When the Mayflower landed on the rocky coast of New England in the winter of 1620, the 100 people aboard had survived a storm at sea, which blew them off course and precipitated an initial landing at what is now Newfoundland, Canada. There they took on fresh supplies and water. When they set sail again for a point farther south, the treacherous waters they encountered when they neared the shoreline forced a landing at Cape Cod, Mass., rather than Virginia, where they had originally intended to embark. The ship had left Plymouth, England, with 102 souls aboard, but two died during the crossing.

From November 1620, when the Mayflower landed, until November 1621, two of its passengers, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, kept a journal of the party’s activities, beginning with their departure from England up to the first Thanksgiving the following winter. The journal, entitled “Mourt’s Relation,” was published in London in 1622, and includes accounts of two dogs that arrived in the New World with one John Goodman. These two canines, described as a Spaniel and a Mastiff, were said to have accompanied the Pilgrims in their explorations and settlement during that first few months on American shores.

A gentleman named Caleb Johnson, a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, updated the text of “Mourt’s Relation” to modern American-English, which is now part of the University of Virginia’s Plymouth Colony Archive Project.

Published in New York in 1859, the plate for “The First Landing of the Pilgrims, 1620” was drawn by Charles Lucey and engraved by T. Phillibrown. Notice the dog beside the little girl, fourth from the right.

That a Mastiff arrived with these early settlers from Britain would not be a surprise, as this is a breed whose history dates back as early as 2500 BC, when, according to the Mastiff Club of America, “Bas-reliefs from the Babylonian palace of Ashurbanipal depict Mastiff-type dogs hunting lions in the desert near the Tigris River.” Kubla Khan, the Mongol emperor from 1215 to 1294, is said to have kept 5,000 Mastiffs “for hunting and war.” Many breeds owe at least some of their heritage to the Mastiff. In England, where the large, powerful dogs were kept, often by royalty, to guard estates and for hunting, the breed developed into the dogs we know today. King James, who reigned from 1603 to 1625, was said to have given a gift of two Mastiffs to Phillip II of Spain, brother-in-law to Queen Elizabeth I.


As for the Spaniel that accompanied the Pilgrims, the American Spaniel Club notes that in the 1600s Spaniels were divided into two categories, land and water Spaniels, and the term itself was used to describe dogs of all sizes, and “the spaniels all derived from the same bloodlines and litters.” Today’s Spaniel varieties, including the Toy Spaniels, all developed from that original stock. So while it is no surprise that a Spaniel arrived on the Mayflower, exactly what that dog may have looked like is anybody’s guess.

Two Spaniels from “Cassell’s Book of the Dog,” 1881.

The first mention of the canines in “Mourt’s Relation” is found during the recounting of the last few weeks of 1620, when a group of the men went out to explore the surrounding area. They came upon “two houses which had been lately dwelt in, but the people were gone.” They found all sorts of dishes and baskets, as well as “two or three deers’ heads, one whereof had been newly killed.” Many other items, including pieces of fish, seeds and tobacco, were found. Nearby, “There was thrust into a hollow tree two or three pieces of venison, but we thought it fitter for the dogs than for us.” They took some things away with them, “and left the houses standing still as they were.”

The journal then recounts January 12, 1621, when John Goodman and a Peter Browning set out with two other men to cut thatch for roofing on the houses the Pilgrims were constructing. Around noon, Goodman and Browning instructed the other men to bind up the thatch that had been cut, while they went on ahead. The two men were to follow when they had finished their task. However, when the men moved on, they couldn’t find Goodman, Browning or the dogs. After a time they went back to the village and gathered a small search party, but were unable to find them.

The following day a dozen men gathered to search once more, again without success. Finally, late that afternoon, Goodman and Browning stumbled into the village, cold and hungry, where they told the story of becoming lost in the woods. “So going a little off they find a lake of water, and 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 two men, who were “slenderly appareled and had no weapons…nor any victuals,” and the pair of dogs wandered all afternoon and into the bitterly cold and snowy night. When dark drew around them “in frost and snow,” they “were forced to make the earth their bed.” But it was not just the cold that they feared; “they heard…two lions roaring exceedingly for a long time together, and a third, that they thought was very near them.” They took refuge at the base of a tree so that, should the lions appear, they could climb up, out of danger. “The bitch they were fain to hold by the neck, for she would have been gone to the lion…but…the wild beasts came not.” Although the journal doesn’t say which of the two dogs wanted to go after the lions, a later story of Goodman and the spaniel encountering wolves leads one to believe that it was the fearless Mastiff, no doubt with hunting in her blood, who had to be held that night.

“Mr. Nichol’s Mastiff ‘Victor Hugo,’” c. 1886, depicts a dog of the type that may have accompanied the Pilgrims who landed in New England in 1620.

The next afternoon, after wandering a long distance, the weary foursome saw their home from a high hill, and they were heartily welcomed back, as their compatriots had feared they might never return. Goodman’s feet were so cold and frostbitten that he had to have his shoes cut from his feet.

The “little spaniel” is mentioned again on January 19, when he and Goodman encountered “two great wolves” that “ran after the dog,” prompting it to run to its master and take refuge “betwixt his legs.” The wolves continued to threaten the pair, until they were eventually chased away.

No further reference to the dogs is found in the remainder of “Mourt’s Relation.” John Goodman died in the winter of 1621, and no mention is made of what happened to his dogs, but no doubt other settlers looked after them after their master passed away. They likely figured into the lives of the Pilgrims in much the same way dogs had across the ocean, as protectors, hunters and companions. We, of course, have no way of knowing whether any of our modern dogs trace back to those two early canines, but dog lovers will be satisfied to know that, as we do today, the Pilgrims had dogs to help make their lives complete.

Originally published 2012