THE student of history, as well as thedilettante who pursues the subject in his leisure hours, is ever inclined topaint a background of his own fancy for the drama of the prairies. It may help,however, in selecting truer colors to know more of the lives of the lesseractors, the creatures of the plains, and one of these, the prairie dog, is thesubject of this sketch.
The first of the American explorers to takenotice of the prairie dog were Lewis and Clark. This was at a dome near thelater. site of Fort Randall, S. Dak., in September, 1804. Quoting from theirjournals:
As we descended from this dome we arrived at a spot, on the gradual descent ofthe hill, nearly four acres in extent, and covered with small holes. These arethe residence of a little animal called by the French petit chien (little dog),which sit erect near the mouth and make a whistling noise, but when alarmed takerefuge in their holes. In order to bring them out we poured into one of the holesfive barrels of water without filling it, but we dislodged and caught the owner.After digging down another of the holes for six feet, we found on running a poleinto it that we had not yet dug halfway to the bottom. We discovered, however,two frogs in the hole, and near it we killed a dark rattlesnake, which hadswallowed a small prairie dog; we were also informed, though we never witnessedthe fact, that a sort of lizard and a snake live habitually with these animals. 
Patrick Gass of the party, who also kept ajournal of sorts, says the investigators took with them all the kettles and othervessels of the camp for holding water, and "though they worked at the businesstill night they only caught one of them."  It is worthy of note here that inthis first account of the prairie dog there was mention of some of the associatedtown dwellers, rattlesnake and horned toad (a lizzard); also that the co-dwellingwas not always one of harmonious relations, as some other writers would have usbelieve. We cannot dismiss the Oregon-bound party without quoting a bit fromLewis' description of the jackrabbit:
The years are very flexable, the anamall moves them with great ease andquickness and can contra[clt and foald them on his back or delate them at
pleasure. . . . I measured the leaps of one which I surprised in the plains onthe 17th Inst. and found them 21 feet. . . . they apear to run with more ease andto bound with greater agility than any anamall I ever saw.
Another early account of the prairie dog was inthe diary entries of Zebulon Pike, on his trip across present Kansas to thefamous peak that bears his name, and south from there to contact with Spanishauthority. This was in the Summer and autumn of 1806.
Pike's expedition was in the vicinity of oldFort Larned on October 24, and whilethere he wrote one of the first comprehensive accounts of a prairie dog communalvillage of which we have knowledge. We quote from it, in part:
We assended the right branch about five miles, but could not see any sign of theSpanish trace. . . . We returned and on our way, killed some' prairie squirrels,or wishtonwishes, and nine large rattlesnakes, which frequent their villages. . .. The Wishtonwish of the Indians, prairie dogs of some travellers; or squirrelsas I should be inclined to denominate them; reside on the prairies of Louisianain towns or villages, having an evident police established in their communities.The sites of their towns are generally on the brow of a hill, near some creek orpond, in order to be convenient to water. . . . Their residence, being underground, is burrowed out, and the earth which answers the double purpose ofkeeping out the water, and affording an elevated place in wet seasons to reposeon, and to give them a further and more distinct view of the country. Their holesdescend in a spiral form, therefore I could never ascertain their depth; but Ionce had 140 kettles of water pored into one of them in order to drive out theoccupant, but without effect. . . . Their villages sometimes extend over two andthree miles square, in which there must be innumerable hosts of them, as there isgenerally a burrow every ten steps in which there are two or more. . . . Wekilled great numbers of them with our rifles and found them excellent meat, afterthey were exposed a night or two to the frost, by which means the ranknessacquired by their subterraneous dwelling is corrected. As you approach theirtowns, you are saluted on all sides by the cry of Wishtonwish, from which theyderive their name with the Indians, uttered in a shrill and piercing manner. . .. It requires a very nice shot with a rifle to kill them, as they must be killeddead, for as long as life exists, they continue to work into their cells. It isextremely dangerous to pass through their towns, as they abound withrattlesnakes, both of the yellow and black species; and strange as it may appear,I have seen the Wishtonwish, the rattlesnake, the horn frog, of which the prairieabounds, . . . and a land tortoise all take refuge in the same hole. I do notpretend to assert that it was their common place of resort, but I have witnessedthe above facts more than in one instance. 
About five years later an English traveler andnaturalist took the field, oneJohn Bradbury. He came, as he said to explore "the interior of Upper Louisianaand the Illinois Territory, for the purpose of discovering and collectingsubjects in natural history, either new or valuable." 5 After some preliminarycollecting on the lower Missouri, he joined up with the Astoria expedition of thePacific Fur Company, under W. P. Hunt, which was ascending the Missouri river. On May 23, 1811, he first writes in his Travels of seeing the prairie dog,near the location of present Springfield, S. Dak. To quote, in part:
Commerce of the Prairies (1855).
At a small distance from my route I noticed a space, of several acres in extent, of a more vivid green than the surrounding prairie, and on my nearer approach it had the appearance of a rabbit burrow. From the previous descriptions given by the hunters, I immediately conceived it to be what it proved, a colony of the prairie dog. The little animals had taken the alarm before I reached their settlement, and were sitting singly on the small hillocks of earth at the mouth their holes. They were very clamorous, uttering a cry which has some resemblance to a shrill barking. I shot at several, but at the instant of the flash, they darted with surprising quickness into their holes, before the shot could reach them. . . . [June 3.1 On my route this day I saw numerous colonies of the prairie dog; and from the frequency of the occurrence, I noticed that my approach to their burrows was announced by the screams of a species of corlieu. I shot one, and ascertained
it to be a variety of Scolopax arquata [European woodcock] ; and perceived, afterI noticed the fact, that the alarm was invariably given. 
In this third account of a prairie-dog communitythere is still no mention of thelittle owl that should be a co-dweller in any well appointed colony. The "speciesof corlieu" referred to by Bradbury was probably the common killdeer that isunder your feet and in your ears wherever you may roam at the time of yearindicated.
Another traveler of the same year, 1811, was H.M. Brackenridge, whose Journal ofa voyage up the Missouri mentions the prairie dog. He had set out, as he says,"in a spirit of adventure," with twenty-five men of the Missouri Fur Company. Hesays, "I had heard that the magpie, the Missouri rattlesnake, and the horn frog,were observed to frequent these places; but I did not see any of them, except themagpie."  This was way up the Missouri and not on the plains proper, however,and the magpie may have been on the prairie-dog townsite merely looking for ascavenger's breakfast.
Early in 1819 Maj. Stephen H. Long wascommissioned by John C. Calhoun, thenSecretary of War, to head a military expedition to the Rocky Mountains. With theexpedition were two young scientists whose youth was crowned with the gloriousprivilege of being first in a field of unexplored life. They were Dr. EdwinJames, itinerary historian of the party, and Thomas Say, zoologist. With them wasan assistant naturalist, T. R. Peale. For our purposes here we will quote partsof their itinerary reports and add a few personal comments. First, Dr. James:
[June 14, 1820; near Grand Island, in the Platte.] The high and barren parts ofthis tract are occupied by numerous communities of the Prairie dogor Louisiana marmot. . . . As particular districts, of limited extent, are, ingeneral, occupied by the burrows of these animals, such assemblages of dwellingsare denominated Prairie dog villages by hunters and others who wander in theseremote regions. . . . The hole descends vertically to the depth of one or twofeet, whence it continues in an oblique direction downward. A single burrow mayhave many occupants. We have seen as many as seven or eight individuals sittingupon one mound. . . . When fired upon [at the edge of their holes], they neverfail to escape, or if killed instantly to fall into their burrows. . . . As theypass the winter in a lethargic sleep, . . . [they] defend themselves from itsrigors by accurately closing up the entrance of the burrow.
game, most of our exertions to take these animals were without success. A numberwere killed, but we were able to possess ourselves of no more than two of them.These we found to be in good condition and well flavoured. Their flesh nearlyresembles that of the ground hog, or woodchuck.
Speaking later of a scene near sunset on theCanadian river, James expresses hisdelight at viewing a large prairie-dog village on which were grazing also manybison, a number of wild horses, and a small herd of antelope. He says, "A sceneof this kind comprises most of what is beautiful and interesting to the passingtraveller in the wide unvaried plains of the Missouri and Arkansa." 
Commenting on James' notes, we may add: (1) Theprairie dog does not hibernate,like some of the burrowing squirrels, but may be seen out of his burrow on almostany bright day in Winter. James had only reports; he was there in the Summer. (2)Neither do these animals close up their burrows in the cold season; burrows
choked With trash or drift are unused. (3) The co-residence of the rattlesnakeispartially explained, above; the snake is there also for predaceous reasons and isnot welcome. (4) The owl does not gain a burrow tenancy by conquest, but makesuse of abandoned holes for shelter and nesting.
The naturalist Thomas Say, of the Longexpedition, investigated more carefullythe owl tenancy of prairie-dog towns. He reports, August 3, on the Arkansasriver:
A considerable number of the coquimbo or burrowing-owl occurred in a prairie-dogvillage of moderate extent. . . . On examining the several burrows, at which theowls had been observed to be perched, we remarked in them a different aspect fromthose at which the prairie dog had appeared; they were often in a ruinedcondition, the sides, in some instances, fallen in, sometimes seamed and groovedby the action of the water, in its course from the surface to the interior, and,in other respects, presenting a deserted aspect, and, like dilapidated monumentsof human art, were the fit abode of serpents, lizards, and owls. The burrows, atwhich we saw the prairie dog, were, on the contrary, neat, always in repair, andevinced the operations of industrious tenants. 
Instructions to the Long party were to ascendthe Platte to its source and returnto the Mississippi by way of the Arkansas and the Red. The expedition had reachedthe mountains before mid-July and on July 13 and 14 James and two companions madethe first recorded ascent of the peak bearing Pike's name. Previous to this theparty had kept as a landmark on their way up from the plains another peak Whichthey supposed to be Pike's. This, later, was named Long's Peak, and James wasalso commemorated by another elevated mountain spur. Near present La Junta theparty divided, one of our naturalists, James, going With Long down the Cimarronand the Canadian rivers, and Say following the Arkansas. Unhappily for science,three renegade soldiers deserted from the Say division en route, taking with themsome of the naturalist's priceless manuscripts."
It may be of interest to note here, beforeleaving the expedition, that in theprevious August, 1819, Thomas Say had made a side trip from Fort Osage to theKansas Indian village, across the Blue from present Manhattan, and had writtenvery interestingly of this tribe, by Which he was well received. On thisoccasion, also, he had been unfortunate in being robbed by the Pawnees on hisreturn journey. He missed the boat toiling its way up to Council Bluffs,
but later caught up with the party, after wintering at Isle au Vache.12Continuing in order of historical chronology, we find next on the plains oneJames O. Pattie, the son of a Kentucky Indian fighter who was, in turn, the sonof an Indian fighter of the same territory. This Pattie III went with his fatherand a party of traders and trappers up the Platte and branches of the Republican.He did not contribute much to the lore of the prairie dog, except to jot down onAugust 27, 1824, somewhere in southwestern Nebraska:
Here we saw multitudes of prairie dogs. They have large village establishments ofburrows, where they live in society. They are sprightly, bold and self importantanimals, of the size of a Norwegian rat. We may consider this last an odious comparison, besides being inaccurate.Following these men of lesser rank but of more glory in our estimate, came aprince of the realm to the plains in 1833, Alexander Philip Maximilian, Prince ofWied-Neuwied. He had been an officer in the Napoleonic wars but had a savingpenchant for exploration and natural history. Accompanying him was a hunter and atalented Swiss artist, Charles Bodmer. He arrived at Fort Leavenworth on April22, 1833, for a voyage up the Missouri in a steamboat of the American Fur Companyon its annual trip to its trading posts. After a year and a month he was backagain at Fort Leavenworth with a wealth of manuscript notes and observations,in German, and treasures of Bodmer's art. But, being primarily an ethnologist, hegave only a modicum of attention to the prairie dog. Here we record it, intranslation:[May 13, 1833, near Ponca creek, South Dakota.] In this neighborhood are manyvillages of the prairie dogs, in the abandoned burrows of which, rattlesnakesabound. It has been affirmed that these two species of animals live peaceablytogether in these burrows; but observers of nature have proved that the snakestake possession of abandoned burrows only, which is in the usual course ofthings.
[May 18.] The buffalo hunters returned to the vessel at the same time with us;they had, indeed, missed their object, but had killed a large buck antelope, aswell as a great many prairie dogs, the heads of which were all mutilated by therifle balls. As these little animals retreat to their burrows, on the approach ofany strange object, and only put out their heads, the Americans, with their longrifles, generally hit them in this part; they are a favorite food among them.
If by "Americans" the Prince meant plainsmen,mountaineers and Indians, amongthem the prairie dog no doubt was a favorite food. The name "dog," however,probably palled on the appetites of later Americans. We have never knownfricassee of prairie dog to become popular in this country, except, whenassociated with corndodgers, it by necessity graced the menus of pioneerhomesteaders.
Another traveler and writer who contributed toour ken of the prairie dog in the1830's was Josiah Gregg, Whose journals were published under the title Commerceof the Prairies. He had been ordered by his physician to take the field for hishealth; which he did with such beneficial results to himself, and to us, that hefollowed the Santa Fe trail for eight years as trader and self-appointedjournalist. We quote from his journals:
[June 1, 1839, near the Canadian river.] But what attracted our attention mostwere the little dog settlements, or, as they are more technically called, `dogtowns,' so often alluded to by prairie travellers. As we were passing throughtheir `streets,' multitudes of the diminutive inhabitants were to be seen amongthe numerous little hillocks which marked their dwellings, where they friskedabout, or sat perched at their doors, yelping defiance, to our greatamusement-heedless of the danger that often awaited them from the rifles of ourparty; for they had perhaps never seen such deadly weapons before.
They generally locate upon firm dry plains, coated with fine short grass, uponwhich they feed; for they are no doubt exclusively herbivorous. . They must needbut little water, if any at all, as their `towns' are often, indeed generally,found in the midst of the most arid plains-unless we suppose they dig down tosubterranean fountains. . . . Two other animals appear to live in communion withthe prairie dogs-the rattlesnake and a small owl; but both are no doubtintruders, resorting to these burrows for shelter, and to feed, it is presumed,upon the `pups' of the inmates. 
To comment again: (1) The prairie dog stores nomore than perhaps a lunch, at times. The animal feeds, as does the antelope andthe bison upon the buffalo grass and the grama grasses of their habitat,nutritious at any season of the year. (2) They do not dig wells on theirtownsites; some of the latter are probably as far from water vertically as theyare known to be horizontally. Many of the lesser animals can get their neededwater supply from their food, even synthetically; and sip the dew when natureoffers it. (3) The little owl does not feed upon the "pups" of the prairie dog,but upon grasshoppers and crickets, hunting mainly in the evening and atnight.
Not always the layman, but sometimes themissionary of the Cross is attracted to the grass of the fields and the cony ofthe rocks, even the galaxies of the firmament; and so we have among them amateurnaturalists and budding astronomers. Of the former was Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, S. J., revered missionary to the Northwest Indians and sponsor of treatiesand covenants that made for peace on the plains and mountains. His reports, inFrench, include observations on the prairie dog, which follow here, in part:
[St. Ignatius river, September 10, 1841.] The Prairie Dog, in shape, color andagility, more resembles the squirrel than the animal from which it has taken itsname. They live together in separate lodges, to the number of several thousands.The earth which they throw up to construct their lodges, forms a kind of slopewhich prevents the rain from entering the holes. At the approach of man, thislittle animal runs into its lodge, uttering a piercing cry, which puts the wholetribe on their guard. After some minutes, the boldest show a part of their heads,as if to spy the enemy, and this is the moment which the hunter chooses to killthem. The Indians informed us that they sometimes issue in a body, apparently tohold a council, and that wisdom presides over their deliberations. They admit totheir dwellings the bird of Minerva, the striped squirrel, and the rattlesnake,and it is impossible to determine what is the cause of this wonderful sympathy.It is said, too, that they live only on the dew of the grass root, a remarkfounded upon the position of their village, which is always found where theground is waterless and barren. 
We may say here, as well as anywhere, that thedwelling of the prairie dog isadapted to its observed habits. About two feet down, vertically from the"hillock," is a turning bay gouged out on one side, where the animal retreats andsquares about to await developments. From here it can verify its suspicions ofdanger, or check up on the tocsin of mates or owl tribe that drove it down. Thealarm note of the coquimbo is much like that of the prairie dog; but the twilightcall of this little owl is questing, Weird, mournful. From the turning bay of theburrow the descent is first at a more or less steep angle and then nearlyhorizontal to the chambers of abode. The vertical depth of the latter may be asmuch as ten or twelve feet.
The Indians' idea of a council of prairie dogsis probably a conception of their lore and legends. We have observed only familygroups at a burrow entrance. The little striped squirrel mentioned by Father DeSmet is of practically the same stripe and pattern that We have in Kansas.
In the Spring of 1841 the ambitious littleRepublic of Texas organized anexpedition to seek annexation of Santa Fe. The party was of only semi-militarycomposition, being composed in part of business adventurers. At the Rio Grande,however, they met paternalistic and armed Spanish-Mexicans, and that was the endof their plans for conquest. George W. Kendall, a New Orleans editor Who was aguest of the expedition, left us this brief record of prairie dogs encounteredsomewhere along the route. He says:
A singular species of owl is invariably found residing in and about the dogtowns.. . . One . . . [prairie dog] had perched himself upon the pile of earth in frontof his hole, sitting up and exposing a fair mark, while a companion's head wasseen poking out of the entrance, too timid, perhaps, to trust himself farther. Awell-directed ball from my rifle carried away the entire top of the former'shead, and knocked him some two or three feet from his post perfectly dead. Whilereloading, the other boldly came out, seized his companion by one of his legs,and before we could reach the hole had drawn him completely out of sight. . . .Rattlesnakes, too, and of immense size, dwell in the same lodges with the dogs. .. . We killed one a short distance from a burrow, which had made a meal of ahalf-grown dog; and although I do not think they can master the larger animals,the latter are still compelled to let them pass in and out without molestation-anuisance, like many in more elevated society, that cannot be got rid of.
We are inclined to doubt the vicarious rescue ofthe headless prairie dog; soundsloco. We are safe in saying, however, that we have never witnessed anything ofthe sort.
Probably we should close this historical sketchwith one more observer ofprairie-dog residence and activity on the plains. There have been many others Whowrote interestingly of this little social animal and its attendants. But the yearis 1845, which about closes an epoch of travel and exploration and brings us tohorizons of the Mexican adventure, the Colorado gold fields, the Mormon migrationand the Oregon trail. We present, then, some account of the prairie dog by JoelPalmer, in his Journal of Travels Over the Rocky Mountains, To the Mouth ofthe Columbia River `. . . , with a company of Oregon trailers:
[June 10, 1845, near forks of the Platte.] In getting to our encampment, wepassed through a large dog town. These singular communities may be seen often,along the banks of the Platte, occupying various areas, from one to five hundredacres. The one in question covered some two hundred or three hundred acres. Theprairie-dog is something larger than a common sized gray squirrel, of a duncolor; the head resembles that of a bulldog.
In Kansas, at least, the days of the prairiedog's ascendancy have passed and they are probably near extinction, along withthe buffalo and the antelope with whom they were so long and intimatelyassociated. But we will not sing their swan song here. We are hopeful, however,that Western ranchers of the Sunflower State will save a small colony here andthere, that bonds of nature may still tie us to these social squirrels thatshared the plains and the prairies with the pioneers.
1. Wheeler, Olin D., The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1904 (New Yorkand London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1926), New ed., v. I, pp. 177, 178.