Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bloodhounds Were Not the First American Tracking Dogs

The history of American tracking dogs goes back to the shameful days of slavery and the hunting of escaped slaves. I did not know until I read an article from 1920 written by a West Virginia judge that bloodhounds were first imported not just for their tracking skills, but also for their strength in apprehending the slaves. The first trackers were fox hounds, but these dogs were not enough of a threat. Judge McWhorter's words, in "The Bloodhound as a Witness," are worth quoting at length:

"During the slavery days of America, the slave-holders of the south conceived the idea of employing dogs in tracking slaves who attempted to escape. There were then no bloodhounds in America, and none were imported. But the common fox hound was trained to trail the slaves, and for the purpose of keeping the slaves awed and intimidated, the reports were generally circulated that these dogs were bloodhounds, with great accent on the word 'blood,' and that they were infallible, and when put on the trail of a negro would never abandon it until the fugitive was run down and torn to shreds, and that there was no escape from such ferocious dogs. This naturally appealed to the imaginative slave, and helped to give credence and circulation to these reports.

"But by and by the slaves began to learn that these hounds were harmless, and that all the reports concerning their viciousness were false, and the 'bloodhound' began to lose his terror. To offset this trouble, the common hound was then crossed with the Great Dane, or the Cuban Mastiff, both savage and vicious breeds of dogs, and a new strain produced called the 'Cuban Bloodhound,' and later and more appropriately called the “N---r Hound.” These dogs were vicious, and the former reports of the viciousness of the so-called 'bloodhounds' were renewed and fully credited, not only by the negroes but by the whites of both North and South as well. The vivid stories about these dogs in `Uncle Tom's Cabin' had their counterparts in every slave-holding section of the country. These dogs could, with ease, track barefooted negroes through the swamps and low damp grounds of the South, and it was utterly immaterial whether the dog left an older trail for a fresher trail of another negro. Just so the dog 'treed a n---r,' the moral effect was the same. The slaves were kept intimidated, and these dogs were doing their work effectively, regardless of their accuracy.

"Thus this 'common knowledge' of the work of the 'bloodhounds' grew. These reports were exaggerated, and, without scruple, falsified and the sagacity, discriminating powers and deadly precision of these dogs magnified for the very purpose of keeping the slave terrified. In this there was eminent success. The following poem expresses this 'Common Knowledge:'

"'O’er all, the bloodhound boasts superior skill,
To scent, to view, to turn and boldly kill—
His fellows’ vain alarms rejects with scorn,
True to the master’s voices and learned horn;—
His nostrils oft, if ancient fame sings true,
Traced the sly felon thro’ the tainted dew;
Once snuff’d, he follows with unaltered aim,
Nor odours lure him from the chosen game;
Deep-mouthed, he thunders and inflamed he views,
Springs on relentless, and to death pursues.'

"But who would have dreamed at that time that these false and highly colored reports would become the basis for the promulgation of a doctrine by the courts of America that would put in deadly peril the lives and sacred liberties of American citizens? It will be observed that these dogs, from whose work this 'Common Knowledge' largely arose, or at least took its coloring, were not bloodhounds at all. They were, at best, only quarter bloods; and all these reports of the vicious character and deadly precision of the so-called 'bloodhounds' had their foundation in fact only to the extent that the blood of the Cuban Mastiff or the Great Dane had been infused into the strain. Such reports were not true of the English Bloodhound, and never were. If these facts had been thoroughly understood, I do not believe this insidiously dangerous 'bloodhound doctrine' would ever have been adopted by any of the American courts, and that when once fully understood, it will either be repudiated in toto, or so emasculated by precautionary restrictions as to render it harmless."

McWhorter's entire article is available online through GoogleBooks.

Additional Note. For a colored engraving showing a hound pursuing a slave, see Tamsin Pickeral, The Dog: 5000 Years of the Dog in Art, Merrell London 2010, at 240. The engraving is identified as being from a private collection.