All the President’s Pets

Lara the Dog
The president’s dog, Lara, as seen in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 1857.

Many readers of this blog are familiar with President Buchanan’s Newfoundland dog, Lara. Lara was a well-known presence at Wheatland, usually found sleeping with “one eye shut, the other half open,” never far from the president’s side. Like many presidential pups, Lara was a canine celebrity in her time. She was one of the few dogs in history to have her portrait published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and she garnered public attention for her large size (she reportedly weighed 170 pounds!) and the rarity of her breed. But, Lara was not the only pet who resided at Wheatland. President Buchanan was the reluctant master of quite a few fluffy and feathered friends.

Although Lara was undoubtedly “top dog,” she was not the only dog to call Wheatland home. President Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane, also had a dog. In sharp contrast to Lara’s imposing presence, Harriet’s dog was small enough to fit under a punch bowl. Fittingly, this tiny toy terrier was named Punch. Punch was a gift to Harriet from the U.S. Consul residing in South Hampton, England, where English toy terriers were a common pet for fashionable women. Punch was a delight to many White House visitors, who marveled at his tiny size, which would have been especially striking next to the enormous Lara.

English toy terrierHarriet’s Punch might have resembled the English toy terrier (“Black and Tan”), illustrated here with Paisley terriers.
(Source: English Toy Terrier Society)

Harriet brought Punch back to Wheatland when their time in Washington concluded. In an 1865 letter from Mr. Buchanan to Harriet, we learn that Punch remained at Wheatland even while Harriet traveled to visit friends, much to the annoyance of her uncle. In a letter home, Harriet inquired of Punch’s well-being, prompting her uncle to reply, “Among your numerous friends you ask only for Punch, and this is in the postscript, which is said to contain the essence of a lady’s letter. He is a companion which I shun as much as possible, not being at all to my liking. I believe, however, his health is in satisfactory condition.”

The pets of Wheatland weren’t all of the four-legged variety. Like many Victorian parlors, Wheatland’s fashionable parlor contained a pair of canaries in a delicate cage. Canaries were the “pet of the parlor,” and many stylish households of the era would have had them. We know the name of one of Buchanan’s canaries, Dick. Sadly, we know this because Dick the Canary met a tragic end, likely falling victim to one of the owls on the Wheatland property. You can read more about “The Tragic Tale of Dick the Canary” here.

Sierra Nevada Eagles
These rare eagles had their portrait in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 1857.

Wheatland was also home to some rather alarming “pets” – a pair of large bald eagles. During Buchanan’s time as Secretary of State under President Polk, the United States expanded west, annexing Texas, acquiring the Oregon Territory, and acquiring California and much of the present-day Southwest as part of the treaty ending the Mexican-American War. Because of Buchanan’s visible role in westward expansion, some western expansionists admired Buchanan. He had at least one friend in California who sent him a lavish gift – a pair of eagles from the Sierra Nevada region. What does one do with a pair of eagles as pets? Buchanan apparently decided to keep them in his backyard, “walking in stately dignity over the grounds of Wheatland,” as his biographer Philip Klein puts it. When Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper visited Wheatland in 1856, they reported, “These birds of Jove, as if conscious that they nestled beneath the eye of the Chief Magistrate of the Great Republic, seem to plume themselves on their associations, and although apparently as free as when at home on the Sierra Nevada, show no disposition to wing their flight from Wheatland.”

James Buchanan’s motley crew doesn’t come close to topping the menagerie of pets accumulated by some presidents (Teddy Roosevelt’s family had quite the little zoo, and it’s hard to compete with the grizzly bear cubs owned by Jefferson), but it is impressive nonetheless. I, for one, am just grateful that President Buchanan left office before he received the letter from the King of Siam offering a herd of elephants! That particular problem, among others, was left to Mr. Lincoln.

This is an entry from History from the House:

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. Guest contributor Stephanie Townrow, LancasterHistory’s Director of Education and Public Programs- and resident James Buchanan fangirl- digs up quirky, fascinating, and sometimes puzzling stories that reveal the hidden histories within President Buchanan’s Wheatland. The Stephanies invite readers to explore Buchanan’s home, meet his “little family” and learn about the tumultuous political climate that surrounded his presidency.

From History From The House