The adventures of Lewis & Clark’s well-traveled prairie dog

Time Before Now – September 1804Not content with just one Western expedition, Thomas Jefferson enlisted naturalist, William Dunbar, to head a scientific trek into the lower reaches of the Louisiana Purchase.  A domestic scandal  plagued Jefferson, however, with the death of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a dual with Vice President Aaron Burr.   The American Revolution upset the English political apple cart and William Pitt the Younger took over as Prime Minister for the second time.  Calling him “honest Billy,” he was popular with the working class.  British gardeners were happy, as well.   Horticulturist and potter, John Wedgwood (as in Wedgwood china) founded the Royal Horticultural Society to promote gardening general and establish public gardens.  Today its best known for the Chelsea Flower Show. (Right, example of early English garden design)

September 7, 1804

On this day captains Lewis and Clark set out to explore a bare nob of shale along the Missouri River.  They came home with a prairie dog and got credit for “discovering”  an entire species.

Named “The Tower” by traders, known locally as “Old Baldy”

The 70-foot high pile of Pierre Shale rises like a bald pate in the short grass prairie near the present-day village of Lynch, in Boyd County, Nebraska. Left behind 80 million years ago by a prehistoric seaway, it proved far less interesting than the prairie dog village at its base.

“The Village of those little dogs is under the ground a considerable distance,” wrote Lewis.  “[W]e dig under 6 feet thro rich hard clay without getting to their Lodges.”  Determined to capture a speciman, they spent an entire day attempting to flush one out. “Some of their wholes we. . . put in 5 barrels of water”  Clark said.  

After hours of effort they managed to capture a single animal alive.  Another was shot by Private Shields.  They cooked the one and caged the other.   Sergeant John Ordway duly reported the bill of fare in his journal; “Shields killed a prarie dog, which was cooked for the Capts dinner.” 

First known photo of a prairie dog town

While Lewis and Clark were considered the first to scientifically describe prairie dogs, they were certainly not the first to make note of them.  French fur traders likened the burrowing ground squirrels to dogs due to their shrill chirping predator warning signal.    Their genus, Cynomys, in fact, comes from the Greek for “dog mouse.”  In addition, indigenous tribes had, for perhaps centuries, found the colonies a readily available food source.   The animal’s highly social habits made them easy to find and in predictably large numbers.

Engraving of a prairie dog hunt, mid 1800s

Clark’s journal provided an accurate description of  the black tailed species, one of five; the Size of a Small Squre & thicker, the toe nails long, fine fur & the longer hair is gray.  He got some things wrong, as well.  [W]e found 2 frogs in the hole, and killed a Dark rattle Snake near with a Ground rat (prairie dog) in him.   Said that a kind of Lizard also a Snake reside with those animals.”  Rattle snakes are principle predators of prairie dogs and are often found near the towns but they don’t cohabit with them.  Other species do become squatters in abandoned burrows.

The towns are often made up of dozens of families over more than a acre.  The largest ever reported was in the 1800s and if actually true, covered an astonishing 25,000 square miles of Texas grassland. 

A closer study of the animal’s complex burrowing system makes it clear why  “5 barrels of water” didn’t do the trick.  Burrows are often designed with a many as six entrances and escape routes.  In addition, hidden nursery chambers protect the juveniles from predators.  

Lewis and Clark’s particular attention to the prairie dog gained significance when in 1969, famed zoologist Robert T. Paine, (left) introduced his “keystone species” concept.  Now widely accepted by scientists, Paine’s meticulous research found keystone species play outsized roles in the environment in relation to their relatively small numbers.  Paine included sea otters, jaguars, beavers, and wolves, in addition to a number of marine species.   All act as important controllers on habitats which impact a variety of species.

Prairie dog towns aid drainage into the underground water table,  according to Paine, helping to limit soil erosion from run-off, burrow mounds encourage grass production and the tunnels provide aeration that lessens compacting of the dense prairie soil caused by grazing animals.  

For all those benefits, the rodents are considered pesky varmints by many ranchers and farmers.  They take up too much turf meant for live stock and crops and the burrows endanger cattle and horses, say critics.  Some states agree, allowing land owners to eliminate them at will.

Luckily for today’s prairie dogs, many towns are located on public or protected lands and are popular tourist attractions in the nation’s state and national parks.

Until 2003, black-tailed  prairie dogs like the Lewis and Clark spaceman,  supplied the exotic pet markets in the U.S., Canada and Japan.  The EU, however, banned their importation as did New Zealand.   Since 2008 it has been legal to keep pet prairie dogs in this country.  Like other wild species, however, they are difficult to care for and expensive to own.

So what of the prairie dog Lewis and Clark didn’t cook?  After wintering in 1804-05 at Fort Mandan, North Dakota, Lewis shipped a number of specimens to President Thomas Jefferson before leaving for the West.  Labeled as the “burrowing Squirel of the praries,” he traveled 1,600 miles by barge, arriving in St. Louis on June 15, 1805.  

Reconstructed Fort Mandan, Corps’ winter quarters 1804-05

Fur trader and prominent businessman, Pierre Chouteau, (right) of Fort Pierre, South Dakota, fame, then shipped him another 1,000 miles down the Mississippi to William Claiborne, territorial governor of New Orleans.  The Governor wrote Lewis three weeks later on July 5 , with bad news.  “I have this day received from on Board a Barge . . . one Cage with four Birds, and a small living animal somewhat resembling our common Grey Squirrel . . . . The little Animal seems to be sick & I fear will not live.”   On July 8, however, Claiborne (right) reported the animal was “now in much better health.”  

Next, leaving New Orleans for Baltimore, the well traveled speciman made it to Washington, D.C. on August 12. He apparently stayed in the Presidential residence for two weeks before being sent off again to Peale’s American Museum in Philadelphia.  Naturalist and well-known portrait painter, Charles Wilson Peale, (left) exhibited a number of Lewis and Clark artifacts, including the prairie dog in his museum.  Peale wrote President Jefferson on April 5, 1806, that “the pleasing little Animal” was not the least dangerous to handle.”

After a 4,000 mile trek in the hands of a half dozen unschooled caretakers, Peale’s letter to Jefferson is the last report of Lewis and Clark’s prairie dog.  There is no record of when the hardy little critter from Nebraska finally died but it was a long way from home.

Badlands National Park, Interior, South Dakota, offers nature lovers unique wildlife opportunities on the Sage Creek Rim Road (SD 590) through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.  In addition to the Roberts Prairie Dog Town visitors can observe bison, bighorn and a variety of birds. There are eight hiking trails, from the 10-mile Castle Trail past breathtaking badlands formations to the easy and accessible quarter mile Fossil Exhibit Trail.   

Ben Reifel Visitors Center

Campers can find more than 90 level camp sites at the Cedar Pass Campground near the  Ben Reifel Visitor Center.  Wheelchair and cell accessible, the center includes historic exhibits, a picnic pavilion, modern rest rooms, book and gift shop, park information, internet and wifi.   The less accessible Sage Creek Campground offers 22 free first-come-first-served spots, some designated for horse trailers. 

The park is open year-round and the Ben Reifel Visitors Center is open from 9 to 4  daily May through September. Park entrance fees are $30 for private vehicles, $15 for hikers and bikers, $25 for motorcycles.  Fees cover a seven day stay.  Annual park passes are $55.  For more information and reservation details go to, call (605) 433-5361 or write Badlands National Park, 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.