A breastbone, a wishbone, and two leg bones are paltry remnants of what might have been a significant animal.
Yet, that is all that is left of a parrot that is thought to be the only archaeological evidence of leisurely pet life in the Lowcountry. Located on the property of the Heyward-Washington House on Church Street, the parrot would have belonged to the family of John F. Grimke, possibly to his daughters, Angelina and Sarah, of future suffragette fame.
Though researchers are not sure of the status of the parrot — and of a guinea pig whose bones were also found on the property — Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, said, “Probably, they were pets. They are not common foods or commonly found bones.”
Photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s provide evidence that pets held a special place in some local households. Charleston photographer Franklin Frost Sams shot photos of his young children with dogs in 1896 and 1900. Lowcountry photographer M.B. Paine snapped a captivating shot of a jaunty gentleman and his three dogs, one reclining in his arms, in the early 1900s.
“Two of those dogs were clearly not hunting dogs, they were just little mutts,” said Jennifer McCormick, archives/collections manager at the Charleston Museum.
Still, lacking other solid evidence, such as writings discussing pets, it’s hard to speculate on their importance in local life 100 years ago. While animals of all kinds roamed the Lowcountry since its inhabitation, and many might have been cared for, it is safe to assume that most of them worked hard for their keep.
“Animals that are pets now had jobs,” said Bob Sherman, historic interpreter at Middleton Place, whose work is mostly focused on historic agriculture. “One hundred and fifty years ago,
even cats and dogs were employed.”
The function of animals in the Lowcountry, as elsewhere, has fluctuated through time in a dynamic mix of exploitation and love, depending on man’s needs and interests at the time, said Jim Strickland, professor and chairman of Clemson University’s department of animal and veterinary sciences.
“I think what is important for the needs of man and the needs of the times have determined the treatment and breeding and use of animals for different functions through time,” he said.
To some degree, pets were a luxury that Americans or Europeans could ill afford before the world wars. To this day, people in agricultural communities view animals such as chickens as pure food, while in Charleston and throughout the country they are beginning to dot the countryside as companion animals. And in some societies, people eat animals many would not consider eating, such as dogs and cats, not to mention whales and monkeys.
“Over time, the things we have used for food have been selected because of the quality of the animals to do certain things,” Strickland said.
Historical records unearthed through Nic Butler, Charleston County Library’s eminent historian, indicate that animals lived on people’s properties here since the city’s very beginnings. Until they became a health hazard and the city, once unimaginably rural, became urban, they were intimately layered into life here.
The earliest newspapers, beginning publication in 1732, contained advertisements for lost dogs. Cats were here very early, but, Butler said, “the only reference I’ve seen in the old newspapers are complaints about dead cat carcasses laying in garbage piles.” Most cats were likely used for vermin control, Sherman said.
As early as 1784, people complained about the large number of dogs running loose through the city, too, especially in and around the City Market, where they ate scraps from the butchers. In 1799, the Commissioners of the Market announced that all dogs found there “shall be killed, and thrown into the stream.” Again, in 1813 the city ratified an ordinance “to prevent dogs from going at large,” said Butler.
Most dogs back then are thought to have been used for hunting or protection. The use of other animals is less clear: As early as 1751 people in urban Charleston were keeping deer (does), Butler said, and posting in papers when they went missing. And we know from ads advertising birdcages that people in early Charleston also kept birds. Birds from both Africa and South America were here, together with other exotic animals brought by ships carrying enslaved people and other commodities, said Grahame Long, chief curator of the Charleston Museum.
Most likely, though, the animals were traded or sold for good money, Long said.
Though dog and cat bones are found in abundance, skeletons are not articulated as they would be in burial (though one was found on Daniel Island, dating from sometime between 1700 and 1900), Zierden said.
“We have yet to unearth a cat skeleton sitting by the fire hearth ... and I have not seen any Charleston-based artwork of any house pets,” Long said. By contrast, in Europe, portraits of the rich with their animals abounded by then, including a miniature of Katherine of Aragon with a monkey, dated 1524, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Lady with Ermine,” dated around 1490.
Despite the lack of evidence, pets may have played a bigger role in early Lowcountry life.
“It’s hard to imagine that pets were not part of all of these households from the very beginning. It is strange that in all the letters there is no reference to pets,” Zierden said.
Animals for food
In fact, most animals in the Lowcountry existed to provide food or had other uses.
In plantation life, all animals worked, and there were many and all kinds, Sherman said.
Cats kept rodents under control and dogs hunted and kept the foxes at bay; horses pulled wagons, went hunting and competed in races. Mules, which George Washington made popular at Mount Vernon, worked the fields. Lambs were eaten; sheep and goats were used for wool and milk and chickens — well, we know their fate.
Amid the masses of dogs that people kept back then, some were beloved. So were some horses, Sherman said.
Sometime in the 1770s, Arthur Middleton, whose family owned the eponymous plantation, wrote a letter to a servant asking that his favorite horse be rubbed down with whiskey.
“In plantation life, the only animals that were pampered were horses. Thoroughbreds were pampered,” Sherman said. “That said, even as you have an animal for utilitarian reasons, you still may develop love for them. Even slaves had their favorites.”
Slaves kept cocks for cockfighting, for example, he said; it is safe to think they might have cared for the birds.
But the line between leisure and work, love and exploitation, is blurred. At the Charleston Museum, a 1905 photograph by Sams shows children piled into a cart pulled by a goat at the corner of Broad and New streets.
“They were kids obviously having a good time with the goat, being used for a leisurely activity, but we do not know if it was a pet,” Long said.
Early Charlestonians living downtown kept hogs, cows, chickens, goats and sheep on their properties for private use, Butler said.
“In the Colonial era, you would have seen all sorts of animals downtown,” he said.
Citizens with animals were supposed to keep their properties fenced, but there were constant complaints about animals running loose, well into the early 19th century. In fact, there were so many animals around, that in 1796 the city passed an ordinance limiting the number of hogs and calves that could be kept on a property to six, Butler said.
Cattle exports preceded rice and contributed greatly to the economy of the city, so cows would have been everywhere, said Sherman. People butchered them at home and traded in meat. Finally, the city had to put a limit on those, too.
“It must have been quite ripe,” Sherman said.
After the Civil War, plantation life was decimated. Middleton, which previously had hundreds of animals, recorded two mules and a cow in 1870, Sherman said.
In the city, though, animals continued to thrive, Butler said. In 1905 the city reported at least 434 cows living in the residential areas. Growing concerns about health regulations and food inspection made this traditional practice untenable, and finally in 1912, the city banned cows from residential lots.
In archaeological digs documenting remains after that date, cow bones are replaced by those of smaller animals such as chickens, ducks and doves, Zierden said. But those of animals that could be thought to be pets remained rare.
The remains of the Grimkes’ pet parrot and guinea pig were found in a privy area during a routine archaeological dig of the property in the 1970s. The bones were found in a stratum of earth that would correspond to something deposited in the 1820s, which suggests the animals belonged to the Grimkes, said Zierden.
The bird’s remains have been sent to several universities for study in hopes of identifying the specific type of parrot and whatever information might be available about its provenance.
“We are still on the hunt for an ID,” Zierden said.
While the bones offer tentative proof of early companion animals, the photographs show another side of local pet history. Ladies drinking tea with a dog nearby circa 1900; a white cat reaching for a treat in 1910.
“There’s obviously affection going on,” Long said of the early images.
“There’s something a little deeper than just a person and an animal.”