On September 7, 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark climbed a round, high knoll in present-day Boyd County, Nebraska, now known as “Old Baldy.” According to Sergeant John Ordway, the captains “pronounced it a curious place, as if it had been made by the hand of man.” When they reached the top, Lewis and Clark were greeted by an amazing sight. Clark described it in his journal:
near the foot of this high Nole we discovered a Village of an annamale the french Call the Prarie Dog which burrow in the grown & with the rattle Snake and Killed one & Caught one Dog alive caught in a whole 2 frogs near the hole Killed a Dark Rattle Snake with a P[rairie] do[g] in him
The Village of those little dogs is under the ground a conisiderable distance we dig under 6 feet thro rich hard clay without getting to their Lodges Some of their wholes we put in 5 barrels of water without driveing them out, we caught one by the water forceing him out. ther mouth resemble the rabit, head longer, legs short, & toe nails long ther tail like a g[round] Squirel which they Shake and make chattering noise ther eyes like a dog, their colour is Gray and Skin contains Soft fur
This was, of course, the prairie dog, or “petite chien” (little dog) as it was known by the French trappers and voyageurs. Private John Shields killed one of the comical little creatures and had it cooked for the captain’s dinner. Fascinated, the captains decided to try to catch one of the animals. It proved to be easier said than done. Clark wrote, “we por’d into one of the holes 5 barrels of water without filling it.” The men worked until nightfall and only managed to catch one measly prairie dog. No doubt terrified, the animal was carried off to the keelboat. Little did the prairie dog know he (or she) was about to embark on an extraordinary odyssey.
Prairie dogs are the most social of rodents, living in large colonies or “towns” of interconnected underground burrows. A single prairie dog town can span many acres and contain thousands of individuals. They are mostly herbivores, eating grasses and some small insects, and aggressively defend their territory and warn one another with high-pitched whistles if danger approaches. Prairie dogs converse in small barks or chirps and greet each other by touching their lips or teeth, making it look as though they are kissing.
This particular prairie dog would never share a kiss again. He became a pet of the Corps of Discovery, riding along with the rest of the crew all the way to the winter camp of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan, North Dakota. Fortunately, prairie grasses were in heavy supply, and the animal ate well and no doubt got plenty of attention. Social creatures that they are, prairie dogs can be readily tamed, at least when it is not the mating season. At some point, the captains determined that the prairie dog should be sent as a live specimen back to President Jefferson.
On April 7, 1805, the prairie dog departed with Corporal Richard Warfington and his crew on the keelboat, heading back down the Missouri River with a boatload of specimens, artifacts, and papers for the president. He was accompanied by four live magpies and a live prairie hen. Only one of the magpies and the prairie dog survived the trip.
Jefferson was reportedly delighted and entertained by the prairie dog, and kept him as a pet for a time before turning him over to Charles Willson Peale to display at his museum in Philadelphia. There the prairie dog lived out his days, being doted on by visitors who had come to gawk at the curiosities Lewis & Clark brought back from the west.
The prairie dog lived for several years at Peale’s museum, which shared its quarters with the American Philosophical Society. When the animal finally passed away, Peale stuffed and mounted him and kept him as part of the exhibit. The stuffed prairie dog was still at the museum when Peale’s collection was broken up and sold after his death, with the bulk of the collection going to showman and promoter P.T. Barnum. The prairie dog mount likely perished by fire when Barnum’s New York museum went up in smoke in 1865.
More interesting reading: The Lost Artifacts of Lewis & Clark