The saga of Seaman: The greatest dog traveler of all

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I like big dogs. More specifically big, useful dogs. Not little yappy dogs. Dogs that have a purpose in life and are true to it. Dogs that don’t bark much, but speak when they have something to say.

Dogs like Seaman, the noble Newfoundland who crossed and recrossed the continent with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery. I wrote about Seaman in this column years ago, arguing that Lewis was moved to buy the beast out of admiration for the great Scot who had crossed the continent before him, Alexander Mackenzie, who also loved his Newfie. I still think so, especially since Mackenzie and Lewis even used the same adjectives to describe their dogs.

What about the dog? What always bothered me was that during the homeward journey of the Corps, somewhere in Montana, Seaman disappears from the journals of the expedition. On 5 July 1806, Lewis names a creek (now called Monture Creek) after his dog. On 15 July Lewis complains of the mosquitoes in the river bottom, how “my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them.” Then we read no more of Seaman, which has led some historians to conclude he must have been lost.

I’m happy to learn that Seaman was not lost, but came home with his master and was recognized for his heroism. This news comes from the research of James J. Holmberg, who learned the fate of Seaman from a heavy tome of epitaphs published in 1814. That reference work quotes the following as the inscription on a collar worn by Seaman after his return from the west: “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.”

This passage not only documents that Seaman made it home, but also settles once and for all the issue about his name. For many years scholars misread it from the journals as “Scannon.” Historian Donald Jackson eventually sorted the matter out by noting the reference to the creek named for the dog, the inscription of which was plainly readable in Lewis’s hand. Still, the collar quotation closes that issue more definitively.

The 1814 book seems authoritative, although I think the compiler also may have bought into some legend. The collar is material evidence, reported to have been examined in a Masonic museum. The work goes on, however, to report what must have been hearsay:

“The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable. After the melancholy exit of gov. Lewis [recall that Lewis eventually shot himself], his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains… and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master’s grave!”

That story is a little too good, don’t you think?

A new book, The Saga of Seaman, by Everett Albers, puts Seaman’s story into a mock-epic poem that shows his sense of humor and irony – especially evident when he juxtaposes the image of Lewis with that of Lord Byron, the dissipated poet who also memorialized his Newfoundland dog, and remarks how much alike they looked.

Read closely through the book, though, and you’ll find the author has mastered the literature of the expedition and combed for all evidence on the life – real and literary – of his canine hero.

“If ever a dog deserved greater recognition,” remarks Ev, “it is Seaman.” The greatest traveler of his species.

(The author is a professor of history at North Dakota State University.)

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