In the epitaph for his Newfoundland, Botswain, the poet Lord Byron wrote that his beloved canine "...possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices..." Byron beautifully and accurately describes the Newfoundland breed as we know it today. Although the recent history of these intelligent, noble and devoted dogs is well documented, their ancient past is shrouded in mystery and rife with speculation.
It's ancient origins may be up for debate, but the Newfoundland's recent history is well-established. The sturdy, magnificent breed known to us today was first recorded in 1775 by sportsman, diarist and entrepreneur George Cartwright. A resident of the Canadian island of Newfoundland, Cartwright bestowed the name of his native home on his own prized dog.
To the Brink and Back
In 1780, Newfoundland's Commodore-Governor, Richard Edwards, in an unsubstantiated effort to promote sheep raising, passed a law limiting the number of Newfies to one per household. Many dogs were exported or killed during this time. His misguided decree failed to enhance sheep farming and almost drove the Newfoundland into extinction. Thanks to a few determined Newfie enthusiasts, underground breeding continued and the Newfoundland bloodline survived. By 1824 Newfies were thriving again. Approximately 2,000 Newfies were living on the island, working with their owners hauling loads and delivering milk and produce. The early 1800s also saw the exportation of this distinguished breed to England, where its bloodlines flourished throughout Europe in sweeping numbers.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Newfies became popular subjects in literature, art and journals, making appearances in such acclaimed works as Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre", J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan", the journals of Lewis and Clarke and the paintings of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, after whom the lesser-known black and white Newfoundland dog, the Landseer, was named. Newfies also garnered a stellar reputation for heroic water rescue. Few ships sailed without a trusted Newfoundland aboard to protect both crew and ship.
Into the Ring
In 1860, the Newfoundlands made their first official appearance in the show ring. Six Newfies debuted in the National Dog Show in Birmingham, England. The competition, which continues to this day, is the oldest dog show in existence. Most of today's Newfoundland bloodlines, even those residing on the island of Newfoundland, can be traced back to dogs bred in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular to a show dog named Siki who lived in the 1920s.
There is no known record or defining point of beginning for the Newfoundland prior to 1775. While many enthusiasts agree that the Newf's ancestors were most likely transported to the island of Newfoundland by European fisherman, who those ancestors are is the topic of much debate. Some speculate their ancestry can be traced to the Great Pyrenees, the French-bred boarhound, the Siberian husky or the St. John dog. There is archeological evidence suggesting their ancestry can be traced back to black "bear" dogs brought to North America by the Vikings circa 1000 A.D. Others suggest that the Newf evolved from indigenous, feral dogs or even the American black wolf. Despite the Newfoundland's clouded, speculative history, the result is unarguably magnificent.
Yvette Sajem has been a professional writer since 1995. Her work includes greeting cards and two children's books. A lifelong animal advocate, she is active in animal rescue and transport, and is particularly partial to senior and special needs animals.