A reader posed this question to us, so we dug into the American Kennel Club archives to give the answer:
At least two dogs were aboard the Mayflower during the 66-day voyage from England to the New World. Thanks to journals kept by the Pilgrims, we know much about their early tribulations. But the historical record presents just fleeting glimpses of the Mastiff and small spaniel who shared those hardships, including the brutal winter that killed half the Pilgrim population.
We don’t know the dogs’ names. And it’s never stated why they were brought along, though we can safely assume it was to perform the traditional tasks of their breeds.
The Mastiff would have served as protection from unfriendly tribes and wild animals. (One journal reports that the Mastiff had to be restrained from charging two wolves.) The spaniel was most likely used for hunting game birds.
In modern accounts, the smaller dog is often referred to as an English Springer Spaniel. This, of course, is an anachronism. The Pilgrims lived 253 years before the founding of The Kennel Club (England), with its careful classification of Britain’s many sporting breeds. In the 1600s, all land spaniels were considered pretty much the same. In fact, Cockers and Springers were appearing together in the same litters until fairly recently.
So if you are giving thanks for your dog as you sit down to enjoy your feast, you have something in common with the 50 surviving Pilgrims who in November 1621 sat down with members of the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. No doubt their long, hard year at Plymouth Colony was made just a bit more bearable by canine companionship.