History, History Column

Our Forefathers and Their Pets

By ©2023 Sarah Becker

Pet Appreciation Week, initiated by the American Veterinarian Association—an Association established in 1863—is celebrated June 4-10, 2023.  It is said that George and Martha Washington were “avid dog and bird people.” Mary Thompson, published author and Mount Vernon Historian Emerita, loves dogs. She joins me for a Q&A.

Mary and her faithful companion Fingal – Photo by Alyssa Pease

Q1: The American Heritage Dictionary defines pet as “an animal kept for amusement or companionship; an object of the affections, a favorite.” To what extent did the Washington family enjoy companion animals, pets of a particular type?

A1. “The Washington family knew and related to animals in a number of different roles, including as pets. Like other people now and two hundred years ago, they used animals to supply labor on their farms: to pull plows, harrows, and other agricultural equipment. Also to power coaches, wagons, sleighs, and other means of land transportation. Dogs mostly served as guard animals.”

Q2. You recently purchased a West Highland white Terrier puppy. Did the Washington family’s fondness for Westies influence your choice of household pet?

A2.”The new puppy, whose name is Fingal, is our second Westie. Much as I wish we could prove that Washington had Westies that is just a fond wish. Many dog breeds with which we are familiar today were developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although Westies are primarily house pets at present, they were developed as hunters who helped keep barns and stables free of rats and mice: barnyards free of unwanted vermin, i.e. rabbits, foxes, badgers, weasels, otters, water rats, woodchucks, and even small game and birds. There is some evidence that Westies have been a feature of Scottish life since at least the time of King James VI [1566-1625]. Terriers, as a group, came in a range of sizes as did their prey.”

Q3. More than 30 American Foxhounds were listed in George Washington’s journals including Mopsey and Tipler, Drunkard and Truelove. Washington was a key player in their development. For what reason was the Foxhound, a working breed so special?

A3. “Foxes, as beautiful and interesting as they are, were a real nuisance on 18th century Virginia farms. They threatened the lives of a number of animals that colonists relied on as food sources. Hunting and destroying foxes protected animals such as chickens, sheep, etc. It also provided sport for men in the Virginia colony.”

Q4. Is it true that bones of domestic felines were found in a Mount Vernon slave quarter cellar? Were the enslaved permitted to have household pets, cats if not dogs? Gunner, I am told, was a Great Newfoundland Dog who helped slave Tom Davis “hunt for the Mansion House table.”

A4. “Archaeologists found the skeleton of a domestic cat in an 18th century soil layer from the cellar of a Mount Vernon slave quarter. This is the only evidence for the presence of cats at Mount Vernon at that time. There is no evidence that enslaved laborers were forbidden to have cats. They would have been useful in keeping down rodents in grain storage areas on the plantations. Dogs, however, were often used by enslaved people to hunt down livestock such as sheep.  Sheep provided them with meat that the Washingtons otherwise wanted for themselves.”

Monticello, 1992: “I am afraid it is no rumor,” Lucia C. Stanton, Director of Research, wrote. “Thomas Jefferson did give orders to have his slaves’ dogs killed—and at least twice. The first was on December 26, 1808, when he wrote his overseer, Edmund Bacon: ‘Next, to secure wool enough, the negroes dogs must all be killed. Do not spare a single one.’ Recent expansion of his sheep-breeding operation, with an eye toward self-sufficiency in providing wool for the slaves’ clothing, led him to take this precaution.”

Q5. Mount Vernon’s Pioneer Farm includes many animals: Sheep, Hogs, Mules, and such. For what reason is George Washington called “The Father of the American Mule?

A5. “Washington should probably be called the “Promoter of the American Mule.” Close study of the laws passed by the Virginia Assembly in the early 18th century show that there were mules in the state before George Washington was born. As an adult, when he became interested in improving Virginia’s agriculture, he also became interested in improving the quality of the mules and donkeys then available. Washington began by asking estate owners from the Caribbean and European about the howsoever of importing superior specimens. He first talked with the unofficial Spanish ambassador about this during the Revolutionary War but that gentleman died unexpectedly. It wasn’t until about a decade later that Washington was able to finally arrange for the animals importation and breeding began at Mount Vernon.”

Q6. George Washington saw a camel for the first time in 1787. Why did Washington bring the camel to Mount Vernon, an animal now identified with Mount Vernon’s ongoing Christmas festivities?

A6. “The short answer would be because Washington wanted to see the camel. ‘By the man who brot. a camel from Alexa. for a show…0.18.0.’ [18 shillings] These few words are the only documentation of a visit by a rare exotic animal to 18th century Mount Vernon.

The material which follows—elaborating on that visit—is based on what is known about the exotic animal trade of the period.

We know that George Washington had quite an interest in animals, both domestic and rare and often paid to see them. Over the years he and various members of his household were able to learn something about the world outside Virginia from itinerant entertainers who drew large gatherings, events such as fairs. Many of these individuals seem to have worked with exotic or specially-trained animals.

In June of 1766 Washington recorded paying 10 shillings to see a ‘Lyoness.’ Three years later, he spend 3 shillings and 1 ½ pence to see a ‘Tyger’ either the now familiar striped Asian tiger or a North American cougar or puma which the colonists called ‘red tigers.’ Washington definitely saw a ‘Cugar’ in Philadelphia during his presidency, as well as a ‘Sea Leopard’ a type of sea lion.

At least twice in his life he paid to see an elk and during his presidency he forked out $1.75 ‘For to see Elephant.’ The Washington family was also interested in animals exhibiting special qualities or training. They gave $3.00 to a ‘man who had a very sagacious Dog.’  The canine is said to have been able to ‘beat any person at playing at cards.’

Attempts to find references in period newspapers to the 1787 camel ‘who came to Mount Vernon’ were initially unsuccessful. Apparently a pair of camels were imported to New York from Arabia; sold and then exhibited. It may be that one of the pair was brought to Alexandria or perhaps the Mount Vernon camel is unrelated to any of the known ones. Or it might just be that Washington learned there was a camel in town and invited the handler to bring it to his plantation. Unfortunately we have no information about how long the camel was at Mount Vernon.

Who would have been at Mount Vernon to see the camel that Christmas? Depending on when the camel arrived, in addition to himself and Mrs. Washington there might have been his two youngest Custis grandchildren:  George Washington Parke Custis, Nelly Custis, and several others, including Dr. James Craik.”

Q7. During the Battle of Germantown, the Revolutionary War’s Philadelphia campaign British General William Howe’s dog accidentally crossed enemy lines. He was captured then kindly returned. What does General Washington’s good deed, his letter to Howe teach us about honor and accountability; human domination and love?

A7. “What I think this incident tells us the most about is that Washington knew how much pets mean to people, even when they were enemies. The reason for that is because Washington himself loved animals—and they loved him.  Washington’s affection for his horse Nelson was reciprocated. It is said that, as George Washington would walk around the grounds of the estate, he would stop at Nelson’s paddock, ‘when the old war-horse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master’s hands.’ According to an equestrian friend, horses, being prey animals, don’t just come running up to people for affection unless they know and trust them well…and love them!”

The Washington family owned many dogs, hounds mostly.  Said George Washington Parke Custis soon after his grandfather’s death: “His hunting dogs were his pride (and proof of his skill in hunting) to have his pack so critically drafted….” Nelly Custis’ favorite dog was a Spaniel. Martha Washington’s special pet: a cockatoo.

One of the family’s first pet birds was a parrot. The parrot was acquired from the Captain of a West India trading ship “that had stopped here.”

In 2022 Mars Petcare certified Alexandria as a BETTER CITY FOR PETS. For more information, consult visitalexandria.com; mountvernon.org and or monticello.org.

My Parker Poodle appreciates a good tale. We look forward to the release of Mary’s next book, and Parker reminds all that National Take your Pet to Work Day is celebrated June 23!

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com  

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