The Dog Travois


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 needed. 


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 theirtravois. 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." 




Construction 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 task.


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 together.

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 expeditions.




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







Waheenee, An Indian Girls Story, Told by Herself to Gilbert L. Wilson, Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota 1921

The Horse and Dog in Hidatsa Culture, by Gilbert L. Wilson, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XV, Part II, American Museum Press, New York 1924

People of the First Man Life Among the Plains Indians in Their Final Days of Glory, The First Hand Account of Prince Maximilian Expedition Up The Missouri River 1833-34, Text by Prince Maximilian zu Weid, Watercolors by Karl Bodmer, Edited and designed by David Thomas and Karin Ronnefeldt, E.P. Dutton, New York 1976

The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture with Comparative Material from Other Western Tribes, by John C. Ewers, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii 2001

The George Catlin Book of American Indians, by Royal B. Hassrick, Pg. 195, "Commanches Moving Camp" Oil Painting 1834-35, Promontory Press, New York 1977

Buechel, Fr. Eugene, S.J. Digital Archive: Fr. Eugene Buechel, S.J. Lakota Material Culture Collection and Associated Notes. Editors: 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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