By Ben Miller
When Europeans first began settling North America, they brought with them dogs, cats, and other standard domestic farm animals that were a necessary part of eking out an existence in the wilderness of the New World. Such animals typically served dual roles as both workers and pets—or “favorites,” according to the vernacular of the period. Yet by the early 1700s, colonists, not content with these traditional pets, began to develop a widespread fondness for adopting and taming wild animals. During this period, European visitors were stunned to observe deer, clad in gold collars and colored neck-kerchiefs, peacefully roaming village streets and wandering through houses. Squirrels, led by leashes of gold chain, were seen dutifully following their adolescent owners from place to place, and perching affectionately on their shoulders. Members of the gentile class played flutes and organs before caged, wild birds in an attempt to teach them to sing classical music. That the colonists hunted these same species in the wild should come as no surprise; Americans had long evinced a fondness for the very things they came into conflict with—for instance, adopting the arts, games, styles and methods of the Native Americans, while battling them incessantly.
According to numerous sources, squirrels were among the most desirable and entertaining pets, and, if caught young enough, easy to tame. People frequently raided squirrel nests for their young, and the babies were sold in the city markets. Their popularity is attested to by numerous period paintings which show leashed, collared squirrels perched near (or sometimes on) their young owners. As one visitor remarked in 1748, “The gray and flying squirrels are so tamed by the boys that they sit on their shoulders and follow them everywhere.” Another writer, Edward Topsell, described squirrels as “sweet sportful beasts and…very pleasant playfellows in a house,” despite their predilection for chewing up their owner’s woolen garments. Since they could easily chew their way through wood, special tin cages were developed, possessing metal bars sturdy enough to house them. When someone discovered that squirrels would run on an exercise wheel, colonial tinsmiths began making amusing cages in the forms of mills with waterwheels.
Flying squirrels were also popular with children. In 1766 the famous American painter John Singleton Copley painted a portrait of his half brother, Henry, playing with his pet flying squirrel (see above picture and detail). On Dec. 31, 1798, Philadelphia resident Elizabeth Drinker noted in her diary that her son William had “bought a flying squirrel in market, brought it home to please the children,” and added ruefully, “I should have been better pleased had it remained in the woods.” Later, in 1799, Drinker noted in another entry that
“An account in one of the late papers of a natural curiosity, I think ’tis called, to be seen in Walnut Street; a fine little bird, a beautiful flying squirrel, a rattlesnake, and other animals, are living in the most amicable terms in a neat, strong box or cage. William went yesterday to see them; the bird was hopping about, ye squirrel laying asleep in a corner; 2 or 3 frogs in the box; the snake appeared torpid, but would stir when disturbed by a stick. The torpid situation of ye snake accounts to me for their friendly living together.”
Wild songbirds such as cardinals and mockingbirds were extremely common pets, and could frequently be seen around the various city markets. Many people believed that these birds could be taught to sing a man-made tune, and some like Lord Dunmore had a small organ, called a serinette, for this purpose. Others used small flutes called flageolettes. The notion was to play a song repeatedly, and, sooner or later, the bird would imitate the music. Just how successful these experiments were is unclear. A mockingbird, at least, seems capable of repeating back a few bars; as to whether or not any birds were able to mimic entire pieces of classical music is anyone’s guess.
Some of what we know about colonial pets comes from Peter Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish explorer and naturalist who traveled through North America from 1748 thru 1751. Kalm published an account of his travels in a journal entitled En Resa til Norra America, which was translated into German, Dutch, French, and English. Kalm noted that turkeys, wild geese, pigeons and partridges were often tamed to the extent that “when they were let out in the morning they returned in the evening.” He went on to note various mammals that were tamed, and the respective quirks and problems associated with keeping them:
“Beavers have been tamed to such an extent that they have brought home what they caught by fishing to their masters. This is often the case with otters, of which I have seen some that were as tame as dogs, and followed their master wherever he went; if he went out in a boat the otter went with him, jumped into the water and after a while came up with a fish.
“The raccoon can in time be made so tame as to run about the streets like a domestic animal; but it is impossible to make it leave off its habit of stealing. In the dark it creeps to the poultry, and kills a whole flock in one night. Sugar and other sweet things must be carefully hidden; for if the chests and boxes are not always locked, it gets into them and eats the sugar with its paw. The ladies, therefore, have some complaint against it every day.
“The American deer can likewise be tamed. A farmer in New Jersey had one in his possession, which he caught when it was very young; at present, it is so tame that in the daytime it runs into the woods for its food, and towards night returns home, frequently bringing a wild deer out of the woods, giving its master an opportunity to hunt at his very door.”
The deer was an especially popular pet during the early to mid eighteenth century. A painting from 1730 in the collection of the New York Historical Society, entitled DePeyster Boy With Deer, depicts a young Manhattan boy with his collared pet deer (see above picture). A glance thru a cursory survey of newspaper advertisements from Charleston, South Carolina, illustrates the prevalence of deer-keeping during the era:
(1732) “Stray’d out of Mr. Saxby’s Pasture up the Path, two tame Deer about a Year old.
(1751) “Wanted, some Doe Fawns, or young Does, for breeders.”
(1760) “Jumped over from on board the Samuel & Robert, a young deer, with a piece of red cloth round his neck…three pounds reward.”
(1761) “The Owner of a strayed Deer may hear where there is one, applying to the Printer hereof, and paying for this Advertisement.”
(1767) “Two tame Deer, a Buck and a Doe, to be sold by Francis Nicholson, in King-street.”
(1768) “Josiah Smith, junior…is in immediate want of …a couple of Tame Deer.”
(1770) “Stolen or Strayed out of my Yard this Morning, a Young Deer, his Horns just coming out, and is stiff in his hind legs, by being crampt in the Waggen which brought him to Town…Charles Crouch.”
(1772) “Wanted to Purchase. Four Deer, each about Three Years old.”
(1772) “Wanted immediately…Two Tame Deer.”
(1781) “A Tame Deer, Came to my garden about twelve days ago. The owner, on proving his property, and paying charges, shall have it again, by applying to Elizabeth Lamb, Near the Saluting Battery.”
One noted deer owner of the period was Revolutionary War veteran Dr. Benjamin Jones. Born in Virginia in 1752, Jones eventually purchased a large tract of land in Henry County, where he built a park and “kept over a hundred deer to amuse his children and grandchildren. A little bell he used on a pet deer is owned by one of his descendants.”
By the late eighteenth century, it seems that deer-keeping was in decline in Charleston. A visitor remarked in 1782 that “the deer formerly ran about the streets, with collars round their necks, like dogs, but at this latter visit, I do not remember to have seen one.”
During the nineteenth century, Americans continued to keep deer as pets, although to a much lesser degree. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Charles Drury noted
“They [deer] are difficult to tame unless taken very young. They can then be tamed completely, and while young make amiable and interesting pets, but as they get older they become a nuisance in various ways.
“A neighbor, near my home, had one for a pet, and its favorite amusement was to sneak into the house whenever a door was left open. When an attempt was made to drive the intruder out, it had a habit of jumping through a window without the formality of a sash being raised. But this habit proved its destruction at last, as a sharp piece of broken glass penetrated its lung, causing its death.”
Certainly increased traffic and the invention of the automobile made it impractical to keep deer as village pets; nevertheless, the phenomenon still occurred in the country, and was eventually immortalized in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s classic The Yearling.
To conclude, it should be noted that despite their fondness for wild pets, the colonists were still quite attached to their (very much domesticated) dogs and cats, as evinced by a myriad of formal period portraits depicting adult owners with their pets.
Hart, Albert Bushnell. Colonial Children, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1905.
John P. Hunter, David M. Doody. Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2005.
Grier, Katherine C., Pets in America: A History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Drinker, Elizabeth Sandwith. Extracts from the journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807, A. D. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company,1889.
Pedigo, Virginia G., History of Patrick and Henry Counties, Virginia. Roanoke: Clearfield, 1933.
Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History. Vol. XXI. No. 1. Sept. 1909.
Dunbar, Gary S.. “Deer-Keeping in Early South Carolina,” Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1962), pp. 108-109