Seaman's Fate?: Lewis's Newfoundland dog likely survived the expedition and accompanied his master on his last fateful journey
By James J. Holmberg
From We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. (Vol. 26, No. 1, February 2000)
"The musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist, . . . my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them."1 With that journal entry by Meriwether Lewis on July 15, 1806, his dog Seaman, the Corps of Discovery's faithful companion and fellow explorer, disappears from history. He is not mentioned again in the journals, nor does he appear in any known post-expedition correspondence or report.
What happened to this famous Newfoundland dog? Did he complete the expedition? Did he live happily in St. Louis upon the Corps' return; taking dips in the Mississippi and curling up in front of a cozy fireplace? Or did he perish somewhere along the Missouri River? Was he perhaps left behind in Lewis's flight following his party's skirmish with a band of Blackfoot braves on July 27, 1806? Various theories have been postulated over the years. Seaman is an enduring subject of fascination for expedition enthusiasts and dog lovers alike. He first appears in the expedition's journals on September 11, 1803, when Lewis notes the breed and qualities of "my dog," including his talent for catching and retrieving swimming squirrels, and vanishes from the record almost three years later, with no hint of what happened to him.2 Although Seaman is mentioned infrequently in the journals, I think it likely that some note would have been made of him perishing during the expedition. The lack of any such entry suggests that he survived it.
Assuming he returned, did he accompany Lewis and Clark back to Louisville? Did he faithfully trot beside Lewis when his master visited Charlottesville and Washington? Given Seaman's presence with Lewis on the expedition, it is plausible that he accompanied his master on his travels east in late 1806 and his return to St. Louis in 1808. If so, Seaman would have followed Lewis from coast to coast over the course of some five years; an explorer in his own right, he was one of the most widely traveled dogs in history.
If Seaman did survive the expedition and accompany Lewis on his subsequent travels, was he with Lewis on his fateful trip east in 1809? This question has intrigued people for years. If he was with Lewis, what happened to him after his master's death at Grinder's Stand on October 11? I recall reading a fictional account that had Seaman refusing to leave his dead master and pining away on his grave. This, of course, was an imagined end, created for its dramatic effect, with no sources cited to give it a basis in fact. Even so, could this really have been Seaman's fate? Could the devoted canine have refused to leave Lewis, remaining with him even in death?
There's evidence to suggest so. In 1814, the same year that the long-delayed official history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was published, a Congregational clergyman and educator named Timothy Alden published A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions with Occasional Notes. Alden had been collecting epitaphs and inscriptions for years. For each listing he provided the source of the epitaph or inscription, stating the city and whether it was from a monument, a headstone, or something else. He collected so many that their publication spanned five volumes.
Alden was a respected man of letters. He was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society, three of the country's oldest and most prestigious historical organizations. From 1808 to 1810 he worked on a catalog of the New York Historical Society's library. He published various histories and magazines and in 1817 founded Allegheny College.4 His background suggests that he would have been scrupulous about accurately recording the information he found. "This must be distinctly understood," as Charles Dickens tells us, "or nothing . . . can come of the story I am going to relate."5
Entry 916 in his American Epitaphs and Inscriptions lists an interesting inscription on a dog collar in an Alexandria, Virginia, museum. It reads, "The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America."6
Seaman's collar in an Alexandria museum in 1814- proof that he survived the expedition! But the entry gets better. Alden includes a note about the collar and its owner. It reads:
Here is the whole story of Seaman's fate. He was indeed Lewis's faithful companion to the end; refusing to leave his dead master even though it meant dying himself: the archetypal example of man's best friend.
There is no reason to doubt Alden's entry concerning Seaman. This information would have been collected no more than five years after Lewis's death. There were people contemporary with Alden, including William Clark and Nicholas Biddle, the first editor of the Lewis and Clark Journals, whom he could have contacted about the accuracy of both the collar and Seaman's fate. It's unlikely that the collar was a hoax, for it was probably given to the museum two years before the publication, in 1814, of the Biddle edition of the Journals, when the expedition was fading from public consciousness. Apparently there was enough faith in the account that newspapers were repeating it some twenty years after the publication of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions.8
Clark the possible donor
The story's truthfulness is further bolstered by evidence that the collar's donor may have been none other than William Clark.
The museum that displayed Seaman's collar almost certainly was part of a Masonic lodge-specifically, Alexandria-Washington Lodge #22 (known simply as Alexandria Lodge until 1805, when the name was changed to honor its late member George Washington). We know that by 1812 the lodge had established a museum, for on August 21 of that year lodge official Thomas Sanford wrote Clark to thank him for the "truly valuable Present made by you to our infant Museum.... We esteem them Sir as Curiosities deserving to be ranked amongst the first in our Infant Establishment."9
The items Clark donated are not described, but one of those "Curiosities" could well have been Seaman's collar. Given his close association with Lewis and his role in examining some of Lewis's effects after his death, it's certainly possible that Clark would have had the collar in his possession. Lewis and Clark were both masons, so it's also reasonable to assume that Clark would have given this keepsake to a masonic museum.
It would be wonderful to report that the collar, or at least a listing of it in the museum's inventory, still exists. Unfortunately, neither the artifact nor any official record of it can be found. Jack Riddell, a member of Alexandria-Washington Lodge #22 and curator of the replica lodge room of the old Alexandria Lodge #22, checked the lodge's records, including its minute books and museum catalog, but found no mention of either a dog collar or any gifts by William Clark. But Riddell acknowledges that the museum's records, like those of many institutions, are incomplete. A fire in 1871 destroyed many of the museum's artifacts-including, presumably, Seaman's collar-although its catalog and the lodge's minute books were saved.10
Was it Seaman's fate to die keeping vigil at his master Lewis's grave? Perhaps we will never definitely know; but the inscription and note about him recorded in Alden's book, together with Sanford's letter and the information provided by Jack Riddell as supporting facts, provide a creditable explanation of the fate of the Corps of Discovery's faithful canine.
1 Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, 13 volumes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2000), Vol. 8, p. 110.
2 Moulton, Vol. 2, p. 79.
3 Francis S. Drake, Dictionary of American Biography, including Men of the Time (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872), 13; Timothy Alden, A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions with Occasional Notes, five volumes (New York: Privately printed, 1814).
4 Drake, p. 13.
5 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: Weathervane Books, 1977), p. 4.
6 Alden, Vol. 5, p. 98.
7 Alden, Vol. 5, p. 98.
8 Louisville (Ky.) Public Advertiser, May 5, 1835.
9 Thomas Sanford to William Clark, August 21, 1812, William Clark Papers-E.G. Voorhis Memorial Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Mo.
10 Phone conversations between Jack Riddell and James J. Holmberg, 1999.