dogs tend to become strongly loyal to their masters, a proclivity reinforcing the legend that Seaman pined away by Lewis's graveside on the Natchez Trace. But if it's true, how did those three Watlala Indians manage to entice Seaman away from his master (11 April 1806). Were they "dog-whisperers" in a class with the Plains warriors who lured away the Corps' horses from time to time? Or was Seaman simply a sucker for a little human affection plus an edible morsel?
Lewis observed a curious crisis involving two quadrupeds and himself on 22 April 1805 when "a buffaloe calf . . . attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked [in a canoe] and left it. it appeared allarmed at my dog which was probably the cause of it's so readily attatching itself to me."
Seaman's sagacity entitled him to human sympathies from time to time. He suffered as much as the rest of the party from the onslaughts of mosquitoes—"my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them" (15 July 1805). Throughout the Great Plains, the ubiquitous needle-and-thread grass (Stipa comata), with its sharp, barbed awn that attached itself to poor Seaman's dense coat, was especially noxious. "My poor dog suffers with them excessively," wrote Lewis. "He is constantly [biting] and scratching himself as if in a rack of pain." (26 July 1805) The oppressive August heat on the South Dakota prairie forced both Seaman and York to retreat to a nearby stream for relief.
Today the Newfoundland's life expectancy is only about 10 years; 200 years ago it may have been even shorter. Its primary vulnerability at that time, according to contemporary authorities, was a susceptability to rabies. "Unfortunately," wrote Doughty, "this sagacious and faithful animal is liable to disease, which is communicable to almost all animals that he may bite whilst labouring under it; the human species appears to be peculiarly liable, under such circumstances, to be inoculated with this horrible, and, alas! almost incurable malady."3
Hugh Heney, the cordial trader from the North West Company who befriended Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan, called to Lewis's attention the narrow-leafed purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia DC var. angustifolia), as an antidote for rabies: Clark, on 28 February 1805, recorded the prescription for application: "the way of useing it is to scarify the part when bitten to chu or pound an inch or more if the root is Small, and applying it to the bitten part renewing it twice a Day. the bitten person is not to chaw nor Swallow any of the Root for it might have contrary effect." It also worked for rattlesnake bites. The coneflower must have been an important discovery, in view of the fear of rabies on the East Coast, for under "Remarks" for 18 March 1805 Lewis "collected Some herbs pla[n]ts in order to send by the boat. paticularly the root said to cure the bites of the mad dog and rattlesnake." Perhaps Heney's gift was prompted by some discussion among the three men that centered on the sagacious but vulnerable Seaman.
Funded in part by a grant from the NPS Challenge-Cost Share Program
- 1. Pronounced CANE-iss fam-ill-ee-AIR-iss. The specific epithet means "familiar." The Variety, pronounced sen-SILL-iss, is Latin for "sensible." Of the lithograph Doughty wrote: "We are indebted to J. Browne Smith, Esq. for an opportunity of figuring this majestic animal, from a remarkably fine and well marked specimen in his possession. The Philadelphia Museum is also enriched by a well prepared example of this Dog, which formerly belonged to Mr. Wistar, of Germantown." The Museum was that of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), whom John and Thomas Doughty memorialized with a long biographical essay as a preface to the first volume of The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports, 3 Vols. (Philadelphia, 1830-33), 1:i-vii. Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, and one of Lewis's Philadelphia mentors.
- 2. The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports, 3 vols. , Vol. 1 (1830): 53.
- 3. Ibid., 1:52.