We know their breed, but not their names. We know they sailed over on the Mayflower and were part of the first settlement by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in December of 1620, but we don’t know if they were at the first Thanksgiving eleven months later.
Yet we don’t know that they weren’t at the big feast either.
Their human companion was a 25 year old Pilgrim named John Goodman. one of the men who signed the Mayflower Compact, the document which established the rules by which they would live in settlement.
Winslow left no record of what the dogs might have been called or how they were used, but both almost certainly had their share of work to do, along with all the able-bodied colonists.
Traditionally put to work as a guard as well as a hunter, the specific Mastiff almost certainly on the Mayflower was an “Old English” type. Since the colonists came from England, the Spaniel was likely an English Springer Spaniel, a sort that can be well-trained for hunting purposes.
It was before the Pilgrims built the houses of their new colony, while still on the docked Mayflower, that Pilgrim Mastiff and Pilgrim Spaniel first appear in the record, a notation that several of the men went to explore the land of what is now Provincetown, and came upon a old piece of venison meat that was “fitter for the dogs than for us.”
The second reference is of January 12, 1621 when four men, including John Goodman and another young Pilgrim, Peter Browne, went out to begin cutting thick straw to be used as roof thatching for the houses that were then being built.
A decent amount of thatch was cut and the two unnamed fellows were told to tie up the roofing material and carry it back to camp, and then catch up with Goodman, Browne and the dogs who went further into the surrounding forest.
When the two others went to join the two men and the two dogs, they couldn’t be found. More men were called to search for them, but night fell and they couldn’t be located. The next morning, a good dozen men formed a search party and still no men or dogs.
That night, however, Goodman, Browne, Pilgrim Mastiff and Pilgrim Spaniel straggled back into the settlement, telling of how they’d come across a deer and that the two dogs ran out in hot pursuit of it, followed by the humans. It was in Winslow’s entry of what Goodman told him that he recorded the breeds of the two dogs:
“…having a great mastiff bitch with them and a spaniel, by the water side they found a great deer; the dogs chased him, and they followed so far as they lost themselves and could not find the way back.”
The black of night fell upon them and they were lost. That night they heard an animal they described as a “lion,” and recalled that they had to “hold the bitch by the neck to keep her from following…” Considering the size of the two dogs, this suggests that the female was the Mastiff.
Goodman’s feet had become partially frostbitten and he knew he had to attempt to circulate blood through them or else lose their use entirely. So he headed out again at the end of January, alone with Pilgrim Spaniel. This time they were confronted by hungry wolves who made a play for Pilgrim Spaniel, who then ran between Goodman’s legs for protection. He scared them off with tree branches.
The spaniel lived, but not Goodman.
According to the records of Governor William Bradford, Goodman was among more than half of the Pilgrim population who died before that first winter ended.
What about his dogs? On March 23, 1621, two days after after the technical end of winter, Winslow recorded that Governor Standish had been out exploring and went first to the docked Mayflower where he went first to the ship, where he “found neither man, or so much as a dog therein.”
The first Thanksgiving was eight months after that. The spring, summer and fall of 1621 proved successful in terms of harvest for the Pilgrims. Warmer weather and ample food supply were conditions that would have permitted the dogs to thrive.
This, along with the fact that Winslow recorded every detail and made no mention of either of the dogs dying, suggests that Pilgrim Mastiff and Pilgrim Spaniel were surely there.
Perhaps even with some new little American mutts.