Badger: 'The Burrowing Dog of the Prarie'

Meriwether Lewis wrote many of his most detailed descriptions of plants and animals during the winter of 1806, while confined to his quarters by the persistent rains. On February 26 he summarized what he had learned about the western badger, Taxidea taxus. The generic name, meaning "badgerlike," is a reference to its general resemblance to the common badger of Eurasia. The specific epithet taxus is Latin for badger. Together they mean "a badgerlike badger."

American Badger, Taxidea taxus

Badger looking ferocious as it peers out of its hole

Courtesy The Badger's Gallery,

the Braro1 so called by the French engages2 is an animal of the civit genus and much resembles the common badger. . . .3 this is an inhabitant of the open plains of the Columbia as they are of those of the Missouri but are sometimes also found in the woody country. . . . they burrow in the hard grounds of the plains with surprising ease and dexterity an will cover themselves in the ground in a very few minutes. . . . they have five long fixed nails on each foot; those of the forefeet are much the longest; and one of those on each hind foot is double like those of the beaver. they weigh from 14 to 18 lbs. . . .


Lewis continues:

the body is reather long in proportion to it's thickness. . . . the forelegs remarkably large and muscular and are formed like the ternspit dog. . . .4 they are short as are also the hind legs. . . . they are broad across the sholders and brest. . . . the neck short. . . . the head is formed much like the common fist dog5 only that the skull is more convex. the mouth is wide and furnished with sharp straight teeth both above and below, with four sharp straight pointed tusks, two in the upper and two in the lower jaw. . . . the eyes are black and small. whiskers are plased in four points on each side near the nose and on the aws near the opening of the mouth. the ears are very short wide and appressed as if they had ben cut off. . . . the aperture through them to the head is remarkably small. . . . the tail is about 4 inches long; the hair longest on it at it's junction with the body and becoming shorter towards it's extremity where it ends in an acute point. the hairs of the body are much longer on the side and rump than any other part, which gives the body and apparent flatness, particularly when the animals rests on it's belley. . . . this hair is upwards of 3 inches in length particularly on the rump where it extends so far towards the point of the tail that it almost conceals the shape of that part and gives to the whole of the hinder part of the body the figure of an acute angled triangle of which the point of the tail forms the acute angle. . . . the small quantity of coarse fur which is intermixed with the hair is of a redish pale yellow. . . . the hair of the back, sides, upper part of the neck and tail, are of a redish light or pale yellow for about 2/3rds of their length from the skin, next black, and then tiped with white; forming a curious mixture of grey and fox coloured red with a yellowish hue. . . . the belley flanks and breast are of the foxcoloured redish yellow. the legs black. . . . the nails white the head on which the hair is short, is variagated with black and white. . . . a narrow strip of white commences on the top of the nose about 1/2 an inch from it's extremity and extends back along the center of the forehead and neck nearly to the sholders. . . . two stripes of black succeed the white on either side imbracing the sides of the nose, the eyes, and extends back as far as the ears. . . . two other spots of black of a ramboidal figure are placed on the side of the head near the ears and between them and the opening of the mouth. . . . two black spots also immediately behind the ears. . . . the other parts of the head white. this animal feeds on flesh, roots, bugs, and wild fruits. . . . it is very clumsy and runs very slow. . . . I have in two instances out run this animal and caught it. . . . In this rispect they are not much more fleet than the porcupine.

1. The French spelling is blaireau. It means badger, shaving brush, or badger-hair brush. The verb blaireauter means to paint with great care; to soften or blend paint with a blaireau.

2. An engagé was a French-Canadian hired hand. From St. Charles, Missouri to Fort Mandan the Corps of Discovery was assisted by perhaps a dozen engagés.

3. Lewis was correct in 18th-century terms. Webster's first dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, defined civet as "an animal of the weasel genus," as well as "the perfume which the animal yields"—meaning musk. It is still used today in the manufacture of perfumes. In modern zoological nomenclature, the genus Civet of the family Viverridae, consists of 32 species of cat-like carnivores which are native only to parts of Spain, Africa, and Southern Asia. The North American weasel, like the wolverine and the badger, belongs to the Family Mustelidae.

4. Properly turnspit, a small dog with a long body and crooked legs once bred for use in tread-wheels to turn roasting spits.

5. Properly feist, a small dog of uncertain breed; a mongrel, a cur.