October 28, 2011 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Dogs in early Detroit
In early Detroit, owning a dog cost you a 50-cent tax. Per dog. Why? Because there were so many damn dogs. Wrote Silas Farmer:
There can be no doubt that dog tax was then necessary, for in 1805, with only five hundred and twenty-five heads of families, there were two hundred and nineteen dogs in the town of Detroit. …
Dogs were deemed essential as a protection against the Indians in the past time, and some families evidently believed in “protection.” During the War of 1812, after the arrival of Harrison’s troops, a Frenchman came to the officer of the day, and complained, ”The soldiers last night killed most all of my dogs.” — ”How many did they kill?” — ”Nine.” — ”How many have you left?” — ”Only eight.”
In other dog-related lore of early Detroit, did you know settlers used to travel the territory by dog-train? So did the mail! How ELSE would you deliver the mail in the wintertime?
Friend Palmer, a reliably disjointed prose stylist, describes these ”dog-trains” in a passage I had to read three times, because it immediately follows tales of Lewis Cass’s Detroit River party barge of canoes. And I thought that Lewis Cass had a canoe JUST FOR HIS DOGS TO RIDE IN. Oh well:
… The ”Dog-Train” … (was) a most important feature. The dog train was made of a light frame of wood, and covered round with a dressed deer skin. The part in which the feet went was lined with furs, and was covered in like the fore part of a shoe. The bottom was a plank, about half an inch thick, some six inches longer than the train, and an inch or two wider. In this train a lady was very comfortable and could take a child in her arms while her husband or friend, standing on the part of the bottom that projected behind, gave the word to the well-trained dogs, who, it was said, were capable of trotting with such a load forty miles in a day.
In other news, I adopted a dog.
She’s from Toledo, but let’s not hold that against her, OK? It should have been part of Michigan, anyway.
I wish I knew more about dogs in the old days. For as much as I have read about French-Canadian ponies in the past nine months, I have found only passing mentions of dogs. In the early 1700s, a dog belonging to the military commandant bit some people in the leg. The fire department had a Newfoundland named “Old Joe” at some point. Silas Farmer included a drawing of him, taken from what as evidently a bad painting (As an aside Silas wrote: “The painter alone is responsible for the perspective.”)
Were any notable figures from Detroit history noted dog-owners? Did Detroit dogs perform any heroic deeds or provide noble services?
I guess that is for me to find out.