Forget the Sheep, Pass the Dog

Photo by Cuveland/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Dogs have long had a place by people’s side, and hundreds of years ago in southern British Columbia, small-sized domestic dogs were particularly abundant — although for a rather surprising reason: their fur.  Elders from the Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast and Coast Salish elders on the island’s east coast and the mainland have an oral history detailing these dogs — which were small, white, fluffy, and loved. Women weavers would care for the dogs, who lived isolated on small islands to prevent interbreeding with hunting dogs. They were fed a special diet and a couple of times a year were sheered like sheep for their wool coats, out of which the women made blankets.

As Virginia Morell explains for Hakai Magazine, the arrival of the Hudson Bay company, and with it a supply of cheap blankets, gradually destroyed the need for the wool dogs, which merged with other domestic dogs and disappeared. Proving their existence has been a challenge for archaeologists. However, over the years new avenues of research have shown the importance of these dogs — with a particular breakthrough being made in 2002, when historian Candace Wellman in Bellingham, Washington opened a drawer and found a woollen pelt. The owner? A fluffy white dog from 1859 called Mutton.

Sometime before 1858, Mutton, a wooly dog, had found himself a new keeper, George Gibbs, a 19th-century ethnographer with the Pacific Railroad Survey and the Northwest Boundary Survey. Gibbs studied the customs and languages of peoples in the Pacific Northwest, and in his notes on the Nisqually language, he recorded the name of the dog wool blankets as Ko-matl’-ked. Mutton likely came from a Coast Salish village in British Columbia. Gibbs named the dog for his love of chasing sheep.

Not too much is known about Mutton in life, though apparently goats also attracted him. In 1859, Mutton ate the head off a mountain goat skin that was in Gibbs’s care, bringing a colleague to near tears. Naturalist C. B. R. Kennerly had meant to send the skin as a specimen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “[Gibbs] sent it to me yesterday & when I opened the bag & saw the injury I could almost have cried,” Kennerly wrote in a letter. And more ominously, he added, “Mutton was sheared a short time ago, & as soon as his hair grows out we will make a specimen of him.” Which they did, at some point. In death, Mutton has shared the very essence of himself—his pelt—likely the only known wool dog hide to exist.

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