Some notes on the use of dog sleds in the fur trade are presented.
The dog sled was a vital form of winter transportation for the fur traders of the Northwest, and was used by both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. In this article, I will present a few notes from my reading of journal accounts of dog sleds in the Northwest before 1821. I will also use later accounts and drawings of dog sleds to provide as complete a picture as possible of the dog sleds of the Northwest.
The dog sleds used seem to have had two basic designs—the open 'sledge', and the enclosed 'cariole'. Sledges were used routinely in the fur trade as early as 1797, and possibly earlier. In 1797, Peter Fidler notes that two men left the HBC's Buckingham House (near modern Elk Point, Alberta) with '2 sledges with dogs.' (Johnson, 86) In 1795, William Tomison records that his men 'made some sleds' at Edmonton House, but it is unclear if these were dog sleds or sledges for horses (Johnson, 23). I could find no journal descriptions of sledges. Some drawings from after 1821 show sledges shaped very much like a toboggan, but with a higher front curl. These sledges were pulled by one to four dogs harnessed in a line (Kane, 271 ; Newman, Caesars, 46, 157 ; Newman, Illustrated History, 73 ; Brown, 202, 234).
Carioles seem to have been less commonly used than sledges, but better documented. The earliest record of a cariole I have found is from Alexander Henry the Younger, in March of 1804, when he notes that, due to the melting snow, he 'put my cariole en cache and got there at sunrise on foot' (Henry, 239). There are also two good journal descriptions of carioles. In 1811, Alexander Henry the Younger described his cariole in detail :
'My own [dog sled] was a kind of cariole made by stretching a wet parchment of mooseskins over a few timbers, to which it was well secured with a line. This forms a comfortable voiture, prevents the snow from gathering the sled, and keeps a person snug and warm, wrapped in a buffalo robe' (Henry, vol 2, 677).
The dog sleds on Henry's trip had bells rigged to jingle as they went along. In January 1848, Paul Kane left Fort Edmonton for Fort Pitt in a train of 'three carioles and six sledges, with four dogs to each, forming when en route a long and picturesque cavalcade...' and says
'the cariole is intended for carrying one person only ; it is a thin flat board, about eighteen inches wide bent up in front, with a straight back behind to lean against ; the sides are made of green buffalo hide, with the hair scarped completely off and dried, resembling thick parchment ; this entirely covers the front part, so that a person slips into it as into a tin bath' (Kane, 271)
Kane made a sketch of this 1848 dog train that shows both sledges and carioles. (Kane, 271 ; Newman, Caesars, 46). An 1825 drawing of a cariole from the Hudson's Bay area shows an unusual cariole that is shaped more like a horse sleigh than an enclosed toboggan (Barbeau, 1).
The main role of dog sleds was to carry goods, furs, meat, and messages to forts in the winter. Dogs were less expensive than horses ; every voyageur could have two or three to pull a sled. In 1799, 'Mr. Fidler with an Indian set off on horseback on his return [from Edmonton House] to Red Deers Lake, his men also with dogs and sleds loaded with goods to go by the way of B.[uckingham] H.[ouse]' (Johnson, 228). Also, dogs could run over deep snow that horses find it difficult or impossible to travel through. A journey that was begun with horses might be completed with dog sleds when the snow became too deep (Johnson, 87). Dogs could not always pull sleds. Sometimes, snow conditions could be unsuitable for both horses and dog sleds (Johnson, 131). This was likely the case when deep snow was too soft to carry the dogs.
Dog sleds usually left in 'trains' of several dog sleds, with each dog team following the track of the one in front of it. Most or all of the men travelling with the train would wear snowshoes and run along with the dogs. Paul Kane gave a good description of dog sleds on the road.
'...Two men go before [the lead dog] on the run in snowshoes to beat a track, which the dogs instinctively follow : these men are relieved every two hours, as it is very laborious.'...'We had three carioles and six sledges, with four dogs to each, forming when en route a long and picturesque cavalcade : all the dogs gaudily decorated with saddle-cloths of various colors, fringed and embroidered in the most fantastic manner, with innumerable small bells and feathers...Our carioles were also handsomely decorated...' (Kane, 271, 270).
The sleds could carry fairly heavy loads. In 1800, Daniel Harmon's sledge was pulled by two dogs and carried 150 pounds of furs and provisions for a five day trip (Harmon, 40). This hauling ability is why dog sleds would often be sent to pick up meat from animals killed by the fort's hunter.
Dog sled trains would frequently travel in the dark, with just moonlight or the light of false dawn to guide them. Trains would often leave before dawn to travel further during the short winter days. As the days got warmer, the trains would travel at night to keep the soft daytime snow from tiring the dogs (Henry, 239).
Travelling by Dog Sled Today
Dog sleds, after canoes, may have been the second most common form of transportation in the Northwest fur trade. If you are keen on finding a new way to extend your re-enacting experiences in the winter (usually a stay-at-home season), you could try a short dog sled trip followed by a cup of chocolate or tea and some bannock or gingerbread.
If you are interested in taking a ride on a dog sled, you may be able to catch a ride with a local amateur musher or a professional tour operator. Many tour operators' brochures emphasize the 'traditional' and 'historical' aspects of the dog sled used by 'our early explorers', so they may be receptive to re-enactors. Don't expect to find historic sleds, though. Today, most people use modern racing sleds with high runners. In Alberta, there are operators based in Rocky Mountain House, Bragg Creek, and Banff ; contact the local tourist associations for details, or try Travel Alberta (1-800-661-8888) or your provincial department of tourism for information closer to home.
Barbeau, Marius. Assomption Sash. National Museum of Canada, Department of Mines and Resources. Bulletin 93, Anthropological series no. 24. 1937.
Brown, Craig (ed.) The Illustrated History of Canada. Lester and Orpen Dennys : Toronto, 1987.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country : The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800-1816. W. Kaye Lamb, ed. Macmillan : Toronto, 1957.
Johnson, Alice (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence, 1795-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.
Kane, Paul. Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America...Hurtig : Edmonton, 1967.
Newman, Peter C. Caesars of the Wilderness. Viking : Markham, Ontario, 1987.
Newman, Peter C. An Illustrated History of the Hudson's Bay Company (formerly Empire of the Bay). Viking Studio/Madison Press : Toronto, 1995.
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