Dogs are among the earliest settlers in Arkansas. The first humans to reach the state arrived over 10,000 years ago, most likely accompanied by their dogs.
European breeds were introduced to America with the arrival of the Spaniards, and since then generations of Arkansans have shared their lives with dogs.
Researchers disagree on the specifics of domesticating dogs, but genetic studies have verified that dogs evolved from gray wolves. Recent research suggests that domestication may have started over 100,000 years ago, long before humans settled into village life.
Dogs have served as guards, skillful partners in the hunt, and beasts of burden for many indigenous peoples in North America. Until the arrival of Europeans, the dog was one of the seven domestic animals of the New World (the largest being the llama, the smallest a stingless bee).
Some Indian groups ate dogs for food, including the Quapaws, who served dog meat at least on special occasions. The Nez Perce Indians greeted the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806 with a warm welcome, but were dismayed to learn that white men ate dogs. Even Meriwether Lewis, who loved dogs and took her dog Seaman on the expedition, relished the dog meat.
The dog was well entrenched in American culture long before 1803, when Arkansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase were acquired from the French. In 1818, while Arkansas was still part of the Missouri Territory, a young mineralogist named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft made a roundabout journey through the Ozarks, discovering that the early settlers had a special relationship with their dogs: “The Hunter [meaning settler], although usually lazy … is nonetheless his dog’s slave, the only object around him to which he seems truly devoted. “
Likewise, Frederick Gerstacker, a German hunter and visitor to Arkansas in 1837-1843, discovered that dogs held a special place in the hearts of Arkansas hunters. Arriving dressed in a green leather jacket and lace-up leather thigh-high boots, Gerstacker, looking like a chubby, bearded Peter Pan, took his time exploring the forests and verdant fields of the Arkansas Territory. He particularly got attached to a dog named Beargrease, a dog of such bravery that Lassie sulked in shame.
Beargrease was a natural for hunting bears, of which Arkansas had a huge population.
At the same time that Gerstacker was enjoying his time in the hunter’s paradise of early Arkansas, dogs were used to track down runaway slaves, a process that sometimes resulted in serious injury to the fugitive.
The ancient world tradition of using dogs to hunt foxes was widely accepted in America and early Arkansas. However, instead of riding the dogs in the British tradition, Arkansas fox hunters received great joy just by listening to the dogs. Each foxhound had a distinctive voice, allowing the owner to track their dog’s progress.
Jim Myrick, a famous foxhound trainer born near Mena in Polk County in 1903, developed a taste for fox hunting at the age of 7: [neighbor] Mr. Waters’ fox horn and the melodious pack running a fox. “
Myrick later published a memoir called “Life Behind the Chase” in which he compared the fox hunt to a religious experience: “Once you have heard the hunt, you are born again … gift.”
While a fox hunt could include many people, the use of dogs to hunt raccoons was typically done by individuals or perhaps with a son or friend. In 1911, a Pulaski County coon hunter named Tom Cody, who had consumed too much alcohol and fell asleep on a sidewalk after a hunt, was dragged to Little Rock Police Court.
When the presiding judge asked about Cody’s coon dogs, the accused embarked on a tribute to his hunting dogs: the stockings. “
Cody went on to say that listening to his coon dogs was like hearing the Lord’s Prayer chanted from a distance, after which the judge dismissed the charge, explaining “… a man with good coon dogs has a Christian duty to hunt, and if he hunts at night, he must sleep during the day. “
Dogs have played an important role in war and police work. The Spaniards made effective use of “dogs of war”, huge mastiffs in many cases which, along with horses, caused panic among the Indians. It was Hernando de Soto, gold digger and Indian killer, who in 1541 brought European dogs to what is now Arkansas. Among the dogs was his favorite greyhound, Bruto.
During the Civil War, a surprising number of officers from both armies put dogs into service. US Army General Alexander Ashboth fought in the Battle of Pea Ridge with his dog York running and barking alongside the General’s horse.
The Arkansas Police Department used dogs in 1913, six years after New York City launched dog patrols. Argenta had two police dogs in 1913, and their activities were frequently covered by the local press.
Little Rock added dogs to its police force in 1914 at the insistence of Police Judge Fred Isgrig, who believed the dogs “would be useful in slaughtering runaway negroes or other people …”. useful for tracking prison escapees or finding missing people.
Over time, towns in Arkansas – like municipalities across the country – began to tax dogs. This story and many more dog stories will be covered in a future column.
Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist who lives with his wife Mary and Yorkshire Terrier near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [emailÂ protected]