Friday, November 18, 2011

The Dogs of the Conquistadors

Reading Dogs of the Conquest by John and Jeannette Varner reminded me of reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee almost forty years ago. After a while you just want it to stop. Every page in the Varners' book has a horror. Just one example:

“A letter of protest, dated June 4, 1516, from fourteen Dominican priests of Hispaniola [the island that now contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic] to a royal counselor related … how on one occasion some Christians [Spanish soldiers on the island] came across an Indian woman with a nursing child in her arms. Since their dog was hungry, they seized the child and tossed it to the dog, which tore it to pieces in the presence of the mother.”

One can find histories of the conquistadors with scant mention of the dogs they brought and bred in the New World. The Varners have brought the horrors perpetrated with the dogs into the light, just as Dee Brown made us see that settling of the West was also a genocide.

Dogs in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century European Warfare

Large numbers of dogs were used in warfare from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Before the age of exploration, the Spanish Christians had used dogs against the Moors (Varner & Varner, p. xvi). King Henry VIII was said to have sent hundreds of war dogs to the Emperor Charles V of Spain in a war with France, “each garnished with good yron collars” (Lloyd 1948, Weir 2002, p. 33).

An entry in the English State Papers of Elizabeth's reign for January 1599 includes a letter stating that "Essex's commission for Ireland is agreed on after many difficulties, but not signed. He is called Lieutenant, may return at pleasure, make barons, dispose of lands won from the rebels, &c.; he akes great provision for horses, and many are presented him.  They talk of taking over 200 or 300 mastiffs, to worry the Irish or rather their cattle."  An entry in the State Papers for April 29, 1598, but probably correctly 1599, states that the Earl of Essex left for Ireland with "12,000 men and 3,000 mastiff dogs" to deal with the Irish insurrection. This information may have been obtained from two captives of the Spanish.  Lloyd (p. 179) questions the historicity of this report. Taking 3,000 dogs would have been a massive undertaking.  It is possible that the captives were exaggerating, if not totally fabricating, knowing that the Spanish were accustomed to the use of war dogs and would find such numbers, if believed, quite discouraging.  

Jaques du Fouilloux, some of whose plates of hunting scenes have been reproduced in a prior blog, depicted an ancient voyage to Brittany by hunters who fled the flames of Troy, but instead of settling in Rome had gone to Bretaigne (Brittany), believing there would be good hunting there. This is the first plate above. As was true of Renaissance depictions of antiquity, the ships and clothing were contemporary, not ancient, and it is quite possible that du Fouilloux had seen Spanish, English, or French ships with war dogs pacing the decks.

War Dogs in the New World

Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco, brought as many as a thousand dogs with him in an expedition begun in Peru in 1541. This may be the largest assembly of attack dogs in history, but the Spanish had dogs they could use in battle against the natives as early as the second voyage of Columbus (Varner and Varner, p. 4, Coren, p. 74), who had brought Spanish war dogs to Hispaniola in 1493. Columbus used a dog in dispersing a hostile group of Indians that came to stop his landing in Jamaica in 1494. He used 20 dogs at the Battle of Vega Real in 1495, as shown in the plate from Herrera. (Only four dogs are visible, apparently an artistic limitation.) By 1509, dogs running loose on Hispaniola were so numerous that they were killing livestock and themselves began to be hunted.

The Historia General of the Spanish historian, Antonia de Herrera y Tordesillas (1601-15), may contain the most detailed images of dogs in battles between the Spanish and the Indians. The next plate from the cover of the first volume of the Historia General shows another scene in which the dogs are being sent ahead of the Spanish forces. One dog is still held by a leash, but the others have been loosed and are running simultaneously with the cavalry, perhaps in part to make it difficult for the Indians to choose a target. The dogs are not shown as armored in any of the scenes in Herrera's work, but this is generally the case in contemporary depictions of the conquistadors. The final plate from Herrera shows the dogs still on leashes at the center of the Spanish line, with cannons on the outside. The timing of their release was clearly timed for maximum effect both in terms of defensive value to the men and to add to the terror just before the contact of the front lines.

Why did the use of attack dogs reach its zenith in the New World? War dogs had been taught to attack the enemy since antiquity, but the numbers brought to and then bred in the New World far exceed what is known about any other military use of attack dogs. Why was it worth the while of the Spanish invaders to bring dogs for their explorations and subjugations? The answer probably lies in the fact that the Indians dressed differently from the Spanish, had different diets, different skin color, and at least initially a heart-stopping awe of the huge mastiff-like animals the Spaniards used against them. (Dogs were widely known in the New World, but those preferred by most Meso- and South American Indians were small dogs, such as the beautiful plate of an Aztec dog from the 16th century Florentine Codex of Friar Bernardino de Sahagún.)

The contrast between the people who used the dogs and those against whom they were used differed from most European wars going back to antiquity where the armies dressed alike, had the same diets and skin color, and became indistinguishable in the field of battle. Like the elephants used by Hannibal and some Macedonian generals, dogs brought the risk that they could turn against those who employed them. That risk was minimal in the Americas and the advantage this provided was realized not just by the Spanish, but also by the Portuguese, French, English, and finally, during the period of slavery, the Americans.

The dogs were not always rewarded for their service. The same dogs that made the expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro so formidable gave up their lives when his army, facing starvation, ate all but two of them. (Markham, p. 17)

Care and Training

The dogs were of the late medieval hunting types—mastiffs, alaunts, and greyhounds—in Spanish, mastíns, alanos, and lebrels. (For detailed descriptions of hunting dogs of the period, see Cummins 1988.) Varner and Varner (p. 36) note that even that dogs identified by the conquistadors as belonging to one group might well have had blood of others. Although greyhounds were often kept separate from other hunting animals in European castle life, it is not clear if such an effort was made in the New World. An Indian revolutionary known as Enrique, who was baptized by Spanish priests on Hispaniola but rebelled against his Spanish lords in 1519, was said to have kept dogs for hunting isolated and under the care of only two or three families. This might reflect an early Spanish practice of isolating dogs from natives so that they would not become friendly to those whose scent they were trained to track and attack. (Helps, vol. III, p. 106)

Aldrovandus (1522-1605) describes the training of war dogs as prescribed by Blondus:

“The dog ought to be trained up to fight from his earliest years. Accordingly some man or other is fitted out with a coat of thick skin [pelle densa], which the dog will not be able to bite through [quam canis lacerare nequeat], as a sort of dummy: the dog is then spurred on against this man, upon which the man in the skin runs away and then allows himself to be caught and, falling down on the ground in front of the dog, to be bitten [morderi patiatur]. The day following he ought to be pitted against another man protected in the same manner, and at the finish he can be trained to follow any person upon whose tracks he has been placed [super cuius vestigiis collocabitur]. After the fight the dog should be tied up, and fed while tied up, until at the finish he turns out a first-class defender of human being. Blondus is even of the opinion that from time to time it is a good thing to go for this dog with drawn swords [strictis mucronibus]; in this way, he thinks, the dog will develop his spirit and courage to the utmost; and then of course you can lead him against real enemies. And Blondus adds that such dogs are frequently to be met with in Spain of the present day [in multis Hispaniae locis hodie habentur].

Aldrovandus even says that a relative of his, a senator from Bologna, had such a trained dog for his defense. Since Aldrovondus was citing Flavius Blondus (1392-1453) for this training regimen, he could not have been describing the use of dogs in the New World. Although referring to this training as being for defensive purposes, the dogs could be used in attack situations and Blondus may have been describing dogs that were used against the Moors.

Dogs in Expeditions

In 1509, Alonso de Ojeda left Santo Domingo for Carthagena, with horses and dogs. The same year Juan de Esquivel attacked Indians that had fled to the mountains of Jamaica. The dogs he brought with him were said to be “almost as destructive as his musquetry.” (Long, p. 959) In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa set out to find the “other sea,” the Pacific, with 190 men and dogs, “which were of more avail than the men.” (Helps, vol. I, p. 358) Encountering resistance from an Indian leader named Pacra, Balboa had him torn to pieces by dogs. Balboa had a dog named Leoncico supposedly able to distinguish between an “Indio de Guerra” and an “Indio de Paz.” Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, the Spanish historian, gives a detailed description of the dog:

“We must not omit to mention a dog which Balboa possessed, called Leoncico [little lion], from the dog Becerrico [little bull], of the island of St Juan, and no less famous than his parent. This dog gained his master, in this and other entries, more than 2000 pesos of gold, because he received the share of a companion, in the distribution of gold and slaves. And truly the dog deserved it better than many sleeping partners. This dog’s instinct was wonderful; he could distinguish between the warlike or peaceful Indian; and when the Spaniards were taking or pursuing the Indians, on loosing this dog and, and saying, ‘There he is—seek him,’ he would commence the chase, and had so fine a scent, that they scarcely ever escaped him. And when he had overtaken his object, if the Indian remained quietly, he would take him by the sleeve, or hand, and lead him gently, without biting or annoying him, but if he resisted, he would tear him in pieces. Ten Christians escorted by this dog, were in more security than twenty without him. I have seen this dog, for when Pedrarias came to this territory, in the year 1514, he was still alive.... He was of a red colour, had a black nose, was of a middle size, and not handsomely formed, but stout and powerful, exhibiting many wounds, which in the course of these wars he had received from the Indians. The dog was at last maliciously poisoned. Some dogs of his race were left; but nothing equal to him has been seen in these regions.” Oviedo’s General History, book xxix, chap. 8. (Hodson translation, p. 18) The wounds were most probably from arrows, which both a man and a dog can often survive.

Evidently, the teaching of the dogs to attack involved some repeated behaviors on the parts of those attacked, so that individuals not in certain postures or acting aggressively were not part of the attack command for the dogs.

In 1513, Balboa used his dogs to tear apart 50 Indians allied with the chief Torecha in the domain of Quarequa. This event led to one of the most widely produced depictions of war dogs in the New World, Theodore de Bry’s engraving of dogs attacking defenseless and nearly naked Indians. based on the account of Bartolomé de las Casas. After that, the barking of the dogs was often enough to disperse any group inclined to oppose Balboa’s advance. (Hodson, pp. 45, 54)

The dogs were not always effective. In meeting resistance from Indians at Santa Marta, now in Colombia, in June 1514, Pedro Arias de Avila, often known as Pedrarias, the dogs failed to attack the Indians and began fighting among each other (Varner and Varner, p. 47). Although hardly consistent in their opposition, the priests sometimes recognized that the dogs made their efforts at converting the natives more difficult. Father Domingo de Betanzos believed that the noise of weapons and the barking of fierce dogs “had so stunned the Indians as to render them deaf to the Christian Faith.” (Helps, vol. III, p. 312)


Cortés landed in Mexico with dogs and other animals, as shown above in a plate from the Florentine Codex by Friar Bernardino de Sahagún. The Aztec account of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in 1519 includes a description of the dogs running ahead of the column, their muzzles high, lifted to the wind, saliva dripping from their jaws. (Broken Spears, p. 41) Moctezuma was told that the Spaniards rode deer without horns, and he received an extensive description of the dogs:

“Their dogs are enormous, with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are hollow, their flanks long and narrow. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, with their tongues hanging out. And they are spotted like an ocelot.”

An Aztec visual perspective on Cortés’s dogs can be found in a mid-16th century painting on a large cloth panel, or lienzo, referred to as the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Kranz 2007). The original lienzo is lost, but copies were made from the original, including the depiction here of soldiers marching with a dog on leash (Chavero 1892). The Aztecs were only familiar with smaller dogs (Valadez 2000).

As late as 1805, a Spanish Lieutenant, Antonio Narbona, entered the region of Arizona on a punitive expedition, with horses and dogs, an event captured in a Navajo pictograph at Standing Cow Ruin in Canyon de Chelly. Bones recovered from the area have been identified as coming from Spanish greyhounds (Dix 1980). Jett (1981) questioned whether the figures may all be of horses, displayed as smaller to give a distance perspective to the Spanish column. The smaller figures, however, appear riderless and unleashed, and the coloration could be that of Spanish dogs of the sort that in Louisiana founded the Catahoula breed. The picture of the rock art at Canyon de Chelly was taken by Cori Ryan, who maintains a website with many excellent photographs of rock art.

Note (2012). A picture of the assembly of figures contained in Thor Conway's Painted Dreams (1993) convinces me that all the figures are probably horses, though some are sufficiently eroded as to make certainty unlikely.

Peru and the Straits of Magellan

Olive trees were brought from Seville to Peru in 1560 but, as only three of 100 plants survived the journey, they were planted in a fruit garden near Lima. It was necessary to post 100 slaves and 30 dogs to guard the trees night and day. (Markham, 1864a, p. 401)

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa had dogs with him as he explored the Straits of Magellan in 1579. Gamboa’s brief narrative indicates he may not have expected his dogs to be excessively warlike:

“It was noteworthy that our dogs, and those of the natives, flew at each other until they came within four paces, when they turned round without touching, and we could never get them to attack again.” (Markham, 1895, p. 322)

After the Conquest

As the New World was subjugated, dogs began to take on less war-like responsibilities, and became pets of all members of the societies that emerged after the conquest. Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (1535 - c. 1615) wrote an illustrated chronicle, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, showing daily life in the Andes. One plate shows the author walking near Lima with his son and two dogs, named Amigo and Lautaro, both from mastiff or possibly alaunt lines. The next plate below shows an Andean hunter with a falcon and two dogs. The dog behind the hunter is likely an indigenous small dog, but the one preceding him appears to have the blood of an alaunt or mastiff, probably having mixed with an indigenous line. The final plate shows a city, perhaps with hunting dogs running in the fields before the walls. (See Adorno 2000.)

Adoption of Spanish Practices in the Americas

Even after the conquest, the Spaniards were said to use their bloodhounds to track down natives for sport, or in order to train them to catch human game. By 1638, the Dutch used dogs against the Indians. (Southey, vol. III, p. 488). During the final Maroon War, which began in 1795, the Jamaican legislature sent to Cuba for large hunting dogs to seek out and destroy the blacks in their stronghold. (Long, vol. II, p. 79) The French employed Cuban dogs in a Haitian rebellion. (Childs, p. 42)

Benjamin Franklin recommended the use of dogs during the French and Indian War. In a letter to James Read of November 2, 1755, Franklin's detailed military advice includes the following observations:

"The 50 Arms now sent are all furnish’d with Staples for Sling Straps, that if the Governor should order a Troop or Company of Rangers on Horseback, the Piece may be slung at the Horseman’s Back. If Dogs are carried out with any Party, they should be large, strong and fierce; and every Dog led in a Slip-String, to prevent their tiring themselves by running out and in, and discovering the Party by Barking at Squirrels, &c. Only when the Party come near thick Woods and suspicious Places, they should turn out a Dog or two to search them. In Case of meeting a Party of the Enemy, the Dogs are then to be all turn’d loose and set on. They will be fresher and fiercer for having been previously confin’d, and will confound the Enemy a good deal, and be very serviceable. This was the Spanish Method." (emphasis added)

After the end of the war, Pennsylvania was still dealing with Indian raids, and a Une 4, 1764, letter preserved in Franklin's correspondence from Henry Bouquet to John Penn contains the following passage:

"I can not omit to Submit to your Consideration the use that might be made of Dogs against our Savage Enemies; It would be needless to expect that our Foot Soldiers can overtake an Indian in the Woods, and their audacious attempts in attacking our Troops and settlements may, in a great Measure, be ascribed to the certainty of evading our Pursuit by their flight: a few Instances of Indians Seized and worried by Dogs, would, I presume, deter them more effectualy from a War with us, than all the Troops we could raise, and as we have not in this Country the Species of those animals, which would best answer this Purpose, I beg leave to recommend it to you, to have Fifty Couples of proper Hounds imported from Great Britain, with People who understand to train and manage them. They might be kept on the Frontiers, and a few given to Every Scouting Party, to discover the Ambushes of the Enemy, and direct the Pursuit: This requires that the men intended to follow the Dogs should be well mounted."

The success of Cuban mastiffs in the Maroon War led to a recommendation to the American War Department in 1839 that they be used against the Seminoles in Florida:

“My object in this communication is principally to show how much benefit was derived in the Maroon war from the use of dogs, and to suggest to the War Department the propriety of turning its attention to similar means of prosecution of the war in Florida. I might deduce facts from the ablest writers in Ethics and International Law, to prove that the employment of these animals against the Seminoles, who have been guily of every enormity, would violate no moral duty; and the general tendency of events during the last two hundred years, goes to show that the transgressions of our red brethren, notwithstanding the declaration of enthusiasts, has attracted upon them the displeasure of the Almighty, as did the cities of the Plain and the people of Edom in days of old.” (Homans, p. 147)

Professor Matt D. Childs of the University of South Carolina notes that in the American Civil War, “Cuban dogs aided the Confederacy in its attempt at secession by pursuing runway slaves as battlefields reached the plantation zones of the South.” (Childs, p. 42) The post-Civil War use of the same tracking dogs in finding criminals is discussed in detail in Police and Military Dogs (Chapters 3 and 5).

1. Adorno, R. (2001). Guaman Poma and His Illustrated Chronicle from Colonial Peru. Museum Tusculanum Press.
2. Aldrovandi, Ulyssis (1645). De Quadripedibus. Translation from Ash, Edward C. (1927). Dogs: Their History and Development, vol. II. Ernest Benn Ltd., London.
3. Brown, D. (1970). Bury My Hart at Wounded Knee. Rinehart & Winston, New York.
4. Chavero, A. (1892). Explicacion del Linzo de Tlaxcala. In Homenaje á Cristóbal Colón: Antigüedades mexicanas. México: Oficina Tipográfica de la Secretaría de Fomento.
5. Childs, Matt D. (2006). The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against Atlantic Slavery. University of North Carolina Press.
6. Conway, T. (1993). Painted Dreams: Native American Rock Art. NorthWord Press, Minocqua, Wisconsin.
7. Coren, S. (2002). The Pawprints of History. Free Press, New York.
8. Cummins, J. (1988). The Art of Medieval Hunting: The Hound and The Hawk. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London.
9. Dix, A.S. (1980). Spanish War Dogs in Navajo Art at Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. The Kiva, 45(4), 279; (1983). More on Spanish War Dogs in Canyon de Chelly Rock Art: A Reply to Jett. The Kiva, 48(4), 323.
10. Fontana, B.L. (2000). Pictorial Images of Spanish North America. Journal of the Southwest, 42(4).
11. Fouilloux, Jaques du (1502). La Venerie.
12. Franklin, B. Letter to James Read, Sunday, November 2, 1755. Correspondence, vol. 6. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University.
13. Helps, Arthur (1855). The Spanish Conquest of America. John W. Parker & Son, London.
14. Herrera, A. (1601-1615). Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano. Madrid.
15. Hodson, Mrs. (1832). Lives of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and Francisco Pizarro from the Spanish of Don Manuel Josef Quintana. William Blackwood, Edinburgh.
16. Homans, B. (ed.) (1839). Army and Navy Chronicle, vol. 9.
17. Jett, S.C. (1981). War Dogs in the Spanish Expedition Mural, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona? The Kiva, 46(4).
18. Kranz, T.B. (2007). Sixteenth-Century Tlaxcalan Pictorial Documents on the Conquest of Mexico. In Sources and Methods for the Study of Postconquest Mesoamerican Ethnohistory, ed. James Lockhart, Lisa Sousa, and Stephanie Wood (e-book). Eugene, Oregon: Wired.
19. Leon-Portilla, Miguel (1962). Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press, Boston.
20. Lloyd, H.S. (1948). The Dog in War. In Vesey-Fitzgerald, B. (ed.). The Book of the Dog. Nicholson and Watson, London.
21. Long, Edward (1774). The History of Jamaica. London.
22. Markham, Clements R. (1864). Expeditions into the Valley of the Amazons. The Hakluyt Society; (1895). Narratives of the Voyages of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa to the Straits of Magellan. The Hakluyt Society; (1864a). The Travels of Pedro de Cieza de Léon, A.D. 1532-50. Hakluyt Society.
23. Prescott, William H. (1843). History of the Conquest of Mexico, vol. II. Richard Bentley, London.
24. Prescott, WIliam H. (1847). History of the Conquest of Peru, vol. I. Baudry’s European Library.
25. Southey, Robert (1810). History of Brazil. London.
26. Turbervile (1576). Booke of Hunting.
27. Valadez, R. (2000). Prehispanic Dog Types in Middle America. In Dogs Through Time: An Archaeological Perspective: Proceedings of the 1st ICAZ Symposium on the History of the Domestic Dog. BAR International Series 889.
28. Varner, John G., and Varner, Jeannette J. (1983). Dogs of the Conquest. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
29. Weir, A. (2002). Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Random House Digital.

Thanks to Suzanne G. White, Richard Hawkins, and Brian Duggan for help in completing this blog. Thanks to Cori Ryan for the excellent photograph of the Arizona petroglyph.  Thanks to Professor Paul E.J. Hammer for leading me to additional sources regarding Elizabeth I's Irish War.


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