You will always be lucky if you know how to make friends with strange cats.
- Colonial American proverb (according to the Internet)
A cat joins in on re-enacting domestic life in
colonial times. Detail from the photo “Colonial
Houses—Three Chums,” 31 May 1913.
Photographer: Wallace Nutting (1861-1941).
Via Library of Congress Prints and
So far, old SoLT has not come up with much.
The Mayflower II, on which Felix the kitten sailed to
America in 1957. By Paul Keleher ("Mayflower II"
on flickr) [CC-BY-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons.
Cats as PilgrimsLet us begin at the beginning; that is, with the Mayflower. We know there were some dogs on the Mayflower (mentioned in Pilgrim accounts), and it is said that at least one cat journeyed with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, though old SoLT has yet to track down an actual source for this information. Many writers say things like “There is evidence that…” or “Records indicate that” there were one or more cats on the Mayflower, but none of them indicate what evidence or which records they are referring to. We do know that in 1957, a black-and-white kitten named Felix sailed on the Mayflower II as it journeyed from Brixham, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Mayflower II is a full-scale reproduction of the original ship, though we do not think Felix was a full-scale reproduction of the original ship’s cat.
Cats as Squirrel-Chasers
Whatever ship(s) they sailed on, colonial cats were a help to their humans. In New England’s Prospect (1634), William Wood wrote of the squirrels “which doth much trouble the planters of Corne, so that they are con strained to set divers Trappes, and to carry their Cats into the Corne fields, till their corne be three weekes old ” (p. 25). Presumably, 17th-century cats were just as interested in squirrels as 21st-century cats are.
Cats as ... Food?Sometimes, though, when the human settlers had a thin time, their cats did not fare so well. During the starving time (1609-10) in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, settlers were already suffering through a food shortage and drought when the Powhatan Indians laid siege to the colony. The desperate settlers first ate their horses, then their dogs and cats. (They also ate rats, mice, snakes, and in at least one instance, each other.)
We will continue to research the topic of cats in colonial America, and we hope to have more information for you soon. In the meantime, if any of you readers have information to share, please let us know!
“Felix the Mayflower II Kitten.” Plimouth Plantation website, http://www.plimoth.org/what-see-do/mayflower-ii/journey-mayflower/felix.
Neely, Paula. “Jamestown Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism.” National Geographic News. May 1, 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130501-jamestown-cannibalism-archeology-science/#.
Wood, William. New England’s Prospect. 1634. Reprinted for the Prince Society, Boston, 1865. Available on Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=ZWoFAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.