Where’s the Goat?
Why weren't goats included on the Mayflower's journey?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
With Thanksgiving upon us, all thoughts turn to food. Our own fare traditionally involves turkey, potatoes, squash, cranberry sauces, and other fixings, but it remains only a tiny portion of the original Thanksgiving feast. Evidence remains that there were more than 120 people at the first Thanksgiving and that their fare consisted of not just turkey but other poultry, including ducks, geese, and swans. In addition, documents remain that they brought five deer for the meals, and probably fish and shellfish as well. This, of course, is on top of the mounds of fruits and vegetables we usually associate with the meal.
Yet, there is a notable lack in this massive spread for those familiar with historical seafaring — the goat.
Despite first being domesticated in the Middle East, the goat was a favorite of sailors because of its hardy nature. They were carried on ships to provide the crew with milk, meat, and fur and survive on the food scraps and waste from the sailor’s other meals.
In addition, goats could survive almost anywhere. Because of this, European sailors — most famously the Spanish — would drop goats off on the uninhabited islands they passed for the benefit of future trips. The goats often survived, thanks to the lack of natural predators. By the time the next expedition came around, the island was often full of goats, providing a handy food source for hungry sailors looking for fresh meat or milk.
Unfortunately, many of these “drop-off” trips went undocumented. So, while we know they happened, it is difficult to say exactly which trip dropped which goats off on which island and when. The San Clemente Island goat, for instance, was long thought to be just another colony of Spanish goats. However, genetic testing determined they were a completely different breed altogether.
Exactly when explorers brought goats to the mainland of the Americas is a matter of debate. While some sources report the Spanish bringing goats to the New World in the 1500s, others state Columbus would have traveled with them in the 1490s due to their popularity as an available meat source. Indeed, documents show that Columbus emphasized livestock care after landing in the Americas, even requesting that the search for gold be limited to make sure the livestock were cared for and reproduced.
So, if goats were such familiar passengers on these trips, why did the Mayflower not have them on board? Certainly, their presence would have made a tremendous difference to the passengers of the Mayflower. With the additional food resources, their plight might not have been so dire as it became. More than half the passengers died on the trip, and many of those were due to malnutrition.
The initial thought might be that there wasn’t room. After all, initially, the refugees left on two ships and were forced to consolidate when The Speedwell developed a leak. However, there are still records of the provisions take on the trip, and live animals are not included. Instead, the ship carried dried beef, salt pork, bacon, and fish. Therefore, we know there were no goats on the ship when it first left the harbor, so the lack wasn’t due to the loss of the second ship.
Instead, the lack of goats on the ship may have been due to a completely unrelated social issue — goats were considered uncool in Britain.
While goats were valued throughout much of Europe, in Britain, it was a different story. The popularity of the goat declined after the Middle Ages, though the reason does not seem well documented. Societal status fads certainly seem to have played a part based on the evidence available. Sheep raising was on the rise, which may have been partially responsible for goats’ demise. However, in most cultures, the lower classes still valued goats for their ability to survive anywhere and on forage that would have killed a sheep. Yet, here too, the goat was abandoned.
In the late 1800s the Enclosure Acts began to appear in British law. These laws took public land, made it private, and banned people who had used the common space for their livestock for generations. The laws were formed over decades, but their enactment was the final nail in the coffin for the goat in Britain. They became so rare that in some parts only a few escaped goats — now feral — remained.
This decline in the use of goats may be a coincidence to the lack of them on the Mayflower. After all, there is at least one other recorded case of a British captain leaving goats on an island after the Mayflower set sail. Captain James Cook is so famous for his official Ship Goat that books have been written about it! However, the lack of availability of goats may have played a part, even if it was not a distaste on the part of the passengers.
Whatever the true story, it is interesting to wonder what might have been the outcome of their trip — and how history might have changed — with a couple of dozen extra four-legged passengers on the Mayflower’s journey.
This, of course, is just a theory. Since information is so scarce on the areas in history that “everybody knew,” it is hard to determine why the travelers made the choices they made. Also, we are goat lovers rather than anthropologists, so we invite any of our readers who know better to let us know! We especially would be interested in books on goat history during this period that we may have missed! You can write to us at email@example.com.
Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.