Historical Notes on the Chesapeake

            by Alex Spear

Reproduced ACC Bulletin 1970s

At the Maryland Licensed Trial this spring, a man came to me to talk about Chesapeakes, a Mr. Jay Towner from Chestertown, Maryland R.D. He had with him records of his grandfather, Mr. Jay F. Towner, who had a farm on the Western Shore of the Bay on the Bush River at Locust Grove, where the government arsenal and proving grounds are now. The records covered the period from 1860 to 1904 and they covered the breeding of litters recorded in journal form, including pedigrees of outstanding dogs and bitches. They discussed all aspects of standards—breeding, history, color of coat, temperament, ability. A very thrilling happenstance to me for, after considerable time trying to find out these very things in my research for the script of Dog of the Chesapeake, here were many of the things I had speculated about confirmed in these documents.

In the matter of coat: in those times they recognized three different types just as we do now, i.e., the curly coat, the wavy coat, and the straight coat. The information as to the derivation of each was firmly placed as follows: the curly coat from the Irish Water Spaniel, the wavy coat from the Newfoundland, and the straight coat from the Pointer and the Hound. Then my other deduction as to the development of the breed was confirmed by his remarks that only on a few ducking shores and hunting clubs and with people like this man Towner, who had the particular interest to see a dog developed to further usefulness in duck hunting, was the breed maintained in its pure state after the nick was recognized as a new breed by the owners of Sailor and Canton and the hunters who used the early generations of the dog of the Chesapeake.

The color of the coat varied almost as much in those days as it does now and was also subject to the same comments as we make today. One man tells of hunting in 1862 with two outstanding dogs on the lower Patuxent River—one, "Jeff was a reddish yellow or sedge color, while Lee was gray or ash colored." Mr. Towner's remarks on color of coat are that he had in his kennel "dogs varying in color from a light sedge to a dark seal brown and in fact has one gyp almost white." He does say, however, that most dogs used on the Chesapeake are dark; 'as color is no object, as our dogs are trained to lie behind the blind until after ducks are shot; so color is no object, as dogs are only seen while retrieving dead ducks." He would ship from his kennel either light or dark as requested.

The texture of the coat was very important and was emphasized in the first standard, clearly defining the undercoat and explaining the importance of same to the usefulness of the breed in retrieving ducks from the cold, icy water. Oil was not mentioned in the standard but was assumed to be a requisite of the undercoat. One inquiry from the West to Mr. Towner questioned the oily coat and this was answered firmly by saying that the working dogs of the Chesapeake Bay had a thick, short, oily undercoat, the oil so thick it could be squeezed out by passing the hand firmly over the coat and pressing. The hand would be oily to show. He explained that this oil in the undercoat kept the dogs dry in the cold water and did have an odor, but, as one man writes it is not offensive when the dog comes out of the water wet!

That this topic of oil in the coat was of great importance is illustrated by this incident. The American Kennel Club was having Chesapeakes in its show for the first time in New York and the breeders of that time were worrying about the judges not being familiar with the Chesapeakes and their new standard and that they would not be able to judge fairly on the quality of coat. It was suggested by some that the Kennel Club provide the judge with a large container filled with ice water beside the ring and that each dog be placed in it for a period of time from five to ten minutes to determine whether they possessed this very important quality! How about that!

This man lived during the period when the first standard for our dogs was evolved and participated in much of the reasoning. In regard to size, the first standard called for a dog of about sixty pounds. He agreed with this although he said most dogs varied from it in that they were heavier. He said, " I do not like a large dog for retrieving, as I can see no advantage in having a large clumsy dog to carry around in a buggy or boat when a smaller dog will do the work equally as well, if not better. I have seen my dogs bring in a crippled goose or swan without any trouble so do not try to breed them too large." Mr. Towner was an ardent advertiser of the breed and his brochure was sent to hunters all over the country. He shipped Chesapeake pups by express and guaranteed their safe delivery. His guarantee should be of interest to our breeders: "I guarantee every pup I sell to be delivered in good order. Also guarantee every pup to make a good retriever, if properly trained; or party can kill him, send me the certificate of his death, and I will send another pup free, as I do not wish anyone to own a worthless pup from my kennels."

The testimonials he received from these buyers as to the abilities of these pups were thrilling to read and I can see that many of our present outstanding blood lines must have some of his in them no matter where in the country they may be.

It pleased me very much to read of the qualities of temperament of those old dogs. Their usefulness in the home was praised as it is now. Their love of children is mentioned many times as is their ability to be trained for many other uses besides retrieving. Their ruggedness was a quality which one admirer who told of his dog's long chase of a crippled goose in the night and the ultimate return. Mr. Towner's comment on this incident concerned the good sense of his dog, Polly, who, he said, would generally drop a tear as much as to say, "Will you never learn better sense?" when he tried a long shot at a goose or anything else.

The hundred years which have passed since these old dogs and their owners were active have seen quite a change in our breed. Its numbers have grown and spread over the world. Its uses have been enlarged and more varied types of hunting have given it new challenges. However, the old sterling qualities have been retained and enhanced so today the praises we have for our Chesapeake Bay Dog sound exactly like those I read in this old type of one hundred years ago. 

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