Women of
             Fur Trade
Dog Travois               

The Dog Travois
 by Candi Smith

                                        The History           


    Before the time of horses on the northern and
   southern plains of America, most of the Indian tribes
   used dogs as burden animals. Many of the tribes
   employed the dog for many uses such as the pulling
   of a travois and packing. Before the introduction of
   the horse by the Spaniards to the New World, the
   Native Americans' dogs were the sole beasts of
   burden for thousands of years.


    The Spanish observed hunting parties using large
   wolf-like dogs as beasts of burden.  The dogs carried
   packs of 40 to 50 lbs. upon their backs or were seen
   pulling a travois loaded with up to 250 lbs. of game
   and belongings. "The first whites to witness this
   mode of transport were Spaniards who accompanied
   the would-be conquistador Francisco de Coronado
   onto the plains in 1541 in a fruitless search for gold.
   In a letter home a Spaniard reported that he saw
   dogs carry [the natives] houses, and they have the
   sticks of their houses dragging along."

    In 1765 the Hidatsa was discovered by the whites and
   documentation has revealed that they employed the
   use of the dog travois. Because of their proximity to
   the Hidatsa, the Mandan, the Arikara, the Crow, and
   the Lakota also utilized the dog travois.


    In 1804, Lewis and Clark also discovered some of
   these same tribes. In their journals, they had
   documented their use of the travois as well. Prince
   Maximillian zu Weids journal of his travels up the
   Missouri, in 1833, also reveals accounts of the
   Mandan, the Minnetaree, the Assiniboine, the
   Arikara, and the Cree utilizing the dog travois as
   part of their daily chores. Maximillian noted their
   use on June 19, 1833, "We already saw above a
   hundred of them, with many dogs, some of which
   drew sledges, and others, wooden boards fastened to
   their backs, and the ends trailing on the ground, to
   which the baggage was attached with leather straps"

    His companion, Karl Bodmer, was able to take the
   time to immortalize the image of the dog travois in
   his paintings. There are also reports of the Blackfoot,
   the Gros Ventre, the Sarsi, and the Arapaho using
   the dog travois as a means of transportation as well.


    With the advent of the horse, the use of the dog as a
   burden animal became diminished. By the 18th
   century, the horse had become well established
   among many of the tribes of both the southern and
   northern tribes. Because of the migration and
   trading routes the horses followed, the southern
   tribes, such as the Comanche, the Shoshone, and
   the Cheyenne, had become major trade centers of
   horses. As the Northern Plains Indians began to
   possess horses, acquired mostly through trade,
   they regarded them highly and primarily used them
   for hunting and riding. They continued with the use
   of dogs for a long time even after the acquisition of
   the horse as they were more commonly used in the
   daily life of the Indians themselves.


    By the mid-19th century, the horse had almost
   completely taken over the duties of the dog and the
   pulling of the travois, thus relegating the dogs
   capacities to protection and, in hard times, as food.
   For those families who were poorer and did not
   possess a horse, the dog and travois was still the
   primary means of transportation. It could be
   speculated that for a time most all of the tribes of
   the northern and southern plains of America
   utilized the dog as a burden animal.




The Uses  

    The adaptability of the dog travois in daily life varied
   greatly. One of the primary applications of the dog
   travois was for the gathering of firewood or dried
   animal waste. The women would go out with their
   dogs and collect wood or buffalo chips and then load
   what they had accumulated on the travois. They
   would pile the fuel on the travois to near capacity of
   what the dog could pull. Then the women would also
   carry a bundle of firewood, making the most of a
   trip. Depending on the number of dogs used, the
   fuel that was brought back could last a little as a
   week or as long as a month.





    They were also put into service when the time came for
   the moving of the camps. This type of transport
   enabled the Indians to move their lodges and personal
   possessions as they followed the buffalo herds or in the
   moving the camps to better ground.


    The dog and the travois value was not just for the
   transport of household items and food, but also as
   carriers for children and the elderly who were unable
   to walk for long distances. With children, a cage of
   willow was built atop the platform to contain them.
   Often times two dogs were lashed together as a team to
   help with the moving of the elderly and the sick. The
   pair of dogs were hitched together and the centerpieces
   of the travois were fastened with poles laid across the
   hoop and a short stick tied at the necks to keep the
   dogs apart, much the same way a yoke would be
   employed. The man or woman would ride on the
   cross pieces that were used to join the team. This was
   not a common practice, but was put to use when


    The dog travois was also employed to carry bullboats.
   The bullboat was bound to the travois upside down,
   one edge set to the front end of the travois leaving the
   rest of the boat to ride on the platform. Once the boat
   was filled and ready to return to camp via the water,
   the travois would be tied to the boat in such a manner
   as the joint and the platform sat atop leaving the ends
   to drag in the water behind the oat. That way any
   damage to the travois from the water would be kept to
   a minimum.


    In winter the dog and travois was used a great deal.
   It was easier to pull over the snow than the bare
   ground. Besides getting firewood on an almost daily
   basis, the dog was employed to help bring in grass hay
   for the horses. The hay would be cut and bundled in
   small "bales", tied to the travois, and brought back
   to camp.


    Another example of use would be when the men were
   out hunting buffalo; the women would use the dog
   travois to transport the meat back to the camps. A
   Blackfoot Indian named Weasel Tail describes an
   unusual use of the travois when they were hunting
   buffalo. "After swift-running men located a herd of
   buffalo, the chief would tell the women to get 
   their travois. Men and women would go out together,
   and approach the herd from down wind so the
   animals would not get their scent and run off. The
   women were told to place their travois upright in the
   earth, smallends up. The travois were spaced so that
   they could be tied together, forming a semi-circular
   fence. Women and dogs hid behind them while two
   fast-running men circled the herdand drove them
   toward the travois fence. Other men took up their
   positions along the sides of the route and closed in
   as the buffalo neared theenclosure. Barking dogs and
   shouting women kept the buffalo [back]. The men
   rushed in and killed the buffalo with arrows and
   lances." "After the buffalo were killed.the women
   hauled the buffalo meat to camp on their travois. This
   was called surround the buffalo. "

    Many of the northern tribes had packs of dogs
   numbering in the hundreds, with the average family
   owning as many as 10-20 dogs with over of them being
   used in the transportation of the camps when moving.
   The average family owned not much more than 8-10
   dogs, with only 3 or 4 of them actually used to pull
   travois. The remaining dogs were parent stock and
   elderly which were not useable for much other than
   companion ship and protection in the form of alarms.
   Many times, during the moving of the camps, the
   poorer families, with fewer dogs, were helped by the
   wealthier families who owned more dogs that were
   primarily kept just for that purpose. Some of the
   Indian tribes used their dogs for hunting. Those dogs
   were not used to pull travois.


    Most often the dogs were very willing to pull the
   travois and almost never had to be restrained when
   pulling. The only exception to this is when the dog
   was first learning. Once fully trained, only voice
   commands were used to control the dog. When
   hitched to the travois, the dog almost never made
   any attempt to run away or back out of the harness.

    There are some accounts of the difficulties with the
   use of dogs. "The dogs were not always satisfactory
   porters; they had to be kept well separated to prevent
   them from fighting. Given the slightest opportunity,
   a peaceful line of dogs would suddenly be transformed
   into a study of mayhem. Maintaining order among the
   belligerent animals was a time consuming and often
   frustrating job." George Catlin created a lasting image
   of the dog travois put to use by the Comanche. The
   painting is of a dogfight during the moving of the
   camp. "Dog, and later horses were the Indians beasts
   of burden. Dog fights often occurred. In the ensuing
   entanglements, the women too, fought one another
   with fists as they tried to protect their property." 




Constuction of the Travois  

    Building the travois was a task traditionally performed
   by women. Sometimes the men would help with part
   of the construction, such as the netting of the hoop
   platforms. Many times a group of women would gather
   together and construct many travois at once. They
   would collect a large quantity of wood at one time
   making the job of assembling the travois a communal


    Some of the Upper Missouri Indians, like the Hidatsa,
   the Mandan, and the Arikara, would decorate the
   travois with earth paints. Red was the color of choice
   and often times the entire travois was painted red.
   However, it was more common to see only the netting
   of the hoop painted red. The weaving of the hoop was
   often done by a skilled person known for their ability
   of weaving hoops. Among some tribes it was a measure
   of status having the hoop and netting decorated with
   the red paint.





    The framework of the travois is rather simple. It
   consists of 2 long poles secured at one end with a
   platform, a netted hoop or ladder of crossed sticks,
   attached to the poles and situated behind the dogs tail.
   The poles should be of a lightweight hardwood. Ash,
   maple, birch, and plum saplings are good for the drag
   poles. The poles are to be about 7 to 8 feet long, with
   the larger ends cut flat to help keep the pole drag even
   and smooth. At the head of the poles, they are to be
   notched so that they will hold firm when bound
   together. The poles are then joined and bound with
   rawhide, tendons, or strong cordage, applied when wet
   so that as it dried the joint was solid and firm.


    In Waheenee: An Indian Girls story, Buffalo Bird
   Woman tell of how her family constructed the dog
   travois for her dog. "My mothers came home one
   afternoon from wood gathering, dragging each a
   cottonwood pole about eight feet long. They pealed
   these poles bare of bark, and laid them up on the
   corn stage to dry." "With her big knife she hacked
   the greater ends of the poles flat, so they would run
   smooth on the ground. The small ends she crossed for
   the joint, cutting a notch in each to make them fit.
   She bound the joint with strips of the big tendon in
   a buffalos neck"


    The two different types of platforms, the ladder type
   and the hoop type, this varied with the individual
   tribes. Some of the plains tribes used both kinds with
   the differences being of one band or another within
   the tribe.

    The ladder type, or a rectangular frame of crossed
   sticks, is much the same construction as those that
   were made for the horse travois. The ladder is a series
   of sticks attached with rawhide or cordage across the
   drag poles. The wood used would be that of the same
   wood as the drag poles.


    The hoop platform is a more time consuming task of
   construction than the rectangular frame. The wood
   for the hoop can be the same wood as the drag poles
   but sometimes other woods were also used. The form
   of the hoop can be circular or slightly oval. A single
   pole or sapling was common, but sometimes multiple
   saplings were also used.

    When the hoop is made from a single pole cut while
   green. It should be not more than 5/8" thick and
   about five feet long, having good elasticity while tough
   at the same time. To shape the pole, heat is required.
   It should be heated evenly over a fire, or other heat
   source, being careful not to burn the wood. Once the
   pole for the hoop is well heated, the ends of the pole
   are brought together and tied with a thong of leather,
   to form the hoop. The ends of the pole need to be
   trimmed prior to heating, so that they fit flush together
   forming a solid joint to be bound with rawhide. Once
   the hoop wood has cooled, the bark is removed and
   the ends are then bound with rawhide.


    A hoop of multiple saplings can be made without heat.
   Each sapling should be no more than " thick and
   about three to four feet long. They are cut while green
   and pealed of their bark, then tied together forming
   the hoop. This style of hoop has to be wrapped all the
   way around the hoop so as to bind all the saplings

    Both hoop forms, the single pole and the multiple
   sapling, need to set to the oval or circular shape to
   dry. This can be done by using thongs or twine tied
   criss-cross about the hoop, staking the shape out on
   the ground, or by using another hoop to tie to.


    Following the completion of the hoop it was then
   ready for the netting. The netting itself can be of
   leather, rawhide, or cordage such as hemp. There were
   many variations of the netting of the hoop. One
   common pattern was a tight circular weave, similar
   to todays dream catchers. The Buechel Museum
   describes a hoop on a dog travois, of Lakota origin,
   from their collection. "A hoop has been mounted in
   the middle, made of plum and laced with rawhide
   (with some brown colored hair remaining). The
   platform hoop has irregular rectangular webbing
   made of rawhide strips. Some of the webbing has torn
   and been repaired by reknotting. Two laces are
   spiraled around the stick to permanently attach the
   hoop by its wooden part."


    Once the hoop was finished, it could be attached to
   the drag poles. It should be situated so it sits at the
   rear of the dog just behind the rump or tail. That way
   the dog has nothing to distract him or her from the
   job of pulling the travois.


    The construction of the travois that I had built was
   made from maple. I cut two young trees down,
   trimmed them to length and pealed the bark while
   they were green and let them dry for a couple of
   weeks. The hoop was made also of maple. I used 5
   young shoots, pealed then and set them to dry in the
   hoop shape for a couple of weeks also. Once the wood
   was ready, I finished the trimming on the poles, cut
   notches for the joints, and hacked the ends flat so it
   could drag evenly on the ground. I built it with a small
   cross bar at the small ends where it was to sit on the
   dog. I also put two cross bars where the hoop was to
   sit on the poles. All of these joints were bound with
   rawhide at first, but the joints did not firm up like I
   wanted, so I retied them with hemp twine and they
   held firm.


    The hoop, once dried to shape, I pulled it from the
   form I used and tied it with twine, in multiple places
   where the shoots started and stopped, to help hold
   the shape. I then wrapped the entire circumference
   with rawhide lacing. With the hoop completed, I went
   to work on the webbing. I used a heavy hemp twine
   for the net and started on the outside edge within the
   hoop. I put the spacing of the knots rather close so as
   to make a tight net. Not wanting to make knots all
   through the web, I worked a very long piece of twine in
   a continuous spiral. Once that the hoop was netted, it
   was ready to be attached to the travois. I again used
   hemp to bind it down in six places around the frame
   and cross bars. As that step was completed, the travois
   itself was basically finished and ready for use.




Construction of the Dog Harness 

    Various tribes utilized different types of harnesses for
   the dog to pull the travois. These can be made a couple
   different ways. One type is a saddle made to sit on the
   dog separate from the travois. This way the travois
   could be placed on and off the dog as needed. The
   other style is a system of straps. One strap going across
   the breast and another goes under the belly. These
   straps are attached to the travois drag poles where they
   are joined together.

    The strap style of harness utilizes a type of saddle, or
   pad, that is fitted to the travois where the poles are
   joined together. This pad was made as part of the
   travois. It is attached to the poles just under the joint
   to keep the poles from rubbing on the dogs shoulders.
   Straps of rawhide and leather are arranged through
   the pad so that there is one strap for under the belly
   of the dog, a strap for across the chest, and a collar
   for around the neck. This arrangement also included
   ties for securing the load on the travois. This was a
   very efficient style of hitching the dog to the travois so
   much so that it was used more commonly among the
   Indian tribes that utilized the dog travois. In The
   Horse and the Dog in Hidatsa Indian Culture, Wolf
   Chief adds: "The travois saddle was made of skin
   from the shoulders and neck of the buffalo where the
   hair is thickest. It was not stuffed with hair inside.
   The joint of the poles was firmly bound with buffalo
   neck sinews that are strong and heavy and the skin
   saddle was then sewed on with buckskin thongs. The
   saddle was made by the owner. The harness was made
   and put on by the women."





    The saddle style is a pad fitted for the dog and made
   thick to cushion against wear on the dogs withers.
   Straps of rawhide and heavy leather are attached to
   the saddle, one across the breast and the other under
   the belly. The belly strap is tightened much like the
   cinch of a horses saddle. Ties are positioned on the
   saddle so you can hitch and unhitch the travois as
   required. The pad is a case of leather, rawhide, or a
   combination of both. The stuffing can be of multiple
   layers of heavy fabric, such as wool, or of horsehair,
   much like the pad saddle used on horses.  The
   completed saddle sits over the withers of the dogs
   back with the belly cinch situated such that it comes
   up just behind the rib cage.


    With the travois I built, I chose to use the saddle
   style of harness for my dog. In the construction of
   my pad I used heavy coating wool for the inner layers,
   leather on the underside and deer rawhide for the top
   layer with the underside leather wrapping up and
   around the edges. I then attached a single piece of
   rawhide for the breast strap to the front and two side
   straps of rawhide to form the belly cinch to be tied
   under the belly. I positioned leather ties to hitch up
   the travois, lacing them through all the layers for
   strength. The straps were also laced through all the
   layers as well. I made the saddle to fit my dog for his
   size. One could surmise that the Indians would have
   done the same for their dogs.



  The Loading and Packing of the Travois  

    The loading and packing of the travois is rather simple.
   How much is loaded is proportional to the weight of
   the dog. The tribes that utilized the travois bred a
   wolf-like dog that was a larger breed so they could
   pull heavy loads. Often times carrying over a hundred
   pounds in a single load. However, these days because
   we do not want to over burden our dogs, a 20% ratio
   of the dogs weight is about what you would want to
   pack on the travois. The dog I used is a much smaller
   breed than the average Indian dog. He is a Border
   collie stock dog and weighs about fifty pounds.
   Therefore the maximum weight he is able to pull
   comfortably is only 20 pounds. Larger dogs can
   obviously pull more due to their larger size.


    The items carried on the travois were varied. They
   could be just about anything, from foods and
   blankets to bullboats and firewood, or even small
   children. For hunting trips, meat from the kill was
   loaded on the travois to be transported back to camp.
   In the winter, an almost daily load was of firewood. In
   the other seasons, firewood loads were more of a
   weekly task. The carrying of dried foods was in packed
   parfleches. These types of loads were transported
   during the moving of the camps or during hunting




    The packing of the different types of loads was strictly
   utilitarian. The heaviest items were placed on the
   basket hoop and stacked up from the bottom, such as
   in the case of the packing of parfleches. Multiple items,
   like firewood or parfleches, can be tied in a bundle
   making the load easier to secure to the travois.
   Packing a bullboat was different due to their size.
   They were carried upside down, with one edge of the
   boat at the lower edge of the basket hoop. The
   opposite edge of the boat rested just below the joint
   of the travois poles, with the boat spanning almost the
   entire length of the travois itself. In The Dog and the
   Horse in Hidatsa Culture, Buffalo Bird Woman
   describes how she had packed a bullboat on her dogs
   travois. "On this dog was loaded a bullboat tied over
   the travois basket with one edge resting upon the
   travois saddle. A special thong, or rawhide rope, was
   tied around the place there the travois poles met, and
   drawn double to the top of the boat. At this point, the
   bullboat paddle was made fast in a knot, then the
   thongs were parted, each end descended over the boat
   and was tied to the travois and was tied to the travois
   poles behind, At the forward end of the boat, two
   thongs were made fast to a rib on either side of the
   frame and descending, were lashed to the travois poles"


    Securing the items onto the travois can be with 
   leather, rawhide or cordage ties. The ties are attached
   in such a way as to make them an essential part of the
   travois, so they were always ready at hand. The type
   of travois that was made with the dogs harness as part
   of the travois had its ties situated in such a way as
   being part of the dogs harness. One end of the tie
   started at the back of the basket hoop, leaving five to
   seven feet loose for securing loads. Then continuing in
   a spiral up one pole looping through the pad and
   becoming the breast strap, crossing over and going
   back through the pad, spiraling down the other travois
   pole and leaving a tail of five to seven feet loose, the
   same as on the other side. This way the ties are
   actually part of the dogs harness thereby having the
   load directly pulled by the dog.


    The travois style that uses the saddle pad, which is
   separate from the frame, has ties starting at the bottom
   of the hoop, leaving five to seven feet for securing
   items to the basket, looping in a spiral around the
   frame of the hoop and coming around to the bottom
   leaving a space of twelve to eighteen inches between
   the start and end of the spiral around the basket frame.
   A five to seven foot tie was also left at the end to form
   the second tie. This type of system put the weight of 
   the load directly on the basket hoop with the saddle
   bearing the pull of the load with the ties that are
   attached to the saddle.


    Both systems of tying items to the travois are very
   secure for the transporting of items over long
   distances. However, the dog pulling the travois with
   a saddle can potentially slip from the harness if over
   burdened. Such was the case when I had tried to carry
   my second load into Nationals this past summer. The
   first load was my blankets, parfleches of food, and a
   few other miscellaneous items. The bundle weighted
   about twenty pounds. The second load was fresh
   meat for the feast weighing in at about twenty-five to
   twenty-eight pounds. My dog started to pull it for a
   ways, about a hundred yards, then decided it was too
   much and backed right out of the harness as if it
   nothing more than a towel draped over his back.
   Needless to say, I had to pull the travois myself, with
   some help from one of my sisters, the rest of the way
   into camp. After that I figured it was better to under
   load the dog than over load him, as I did not want a
   repeat performance. A few days later, my sisters and I,
   along with the dog and a packhorse, gathered firewood
   for the feast to be had that evening. There were no
   troubles of loading or pulling at all. Other than the
   over load, my dog did exceptionally well at his first
   real distance at pulling of the travois. We are looking
   forward to the next adventure with the travois.

By Candi Smith







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    Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota 1921

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    Vol. XV, Part II, American Museum Press, New York 1924

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    designed by David Thomas and Karin Ronnefeldt, E.P. Dutton,
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    from Other Western Tribes, by John C. Ewers, University Press of
    the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii 2001

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    Pg. 195, "Commanches Moving Camp" Oil Painting 1834-35,
    Promontory Press, New York 1977

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    Raymond Bucko, S.J. and Mike Marshall. Database Design: Filipp
    Sapienza. Saint Francis, South Dakota: St. Francis Mission. 2003.

    Readers Digest s Americas Fascinating Indian Heritage, Edited by
    James A. Maxwell Readers Digest Association, Pleasantville, New
    York 1978

    The Complete How-To Book of Indiancraft, by W. Ben Hunt,
     Macmillan Publishing Company 1973

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