The journey of a lifetime for one extraordinary Newfoundland started on May 14, 1804. On this day, the Corps of Discovery, lead by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark, set out to see if Americans could trek overland to the Pacific Ocean following two rivers—the Missouri and the Columbia. While preparing for the arduous excursion, Lewis visited Philadelphia for instruction in navigation, medicine and field studies. It is here that he met his furry friend. Purchased from a fisherman for $20, a large sum for a dog in those days, “Seaman’s” webbed paws, strong swimming ability, and hunting skills made him the perfect companion for the 8,000 mile crossing. Their bond would become matchless.
Lewis and Clark kept journals which chronicled the profound sacrifices these pioneers made throughout their journey. In these pages we learn to love Seaman, not only for “his docility,” as Lewis wrote, but for his faithfulness to the Corps.
September 11, 1803 is the first mention of Captain Lewis’ dog. “The squirrel appears in great abundance on either side of the river. I made my dog take as many each day as I had occasion for…he would kill them and swimming bring them in his mouth to the boat.” Seaman’s attributes prove him to be indispensable. Upon encountering an encampment of Shawnee and Delaware Indians, Lewis mentioned, “One of the Shawnees, a respectable looking Indian, offered me three deerskins for my dog with which he appeared much pleased…I prised much…and of course there was no bargain.”
Forging the Northwest Passage required traversing eleven states for 554 days, across rugged bare clines and icy, swollen rivers. Frostbite, hunger and danger tried to trample the Corps’ enthusiasm, with little success. They became myopic in their quest. Seaman included. Clark scribbled on August 25, 1804: “Capt Lewis and my Self concluded to go see the Mound which was viewed with such turrow (terror) by all the different Nations in this quarter…at six miles our Dog was so heeted (heated) and fatigued we was obliged to send him back to the creek.”
Seaman was mentioned again in the April of 1805. Lewis expressed concern for Seaman. “We set out at an early hour. the water friezed on the oars this morning as the men rowed…my dog has been absent during the last night, and I was fearful we had lost him altogether, however, much to my satisfaction he joined us at 8 O’clock this morning.” Another canine concern popped up in Lewis’ log on May 19: “One of the party wounded a beaver, and my dog as usual swam in to catch it; the beaver bit him through the hind leg and cut the artery; it was with great difficulty that I could stop the blood; I fear it will yet prove fatal to him.” Yet, Seaman’s fortitude pulled him through; he was performing guard duty ten days later. “In the last night we were alarmed by a buffalow…,” writes Clark, “our dog flew out and he changed his course and passed without doeing (doing) more damage than bend a rifle…” Seaman personified loyalty.
By August, 1805, the party had crossed the Continental Divide to the main village of the Shoshonis Indians. Lewis remarks, “Every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in their minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them, the black man York and the sagacity of my dog.” The Shoshonis arranged for a guide and pack horses to assist the men over the Rocky Mountains. For the next eleven months, the journals are silent as to the activities of Seaman.
In September, they reached the village of the Nez Perce Indians. New canoes were built to forge the last leg of the journey down the Snake River and onto the Columbia River. At last, in November, the Corps reached the Pacific and procured a place in history. As for Seaman, Lewis recorded the last words to be found concerning him on the return trip home. July 15, 1806: “The mosquitoes continue to infest us in such a manner that we can scarcely exist; for my own part I am confined by them to my bier at least 3/4th of the time. my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them.”
It is unclear as to whether Seaman finished the journey home to St. Louis. Although he is mentioned infrequently in the journals, historians believe some note would have been made if he passed on during the mission. The lack of any such entry suggests he survived. If so, Seaman would have become one of the most widely traveled dogs in history.