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Native Setters

When I was a kid we had all kinds of books in the house. I never knew where most of them came from but we had everything from books on snakes and sea life to baseball and poetry. One of the books I particularly loved examining was an old set of Currier & Ives lithographs. Of course, at that time I had no idea who Currier & Ives were. I was simply enthralled by the colorful images from the past and how people once lived in America. I loved the scenes of country life, the paddle boats on rivers, old-time horse races in buggies, and all of the animals.

It wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me that Currier & Ives might be a good place to look for 19th century images of dog breeds. They were the chroniclers of popular culture in their time. Maybe their artists had also captured some early versions of today’s sporting breeds? Perhaps they even had some images of Setters?

If you’re not familiar with Currier & Ives, Nathaniel Currier and his partner James Merritt Ives (who joined him as partner in 1857) were printmakers in New York from 1834-1907. Their sons eventually took over the business. Their artists traveled all over the country, which was still expanding in those days, to draw scenes on sight. Before the Internet, television, or iPhones, there were inexpensive, popular lithographs like those from Currier & Ives letting Americans see their country. Yet the quality of the work was so good that many people would frame the lithographs and hang them in their homes.

To my surprise, it was not difficult to find hunting scenes or sporting dogs in Currier & Ives’ works. I found a number of images on the site of the Philadelphia Print Shop Ltd. (used here with their kind permission). It’s easy to identify some of these dogs from the mid-19th century as Setters.

Most English Setter people today are probably under the impression that Edward Laverack developed the modern English Setter all by himself. He certainly played a crucial role in developing the dogs we know today but there were other English Setter breeders at work before his time and as contemporaries – and not just Mr. Purcell Llewellin.

Laverack himself details many of the other English Setter breeders of the time in his book The Setter, written in 1872. Mr. Loyd Freeman, one-time editor of Field & Stream and author of All Setters (1931), also provides good information about some of the early dogs imported into the United States from Britain, their breeders, and their subsequent careers. Many of these dogs were used for hunting but many were also dual-purpose dogs and you can find them far back in the pedigrees of our bench dogs today. Americans were importing Setters before Mr. Laverack began breeding. Even while he was breeding, Americans imported Setters from other sources – and not just from Mr. Llewellin.

As for the Setters in America in the 19th century, author Amy Fernandez, writing in the June 2014 issue of Canine Chronicle, suggests that the English Setter may deserve the honor of being America’s oldest gundog. According to Fernandez, the breed enjoyed a skyrocketing popularity in post-Civil War America and set in motion all aspects of the sport of dogs. She attributes their popularity to a growing postwar economy, a wildlife population explosion after the war, and more leisure time for many Americans of the era. It was around this time that Americans became enamored of importing purebred gundogs. As we all know, the first dog registered by the AKC was the English Setter Adonis. He provides a good example of English Setters of the time. According to Arnold Burges in The American Kennel Club and Sporting Field (1876), Adonis was a tri-color dog sired by Leicester out of Doll – who was imported to the U.S. while she was pregnant with the litter.

Prior to this time, however, there was no shortage of purebred hunting dogs in America. Fernandez provides this wonderful quotation from Joseph Graham in The Sporting Dog from 1904: 2/2 “For generations before the Civil War – that period coinciding with the establishment of field trials and regular records in England – both setters and pointers had been brought over at frequent intervals and had left progeny from Maine to Florida as far as enterprising field shots had penetrated…if a man wanted to breed setters, he seldom did more than use the best stock in the neighborhood.”

The Currier & Ives lithographs seem to support this statement. Other sources show that there were countless regional Setter strains in America in the 19th century. These dogs were known as “Native Setters.” They were widely available, adapted to local birds, and suddenly found themselves out of a job with the new demand for more fashionable dogs produced by Mr. Laverack and Mr. Llewellin. The race was on to improve the Native Setters by importing dogs from Britain and Europe. Many sportsmen became addicted to the newly-developed field trials so they wanted dogs that could compete and win. Field trials and bench shows were both newborn in America at this time, with the same dogs often appearing in both venues. Early dog shows often included a separate class for “Native” Setters, as opposed to the imported dogs, though the dogs would be interbred. It’s likely that most of us have some of these “Native” Setters far back in the pedigrees of our English Setters today.

There’s much more to this story of early English Setters in the U.S. with the people and dogs involved, along with the documentation, but that’s all the room I have right now.

I hope you enjoy these Currier & Ives images as much as I have. They provide an interesting peek at what some of our Setters looked like in America in the mid-19th century