Track-dogs, catch-dogs and bloodhounds
"The Hunted Slaves," painted by Richard Ansdell, 1861. The picture shows typical bloodhounds used as catch-dogs to attack freedom seekers.
September 28, 2015
By Toussaint Heywood
Information on how dogs were used to hunt slaves comes from an unexpected place: testimony at the trial of Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison. The prison contracted with local civilians to track down escaped prisoners with dogs, and the descriptions sound similar to how freedom-seeking slaves were tracked, and in fact the local dogs and handlers were used for that purpose before the war. Benjamin Harris, the first handler, had "negro hounds to catch runaway negroes," (371) while Wesley W. Turner, the second, was told to "get a pack of negro-dogs." (435) (All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Trial of Henry Wirz).
A Cuban bloodhound, from "British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, And Show Preparation" by W. D. Drury, 1903.
Former prisoners described the dogs and repeatedly pointed out they were nothing special, despite the longstanding iconic image of enslaved people being hunted with bloodhounds. One prisoner testified: "they were certainly not bloodhounds according to my understanding of what bloodhounds are; I think they were ordinary plantation dogs, a mixture of hound and cur, and anything else—the ordinary plantation dogs..." (26) Another noted that their training distinguished them more than their breeding: "They were common plantation hounds; they are hounds trained to run people..." (120)
However, many witnesses noted that there was at least one unique dog in the pack, a "catch-dog," and they agreed it was different and more vicious than the hounds or "track-dogs":
The famous engraving of "Spot," a bloodhound at Andersonville.
"The dogs were common hounds. I believe there were a couple of them called catch-dogs; the others were hounds. The technical name is fox-hound. They call some of them track-hounds there. I believe there are track-hounds and catch-dogs; I am not much acquainted in the dog line. One is very vicious by nature. I don't think the other is very dangerous. The catch-dog is vicious." (131)
"He was more ferocious than the hounds; I saw one man who had been bitten by the dogs; he was bitten in the legs; the calf of his leg was torn and pretty nearly off." (142)
No one went on record calling the catch-dog a bloodhound, despite obviously being aware of the idea that bloodhounds were what southerners supposedly used. Another prisoner answered doubtfully there were bloodhounds:
This 1884 engraving shows a dog with a heavy hound, perhaps meant to be an antebellum hound or perhaps starting to show a modern bloodhound. Source.
"They had also one large dog, which, I think, they called "catch-dog;" I think he was a bull-dog, or a bull terrier of some kind...I know what is usually termed a fox-hound. I am not a judge as to whether any of those dogs were foxhounds, or partaking of that breed; I cannot say. I do not know that they were blood-hounds. I do not know that I ever saw a full-blooded blood-hound." (60)
What the northern prisoners failed to note was that the catch-dogs were serving the place of full-blooded bloodhounds, just as the "mixture of hound and cur" were serving as full-blooded foxhounds or other tracking hounds. The method that Harris and Turner were using was widespread for both slaves and game, and is still used today for hunting wild boar, for example. Hounds who could follow a trail were used to track the quarry and when they had found it, the more vicious, larger-jawed catch-dog was sent to attack it. The latter was the iconic, fearsome bloodhound of the south. If there was a pure breed of catch-dog, it was probably the few expensive ones imported from Cuba, but these were soon intermixed until they became the common "bull terrier of some kind" that the prisoners saw. But the characteristics of the bloodhound in the period were a larger jaw, upright ears, a fierce disposition, and not a particularly good ability at following a scent--very different from what we call bloodhounds today and far more fearsome to freedom seekers.
By 1900, this stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin promised "a pack of thorough bred bloodhounds," unlike what Tom or Eliza would have ever seen, but what 1900-era audiences pictured as bloodhounds. Source.
Frederick Law Olmsted described the mix of dogs as well, though didn't separate out the two roles, but described their training in a way that agreed with other accounts: "No particular breed of dogs is needed for hunting negroes: blood-hounds, fox-hounds, bull-dogs, and curs were used, and one white man told me how they were trained for it, as if it were a common or notorious practice. They are shut up when puppies, and never allowed to see a negro except while training to catch him. A negro is made to run from them, and they are encouraged to follow him until he gets into a tree, when meat is given them. Afterwards they learn to follow any particular negro by scent, and then a shoe or a piece of clothing is taken off a negro, and they learn to find by scent who it belongs to, and to tree him, etc." He added, "I have since seen a pack of negro-dogs, chained in couples, and probably going to the field. They were all of a breed, and in appearance between a Scotch stag-hound and a fox hound." He did note that they would follow a partular person's trail: "don't think they are employed in the ordinary driving in the swamp, but only to overtake some particular slave, as soon as possible after it is discovered that he has fled from a plantation."