We know that turkeys were part of the first Thanksgiving in America – or fowl that the Pilgrims called turkeys – but cats and dogs were probably there as well. They may even have sailed to Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower with the pilgrims. When the Mayflower reached America on December 21, 1620, the passengers numbered 102: 52 men, 18 women, 32 children – and probably several cats and dogs.
The earliest mention of dogs appeared in a 17th century journal called “Mourt’s Relation” about the first years of life in the new world. According to this account, two dogs, an English springer spaniel and a mastiff were brought along by John Goodman, a young man of about 25 years of age. The dogs were involved in the first explorations of discovery on Cape Cod and the activities of homebuilding during the first winter ashore.
The mastiff is a combination of grandeur and good nature, courage and docility and had been bred in England for over two thousand years as a watchdog. He would have been used for protecting the home and from wolves and other wild beasts, and would have been an excellent companion dog.
The English springer spaniel suggests power, endurance and agility. He is a sporting dog that can go, and keep going, under difficult hunting conditions. The springer spaniel gets its name from his method of flushing game: he springs forward to drive birds out of hiding. He also is a fine retriever. The English springer spaniel’s merry, gentle personality makes him an ideal family dog. His talents would have been hunting, tracking, retrieving and acting as a watchdog. What better characteristics for two dogs to brave the new world?
Two stories were recorded in “Mourts Relation,” according to Duane A. Cline, author of “The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony” on www.rootsweb.com.
Lost in the Woods
On Friday, December 22, 1620, Goodman and Peter Browne, accompanied by the two dogs, went out from the village to cut thatch for roofing. Goodman and Browne became lost and wandered in the woods all afternoon, cold and wet. Night fell, bitterly cold, frosty and snowy, and neither of the men was dressed for the inclement weather. During the night they heard what they believed to be two lions roaring in the woods and a third nearby. Frightened they stayed near a tree, and held the dogs close to keep them from following the lion.
Finally, they found their way back to the village where Goodman had to have his shoes cut from his frost-bitten feet because they were so swollen from the cold. This caused him to be lame.
The Wolves Tale
A month later Goodman and the spaniel, on a walk outside the village, encountered two wolves. The wolves took after the spaniel, and the frightened dog ran between Goodman’s legs for safety. Having no weapons, Goodman picked up a stick and threw it at the wolves and hit one of them. Then he picked up another stick and stood watching the wolves, with the frightened spaniel still cowering between his legs. The wolves sat down and watched the pair for a while, then lost interest and wandered away.
Goodman died that first winter, but there is no record of what became of his two dogs. Probably other surviving colonists took them in and cared for them. And although their names were never recorded, they are given a place of recognition in records of the founding of Plymouth Colony.
Cats were welcome aboard sailing ships in the 16th century because they helped control the rodent population and protected finite food supplies. They were so well known as sea-going voyagers that National Geographic once reported that “cats, like people, found freedom from persecution in America. It is believed that they first came over on the Mayflower, although it may have been earlier – with the Spaniards in the 16th century. In any event, once here, they thrived.”
Carolyn Travers, research manager at www.plimoth.org in Plymouth, Mass., a non-profit, educational institution that bills itself as the living history museum of 17th century Plymouth, confirmed that cats were common on ships, so common in fact that they didn’t warrant mentioning.
“What they talked about was what interested people. Cat were too common to talk about,” Travers said. “Dogs were mentioned on the Mayflower because they tackled wolves, but cats weren’t mentioned.”
The first written mention that Travers said she found of cats dates back to 1634, some 14 years after the Mayflower anchored in what today is Provincetown harbor. William Wood wrote in “New England’s Prospect” how cats saved the colony’s crops from squirrels and probably what we know today as chipmunks.
The First Thanksgiving
We don’t know if Goodman’s dogs or any cats were present at the first Thanksgiving feast, although they probably were. The cats had worked hard to keep the colony vermin-free, and the dogs had been involved in planting the corn. In fact, they had been too involved – they kept trying to dig up the fish planted with the corn, and the settlers had to tie their forepaws together to keep them from doing so.
So, this Thanksgiving Day, and everyday, give thanks for the fact that cats and dogs came to America to help the settlers survive. Today, they help us thrive by significantly adding to the quality of our lives.
Virginia Wells and Susan Bard Hall contributed to this story.