Mark Twain said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” He might well have been talking about that most Southern kind of dog known as the Feist.
In the past, the feist was the most common dog found in Southern areas. Squirrel dog expert Randy Pannell said, “Go back fifty years and just about everybody in the South has some kind of Feist.” While the name feist is not as commonly used today, the breed has a prominent role in the history and literature of the South.
One might think the dogs get their name from their personality. They are short, energetic, scrappy canines who are known for their yapping. So feist appears to have come from the words feisty or feistiness. It was actually the other way around. Feisty and feistiness come from the name of the dog. The etymology of feist likely traces back to fysting, an obsolete word meaning “breaking wind.” Exactly how that word evolved into a word meaning “a small dog of uncertain ancestry” is not clear.
Even an exact definition and description of the feist is a problem. Sometimes the name feist has been used in ways similar to terms like mutt, mongrel, cur, or Heinz 57. In other words, it hasn’t always been describing an exact breed of dog. There are certain defining characteristics of the dogs. They are small dogs. For this reason, some people have used the word feist to describe any small breed of dog. The true feist, however, is a short-haired dog that is generally known for its scrappiness and hunting skills, as well as size.
Linda Cole says that although feist have been around in the United States for hundreds of years, they are not widely known north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Particularly in the southern Appalachian areas, feist were very popular dogs. Some think the breed descended from small, short-nosed dogs owned by Indians. Others think the dogs developed in Great Britain by miners and farmers. There are lots of similarities between feist and terriers. As can be seen, ideas vary as to how and where the dogs originated.
There are also variations in the spelling of the name. Most often, they are called feist, but sometimes fice, and occasionally fyce. The American Dialect Dictionary also includes feest, faust, fyste, and fist. While they closely resemble Jack Russell terriers and other terrier breeds, they are usually recognized as a separate breed. Even here, however, the facts are fuzzy. The Rat Terrier today is a separate breed of dog, but they descended from feist. In fact, it was Theodore Roosevelt who named the dog after he acquired a couple of them to rid the White House of a rat infestation.
For certain, the feist has been around for a while and its presence has been noted. George Washington referred to them in a diary entry in 1770, giving yet another spelling of the name, when he described a dog as “a small foist looking yellow cur.” Abraham Lincoln wrote a poem called “The Bear Hunt,” which includes this references to the fice:
The tall fleet cur, with deep-mouthed voice,
Now speeds him, as the wind;
While half-grown pup, and short-legged fice,
Are yelping far behind.
These words highlight the use of feist in hunting, and it notes the smallness of the dog. As the poem continues, the hunters kill the bear and then argue over who gets the skin. The feist dog shows up again:
Aforesaid fice, of blustering mood,
Behind, and quite forgot,
Just now emerging from the wood,
Arrives upon the spot.
With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair—
Brim full of spunk and wrath,
He growls, and seizes on dead bear,
And shakes for life and death.
And swells as if his skin would tear,
And growls and shakes again;
And swears, as plain as dog can swear,
That he has won the skin.
Conceited whelp! we laugh at thee—
Nor mind, that now a few
Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be,
Conceited quite as you.
Reading this reminds us that Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky, lived much of his life in a rural frontier setting that would not have differed much from Southern life. This account is not the only time that the character of the feist has appeared in literature.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic The Yearling features a feist named Perk. When Penny Baxter needs a new gun, he takes Perk with him to visit his neighbors, the Forresters. As the men sit around and talk about a bear hunt, Penny holds the feist in his lap. He explains this by saying, “I jist figger on keepin’ him outen the jaws o’ them blood-hounds o’ yourn.”
Not only was he protective of the dog, he was also critical. “He’s mighty sorry. Sorriest bear-dog I ever owned or follered,” he tells them. The Forresters become convinced that the dog must be just the opposite of what Penny is saying, and they trade him a fine gun for the dog. This part of the story is also brought out in the 1946 film version of The Yearling, which starred Gregory Peck.
The best known case of a feist in literature comes in William Faulkner’s The Bear. This story is a part of Faulkner’s work Go Down, Moses, but it also is often published as a standalone short novel. Faulkner both owned feist dogs and wrote of them, and characteristic of Faulkner, he had his own way of spelling their name—fyce.
In The Bear, Faulkner wrote that the boy, Isaac McCaslin, “ had a little dog at home, a mongrel, of the sort called fyce by Negroes, a ratter, itself not much bigger than a rat and possessing that sort of courage which had long since stopped being bravery and had become foolhardiness.”
Isaac brings the “fyce” along on the June hunting trip. As one might guess from that detail and the title of the story, the fyce gets involved in the great bear hunt. Against “ole Ben” the bear, the dog showed his legendary fighting spirit. Along with a pack of hounds, the fyce pursues the bear until he turns at bay. Faulkner says the bear’s stopping may have been due to “surprise and amazement at the shrill and frantic uproar of the fyce.” As the bear rises up, the boy realized that the dog was straight toward the bear, and he has to rescue it. When the hunt resumes, Isaac is still holding the feist. Faulkner writes, “Even in his arms, it continued to yap frantically, surging and straining toward the fading sound of the hounds like a collection of live-wire springs.”
Southern people typically had feist dogs for hunting. Most of the time, they were used for hunting rabbits, possums, and raccoons, but sometimes they were used for larger game, like bear and mountain lions. In earlier times, these hunts were not for sport but for survival. The small feist would silently pursue the prey and break into its sharp barking only when the animal was treed or hemmed in. Around the home, the dogs were good for catching vermin or being watchdogs.
In a genealogical account from the mid-1800’s in West Virginia, a boy told the story of carrying a sack of corn to the mill for grinding. He wrote, “I called my feist dog to follow and we were off to the mill. But when we came near White Rock the feist suddenly met a big cat just below the trail and barking furiously, scared it so badly that it climbed a tree near the trail. The old mare was more frightened than the cat; she whirled about and ran home with me.”
It is that gutsiness that has often characterized the feist. Southern author Rick Bragg remembers a part-feist coon dog he had as being fierce. As Southerners moved across the frontier, they carried these dogs along with their rifles, axes, and plows as tools for conquering the wilderness. Even today, squirrel hunters still prize the different varieties of the dog that they often call Mountain Feist or Treeing Feist. There is a lot of spunk and fight packed into those little dogs. And as Twain noted, what matters is the size of the fight in the dog.
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