Other Dog Roles at the RRS

by Elizabeth Campbell

There were other purposes for dogs. In August of 1812, Miles Macdonell writes about Fort Alexander that, although it was on a river (the Winnipeg) key to commerce, the river “was a scarce place for provisions. The Canadians killed two dogs for their supper.”
The winter of 1825-6 was a bitter winter. The Bison disappeared, and travel across the massive drifts of snow was nearly impossible. Dogs became a part of the diet of the starving colonists.

But other entries indicate that perhaps there were those who also had developed a taste for dog meat:

[19 April 1813] D. McNaughton & another man came in from the plains left 10 men behind who are to come in immediately & thought the weather too bad now.- the wolves ate 6 cows that were staged which obliged them to return so soon.- those left behind Killed a dog to eat with a view of throwing an odium on the country – for at the time they had a goose & 4 Ducks.

The previously mentioned incident between Alexander Bannerman and Archibald McDonald indicates that the value placed on a good dog allowed some, perhaps, to use them as a means to blackmail of a sort. Bannerman may have been telling the truth about McDonald’s dog, but not unsurprisingly – especially given the tensions in the colony at the time – it could have been a desperate attempt to get some extra food on Bannerman’s part. McDonald seems to have had his doubts. It would be highly unlikely that a settler would leave his scant food ration out where a roaming dog could nab it.

Hargrave mentions another use dogs were put to, in this case, at Lower Fort Garry:

Sergeant Rickards, since his investment with the dignity of guardian of Fort Garry against the perils of thieves and fire, has practiced the most unremitted and persevering attention to duty. This consists in “coming on watch” at nightfall and marching through the Fort with his watch dog and firelock ostensibly throughout the night.

It was a good thing Rickards had the dog… the man had a predictable habit of falling asleep on the job!
Few mentions are made of dogs as pets. In the flood of 1826, “[t]he ice broke up and the current increasing dashed this against the buildings, which at length gave way and all went floating down across the points–ice, log houses with dogs and cats frantic on their roofs.” These animals may have been house pets or at least favourites among the working dogs that were allowed to live with the family. They might also simply have been swimming and found a house onto which they could climb.

The Rev. R. G. MacBeth paints a cozy scene that suggests a fonder relationship than earlier accounts portray:

A small party of them [settlers] who had left their families with scanty supply of food, and had gone out on a winter buffalo hunt, were camping one Saturday night along the Pembina Mountains. They had their poor meal of what they brought with them; and gave all they could to their faithful train dogs. Then before retiring to rest under the lee of their toboggans, with the dogs crouched around them in the snow, they held a prayer-meeting to ask Him for food who fed Israel with manna.

But even these dogs worked for their living. Some people must have had a pet dog that doubled as family watchdog. A dog that could also work for its living, however, made far more sense for the times.

(reference: pages 16737, 16817, 18275-6 of the Selkirk Papers, M186; Hargrave page 471; George Bryce. Romance of the Selkirk Settlement Chapter XV; Rev. R.G. MacBeth. The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life. 1897. p. 91.)

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