Dog and Cat Passengers on the Mayflower

October 14, 2013

By Linda Cole

When the Mayflower set sail from England in 1620 to journey to a new land across the ocean, the 102 passengers on board had no idea what to expect. They were willing to leave their homes, friends and family members to go on an adventure of unknown difficulties and dangers. Not listed on the passenger manifest were two dogs and at least one cat, each one with their own contribution to the small group of adventurers who stepped into the American wilderness at Plymouth Rock.

The 90-foot Mayflower traveled around two miles an hour, weathering rough seas and storms. The journey across the Atlantic took 66 days, when the ship landed on the tip of Cape Cod, which is now Provincetown, Massachusetts. The impact of one storm blew them off course by more than 500 miles , which caused them to miss their planned landing. After exploring the area, the Mayflower set sail and finally dropped anchor in Plymouth harbor on December 21, 1620.

Historians know about the existence of the dogs because of a journal kept by two Mayflower passengers from the time they left England up to the first Thanksgiving celebration in the winter of 1622. The journal was called “Mourt’s Relation.”

John Goodman was 25 when he stepped off the Mayflower with his two dogs, a female Mastiff and a Spaniel. Their names were never recorded, but they are recognized by historians as playing a big role in helping the English settlers establish a colony. The canines went along on hunting parties, and guarded the settlement.

On a cold January morning, Goodman and fellow pilgrim Peter Browne, along with two other men, were cutting thatch for roofing on houses about a mile or so from the settlement. Both dogs were with the group. Around noon, Goodman and Browne decided to move deeper into the brush and told the other men to bind up what had been cut and follow them. But by the time the men were ready to follow, there was no sign of Goodman, Browne or the dogs. Concerned, they returned to the colony to gather a search party. A more thorough search was unsuccessful.

Unknown to the search party, the dogs saw a deer near a pond and took off after it. By the time Goodman and Browne caught up to them, they were hopelessly lost in the forest. With only sickles for weapons, a small amount of food, no shelter and no warm clothing, the men’s spirits quickly sank when it started to rain, which turned to snow as night fell. The only way they had to stay warm was to pace back and forth or huddle together with the dogs at the base of a tree. But staying warm was only one of their concerns. The hair-raising roar of two cougars filled the air, and a third one screamed somewhere nearby. Not knowing where the big cats were terrified the men. The Mastiff, however, had to be held to keep her from racing out to find the cats. The men made plans to climb the tree if the cats got too close. Fortunately, they made it through the night without incident.

In the morning, the men followed the dogs as they backtracked from the day before, and finally limped into the settlement late that night, cold and hungry. They had ended up five miles from the village. Goodman suffered severe frostbite and had to have his boots cut off. His bout with frostbite left him lame. Both men credited the dogs with helping them make it through the night and find their way back.

A month after recovering, Goodman decided to take the Spaniel for a walk to test his feet. It wasn’t long before two wolves appeared and took off after the dog. Instead of running away, the dog turned and raced back to Goodman and hid between his legs. Goodman had no weapon, so he picked up sticks and rocks and threw them at the wolves, hitting one. He picked up a stout stick and watched the wolves, the Spaniel still hiding between his legs. The wolves finally lost interest and left.

Sadly, Goodman never made it through his first winter in America, but his dogs were cared for by other settlers. As it turned out, they were essential members of the colony that settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Cats were always welcome on ships because they controlled rodent populations. Felines protected vital food supplies. It was so common to find cats on ships that they were usually never mentioned. However, it is known there was at least one cat on the Mayflower. A shorthaired calico kitty was recorded in her owner’s family Bible. The cat gave birth soon after they arrived in America, so there must have been a male cat on board as well.

Top photo by Claudio Gennari
Bottom photo by Lars Plougmann

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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