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Pull up a mental image of the first Thanksgiving.
Maybe you envision smiling Pilgrims sitting peacefully alongside their new native friends—a table covered in gourds, a large golden brown turkey, and of course, an overflowing cornucopia of harvest fruit. There are smiles all around as everyone gives thanks for the bountiful harvest and successful hunt. Maybe your vision looks a little bit like this:
Maybe you point out that the Wampanoag people might not have been invited to the feast after all—or that turkey probably wasn’t even the main dish. Most likely, it was deer and waterfowl. But what else is missing from that picture?
Tell me, who is more obsessed with Thanksgiving festivities (at least when they involve turkey), than cats? Surely there would be a couple of felines eyeing up the table with longing. Now I’m wondering… were there any cats at the first Thanksgiving feast?
Let’s go all the way back to cats’ domestication.
We believe that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt (4,000-12,000 years ago) after people realized they needed an ally to protect their grain stores—cats are the perfect grain-guardians. As obligate carnivores, they had no interest in the grain but were designed to kill the mice and rats which wreaked havoc on the grain. Yeah… cats weren’t made to eat cereal.
This symbiotic relationship between cats and humans continues even to the present day. A barn cat’s main job is pest control.
Now imagine you’re an ancient Egyptian setting out on a boat trip. All is well… except your boat is infested with vermin. Taking your cat along on the trip probably didn’t sound like a bad idea.
By the time the Mayflower set sail in 1620, most ships had a cat or two on board.
Ship cats make sense. If rats and mice are left unchecked on a ship, they could get into food stores, chew the rigging, and spread disease. The practice of keeping cats on board ships was an everyday occurrence, so it’s likely that no one would have thought it important enough to mention.
We don’t know exactly how many, or what species of animals were on the Mayflower.
Unfortunately for us, not all of the animals on the Mayflower were documented. There was definitely uncounted livestock aboard the ship. By 1623, there were reportedly six goats, fifty pigs, and many chickens living in Plymouth.
The most famous animals on the Mayflower were an English spaniel and mastiff who made the voyage with their master, John Goodman.
These two dogs made several appearances in the journal, published as Mourt’s Relation, written by William Bradford and Edward Winslow.
You may have noticed that the spaniel was featured in the painting, The First Thanksgiving 1621, above!
There was probably a calico cat who made the voyage.
According to domestic shorthair breeder and past CFA (Cat Fancier’s Association) judge, Kay Mcquillen, her family bible may hold evidence confirming that cats settled in America with the Pilgrims. The family bible references a calico cat who traveled on the Mayflower and birthed a litter of kittens shortly after landing at Plymouth. This would mean there were at least two cats on the ship—the calico and a tomcat.
During the year that passed between the landing and the first Thanksgiving, that number would have multiplied.
While the 420,000 kittens in 7 years figure is an inaccurate exaggeration meant to fire up spay and neuter activists, it’s true that one female cat can equate to a lot of kittens. By the end of the first year, there were probably more than a few cats hanging around the settlement at Plymouth.
Cats were confirmed members of the New England population by 1634.
Once again, cats swept in as heroic exterminators and saved the humans. An early reference to the cats of the New World can be found in William Wood’s book, New Englands Prospect, a descriptive and illuminating book first published in 1634—only 14 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
Squirrels terrorized farmers attempting to grow corn—until they loosed their cats into the fields.
It’s a nightmare for the modern speller, but here’s a paragraph straight from the book:
“The Squerrells be of three sorts, first the great gray Squerrell, which is almost as bigge as an English Rabbet; of these there be the greatest plenty, one may kill a dozen of them in an afternoone, about three of the clocke they begin to walke. The second is a small Squerrell, not unlike the English Squerrell, which doth much trouble the planters of Corne, so that they are constrained to set divers Trappes, and to carry their Cats into the Corne fields, till their corne be three weekes old.” – William Wood, New Englands Prospect, 1634
Thanks again, cats.
So yes, there were probably hungry cats hanging around the table waiting for turkey scraps.
Now you’d better give thanks for your cat and hand over the turkey. (Just no seasoned gravy or cooked bones.)