Mossback's Northwest: Dogs that helped shape PNW history

From Lassie to Lewis and Clark, local dogs have made their mark.

Every region has its dog heroes and canine companions. The Pacific Northwest is no exception. We’ve had dogs that have captured the imagination, explored the continent and rounded the world — even Native dogs used for making blankets.

The Makah and Coast Salish peoples kept two distinct types of dogs in their communities. One was the so-called “village” dog —with short, brown hair and resembling a coyote. The other was a smaller, long-haired pooch known as the “wool” or “woolly dog,” bred for its beautiful thick, white hair. The two types of dog were kept apart to prevent interbreeding.

The woolly dog produced a prodigious coat and was annually sheared in the spring, just as sheep were. The dogs’ white hair was used to weave Salish blankets — high prestige items that were also made from the hair of rare mountain goats. At the time of early European contact, explorers noted the thickness of the woolly dog’s fleece. George Vancouver wrote that the dogs resembled Pomeranians, but a bit larger. Early explorers were stunned by the quality of dog yarn.

The introduction of the Hudson’s Bay Co. wool trade blankets apparently dented the necessity of the woolly dog’s contribution to blanket art. The dog wool seems to have been phased out by the mid-19th century, and woolly dogs vanished as a distinct breed with the advent of interbreeding with other dogs that was brought in by settlers.

Some scholars pooh-poohed the idea of dog blankets. But an 1859 pelt from one woolly dog is preserved in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, though it wasn’t discovered until 2003. And the Burke Museum in Seattle has a verified one in its collection. It wasn’t discovered until 2016.

Interestingly, a dog closely matching the description of woolly dogs was photographed on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula in the 1940s. So, maybe they didn’t all disappear overnight.

A dog hero that arrived with explorers was Seaman, a Newfoundland who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia River and back in the early 1800s. Seaman belonged to Capt. Meriwether Lewis and is the only animal expedition member to make the entire trip out and back. I remember a dog came along with a horseback expedition I once took in the mountains of Spain, and if Seaman acted like that dog, he probably traveled twice or three times as far as any human member of  our party, what with his running ahead, back and forth, and many side ramblings.

The trip wasn’t easy for dogs or humans. Seaman was reportedly made miserable by clouds of mosquitoes, he was bitten by a beaver and required surgery, he was even briefly appropriated by some Native admirers. And he survived being eaten. The expedition members were said to have eaten over 200 dogs on their journey, taking protein where they could find it when game was scarce. Only explorer William Clark abstained.

By any account, Seaman’s journey was epic, and there are statues of him in many of the states on the expedition’s route.

Another big traveler was Owney, the postal service mascot. Owney was an adorable terrier mutt from Albany, New York who was adopted by railway postal workers in 1888. He thereafter gained fame by traveling on railroad mail cars all across the nation. He wore a harness of tags and tokens detailing his journeys — so many that it looked like a loose suit of chain mail.

But Owney was headed for grander things than a mail car to Topeka.

In August of 1895, Owney was put aboard a steamer in Tacoma bound for Asia and in care of its crew. He crossed the Pacific and arrived in Japan, where he was permitted to land in Yokohama, his papers found to be in order.

He then took passage on a steamer headed for exotic ports. The “dog tourist,” as he was called, visited China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran, Suez, Algiers and the Azores. After quarantine, he was allowed to land in New York and was shortly put on a train to complete the around-the-world journey by returning to Puget Sound.

Owney made international news and was dubbed a true “globe trotter” in the spirit of Nellie Bly and George Francis Train —other 19th century around-the-world racers. After coming back to the U.S., Owney continued his domestic travels, more famous than ever, but he was put down after biting a postal clerk in Toledo, Ohio, in 1897. The beloved dog’s journeys weren’t quite at and end, though: the canine celebrity was stuffed and exhibited at Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, and he is still on display in the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

Which brings us to our final dog hero.

Lassie was a sensation — a great movie star — who debuted in the 1943 MGM picture Lassie Come Home, starring young Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor. Both were upstaged by a lovely rough collie named Lassie. The action in that first film took place in Scotland, but parts were actually filmed in the remote Stehekin Valley on Lake Chelan, landscape Lassie traversed to find her way home after being sold to an English laird. Rainbow Falls was one of those stand-ins for a “Scottish” location.

While the scenes were brief, they inspired MGM to return to feature more of the incredible Chelan landscape in Technicolor. A sequel, Courage of Lassie, again starring Elizabeth Taylor, was filmed near Stehekin during World War II — in the fall of 1944.

Yes, there was a war on, but MGM was helped by the military to put on a big production meant to boost home front morale. The cast and crew were put up at the remote Moore Inn near Stehekin. The performers and crew numbered 80 people.

In addition, there was a menagerie of some 50 animals. In the film, Lassie grows up from a pup, so the production needed a bunch of Lassies of different sizes for all the different ages. Over the years, many dogs played Lassie. The “wildlife” Lassie encountered came from Hollywood and included a black bear, beavers, coyotes, skunks and chipmunks. They were shipped in to play their parts. Nothing was left to nature, save the gorgeous scenery.

Lassie is always trying to find her way home. In the Courage of Lassie she grows up in the happiness of the Cascades wilderness after being separated from her family. At one point she is injured and goes missing and winds up being picked up and taken into training with an Army combat unit. She is injured in battle after a heroic act. A damaged Lassie eventually returns home — she always finds a way —but her behavior has changed from wartime trauma and she is nursed back to health. It was a poignant and timely story as the film was released in 1946 with its message about the damage war can do — even to a dog’s psyche.

As a movie and television star, Lassie and her message of resilience proved incredibly enduring. More movies followed, as did a TV series lasting from the 1950s into the 1970s and still more movies — even a PlayStation game. A succession of Lassies have played the role.

Lassie is more than a dog who pulled Timmy from a well. She touched people with the message of love, loyalty, courage and endurance. That never gets old. The Northwest was part of the backdrop for her story and part of the stories of these amazing dogs who have a place in our history as well.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.