Trail Pets

Domesticating animals along the way

Those who traveled the road west to Oregon, Utah and California during the 19th century were as prone to love pets as are contemporary Americans.

Then, as now, this attachment led some to attempt to tame/domesticate “wild” animals captured in their natural state. Then, as now, such attempted domestication did not always lead to happy results.

In September of 1864, Harriet Hitchcock and her family were temporarily residents in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. On the 12th of that month, Harriet recorded in her diary that “There are some prairie dogs here in the Mt’s resembling those on the plains;” she further noted that she and her sister, Lucy, “have caught one and got it in a cage.” “In order to tame it,” she continued, “I take it out every day and feed it with meat.”

By the end of the month, however, Harriet’s father had decided that the family would return east. As a result, on September 29, “We bade our affectionate adieu to Young American gulch and started for home.” The small party had almost reached the top of the mountain when the oxen “suddenly turned. . . and upset the freight wagon.” According to Harriet, the oxen had “become so much attached to their mountain home” they turned simply “to view the gulch once more!” Whatever the reason, the results were immediate! “Ma’s rocking chair was crushed to atoms. The pail of milk for our dinner spilled and our poor little prairie dog went rolling in his cage to the foot of the mountain.” Needless to say, no attempt was made to “rescue” the little creature.

Eliza Ann McAuley’s experiences with “wild” pets was at least a bit longer lived, even if ultimately no more successful. Very early in their journey west, on April 20, 1852, Eliza’s brothers “went out hunting and brought in a little squirrel for a pet.” Since there is no further reference to her newly acquired furry friend, we can only assume that he did not survive his captivity. Several weeks later (on June 6th), however, Eliza once again undertook an “animal experiment.” Her party was on the north side of the North Platte River, just east of Ash Hollow (on the other side of the river). The grass near the river was poor, so they “had to drive the cattle back to the hills for grass. While out with the cattle the boys caught a little antelope and brought it to camp. . .”

Eliza Ann carefully cared for the little antelope and, before a week had passed (Sunday, June 10th, near the Ancient Bluff Ruins), she was able to record in her diary that “Our antelope, Jenny, is a great pet in camp and is equally fond of Margaret and me. She bleats and cries if either one is away from her.” On up the North Platte and then up the Sweetwater Valley traveled the small party, accompanied by pet antelope. On the evening of Sunday, July 4th, as they camped on the Big Sandy prior to taking the Sublette Cutoff for Fort Hall, a near accident occurred.

We came near losing our pet antelope this evening. As she was frisking about the camp, a man from another camp was about to shoot her, thinking she was a wild one. She ran to another camp where a woman got hold of her and held her, and would scarcely believe that she belonged to me, though the poor little thing was struggling to get away and bleating piteously for me. Finally she got away and came bounding to me and followed me home.

The pet antelope had been saved from a hunter’s bullet, but Indian dogs proved to be its undoing. As the train was camped on Bear River, on Wednesday, July 21st, “Our pet antelope, Jennie, was playing around the camp and the dogs belonging to a large camp of Indians espied her and gave chase.” The Indians “tried to rescue her, but could not. They then offered to pay for (her) in skins and robes. We told them it was an accident and they were not to blame, but they immediately packed up to go, saying they were afraid the men would shoot them when they came.” In her diary that evening, Eliza Ann recorded the only epitaph Jennie was to have: “We have met with a sad loss today.”