Canines in the Cotton: Wagging Tales in the Antebellum South

Canines in the Cotton: Wagging Tales in the Antebellum South

By Robert C. Poister

From columned plantation to humble cabin, no setting below the Mason-Dixon is complete without a porch-front hound protecting the Southron’s abode.  This phenomenon, as culturally anecdotal as it might seem, is rooted in truth, and old as the South itself.  Canine heroes and heroines dot Southern history like bullet holes in an Albany, Georgia “Deer Crossing” sign.  Southern planters and paupers alike kept dogs for their status as much as their use, and often found that the latter defined the former.

It was very early that a dichotomy developed in Southern dog ownership.  The Virginia and South Carolina Gentry, self styled, haughty cavaliers that they were, fashioned themselves around the gentlemanly pursuits of fox and upland bird hunting.  Wealth allowed these men purebred beagles and labs to aristocratically hunt like their often contrived English ancestors had: recreationally, pleasurably, from horseback, with servants minding the details.  “There was ample leisure for fox hunting,” Douglas Southall Freeman wrote of the lifestyle of Virginia’s Northern Neck.  “Dinners followed hunts; the pheasant as well as the fox was sought.”  To these gentlemen, dogs were necessary for a recess to be enjoyed, not for food or defense.  “Fox-hunting,” Freeman penned, “was the limit of all recreation.”  More often than not, the accoutrements of livestock and leisure proved central to these charlatans’ pretension, and an imposter had to “continue to keep his horses and hounds and to maintain his reputation for extravagant hospitality.”[i]

But the working dogs of the Southern Frontier were animals of practicality and necessity. Meriwether Lewis and his dog Seaman illustrate the differentiation between plantation purebred and frontier feist.  In preparation for his exploration of the Louisiana Territory, Lewis, born a neighbor to Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County, Virginia, and raised in the Broad River Valley of Georgia, purchased the Newfoundland Seaman for $20.  Though connected to the landed gentry, Lewis abandoned their primped canines for a stout, do- anything dog.   Seaman made frequent appearances in Lewis’ journal, catching squirrels, retrieving beavers, and guarding against bears.  When a Shawnee offered Lewis “three beverskins for my dog,” Lewis measured his “qualifications generally for my journey and of course there was no bargain.”  Perhaps a statistic better exemplifies his attachment: The Corps of Discovery’s inelegant cuisine supposedly included over 200 dogs, but they never coated Seaman in a dry rub and slow smoked him for 12 hours.[ii]

Other hounds proved their “qualifications generally” as devoted companions and practical allies on the Southern Frontier, and these were, to a large extent, the Heinz 57 mutts of the lower class.  John Seaborn, a land surveyor in Georgia’s Cherokee Country, ventured into the North Georgia wilds with his brindled dog Bruno by his side.  When the Cherokee Warrior Unakayah-Wah, “White Man Killer,” attacked Seaborn, Bartow County legend holds that Bruno clamped onto the warrior’s arm and saved his owner’s life.  Bartow County’s notorious reputation for outlandish Cherokee names aside, dogs were more than pets on the frontier.  Early portraits of both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett show them surrounded by hunting hounds, and W.J. Cash asserts that even when “life had but ceased to be a business of Indian fighting, it was still largely a matter of coon-hunting, of ‘painter’ tales.”  The dichotomy between pedigree and mutt still exists today, though both rich and poor hunt more for recreation than necessity.  The backwoods descendents of hardy pioneers still follow the haunting bay of their hounds over mountains black as coal, while in Virginia and the Carolina Piedmont, they “ride to hounds” and then “head to bed.” [iii]

Thus, in some small way, Southern dogs helped tame the frontier and establish the Cotton Kingdom, and they remained adored and important parts of antebellum culture.  Publications like the Southern Cultivator received letters when they didn’t talk about dogs.  “I dare say there is not a farm in Georgia that has not its plantation dog,” one man wrote, “and scarce a farmer who would not almost as soon lose a horse as his watch dog.”   Alexander Robertson, enslaved in South Carolina, found common ground with his master in their mutual love of hounds. “If slavery had never been done ‘way wid, dat would be my master today,” Robertson explained,     “ ‘cause him lak hound dogs and I lak a hound dog.  Dat kind of breed got a good nose and make good ‘possum dog.”  Waxing philosophical about his own chicken and egg conundrum, Robertson questioned his interviewer, that, if the “fust dog was a hound dog, [it] must to a been a bitch, don’t you reckon?”[iv]

Unfortunately, this was far from the normal slave experience concerning antebellum dogs.  Masters often used hounds to hunt down runaways as though it was the new cavalier sport.  “The Master would put the blood hounds on their trail, and sometimes the slaves would kill the blood hound and make his escape,” freedwoman Octavia George told an interviewer.  “If a slave once tried to run away and was caught, he would be whipped almost to death, and from then on if he was sent any place they would chain their meanest blood hound to him.”  If a master lacked his own hounds, he could always enlist the help of a neighboring pack, and these events became as popular as chasing fox or treeing possum, including prizes and bragging rights.  Tom Randall’s owner put up a handsome purse when one of his slaves escaped.  “This offer drew to Ellicott City a number of people who had bloodhounds that were trained to hunt Negroes,” Randall remembered, “each owner priding his pack as being the best pack in town.”   At least one story provides a suitably ironic corollary to these haunting tales.  While at home on leave in1863, a Confederate plantation owner fled invading Yankees by lighting out the back of the big house and across a pasture.  He may have escaped, had not his faithful hounds, out of devotion to their master, “took out after him in full cry.”  Almost surely the consequence was unintended by the hounds, but a blue-coated sharpshooter promptly dispatched their master.

It is unknown whether or not the Yankee rewarded the dogs.[v]

RCP
(whose own dog Jane is a certified Georgia Black Dog and Heinz 57 Mutt of the lower class)


[i] Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington, abridged by Harwell, Richard (New York: Touchstone, 1968), 173, 210;  James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 25

[ii] pbs.org/lewisandclark, “Seaman.”

[iii] Lucy Josephine Cunyus, History of Bartow County, Georgia, Formerly Cass (Greenville: Southern Historical Press, 2001) 8-9; Portrait of Daniel Boone (1734-1820) by Alonzo Chappel, 1861; David Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman, 1834; W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Random House, 1941), 9.

[iv] Southern Cultivator, August 1849, vol. 7, Iss. 8, 119; Alexander Robertson in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, South Carolina Narratives, Volume XIV, Part 4.

[v] Octavia George, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Oklahoma Narratives, Volume XIII; Tom Randall, ibid, Maryland Narratives, Volume III; James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 39.

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2 Responses to Canines in the Cotton: Wagging Tales in the Antebellum South

  1. M. C. Hulbert says:

    “Almost surely the consequence was unintended by the hounds, but a blue-coated sharpshooter promptly dispatched their master.”

    A recent documentary on the southern “wild pig epidemic” recounted the tale of an old man (in Alabama, I believe) quietly watching television when, much to his surprise, a 300 pound wild hog came bounding through his front door. Now, far be it from me to surmise what [profanities] actually came out of the old gentleman’s mouth as the uninvited porker proceeded to attack him, but if I recall correctly, after the fact, he suggested something like: “if not for old Bobo [his hound mutt], I wouldn’t be here now.”

    Bobo, it seems, took it upon himself to redeem the honor of the overly-loyal hounds.

    – MCH

  2. RCP says:

    One can grimly chuckle and imagine the Confederate’s sister, in whose diary we find the above account, citing her hounds’ humanesque facial expressions as proof that “they knew they were in trouble.”

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