Sometimes we take our pets for granted, and in their endearing way, they do the same. When we awake, their delight is unrestrained, particularly when we reach for their food bowl. When we get home, they’ll greet us as if we’re Santa Claus bearing a sack of chicken cookies and tennis balls. In the evening, they settle at our feet, slumbering away, secure in the belief that we’ll protect them from starvation, the toddler, and the vet. It’s the time of day when even the most incorrigible miscreant looks so cute that we forgive the fact that earlier, she’d shredded a seat cushion, or that we’d had to do an extra load of laundry to wash away copious amounts of drool.
The topic of drooling leads us to the Newfoundland breed—that intrepid, affectionate, and intelligent dog that can flip enough slobber from its jowls to drench your best outfit. These days they are a familiar breed, but once upon a time, they were virtually unknown outside Newfoundland, where they’d been bred to retrieve fishing nets in the sea and pull equipment-laden carts on land. They also turned out to be excellent rescue dogs, able to drag an adult human out of the roughest water.
Newfoundlands are a descendant of the St. John’s Dog, an extinct breed that is believed to have been a mix of various European working dogs. In the sixteenth century fishermen began to crossbreed the St. John’s Dog with mastiffs, and by the end of the eighteenth century they’d gained the giant form with which we’re familiar.
In 1803, the Newfoundland’s size and reputation caught the attention of Meriwether Lewis, who was preparing for the great expedition west. Somewhere—perhaps Pennsylvania—Lewis bought a Newfoundland, named him Seaman, and in doing so, carved a niche in history for a remarkable dog. Today, there’s no known record attesting to how old Seaman was when Lewis purchased him, or what color (although in memorial images, he’s nearly always black); nor do we know if Lewis had any idea how valuable Seaman would turn out to be.
In fact, what we know of him is limited to sporadic entries in journals kept by Lewis, Clark, and a few other members of their Corps. However, those relatively few words create a portrait of a creature sympathetic to humankind and dangerous to the animal kingdom. It’s clear from the written comments that the men never took Seaman for granted; indeed, they protected him as if their lives depended on him, which to a degree, they did.
As Lewis moved west from Pennsylvania toward Missouri (the expeditions’ final staging site), he made his first entry regarding Seaman. On September 11, 1803, while traveling along the Ohio River in West Virginia, Lewis noticed that nut-laden trees supported an abundance of squirrels. He put Seaman to work hunting the scampering little critters, recording the event in his journal (Lewis’s original spelling and grammar are intact): “I made my dog take as many each day as I had occation for, they wer fat and I thought them when fryed a pleasent food— many of these squirrils wer black, they swim very light on the water and make pretty good speed—my dog was of the newfoundland breed very active strong and docile, he would take the squirel in the water kill them and swiming bring them in his mouth to the boat.”
Three days later Lewis spotted more squirrels swimming across a river. He wrote: “Caught several by means of my dog.” Indeed, Seaman was genetically well-suited for chasing water-borne prey. The breed has webbed paws and an efficient swimming stroke, which is more like the breaststroke than the dog paddle. So, over the course of the expedition Seaman had great success catching not only tasty rodents, but other prey that made the mistake of thinking they could outswim the determined canine.
Not long afterward, while passing through Missouri, Lewis wrote that an Indian offered him some beaver skins for Seaman, but there was no deal: “The dog was of the newfoundland breed one that I prised much for his docility and qualitifcations generally for my journey and of course there was no bargan, I had given 20$ for the dogg myself.” In those days twenty dollars in a frontier city could have bought ten gallons of brandy, three beaver hats, or provided a month’s pay for an Indian interpreter—but Seaman had already made himself invaluable to Lewis.
Seaman quickly endeared himself to nearly everyone in the Corps of Discovery, and his presence also created a contrast to other dogs the men saw. In late 1804, as the expedition crossed the Central Plains, they came upon a tribe of Native people (Clark called them “Kanzas” Indians) consisting of “300 Warriers, 500 young people & 300 Dogs of burthen out of this Village.” One of Lewis’s men wrote, “While I was at the Indian camp yesterday they yoked a dog to a kind of car, which they have to haul their baggage from one camp to another; the nation having no settled place or village, but are always moving about. The dogs are not large, much resemble a wolf, and will haul about 70 pounds each.”
Seaman was an object of much curiosity to the Indians, for while they had many “wolf-like” dogs, they’d never seen one that so resembled a bear. In mid-1805, when meeting the Shoshone people, Lewis noted that “every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them, the black man york and the segacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration. ..." (The “black man york” referred to was Clark’s slave). Indeed, all across the country, Seaman’s sagacity was to impress all he met.
For man and beast, the journey was a constant test of endurance. Seaman’s long, thick coat sometimes worked against him; Lewis once wrote that Seaman was “heeted and fatigued,” and needed to rest in a cool stream. Along the way sharp grasses and cacti tormented man and beast: “My poor dog suffers with them excessively, he is constantly biting and scratching himself as if in a rack of pain.”
Seaman was not only adept at chasing down food, but he kept predators at bay. He gained so much respect from the men that they began to refer to him not as Lewis’s dog, but “our dog.” At least twice, Seaman chased off aggressive buffalo when they came too close to camp. When the expedition reached the Rockies, grizzlies (called “white bears” by the men, because of their light coloring compared to the more familiar black bears) became a frequent problem. Lewis ordered his men to stay near camp. Bears approached the group every night, “but have never yet ventured to attack us and our dog gives us timely notice of their visits, he keeps constantly padroling all night.”
After nearly two years on the trail, Seaman had turned into a fast and fierce hunter, able to not only outswim squirrels, but take down almost any potential food source. Antelope were slow swimmers, and Seaman figured out they were easy prey when crossing rivers; the same with deer, beavers, and geese. The men were particularly delighted that he figured out how to invade beaver mounds and drag out the hapless creatures, delivering them to camp for dinner. On one occasion, when Seaman was bitten in the leg by a wounded beaver, Lewis and Clark worked together to stop the bleeding and close the wound. Lewis wrote, “I fear it will yet prove fatal to him.” Not only did Seaman survive, but he no doubt made the beaver community pay for his trouble.
For all the affection and respect paid to Seaman, the explorers’ relationships with other dogs weren’t so sympathetic. In late 1805 food became scarce, and frequent journal references begin to appear about eating dogs. On one date, several of the journals noted that some of the men “ate a fat dog” they’d bought from some Indians. If the men had any hesitation about eating dogs, most soon got over it. By one count, during the expedition they consumed 263 of man’s best (and, as it turned out, delicious) friend. “The dog now constitutes a considerable part of our subsistence,” Lewis wrote, “and with most of the party has become a favorite food; certain I am that it is a healthy strong diet, and from habit it has become by no means disagreeable to me, I prefer it to lean venison or Elk, and is very far superior to the horse in any state.” Clark wasn’t so impressed, and never did acquire a taste for dog meat.
While visiting with the Nez Perce, the explorers learned that their hosts thought it disturbing that the white men ate dogs. According to Lewis, when they were eating dinner, “an indian fellow very impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence.” Lewis was so offended that he threw the puppy with “great violence” at his host, striking him in the face and chest. Lewis then picked up a tomahawk and threatened that if the Indian “repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him,…and I continued my repast on dog [Lewis’s emphasis] without further molestation.” There’s no record of what happened to the puppy, and no mention in any of the journals if there was dismay at Lewis’s treatment of the poor creature.
While cavalier with other dogs, Lewis was fiercely protective of Seaman. One night in a storm Seaman disappeared, and in the next day’s journal Lewis wrote only: “I was fearfull we had lost him altogether, however, much to my satisfaction he joined us at 8 Oclock this morning.” In April, 1806, while in present-day Oregon, Seaman was snatched by Indians. Lewis sent three men after them, with orders to shoot the dognappers if they didn’t return his dog. Upon seeing their pursuers, the Indians abandoned Seaman and fled.
After being safely returned to his master, Seaman merited few journal entries during the return trip. The last entry about Seaman was on July 15, 1806, a day in which thunderstorms thrashed the expedition, and mosquitoes rose against them. Lewis wrote that mosquitoes tormented the men so badly that they could “scarcely exist…my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them…”
With those words, Seaman apparently ceased to exist. None of the men who kept journals ever mentioned him again, and some historians speculated that he died during the return trip home. If that happened, however, it seems very likely that Lewis would have written about it, since he’d noted less serious events to befall Seaman. The absence of any more information is more likely an indication that nothing of consequence happened to the dog for the duration of the trip.
However, Meriwether Lewis’s fate is known. He was shot to death in 1809, either by his own hand, or by a murderer—history has buried the truth.
In 1814, in a surprising addendum to Seaman’s history, scholar Timothy Alden found a dog collar in a museum in Alexandria, Virginia. It carried an inscription: "The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America." The scholar wrote, “The foregoing was copied from the collar, in the Alexandria museum, which the late gov. Lewis's dog wore after his return from the western coast of America. The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable.” According to Alden, “After the melancholy exit of gov. Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains; and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of interment. He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master's grave!"
There’s no evidence that Alden’s account of Seaman pining away was true, or if it was a bittersweet projection of the human spirit. In any case, we’ll never know the truth, for in 1871 a fire destroyed much of the collection in the museum, including the collar that had possibly belonged to Seaman.
As a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, Seaman had lumbered across prairies, scrambled through forests, charmed both the expedition’s members and Native people, and proved to be the most versatile hunter in the group. He suffered from heat and insects, injury and sickness, yet he made valuable contributions through his hunting skills and good nature. While the only evidence of Seaman’s life exists in the writings of his master, his courage, strength, and good nature live on in the Newfoundland breed. They are true gentle giants—unless you are a squirrel.
Footnote: These famous people owned Newfoundland dogs: Robert Kennedy, Emily Dickenson, Ulysses Grant, J.M. Barrie, Richard Wagner, and First Officer William Murdoch of the Titanic (Murdoch perished, but his dog, Rigel, survived). When Napoleon Bonaparte was swept into the sea while trying to escape exile on St. Helena, a Newfoundland jumped in and kept him afloat for three hours until the deposed Emperor could be rescued. Although Newfoundland dogs are a breed of high intellect, in this case the dog clearly had no knowledge of European affairs.