George Washington and the French Hunting Hound

George Washington had a lifelong fondness for dogs — even unruly ones.

Posted Jul 04, 2018

Sapeck95 - Creative Commons License
Source: Sapeck95 - Creative Commons License

It is not widely known that George Washington, first president of the United States and commanding general of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, had a deep fondness for dogs. His major interest was in foxhounds since he was an avid fox hunter and would try to set aside time to go foxhunting every week — sometimes even during the war. However he did much more than simply hunt with his foxhounds. As a farmer he knew the basics of animal breeding and husbandry and he used that knowledge to systematically breed his dogs in the hopes of creating the ultimate foxhound. His diaries show how his breeding efforts led to a line of dogs that he called "Virginia Hounds" which he was very proud of. In the end his breeding experiments would gradually change these dogs into the elegant and hard-working American Foxhound. (Click here for more about that.)

When I was researching Washington's relationship to dogs, I visited his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. I had arranged an appointment with a representative of the Mount Vernon Ladies Historical Society which stepped in to purchase and preserve that historical site when it fell into disrepair in the 1800's. Since then, the society has been collecting a lot of rare material and documents associated with Washington's life. Some of the materials that I got to see revealed some insights into Washington's passion for dogs and some unexpected aspects of his personality.

One particular story that caught my attention began while the American Revolution was still being fought. During the difficult winter of 1777 in Valley Forge, Washington developed a professional and personal relationship with Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, the French general and political leader who is known to Americans simply as Lafayette. He was from a distinguished and wealthy French family and while quite young, he chose a military career. Captivated by the democratic ideals of the American Revolution, he joined Washington’s army and was appointed a major general. He would later return to France to negotiate for his country’s aid for the revolution. Once more back in America he later distinguished himself in the Yorktown campaign where Cornwallis surrendered and the British were forced to finally accept American independence.

Lafayette and Washington had a warm friendship. Washington would say of the Marquis, “I do not know a more noble soul,” and would note that he loved him as a son. At the close of the war, Washington retired to Mount Vernon to continue his agricultural work, to engage in Virginia politics and to fulfill his dream of creating “a superior dog, one that had speed, scent and brains.”

Washington had decided that his Virginia Hounds were too lightly built and lacking in the strength for a long sustained hunt. In addition, they were too easily distracted from the trail of the fox by other things; he complained that his dogs were “forever sustaining loss in my stock of sheep.” Lafayette had frequently praised the French Staghounds for their stamina and focus when on the trail of a quarry. So Washington began a long correspondence with his old comrade-in-arms to try to obtain a few of these dogs as breeding stock. In 1785 the Marquis wrote “French hounds are not now very easily got because the King makes use of English dogs as being more swift than those of Normandy.” However, Lafayette continued searching and eventually did manage to find seven large French hounds that he promptly sent off to America.

John Quincy Adams, who would become the sixth president, was given the task of escorting these dogs to Mount Vernon. Adams, however, had little love or enthusiasm for the dogs, and apparently little sense of duty or responsibility either. Once reaching New York, he found that associating with the rich and powerful in the city was intoxicating. As a result, he simply abandoned the dogs to the care of the shipping company. Washington, for a while, thought that the dogs were missing, and when he finally located them he did not have pleasant words to say about Adams. "It would have been civil in the young Gentleman to have penned me at least a note respecting the disposal of [the Foxhounds]." His concern about these dogs makes him sound like a worried pet owner whose dogs have gone astray when he notes, "The canine species in New York is friendless." This may have been because New York was then suffering from a rabies scare. There were reports of mad dogs everywhere, and any dog which was unknown or unattended was at risk of being killed on sight.

Washington had mixed feelings about these new French dogs. There were some aspects about them that he truly loved, such as their deep voices on the hunt, which he described as being “like the bells of Moscow.” On the other hand, these were very big and strong dogs, with an independent streak, which made them much harder to handle then his Virginia Hounds.

This is the source of the story which caught my interest when I was going through the historical documents. I believe that it shows not only Washington's fondness for dogs, even rambunctious and unruly dogs, but also another side of a man Americans have come to view as being staid, stodgy, and a strict moralist. The vast majority of Americans believe that Washington was an honest and unflinching patriot, but lacking in warmth or any sense of humor. However, when it came to his dogs, apparently love, humor and forgiveness were all possible from America’s most revered statesman.

This event took place at Mount Vernon, after the revolutionary war, but before Washington’s election to the presidency. It is described in a bit of correspondence written by George Washington Park Custis, who was Martha Washington’s grandson and concerns one of the original hounds sent to Washington by Lafayette. Because of their size and strength Washington kept most of these dogs fairly closely confined in the kennel area unless they were out hunting. The one exception was Washington’s favorite of the group, a huge dog named Vulcan who had the run of the house. He was so large that Martha’s grandchildren and their friends could actually ride him like a small pony. In his own words, Custis writes:

“Of the French hounds, there was one named Vulcan, and we bear him the better in reminiscence, from having often ridden bestride his ample back in the days of our juvenility. It happened that upon a large company sitting down to dinner at Mount Vernon one day, the lady of the mansion (my grandmother) discovered that the ham, the pride of every Virginia housewife’s table, was missing from its accustomed post of honor. Upon questioning Frank, the butler, this portly, and at the same time the most polite and accomplished of all butlers, observed that ‘A ham, yes, a very fine ham, had been prepared, agreeably to the Madam’s orders. But lo and behold! Who should come into the kitchen, while the savoury ham was smoking in its dish, but old Vulcan, the hound, and without more ado fastened his fangs into it.’ Although they of the kitchen had stood to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, yet Vulcan had finally triumphed, and bore off the prize, ‘Aye, cleanly, under the keeper’s nose.’ The lady by no means relished the loss of a dish which formed the pride of her table, and uttered some remarks by no means favorable to old Vulcan, or indeed to dogs in general; while the Chief [Washington] having heard the story, communicated it to his guests, and with them laughed heartily at the exploit of the staghound. The Chief observed ‘It appears that Monsieur du La Fayette has sent me neither a staghound, nor a foxhound but rather a French ham-hound!’”

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