Log In

Reset Password

Lisa Unleashed: Were Dogs Begging At The First Thanksgiving Table?



Text Size

About eight years ago, I wrote a press release for the American Kennel Club celebrating two breeds of dogs brought aboard the for 66-day journey to lands unknown. Among the 102 passengers was a man who brought two dogs. I wrote, "The earliest mention of dogs in America 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. The dogs were involved in the first explorations of discovery on Cape Cod during the first winter ashore.lisaunleashed.com.lisa.peterson@barngirlmedia.com

Mayflower was more likely a larger spaniel from England. In fact, all land spaniels in the 1600s were considered the same type of dog and could be a found in a single litter. It wasn't until the Victorian Era, where spaniels became stylized into cockers, Sussex, Clumber, field, English springers, and Welsh springers.

Then I went on to create some sappy quote about those two breeds and how they helped the Pilgrims survive and how thankful we are to have those same breeds today as companions. But the truth is, those breeds as we know them today didn't exist in 1620. In fact, the Kennel Club in England didn't start classifying breeds until 1873. It is true that mastiffs were raised in Britain for more than 2,000 years, after the Roman invasion in 55 BCE. The mastiff's ancestors were an ancient type of dog called a Molossus, which came from ancient Greece and was used to hunt, guard the farm, and watch the livestock. The English springer spaniel on the 

Mayflower, since later journals talk about multiple dogs on hunting expeditions to find food. Some think that Master Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, may have brought some hunting hounds with him, as he was once arrested and charged for illegally keeping hounds without the required amount of land. Plus, back in the day, it was custom to present a ship's captain with a puppy at every port and Jones had been a captain for 27 years prior to the Mayflower voyage. I believe that there must have been some breeding spaniel or hounds pairs on the ship so that once they arrived in the New World, they could still have dogs to help them find food in the unknown new terrain.

Some researchers believe there had to be more dogs on the 

But then it got me thinking. American history, or at least as it was widely taught when I was a child, began with the Pilgrims. But then I learned about Native Americans, and how they were here first. Then I wondered, did they have dogs when the Pilgrims arrived? A quick 12,000-year history lesson of the domestic dog is in order. Man migrated to the Western Hemisphere from Northeast Asia with dogs around the same time. The early societies that formed in North America were isolated from Europe, China, and India, and they had no domesticated animals such as goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, or even horses. It wasn't until the Spanish arrived that they saw their first horse. But the only domesticated animal Native Americans had in common with the Pilgrims was the dog. The ancestor of those dogs was the gray wolf, which was prevalent in North America. The definition of domestication of an animal is: that humans control the breeding, claim ownership of the animal, and that the animal's behavior is distinct from the wild ancestor. Back in 1997, way before the dog genome was mapped, the mitochondrial DNA of domestic dogs and gray wolves were compared and a variation of only 0.2 percent was found.

So I imagine when the Pilgrims and Native Americans first met, their dogs looked very different from each other. In fact, mastiffs were used to protect livestock against wolves. In one journal, it talks about a mastiff lunging at wolves, but who knows, perhaps they were the Native American's own dogs. What we do know, is that one year later, there were only 50 Pilgrims left after a harsh winter and in November 1621, they sat down with members of the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate their first year at the Plymouth colony. I can just see them sitting around that first Thanksgiving table with a matched pair of mastiffs, a spattering of spaniels, and some wolflike- looking dogs, all equally begging and drooling for table scraps, much like what a majority of Americans will be experiencing this holiday season.

Lisa Peterson writes about history, horses, and hounds at . You can reach her at 

Comments are open. Be civil.

Leave a Reply