The President’s Puppy

President James Buchanan was not known to be trendy. His high-collared outfits were a few years out of style. His niece, Harriet, was often frustrated at his traditional taste when decorating their Wheatland home. Even his political opinions did not seem to evolve with the times. But, President Buchanan set a trend – and a record – when he went to the White House. He brought with him a rare breed of dog, who set the record for being the largest dog to ever live in the White House.

Lara the Dog
James Buchanan’s dog, Lara, as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in March 1857.

Buchanan’s beloved dog, Lara, was his constant companion during the most important decade of his life, the 1850s. Lara was a Newfoundland – a breed of dog known for being calm and loyal…and very big. Perhaps exaggerating a little, contemporary accounts claimed that Lara weighed 170 pounds. (More likely, as a female Newfie, her weight was between 120 and 150 pounds. Still, there is no doubt she was a large dog.) Due to her enormous size and her dark coloring, many who encountered Lara compared her to a bear.

Although the Newfoundland breed is popular in America today, it was a pretty rare breed in mid-19th century America. When Buchanan acquired Lara, the breed had only been in existence worldwide for about 50 years. At least one prominent American Newfie existed before Lara: a dog named Seaman that accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous westward journey. Newfoundland dogs, who are particularly adept in the water, were gaining popularity as sea-faring pets on the coast of England by the mid-19th century. Buchanan acquired Lara some time in the early 1850s, before he left to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1853. Lara lived with Buchanan and his “little family” at his Wheatland home in Lancaster, and she remained in Lancaster under the care of his household staff when Buchanan was away in England. Buchanan missed his pup greatly while he was serving in London and wrote home frequently to ask after her. When Buchanan returned to Wheatland, the pair were reunited, and Lara was well-established as a staple of Wheatland.

Buchanan Family with LaraHistoric interpreters portray Buchanan and his “little family” with Newfoundland dog “Lara” (2017).

When Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper released a special issue recounting their late-1856 visit to Wheatland, they published an image of Lara and a description of her:

“Prominent also [on his Wheatland estate] is Mr. Buchanan’s Newfoundland dog Lara; remarkable for his immense tail and his attachment to his master.” The newspaper also correctly predicted that Buchanan would bring Lara with him to the White House when he took office in March 1857. “This dog will hereafter become historical as a resident of the White House.”

Lara quickly gained popularity among the American public when she took up residency at the White House. At her remarkably large size, she set the record for the biggest dog to ever inhabit the White House – a record that will probably stand forever, since it’s unlikely a dog larger than 170 pounds will ever live there! During the presidential years, Lara was known to sleep next to Buchanan, comforting and protecting him. (Newfoundlands are known as the “nanny dog,” a characteristic reinforced by famous fictional Newfoundland nursemaid, Nana, from Peter Pan.) Many visitors who encountered a sleeping Lara noted that she seemed to have one eye open at all times. Although the metaphor serves a theoretical purpose (Lara was definitely protective of Buchanan), the idea that Lara “slept with one eye open” seems literal. Some dogs appear to sleep with one eye open due to their third eyelid.

Brumus the DogBobby Kennedy with his Newfoundland, Brumus (circa 1964). Brumus was an occasional White House visitor.

Buchanan set a serious trend by taking Lara to the White House. Newfoundlands became a popular breed in America after Lara occupied the White House. Three presidents after Buchanan also brought Newfies with them to the White House: Ulysses Grant had Faithful; Rutherford B. Hayes had Hector; and James Garfield had Veto. Robert F. Kennedy also had a Newfie, named Brumis, that was an occasional White House guest.

Lara wasn’t the only dog that lived in the White House during Buchanan’s presidency. Buchanan’s niece and First Lady, Harriet, had a dog of her own: a toy terrier named Punch, whose tiny size made an interesting contrast to Lara’s enormous frame. Lara also wasn’t the only pet Buchanan kept at Wheatland. But that’s a story for another day…

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