Dogs were initially held in poor esteem by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) when he was a young man. In an era when most landowners kept livestock that were important in commerce, dogs were kept for
hunting or herding and were probably fed erratically. Communities often viewed them as a menace because they helped themselves to sheep and goats and whatever else they could bring down for a meal.
When merino sheep were imported to the United States from Spain starting in 1809, the wool went for a high price. As a result, some counties established dog ordinances. Others taxed dog owners—the more dogs owned, the higher the tax.
Jefferson was on the landowners’ side in this issue. However, Jefferson was to experience a change of heart. Here’s how it happened.
Jefferson’s Dog: Change of Heart
While serving as minister to France from 1784-1789, Thomas Jefferson became aware of the writings of Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), whom he described as having been the “best informed Naturalist who has ever written.” The French naturalist, mathematician, and author wrote that the finest dog he knew was the chien bergere de Brie (Briard sheepdog) because of its intelligence and fine character. According to de Buffon, the dog was “instinctively prone to industry.”
This description of a dog caught Jefferson’s attention. The future president always relished having the best examples of anything from the natural world.
Jefferson’s Dog Search
Jefferson was soon to return to the United States, but he became determined that he was going to take home with him a dog belonging to this fine breed. (The Briard and is a muscular, rugged dog that stands 22-27 inches. The breed is a happy herder, nimble and quick. The dog’s coat is long, and it can be gray, tawny, or black. They are most notable for their “peek-a-boo” bangs from under which their eyes peek out.)
A terrible rainstorm hit the countryside the weekend that Jefferson
planned to search for the dog. Jefferson braved the rain and visited several communities, finally selected the dog he wanted to bring back to begin an American line of this fine breed.
He wrote in his memorandum book of the Briard he had chosen: “pd. For a chienne bergere big with pup, 36 Libre (equivalent to $6) and gave a gratuity to the person who delivered him.”
Buzzy Comes to the U.S.
He called the dog Buzzy, and Buzzy gave birth to two pups during the ocean voyage on board The Clermont, so Jefferson arrived in the United States with not one but three French sheepdogs. This was the beginning of what is now known as the Briard Bergere line in the United States.
At Monticello, the dogs were put to work herding sheep, and Jefferson was delighted. Shortly after Jefferson’s return, Lafayette sent Jefferson another pair so Jefferson began his “careful multiplication of the immigrants…” Dogs he described as “the most careful, intelligent dogs in the world.”
Word about the wonder of the breed spread throughout Virginia, and friends began coming to request puppies when new dogs were born. True to his nature, Jefferson selected the dogs for each home with care—always sending out well-chosen pairs so the breeding could continue.
The Monticello dogs remained outdoor, working dogs as most dogs
at that time would have been. The one exception Jefferson seems to have made was when his grandchildren were staying with him for a short time. Two-year-old Thomas Jefferson Randolph was terribly afraid of dogs, so Jefferson—in a very grandfatherly fashion–brought one of the puppies into the house so that the child could become accustomed to being around an animal.
Jefferson’s Beloved Pet, A Mockingbird
Mockingbirds were Thomas Jefferson’s pet of choice.
In 1792 when Monticello was still under construction, Jefferson
purchased his first mockingbird from one of the slaves belonging to his father-in-law. He loved the birds’ songs and their ability to mimic what they heard, and he went on to acquire several of them.
His favorite, however, was a mockingbird he named Dick. Author and Jefferson friend, Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1884), wrote in 1806 of the President’s fondness for the bird, noting that he loved their “melodious powers, uncommon intelligence, and affectionate disposition.”
Dick was with him at most times of the day. He kept the cage suspending in a window recess among roses and geraniums, but when Jefferson was at home and in his office, he would let the bird fly free. Dick would alight on the desk, singing as Jefferson worked, or he would perch on his shoulder as if overseeing what was going on.
When Jefferson went upstairs for a nap, Dick was said to hop up the stairs after him and sit on the couch and sing.
At the time Jefferson lived at Monticello there were no wild mockingbirds. Twenty years after Jefferson’s death, the birds began to populate the woods in the area. Today the song of mockingbirds can still be heard in the woods around Monticello.