Presidential pets have long been a source of interest and delight for the American public. Dogs hold sway as a perennial favorite, but other White House pets have ranged from the unexpected (Andrew Jackson’s parrot, Poll, who allegedly had to be removed from his funeral for swearing) to the disappointingly inaccurate (John Quincy Adams did not, in fact, keep a pet alligator in a White House bathtub) to the truly diverse (Calvin and Grace Coolidge fielded a range of animals, from raccoons to wallabys to lion cubs). Was James Monroe in the ranks of presidential pet owners?
Several published works (and numerous websites) of presidential pet histories attribute two dogs to Monroe’s ownership – a spaniel who lived with them in the White House, and a Siberian husky named Sebastian.
Monroe’s surviving correspondence is notoriously sparse for its commentary on matters of a personal nature, and this dearth extends to references to any four-legged members of his household. In fact, of the two explicit references to dogs in the documentary record, neither actually come from Monroe himself.
The first mention of a dog in relation to the Monroes occurs in 1807. James and Elizabeth, along with their daughters, 21-year-old Eliza and 5-year-old Maria, had only just returned from a four-year diplomatic posting overseas, during which time Monroe had served as a special envoy to France, with additional assignments to Madrid and London. The family was traveling from Portsmouth to Richmond and stopped in Williamsburg to visit long-time friends St. George and Leila Tucker. During that visit, Maria Monroe and her pet spaniel proved to be particularly memorable:
“Your mama referred you to me for an account of little Maria Monroe…She had a small Spaniel dog, with whom she was continually engaged in at trial of skill, & the general opinion seemed to be that she turned & twisted about more than the Spaniel. At intervals when she had tired the dog, she was bestriding first her Mama’s, then her sister’s, then her Papa’s knees, then again the Spaniel.” Leila and St. George Tucker to Frances Bland (Tucker) Coalter, 18 December 1807 (College of William & Mary, Special Collections: Brown, Tucker, Coalter Papers, as cited in the Papers of James Monroe, 5: 668)
The Tuckers’ letter offers no additional information about the spaniel, including the breed, its name, or how it was acquired, and it is never mentioned in the Monroes’ household correspondence. Monroe’s presidency did not begin for another 10 years, and there is no documentary evidence suggesting that this dog (or any other) resided in the White House with them.
The second reference comes from the Marquis de Lafayette, whose deep and affectionate friendship with Monroe began during their service together as teenagers during the American Revolution. In 1826, Monroe had written to Lafayette, explaining his plans to expand his stock of sheep and asking if Lafayette “…would send me out, a dog, to attend the person, chargd with them.” (JM to Lafayette, 30 May 1826, New York Public Library: Monroe Papers). Lafayette obliged, immediately providing a “…couple of Shepard’s dogs, chien de Brie” for use at Monroe’s Leesburg farm, Oak Hill (Lafayette to JM, 28 November 1826, New York Public Library: Monroe Papers). Chien de brie, sheep herding dogs originally from the French region of Brie, are now generally associated with the modern Briards (Oxford English Dictionary). Lafayette had previously sent a pair of sheepdogs to Thomas Jefferson in 1809, at a time when the wool industry was gaining significant ground in America (Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia: Dogs). The consideration of dogs almost exclusively for their practical purpose, rather than for a specific breed or role as companions, reflects a view of pets more prevalent in the 18th century, as explored by historian Ingrid Tague in her work Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in the Eighteenth Century Britain.
The identification of Monroe owning a Siberian husky is nowhere in the documentary record, and not in keeping with the breed’s 20th-century introduction to the United States.
Monroe did not discuss dogs in his personal correspondence except to request a sheep dog from Lafayette. The record of a Spaniel in the Monroe household is not in question, although its presence in the White House is doubtful. Specifics of its breed or name are not given in the single reference to it. The original source of the misattribution of a Siberian husky cannot be identified at this time and no evidence of it exists in the documentary record. The use of herding dogs, specifically a Briard, is entirely in keeping with the needs of a working farm such as Oak Hill.
- Ben Franklin’s World podcast: Pets in Early America (with Ingrid Tague)
- Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth Century Britain (Ingrid Tague)
- Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia: Dogs
- Mount Vernon, Washington Library, Digital Encyclopedia: Dogs
- George Washington: Soldier, Statesman, Dog Lover
- Briard History: How the French Shepherd Dog Won Over Thomas Jefferson
Great job on the research, Heidi ! It’s interesting to see how the portrayal of presidential pets has changed over time and how some myths about them have emerged. Your article does a great job of debunking some of these myths and providing a more accurate picture of the pets that Monroe owned. It’s always fascinating to learn about the personal lives of historical figures, and pets can be a great way to do that. Keep up the excellent work!