The First American Dog Musher in Alaska

Robert Kennicott was one of the most unlikely people to ever drive a team of dogs, let alone do so in the most remote and isolated region of 19th century North America.

by Thom “Swanny” Swan

“My four dogs are to me treasures beyond price. They form one of the strongest and

best teams of the region, and their fortunate possessor is held in much higher esteem in

consequence than he would be without them.” —Robert Kennicott

Born on Friday the 13th of November in 1835, Robert Kennicott was one of the most unlikely people to ever drive a team of dogs, let alone do so in the most remote and isolated region of 19th century North America. First, Robert was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, which wasn’t exactly known for the presence of snow. Although his family moved to Cook County, Illinois while he was still an infant dog mushing was not nearly so common as in the rest of the Great Lakes region. It’s likely that Bob never saw a dog sled prior to adulthood. 

Robert was also a sickly child. Although history records few details of his medical issues, his family feared he would not survive to adulthood. Were his father, John, not a well-educated and skillful physician it is likely he would have died within the first few years of life. As it was, his ailments were so severe that he could not attend public school regularly. 

While he inherited some of the bad luck associated with his Friday the 13th birthday, Robert also inherited a major stroke of good fortune. His father, John, was an unusually well educated man with a keen scientific mind. Prior to establishing his Illinois homestead, John had taught school in Buffalo, New York, completed his medical training at Fairfield Medical College, and practiced medicine for several years in New Orleans. In Illinois he was not just a practicing physician, but also gaining fame in the scientific community as a botanist and horticulturalist. He not only tended his sickly son’s medical needs, but his educational needs as well.

Robert received the best home school instruction that could be provided in the family’s log cabin home and was encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Under his father’s tutelage every outing was a lesson in the natural sciences. By 17, Robert could be accurately described as a ‘nature nerd,’ and was ready for his advanced training, which he received as understudy to Jared Potter Kirtland. Kirtland encouraged Kennicott to contact other naturalists which resulted in a life-long association with Spencer Fullteron Baird, the assistant secretary of the recently founded Smithsonian Institution. Robert was well on his way to building an impressive academic resume.

In 1855, only 20 years old, he was hired by the Illinois Central Railroad to conduct a survey of the state’s natural resources. An encounter during that expedition cemented Robert’s reputation for bravery and resourcefulness. Wishing to provide proof of the existence of the poisonous water moccasin in Illinois he offered a reward of five dollars for the first living specimen delivered to him. Soon after receiving a snake and paying the reward a strapping, rough and tumble frontiersman brought in another and demanded the reward. When Kennicott explained the reward had already been claimed the aggrieved frontiersman threatened the young scientist with a good, old-fashioned down-home ass whooping. Kennicott calmly grasped the snake behind the head and held it aloft and dared the vengeful frontiersman to bring on the fight. Staring at fangs dripping venom, forked tongue flicking and body writhing in the air, the frontiersman wisely backed off and the story quickly spread of the scientist willing to fight a duel with deadly serpents.

As one result of the railroad survey’s fieldwork, Kennicott published a three-part paper from 1856 to 1858 entitled “The Quadrupeds of Illinois, Injurious and Beneficial to the Farmer.” Meanwhile, he co-founded the Chicago Academy of Sciences and spent two winters in Washington D.C., helping Baird organize the Smithsonian Institution’s amphibian and reptile collection.

On April Fools Day, 1859, Kennicott departed Washington for his grandest adventure yet. Under the auspices of the Smithsonian in cooperation with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Kennicott was bound for the most remote region of North America, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Mackenzie River District. 

During a brief, three-day stopover in Toronto, Robert met Dr. John Rae, the so called ‘Old Company’s’ most active and infamous explorer. Dr. Rae provided Robert much information about the Hudson’s Bay Territory and the route he intended to follow. It is likely he also warned Kennicott of the rigors he was to face. The HBC was willing to provide transportation and assistance, but could tolerate no delays. If he were to achieve his goals, Robert would have to carry his own weight and keep pace with the HBC’s famed voyageurs, arguably the most athletic and efficient wilderness travelers of history.

The voyaguers were the laborers of the fur trade and were transportation specialists. During summer they worked as canoe motors, propelling their canoes upstream or down at a rate of 40 strokes per minute, 12 to 14 hours per day. On the portage trail, each carried a minimum of two 90-pound packs suspended from their foreheads by a tumpline. During winter they ran with their dog teams covering 40 to 50 miles or more during each equally long day. Robert not only managed to keep up, he also collected specimens and conducted his investigations along the way.

Kennicott’s introduction to dog mushing was a January trip from Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River to Fort Liard, and was a near disaster. Robert was running a team of three dogs, but he wrote, “they proved to be poor ones, so that I could not ride more than four or five miles a day.” His snowshoes were no better than his dogs and by the second day he was suffering from mal de requette (snowshoe lameness), a painful inflammation of the tendon that flexes the large toe. Coupled with temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees (F) below zero, Kennicott reported, “As I could not ride, however, there was nothing to be done but to bear the pain, which became so severe that cold and fatigue were forgotten.” In spite of his difficulties he kept pace with his companions and completed the journey, averaging 37 agonizing miles each day.

Robert spent most of the next summer collecting specimens in the vicinity of Fort Resolution, at the mouth of Great Slave Lake. In August he paddled down the Mackenzie to Peel’s River, crossed westward over the mountains to La Pierre’s House and descended the Rat River (Porcupine River) to Fort Yukon. He spent the next two winters collecting specimens between Fort Yukon, La Pierre’s House and Peel’s River. Doing so, he became the first American citizen known to have mushed sled dogs on Alaskan trails.

Collecting specimens meant embracing the quintessential Alaskan lifestyle, hunting, fishing, trapping and of course, dog mushing. Having learned the painful consequences of poor equipment and dogs during his Fort Liard trip, Kennicott acquired the best of each he could find. In April 1861 he boasted, “A good canoe in summer, and good dogs in winter, are among the greatest comforts in the north, and I have both.” His enthusiasm for scientific collecting was contagious and soon Hudson’s Bay Company traders, voyageurs, and even Native hunters were all helping collect. Some continued to contribute to the Institution decades after Kennicott’s death. 

Much of Robert’s enthusiasm was directed toward dog driving, and he described many aspects of his endeavors with a degree of detail and emotion rarely seen in 19th century correspondence. “My four dogs are to me treasures beyond price. They form one of the strongest and best teams in this region, and their fortunate possessor is held in much higher estimation in consequence that he would be without them. ... I have derived more pleasure from my dogs this winter than from any thing else.”

“We call it ‘riding and running’ when going fast on a voyage, with a light sled. We then do very little walking, but after riding on the sled till we get cold, jump off and run as hard as we can make the dogs go until warm enough, and then ride a mile or two, and so alternately ride and run all day...If I am small and weak, so that I can’t help my dogs much, I have the consolation, at least, that I can ride over their load without its making much difference to them.”

Kennicott described the routine of traveling by dog team in a letter to family and friends. “On a voyage, where several sleds go together, all go on without stopping or unnecessary delay for from five to seven miles, when they stop to smoke and give the dogs a spell, and the distance thus made is called a pipe or a spell....At the end of each pipe the foremost sled goes behind the whole, and the second sled goes ahead, and thus all in their turn make a ‘spell ahead,’ the front being the hardest place.”

“When a sled can not keep up and take its proper place in the brigade at each spell, it is sad to be ‘planted,’ which is considered something very disgraceful; and a good voyageur will push (help his dogs by pushing with a long pole always attached to the top of a loaded sled) till he is nearly knocked-up, rather than be planted....Not to ‘give track’ is another disgrace, When the dogs of one sled keep so close to the one in advance that the foregoer’s traces slacken, the sled ahead is said not to give track; consequently, in soft snow, the driver, whose spell it is ahead, nearly always uses the pushing stick, and often so effectually as to “plant” a stronger sled, whose driver is too lazy to push hard. My pushing stick is my fourth dog, for in ordinary trains there are but three. By the rules of voyaging etiquette four dogs are not obliged to do more than three, so I manage to get on without much ‘forcing’ (hard work) when on a voyage, only using the pushing stick on bad banks.”

Kennicott noted the effect of temperature on trail and mushing conditions, writing, “it is easier for dogs to haul five hundred pounds at a temperature about 10 degrees above zero, or 10 degrees below, than to haul four hundred when it is 30 degrees or 40 degrees below, as in extreme cold there is much greater friction.” Robert compared his own preference for temperatures between -10 to -20 degrees but an old voyaguer named Fleet (possibly Flett) preferred 40-below. Robert even wrote of singing to his dogs on the trail, “...for dogs and horses, seem to like singing, and what the sounds I produced wanted in melody they made up in volume.”

He even mastered the art of the dog-deal, writing, “Mr. Gaudet has added to the load of personal obligations I am under to him, by giving me his dog Dimah. He would not sell him for any price, but at last gave him to me. I have given him my poorest dog, Moo-toos, to put in his train. Dimah is the best dog in the district, and is very good-looking too. Flett had a young dog, of great hardiness, size, and strength, and active withal. I got him in exchange for my dog Tingeuk, who though very good, kept too low in flesh for my long trip. It was hard to part with him, but he would not have been a safe dog for my proposed long trip, and he will be better off with Flett, where he will always feed well.”

Having received word of some family emergency, Kennicott left Alaska and the northwest in the spring of 1862, arriving in Chicago in October. During his expedition, he collected 282 specimens of birds, 230 of mammals and 151 lots of fish. He also collected Alaskan Native clothing and weapons and compiled some of the first dictionaries of Dene (Athabascan) Native languages.

Kennicott’s expedition made his name in scientific circles and his exploits appealed to a wide general readership. He could have easily spent the remainder of his life in the comfortable halls of academia. He was hired as curator of the newly founded Chicago Academy of Sciences museum and, as J. W. Foster wrote, “Everything seemed to concur to make the future of his life agreeable. He had made collections in natural history which would have required a lifetime to describe. He was in correspondence with scientific men in every quarter of the land, and at home he enjoyed the friendship of a large circle of intelligent and liberal-handed men, who were ready to second all his efforts in behalf of natural history; and in Professors Henry and Bair of the Smithsonian, he had two tried and trusty friends, to whom he could freely resort for advice and instruction.”

A restless spirit can not be long confined, and occasional collecting excursions taken in between his administrative duties wasn’t sufficient to calm Robert’s wanderlust. In 1867, as the only American expert on the Interior region of Alaska, Kennicott was approached by the Western Union Telegraph Company with a job offer. Western Union intended to build a telegraph from San Francisco to Moscow via Alaska, under Bering Strait and across Siberia. They wanted Kennicott to command the party to survey the route in Alaska and the Yukon River.

Robert Kennicott in Western Union uniform, circa 1867. The The Russian–American Telegraph, also known as the Western Union Telegraph Expedition and the Collins Overland Telegraph, was a $3,000,000 (equivalent to $50.1 million in present-day terms) undertaking by the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1865–1867, to lay an electric telegraph line from San Francisco to Moscow, Russia. The route was abandoned in 1867, and considered an economic failure, but history now deems it a "successful failure" because of the many benefits the exploration brought to the regions traversed.

Seeing an opportunity to expand on his earlier work, Robert entered into negotiations. When the telegraph company offered to provide concessions that would allow him select a corps of young naturalists as assistants and cooperate with the Chicago Academy of Sciences to provide a complete scientific outfit, Kennicott agreed to take the job.

Arriving in San Francisco, Kennicott found the project was largely being organized on the fly. His priorities were not necessarily aligned with those of other, more powerful managers. For example, based on his own experiences he strongly felt that a route through the Canadian fur-country following trails pioneered by the great Canadian fur-companies would be faster and less expensive than the route through British Columbia that was ultimately attempted.

The stress of arguing with disagreeable business associates and coping with the inevitable delays that confound any major engineering project took a toll on Robert’s health. Evidence of Kennicott’s deteriorating health was documented by an associate, probably Charles Pease, who wrote “... he went immediately to his room, and while sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to one of his companions, the color suddenly left his cheek, and he fell back pulseless for several minutes on the bed. The immediate production and use of the strongest brandy by his friend brought him through this attack, which, if he had been alone, might have proved fatal; and he was confined to his room for several days.”

Recovering from his near-death experience, Kennicott seemed to regain his former vigor. Kennicott’s party arrived at St. Michaels on Norton Sound in September and almost immediately began moving their equipment and supplies to Unalakleet by boat. From Unalakleet they began relaying their equipment and supplies to the Russian American Company trading post at Nulato by dog sled, hoping to start for Fort Yukon in March. Unable to secure enough dogs or dog food, they struggled to accomplish their work with small teams and short rations.

By March Kennicott’s dogs were exhausted from hard work on short feed, He decided there was nothing to do but wait for break-up and continue the work by boat or canoe. Robert spent that unexpected delay exploring the mountains west of Nulato, seeking a pass to the coast and gathering information for a map of the vicinity. His natural history work was almost entirely neglected as he performed his duties to the telegraph company. It was apparent to his companions that Robert was physically and mentally exhausted and emotionally depressed.

As break up neared he seemed to shake off some of his dejection. Pease wrote “The life-pulses of spring beating in the vegetable and animal world, cheered and enlivened him, no doubt. He began to enjoy the gradual approach of leaves, birds and salmon, and thought less of the cares and annoyances of the dreary winter season.”

Pease wrote that the sun was shining brightly on the morning of May 13th, 1866. Robert Kennicott left his quarters between four and five o’clock for a morning walk along the Yukon River bank. When he failed to appear for breakfast a search party was organized. He was found only a few hundred yards from the fort. He lay on his back, his arms across his chest, eyes half closed and his face calm and peaceful. At only 30 years of age the first American known to have run sled dogs in Alaska was dead.

Less than a year after Kennicott’s death, the United States Senate was asked to ratify the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The Senate, along with most of the American population, was very skeptical about the wisdom of Seward’s purchase. Among those skeptics was Senator Charles Sumner, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner maneuvered the agreement into his committee for investigation and immersed himself in an intense study of the territory, calling on the resources of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, including the records from Robert Kennicott’s expedition to Fort Yukon.

Based on his reading, Sumner was transformed from skeptic into a powerful persuader. On April 8th, 1867 Sumner addressed with Senate, speaking for three hours in support of the treaty. On April 9th the previously skeptical Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 37 to 2. Thus the first American Citizen to drive his own team of sled dogs in Alaska ensured that her trails would become a part of America’s history and remain a part of America’s future. 

Author Bio: Thom “Swanny” Swan is a historical reenactor and recreational dog

musher living in Two Rivers, Alaska.

References:

• Foster, J.W. (ed): Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volume I:

Church, Goodman & Connelley; Chicago; 1869.

• Foster, J. W.; Robert Kennicott; Western Monthly Magazine, Vol III, No. 15; pp 1665-

172; March 1870. 

• Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “Robert Kennicott (1835-1866):

Early Smithsonian Scientific Explorer and Collector.” Accessed May 6, 2016.

U. S. Senate. Accessed June 10, 2016.

Smithsonian Collection

Smithsonian magazine article

Biographical Sketch at U.S. Library of Congress

Bones of Robert Kennicott