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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Prairie Companions

Updated: May 8, 2023

Pioneer Children Had to Improvise When It Came to Pets

Dogs and horses were the most common animal companions of both Native Americans and pioneers and their children. But, because the wilderness was their backyard, many other species of animals were sometimes adopted, usually as babies that could be tamed.

Indian adults and children were known to tame turkeys, fox, racoons, marmots, bear cubs, wolf and coyote pups, eagles and other types of birds, and, of course, wild mustangs. When Paleo Indians migrated to the North American continent tens of thousands of years ago, anthropologists have determined that they brought their dogs with them, domesticated from the European wolf. (SEE PREVIOUS POST ABOUT INDIANS AND THEIR DOGS.) But North American gray wolf pups were sometimes tamed and wild gray wolves most certainly bred with domesticated wolf-dogs on the sly. So the typical dog of the Native Americans looked very wolf-like.

Much has been surmised about why Native Americans didn’t domesticate buffalo. This is not to say that some didn’t try. The most common reason given is that buffalo are cantankerous and difficult to domesticate, even from birth, and their sheer size and strength make them problematic to contain. (And what fool would try to orchestrate selective breeding!!) Since buffalo were plentiful, they were easier for most nomadic tribes to simply hunt as needed.

Pioneer families usually had dogs and horses, as well as oxen, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Cats came later and were highly sought after, especially for rodent control. One of the first recorded shipments of cats took place in Deadwood in 1876. When the legendary sheriff, Seth Bullock, took over being marshal after the previous marshal, Wild Bill Hickok, was killed in August of 1876, he wrote an account of “a wagon load of house cats” being shipped to Deadwood by “a speculator from Cheyenne.” The man was charging an enormous $15-$25 per cat for the first crate until a cat burglar J liberated the rest of the wagon of meowing felines! By 1877, the cat population had exploded and cats became a very popular pet in Deadwood!

In the 1980s, an Indian burial ground anthropological dig near the Illinois River unearthed an intriguing discovery: a 2,000-year-old bobcat kitten in an elaborate ceremonial grave. The kitten was wearing a necklace of bear teeth and shells. It was believed to be the first wild cat burial in North American archeology. Dogs have often been found in Indian burials across the continent, but not usually with the ceremonial pomp given the little bobkitten.

See related posts:

-Indians & Their Wolf Dogs

-Custer's Dogs

PHOTOS: (1) Lamb nuzzling Navaho baby in cradle board. 1930s. H. Armstrong g Roberts. (2) A children’s Fourth of July children’s pageant in Kalispell, Montana, in 1898. Note the LIVE golden eagle perched over the children! Such pageants were common on the frontier. University of Montana-Missoula, K. Ross Toole Archives. (3) Nebraska homestead child with her prized Herford calf. Nebraska State Historical Society. (4) Toddler Foster Tussler on his pet pig in 1902 Montana. Evelyn J. Cameron. (5) Cayuse baby sitting atop a foal. Oregon Historical Society. (6) A Montana boy with his pet monkey, drinking from a tin cup atop a pile of wolf pelts in 1898. Many ranches paid bounties for wolves and the wolf population was decimated. (SEE MORE ABOUT THIS IN A LATER POST.) Wyoming State Archives. (7) Little girl in turkey-drawn buggy. 1901. Library of Congress. (8) An Oregon pioneer girl holding a tea party with her dog in 1859. Oregon Historical Society. (9) Colorado African-American pioneers, William Johnson, Ira Melton and Laura Bell holding puppies from their prize hunting dogs. 1870s. Pueblo Library Archives.

"Prairie Companions" was originally posted June 21, 2019 on Facebook and

112, 425 views / 3,770 likes / 232 shares / 577 photo views / 126 comments © 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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