Dogs on the Mayflower

Often, as visitors to the Jabez Howland House look through our book selections and come upon my book, 
The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower ,seeing the handsome drawing on the cover, they often remark they had no idea there were dogs on the Mayflower. 

If I am nearby, I will let them know there were likely a number of animals on the ship including goats, pigs, and chickens – along with the Mastiff and Spaniel we know made the crossing.

I say “likely” as there is no detailed account for what the Pilgrims brought with them aboard the Mayflower. We do know, based on a letter Emmanuel Altham wrote to his brother, Sir Edward Altham about conditions at the Plymouth Colony when he visited in 1623 that there were already a number of farm animals prospering in the colony.

Emmanuel Altham, the younger brother of a wealthy English family and therefore not likely to inherit, hoped to make his fortune in the New World.  He arrived aboard the Little James, a vessel built for the colony by the Merchant Adventurers funding Plymouth’s start. The Little James was to stay in the colony and fulfill the role intended for the Speedwell, which, as Bradford noted, never made the Atlantic crossing in 1620.

Among the wealth of details about the fledgling colony in Altham’s letter he notes specifically … “here is belonging to the town six goats, about fifty hogs and pigs, also divers hens.”[1] The large numbers suggest the herds got their start with stock brought aboard the Mayflower just a few years earlier.

But to return to the dogs. Our primary source on the Mayflower voyage of course is William Bradford in his work, Of Plimoth Plantation. While he tantalizingly says he has omitted details in the name of brevity concerning the voyage, as Howland descendants we are all grateful he took up some space and time to relate John’s unintended fall into the sea. Unfortunately, he makes no mention of the dogs on the ship. We have to look to Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, and thought to be a sort of enticement to future settlers considering taking part in the wonders of the New World to read about the Pilgrim’s dogs.

In Mourt’s it is only after we read about the ship anchoring in Provincetown, an exploration of Cape Cod, choosing Patuxet as a settlement site, and the start of work on the houses, do we learn there were dogs on the voyage from the story of John Goodman and Peter Brown getting lost in the woods with the mastiff and spaniel.

The two dogs that came on the Mayflower were not chosen by accident. For centuries, mastiffs were used in England as guard or fighting dogs. When Romans occupied England, sometimes the fierce fighters were sent to Rome where the dogs fought against bears, lions, tigers, bulls, other dogs or even gladiators for the entertainment of arena audiences.[2]

Spaniels, also an ancient breed in England, had been mentioned as far back as 300 C.E. in an ancient law of Wales and likely brought to England via Spain.

Spaniels were skilled at working in tandem with a human hunter. The dog would flush out game birds and, early on a hawk or falcon was dispatched to bring down the game bird. Later, hunters with wheel-lock firearms replaced the hunting birds.[3]

Having dogs for protection and to aid in hunting made perfect sense. And, at least for mastiffs, Mayflower was not the first ship to bring them to New England. In 1603 Martin Pring had two mastiffs along for protection. He was an explorer from Bristol, England, and under the patronage of the mayor, and merchants of Bristol, led a voyage to the northern parts of Virginia to assess the economic potential of the area. His primary interest was Sassafras, used at the time to fight various ills and fever. We get a sense of their size and disposition of his dogs when Pring writes of one dog that he, “would carrie a halfe-pike in his mouth.” (A half-pike was a stout pole shaped weapon, 6 or 7 feet long with a metal, trident like blade on its end.)[4]

In several situations the dogs are used by Pring and his men to keep the Natives, at bay. The dogs were named Gallantand Foole, perhaps reflecting their individual personalities.

We don’t know the name of the mastiff or spaniel aboard Mayflower but we have a detailed story related in Mourt’s relation concerning John Goodman and Peter Brown’s overnight in the forests surrounding the Colony.

Early in January of 1621, Goodman and Brown were two of four people cutting thatch for newly constructed houses in the colony. Bradford relates, that at noon, Goodman and Brown wandered away from the other two with the two dogs in company until they came upon a body of water. At some point the dogs spy a deer, and give chase. Neither returns when called so the two men chase after the dogs. After a while they collect them but have become lost. As night falls temperatures drop, and the pair realize they will have to spend the night in the forest. As stated in Mourt’s, the men “in frost and snow were forced to use the earth as their bed and the elements as their covering.[5]

At one point in the night they hear, what they call a lion’s roar and have all they can do to hold the mastiff by the neck to keep her from bounding away, going after the animal in the forest. Finally, the next day, after further walking the men saw the harbor at a distance, and made their way back to the colony. At their return John Goodman’s feet had swelled so much the cold that his shoes had to be cut away to allow him to warm his feet by the fire.

About a week after this John Goodman was out walking with the spaniel, exercising his lame feet, when two wolves ran after the dog. The dog, smartly for its own part, ran back and hid between John Goodman’s legs. Goodman was able to throw a stick at the wolves keeping it away briefly. When the wolves came back, John brandished a “pale-board” ( a fence board) which the gave the wolves pause and they, “sat on their tales, grinning at him a good while, and went on their way and left him.”[6]

It is not recorded how long the dogs lived beyond 1621. Perhaps more dogs came aboard future ships. Perhaps the mastiff and the spaniel had families of their own and perhaps there are dogs alive today that could trace their ancestry back to the mastiff and the spaniel that came on the Mayflower.  The question remains would they be eligible for membership in the Mayflower Society or should they start their own lineage society?


 1] Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, edited by Sydney V. James, Jr. Plimoth Plantation, Inc. 1963.
[5] Mourt’s Relation, Pg. 46
[6] Mourts, pg. 47.  

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