Friday, November 25, 2022

Dogs, horses and travel routes

Getting back to our hypothetical trip across early North America:

Suppose you are the leader of a party of five. Every man will bring a dog.

What breeds? What gender?

The dog must be able to keep up with horses and go 20 miles a day, day-after-day-after-day. It must be relatively impervious to the weather. It must be able to push through tall-grass prairie. It should serve dual functions, hunting and security. If it is too big it competes with humans for food. If too small it will not meet the minimum requirements.

If it can do something special (like run really fast or catch fish) it has more trading value for its stud service. On the other hand, Native Americans had no domestic livestock and bulldogs and herding dogs would have no special value to them.

From a portfolio approach, having several different breeds or crosses has advantages.

For example a Whippet X Fox Terrier would be faster than any of the Native American dogs and would be in demand for stud. A tracking hound would be useful for finding wounded game and so on.

Travel (and rattlesnakes) are hard on dogs and it would be useful to regenerate the pack while en route so including at least one bitch is mandatory.


Horses require forage. Most of early America was covered by trees. Horses are not tall enough to to browse tree leaves. Route planning must comprehend open, prairie land and time of year.

Grass is the "gasoline" that horses run on. Meadows were relatively localized in pre-colonial America. Grass could be reliably found where burns happened (lightning strikes or man-made) or flooding had killed trees (beaver dams). Most of the premium, cool-season pasture grasses are NOT native to North America.

Very roughly speaking, up the Potomac river to Cumberland, MD...then west to Morgantown, WV. Build a raft and float down the Monongahela river to the Ohio.

Extent of pre-settlement tall-grass prairie. Native Americans maintained tall-grass prairie by burning

Ohio river to the Wabash river, leave the raft and travel north until you hit tall-grass prairie. Then travel west.

Over-winter somewhere in central Illinois or northern Missouri.

Then west to St. Joseph, Missouri in late-winter or very-early spring. Then follow the Oregon trail, pushing hard to get across while the grass is still green and nourishing.

An alternative would be to hit the Mississippi and travel to about Memphis and then head west. Splitting the difference takes you across the Ozarks.

What changes would you propose?


  1. there are saddle bags for carrying kids and animals, for example, puppies, across dangerous areas
    we have lived on prairie and my least favorite denizen is huge spiders.
    scorpions and kin necessitate tall, thick leather boots
    usually plenty of game at that time so no worries about feeding dogs, i should think.
    don't know what the rush is. make winter camp somewhere. plant seed along the trail and hope some make and reproduce, including fruit tree seeds.
    read somewhere that tinned peaches were such a favorite among the natives that there was a brisk trade in them. or is this scenario before tinned foods?
    so seeds of apples, peaches, cherries all good to plant, both for natives and for pioneers
    i don't know dog breeds but the personality of the dog might be important, more so than characteristics of breed?

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  2. Male and female Rough Collie, male and female Standard Poodle, female Australian Shepard. I would used the northern route.

  3. I'd probably go Ohio River to Missouri River to Sweetwater. Even once it's not navigable it's a relatively flat area with water and it leads you right into the South Pass to get through the Rockies (Oregon trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail all went through here).

    This would/was a high traffic area which probably reduces trade value somewhat, and places a premium on security. But, you've got water and easy travels compared against other routes and don't have to veer south through questionable territory (i.e. trying to push through the passes in Arizona.

    Also let's you canoe/raft a lot of the way meaning you can somewhat frontload trading and/or put off hardest gear decisions.

    1. The downside of that route is that you are pushing a raft up the Missouri river. If you switch to canoes you probably leave the horses behind. Maybe you would have to trade the horses for the canoes.

  4. I'd probably opt for a Catahoula or a Black-Mouthed Cur (think Ol' Yeller) as my choice of multi-purpose dogs.

    1. Concur on black mouth cur, especially the "Ladner"strain from S. Mississippi.

  5. Agree with Anon on the dogs. I 'think' I'd go the southern route, depending on the time period.

  6. Dog: Kelpie. Very high intelligence, working dog. Southern route.

  7. Snip Groups, such as calvary that planned to be on horseback for weeks, usually traveled 20-30 miles a day. How long does it take to travel 1000 miles on horse? Under normal conditions, the trip normally takes about four months. 10-12 gallons of water is the amount of daily hydration most adult horses weighing 1,000 lbs require for good health.

    Maybe since we have modern equipment available bicycles with solid tires (like the Muffin brand(tm)) and trailers. Less logistical tail (horse joke) to support. Easy to repair and carry spare parts (try that with a lame horse on a march) and so on.

    As a healthy 60+ year old I routinely ride more than 30 miles daily. I've bike camped everywhere carrying my bike over fences and through streams.

  8. mules would fair better than horses, slower (they don't like to canter, but some shuffle at a good pace, especially if they are offspring from a gaited mare), but requires less forage and thrive on lower quality feed ( no grain, love stickers and brush).

    also don't do stupid life threatening things like horses do.
    are we worried about outrunning anyone?

    although mules can sprint shirt distance as fast.

    1. Great points in favor of mules.

      Supplemental grain would be a great rarity.

  9. Catahoula/cur. Great dogs if you understand how they work. And southern route.

    1. I saw a Catahoula once. It was a very athletic looking animal.

  10. How was the Mississippi River crossed during those times ? I know about bull boats and canoes, but am not sure how bulky cargos were carried across.

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  12. I have read about stripping cotton wood bark to winter horses in Kentucky historically but that was to just keep them alive not working!

  13. I have a male Belgian Malinois. Though they were not available then, I would take one today in a heartbeat. I would look for a smaller framed female. Cannot describe how incredible of an animal they are. Their 'drive' is amazing. He will spit a treat out of his mouth if he is 'working' the ball. Fast as a meat missile - he can almost catch deer.

  14. I'd want mountain curs. All purpose hunting dogs, beloved by Daniel Boone. The route would be essentially the Oregon Trail. As far as equines go, I'd prefer to stay on my feet and have two donkeys. Donkeys are tough, don't need much forage, and can reproduce, unlike mules.

  15. Lz Nevada
    I have a pair of Rhodesian ridgebacks. Can run all day. Eat anything or one. Good in all weather. Tough paws. Too darn smart, but once trained. What do you expect from a dog that hunts lions.

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  17. Good points on mules, donkeys -and bicyles.
    Malinois are certainly amazing dogs, but I'll nominate Airedales for consideration; mid-size, smart terrier with a bullet-proof (nearly) coat. Hardy in winter and strong.
    Boat Guy

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