Gunston Hall Docent
|Girl and Dog by Charles Bridges, c.1715|
Dogs were a complex and ubiquitous part of colonial America as they are in our society today. Because dogs were so integrated into society, we, looking back, may have a hard time seeing them: people don’t write about what’s commonplace, and dogs were everywhere. What is certain is people across all social strata interacted with dogs in both positive and negative ways.
Dogs played many roles in 18th century Virginia; one of the most obvious and useful was for protection and security. Virginia at the time was a largely agrarian society, made up mostly of small independent farms. Having a dog on the property added another layer of security to an isolated farm. Another job held by dogs in the 18th century was herding sheep. These sheep dogs were not the modern Old English Sheepdog that we know today. They were not a specialized breed, though typically the dogs used for sheep herding were rough coated and short tailed. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among those employed sheep dogs for their flocks. Thomas Jefferson was recorded as presenting George Washington with some puppies from a litter of his “shepherd’s dogs.” (Jefferson letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, www.Monticello.org) As with all working dogs, modern and colonial, they had to be intelligent and strong.
|Major Thomas Dade by Thomas Gainsborough, 1755.|
Courtesy of the Tate.
Hunting was both a necessity and a pastime. And dogs, like horses in the 18th Century, were kept for pleasure as well as work. Many plantation owners during this period that enjoyed fox hunting, which was a purely aristocratic amusement. Unlike subsistence hunting, fox hunting was an elaborate endeavor, which could last for days. There were proscribed rules regarding the fox hunt. Those rules encompassed the everything from how and when the hounds were released after the fox, to the activities both preceding and following the hunt itself. If the fox was caught, it might very well be brought back alive and turned out again the next day for further sport. George Washington kept and bred fox hounds at Mount Vernon, and went fox hunting often. John Mason tells us in his Recollections that his father, George, enjoyed riding to the hunt even up to his middle and older years. In the 18th century, dogs developed through the efforts of George Washington and others, came to be known as the Virginia Hound (or Foxhound,) as it is known to this day. For an amusing contemporary illustration of how devoted Virginia Plantation owners were to the sport of fox hunting, please visit the article Personable Pooches.
Aside from the working aspect, dogs then, as today, provided companionship. This is such an interesting topic. Dogs have been welcomed and loved as pets by the aristocracy since antiquity. One interesting stained glass image from Cologne, France, circa 1520 shows an almost modern picture of a pet dog sleeping at the foot of the owner’s bed. This piece of stained glass is currently in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and is available online here.
|Christian Stelle Bannister and Son by Gilbert Stuart,1773. Courtesy of the Redwood Library |
|George Booth by William Dering, 1748-1750.|
Courtesty Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
This brings us back to the relationship between the working dog and his family. Unlike with the gentry, pets kept solely as companion animals are rare among the lower classes. This could be due to several reasons. Primarily, the lower classes may not have had the means to keep an animal that was not an active contributor to the family. Also, we just don’t know much about the lower classes as we do the gentry. If they were keeping pets, there is little record of it. Having said all of that, the people that were accused of stealing the dogs that were in the advertisements mentioned above were often indentured servants. In one particular case, the reason given for the theft by the indentured servant was because the dog was “a great favorite” of his.
Whether one is a subsistence farmer, indentured servant or slave, doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t emotionally attached to the dogs that they were around. Just because a dog has to be a working contributor to the family does not mean that it is not a loving relationship on both sides.
Brieg, James. “The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 2004. Web. 23 July 2014. http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn04/dogs.cfm
Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginians at Play. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1965. Print. "Dogs." Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. http://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/dogs
"Herding Dogs in Colonial America." Stockdog Savvy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. http://stockdogsavvy.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/herding-dogs-in-early-america/
Hood, Graham. “Personable Pooches” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 206. Web. 23 July 2014. <http://history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn06/dog.cfm>
"Virginia Foxhound Club." Virginia Foxhound Club. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.
"Virginia Gazette, Hunter, October 17, 1751, Page 3." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. "Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, April 28, 1774, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.
"Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, September 24, 1772, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.