Thursday, August 28, 2014

In My Masters House: Slaves and Dogs in the 18th Century

By Louise Higgins
Gunston Hall Docent and Staff

As with many aspects of slave life, the relationship between slaves and dogs was complex and somewhat difficult to study. Dogs are not mentioned in contemporary writings to any great extent, and less often still, as regards slavery. Also, most discussion regarding dogs and slaves comes mostly from the slave owners, not the slaves themselves. We can assume that this would give a skewed view of the situation. By looking at the evidence we do have, we can try to gain perspective on how they not only co-existed. Hopefully we will also be able to see the emotional response, whether fear or love, slaves might have had for the dogs that were around them.

One might safely assume that any relationship between the two would be antagonistic. Dogs owned by overseers and plantation owners were intimidating. They were used singly or in packs to track runaway slaves and would inflict painful and possibly fatal injuries when they bit. There can be no exaggeration as to the extreme fear the slaves had for the dogs, or the violence that the dogs would inflict on a runaway slave. Plantation owners themselves were known to describe just how horrific the situation could be: “came across Williams runaway caught him dogs nearly et (sic) his legs off, near killing him.” (Diary, Mss.2978, 440.)

Fugitive Slave Attacked by Dogs, Isabelle Aguet,
A Pictorial History of the Slave Trade
(Geneva, Editions Minerva, 1971), plate 117.

To be sure, there is much evidence to suggest that slaves spent a great deal of time planning ways to avoid the dogs. This was not only the case for those slaves who were planning to runaway, but also for those slaves who made night time forays away from the plantation for a variety of reasons, but had every intention of returning to the plantation. They used various means of avoiding the dogs. A popular solution was through scent. Several slave and Plantation owner accounts mention that the slaves would make for water to throw the dogs off the scent. Another source mentions that her father would rub what she thought was rabbit grease on his feet, to trick the dogs.

Of course they would want to avoid the dogs completely, if at all possible. But there were contingency plans in place for those occasions when they did encounter the dogs at night. These were weapons of various types. Emma Taylor states: “De dogs got after me one time, but I put pepper in dey eyes and dey stopped. I allus carried pepper with me.” (Katz-Hyman) Another useful weapon was a knife. In fact, several slaves were successful in turning the tables and actually killed the pursuing dogs with a knife.

However, it was a more complex situation than merely this one view. Many colonies prohibited dog ownership by slaves for the same reason that ownership of weapons was prohibited. But that was not the case everywhere. Many plantation owners allowed dog ownership by their slaves. Indeed, in those large plantations places where the slave cabin area was more remote, dog ownership by the slaves might be less noticeable to the plantation owner. Also, it could be said that slaves and the plantation owners might have found slave ownership of dogs to be useful in some circumstances, especially for hunting and protection. Augmenting their diet through hunting was very important to the slaves. In some cases this appealed to some plantation owners, as well. Because gun ownership was prohibited to them, having a dog to help hunt would have been an immense help. There is record of George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s slaves owning dogs. But even this was an insecure prospect for the slave. In the end the slave owner wielded all the power. As with a slave family which might be broken up at a moment’s notice, so too, could their dog ownership be revoked while the slave was powerless to prevent it. We can only imagine how those slaves felt when, at one point, both Washington and Jefferson ordered all of their slaves’ dogs to be killed.

I would like to take a moment to explore also the smaller subsistence farms where the slave and the farmer lived on more or less equal footing. That is, they worked the land together. In that instance, the working dog on the plantation could be considered just as much the slave’s dog as the farmer’s. Just because it is a working dog, does not preclude the affection that the people and the dog would feel for each other. One can look at the relationship of working dogs today to extrapolate. Military and police dogs and their handlers have an extremely tight bond. How could it be any different for the colonial farmer, slave and working farm dog? Just experiencing hardship together creates a bond, both between people and between people and animals.

There is one quote that I would like to use Payne Limner 
Alexander Spotswood Payne & JohnRobert with Dog, 
1790, courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts It is 
interesting to note as an aside that the title of the painting
 includes the mention of the dog, but not the slave.  
This says nothing about the relationship between dogs 
and slaves, but speaks volumes about the relationship 
between slave owners and slaves.
There is one quote that I would like to use as an illustration. The slave Charles Ball writes of the dog with which he had many a hair raising adventure: “Thou laidest thyself down at my feet when the world had united to oppress me.” Charles had to leave the dog behind, and was clearly heartbroken.

Albert, Octavia V.R. "The House of Bondage." Google Books. N.p., 1890. Web. 23 July 2014.
"Charles Ball. "Slavery in the United States: A Narratives of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, Diary, Mss.2978 Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Librairies, Baton Rouge, LA, 440.

"Dogs." Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. <>
Katz-Hyman, Martha B., and Kym S. Rice. World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011. Print. 
"Slavery and Dogs in the Antebellum South." Sniffing the Past. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.  "Slavery in the United States: A Narratives of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man..." N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. <>