History could have been very different....
"I spent almost the entire winter freighting with my dogs to the outlying creeks, and so was away from civilization most of the time. There was more money in it than in ordinary freighting to the mines, and the life suited me better. I had to camp out, but this was less difficult now than formerly, as by this time we all had tents and stoves." -- Arthur Treadwell Walden, "A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon" (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928)
The colorful history of sled dog travel has been well documented over the years, in books ranging from the classic "Gold, Men and Dogs," by A.A. Scotty Allen (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1931), to Archdeacon of the Yukon Hudson Stuck's "Ten Thousand Miles with a Dogsled" (1914). But one of the most compelling books ever written about sled dog travel in the north country is "The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic," by cousins Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury [W. W. Norton & Co., 2003], which details the heroic relay dash of 20 men and more than 200 dogs who raced across 674 miles of Alaskan backcountry to deliver lifesaving serum and save the citizens of Nome from a diphtheria outbreak.
The Salisburys report a little-known aspect of Alaskan history: "In addition to trade goods, the gold rush brought some strange ideas to Alaska, and the most bizarre may have been the belief of some U.S. government officials that Alaskans would be better off living in Alaska without dogs. Ambitious entrepreneurs tried many alternative forms of transportation and communication that they hoped would be superior to dogs, including horses, goats, hot-air balloons, bicycles, ice skates, ice boats, ice trains. and passenger pigeons. But the favorite choice of several key officials was the reindeer."
“When reindeer were first proposed for nse in the mail service in Alaska the idea was ridiculed. Since then, experiments have demonstrated the animal's value for this purpose. The first test showed its superiority over dog teams for traveling through the snow.” —Reindeer as Mail Carriers • November 1901 • Newspaper article: Boston College's The Sacred Heart Review
The primary proponent for reindeer was Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and the head of Alaska's fledgling education system at the turn of the century. A staunch supporter of reindeer who argued their qualities far and wide, Jackson even testified before Congress that dogs were treacherous and unreliable beasts, and claimed that they "require considerable food for their support, while reindeer are gentle, timid and eat little, foraging on the moss and spruce of the tundra."
Fortunately for our canine friends, the aforementioned Archdeacon Hudson Stuck challenged Jackson's assertions. He'd written compellingly in "Ten Thousand Miles With a Dogsled" that the husky dog was prized and called "the Friend of Man," and he observed "There is not a dog the less in Alaska because of the reindeer, nor ever will be..." When the Canadian government introduced reindeer into Labrador under the direction of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who stated his hope they would "eliminate that scourge of the country, the husky dog," the Archdeacon Stuck responded, "Instead of the reindeer eliminating the dog, there is far greater likelihood of the dog eliminating the reindeer..."
After a few side paragraphs on feeding and caring for reindeer as opposed to dogs, the Archdeacon went on, warming to the argument: "Speaking broadly, the reindeer is a stupid, unwieldy, and intractable brute, not comparing for a moment with the dog in intelligence or adaptability." He did, however, admit to the reindeer's usefulness in one regard: "Wherein lies the success of the reindeer experiment in Alaska? Chiefly in the provision of a regular meat supply..."
But reindeer did, for a time, haul the U. S. mail.
According to an article at the USPS website, reindeer helped transport mail to more than a dozen post office locations in northwestern Alaska from 1899 to the early 1910s.
“Although Jackson’s vision of reindeer routes crisscrossing the territory never materialized, in the early years reindeer were used on several mail routes in northwest Alaska, from St. Michael, south of the Seward Peninsula, to the Barrow Post Office, north of the Arctic Circle.
“The first known use of reindeer to move the U.S. Mail was on Route 78110, St. Michael to Kotzebue, consisting of three 1,240-mile, 60-day round-trips beginning Dec. 1, 1899.
“Shortly thereafter, reindeer were used to carry mail on the following routes:
Eaton to Nome, a 480-mile roundtrip, beginning in March 1900
Michael, Eaton and Nulato, a 400-mile roundtrip, in the spring of 1900
Nome to Candle, a 520-mile roundtrip, in the winter of 1901-1902
“The reindeer teams covered the distance from Nome to Candle in only eight days, roughly half the time required by dog teams.
“During the winter of 1903-1904, reindeer were used on three mail routes —Teller to Wales (150-mile roundtrip), Teller to Igloo (130-mile roundtrip) and Barrow to Kotzebue (1,300-mile roundtrip).
“The route from Barrow to Kotzebue was reportedly the longest and most dangerous in the world. In his “Thirteenth Annual Report on the Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska” (1903), Sheldon Jackson described the trips on this route being made “through a long winter night with the thermometer ranging from 20 degrees to 60 degrees below zero.” He stated that “hardy Eskimo drivers … at the risk of their lives” carried the mail on the route, adding that they would sometimes be “storm bound in their snow huts for several days at a time.”
Edited from Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener [Northern Light Media, 2016]
• U. S. Postal History: When Reindeer Moved the Mail
• Reindeer as Mail Carriers • November 1901 newspaper article
• Alaska Reindeer Herdsmen: A Study of Native Management in Transition
by Dean F. Olson, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1969
• The Reindeer Research Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks