In search of ponies: Dogs became part of pilgrims’ community

No doubt they sat near the table that day, 391 years ago, watching as the pilgrims smiled and devoured the birds they helped to flush out of the dense underbrush.

It is unknown what their names were, but as the only two reflected in historical records, they had just as much to give thanks for — particularly as scraps from the festive feasters fell to the ground, though it's unlikely they cared much about religious freedom.

It had must have seemed like a lifetime since they, along with 102 weary travelers disembarked from their ship but in reality it had only been a year since they first set foot on the soil of Plymouth, Mass..

The Old English mastiff and English springer spaniel proved to be among the toughest of those settlers, outliving the 45 who died from lack of food, shelter and illnesses in that first year, including their owner, John Goodman, who is thought to have died during the first winter.

While there were likely some cattle, chickens and perhaps even pigs and goats on board the ship, the two dogs are the only companion animals known to have made the journey on the Mayflower.

Arriving in November, no doubt that first winter set on fast and living through it took what little strength the Mayflower passengers had left.

Poorly equipped and exhausted, the spring was also a struggle as they worked to try and grow crops and build homes, but it is said they were ill prepared, and had it not been for the help of natives, who came to their aid and taught them how to farm the land and find the things they needed, surely all of them would have died.

Surely earning their keep, the dogs were probably brought along on the voyage because of their skills, the huge mastiff no doubt an excellent watch dog, and the spaniel a favorite bird dog of the English.

And, according to written accounts that survived, they were included in forays and hunts as the Virginia-bound settlers worked to explore and develop the land they had mistakenly ended up in.

But it appears they were also cared for, particularly in one story that details how Goodman and his spaniel ran across a wolf while exploring and he fought it off with a fencepost, protecting his dog, who cowered between his legs.

Another time, Goodman and a fellow traveler chased the dogs when they ran after a deer, getting lost and spending a miserably snowy night hidden in a tree until they found their way home the next day.

After Goodman died, it is presumed that other settlers took over care of the dogs and that they lived on at Plymouth, appearing occasionally in brief mention here and there, mostly in fowling for birds to feed the settlers, and exploring.

But as the pilgrims settled into their new land, the two dogs were with them, part of their family that bonded in hardship, trials and survival.

The grueling months and countless tragedies that led up to that first November festival must have made it so much more meaningful, as, in the English tradition, they gathered around to celebrate their first successful harvest.

Only four women out of 18 lived to see the celebration and 30 men and children did not make it to the table. They must have looked like war refugees as they commemorated not only a successful harvest, but the fact that they were fortunate enough to be there for what would become an annual tradition that the nation would continue to recognize hundreds of years later.

Later ships would bring more people, and with them came more animals, with horses, cattle and more dogs among those that followed.

And as Thanksgiving continued in some form or fashion every year after, there were surely more dogs sitting on the fringes of the feasts, waiting for the scraps that were sure to come their way as people celebrated good fortune.

But for those two Mayflower dogs, who followed John Goodman across the ocean only to fight for survival and watch their master and protector die trying to start a new life, surely no scraps compared to those from the first feast, or were as greatly appreciated.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: or on the web at:

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