Thomas Jefferson the Outdoorsman, Horseman and Pet Owner

Thomas Jefferson the Outdoorsman, Horseman and Pet Owner

Many are familiar with the notion of President Thomas Jefferson as a farmer, but few are aware that he was a skilled horseman, hunter, and pet owner of dogs and birds. Overseer Edmund Bacon noted how Jefferson never slept in and made the most of the daylight hours:

“Mr. Jefferson was always an early riser — arose at daybreak, or before. The sun never found him in bed. I used sometimes to think, when I went up there very early in the morning, that I would find him in bed; but there he would be before me, walking on the terrace.” [1]


Horsemen at Monticello (Source link)



It might be surprising to picture Jefferson as an avid horseman who even eluded British Troops by escaping on horseback when they aimed to capture him in Virginia.[2] He rode daily, even when he was President. When he had to take carriage rides he would often take the reins himself, especially when he wanted to get somewhere quickly.

Jefferson had many horses over his lifetime, including a large Chestnut Bay horse which bore the name of Eagle.[3] Bacon noted how Jefferson was extremely comfortable working with horses. “Jefferson broke all his horses to both ride and work,” and he never missed an opportunity to ride. “When he rode on horseback he had a pair of overalls he always put on.” Bacon described Jefferson’s daily schedule:

“Every day, just as regularly as the day came, unless the weather was very bad, he would have his horse brought out and take his ride. The boy who took care of his horse knew what time he started, and would bring him out for him, and hitch him in his place. He generally started about nine o’clock. He was an uncommonly fine rider—sat easily upon his horse, and always had him in the most perfect control.”

This practice continued throughout Jefferson’s life. In 1820, Isaac Briggs noted “His 77th year finds him strong, active, and in full possession of a sound mind. He rides a trotting horse and sits on him as straight as a young man.”[4]

Isaac Granger Jefferson, a former slave who grew up at Monticello, said “Mr. Jefferson never had nothing to do with horse-racing or cock-fighting: bought two race-horses once, but not in their racing day: bought em arter done runnin.” He described how Jefferson had a smaller horse carriage called a phaeton. “Mr. Jefferson used oftentimes to take the reins himself & drive. Whenever he wanted to travel fast he’d drive: would drive powerful hard himself.”[5]


Thomas Jefferson’s Phaeton reproduced by Glinkowski (source link)



Isaac described how Jefferson was a gun owner and hunter, however, he refused to shoot sitting ducks and rather gave them a chance to flee.

“Mr. Jefferson used to hunt squirrels & partridges; kept five or six guns; oftentimes carred Isaac wid him: old master would’nt [sic] shoot partridges settin: said “he would’nt take advantage of em”—would give ’em a chance for thar life: would’nt shoot a hare settin, nuther; skeer him up fust.”

Isaac also told of a kind of wildlife refuge Jefferson had established which he personally protected from hunters:

“Mr. Jefferson had a large park at Monticello: built in a sort of a flat on the side of the mountain. When the hunters run the deer down thar, they’d jump into the park & couldn’t git out. When old master heard hunters in the park he used to go down thar wid his gun & order em out. The park was two or three miles round & fenced in with a high fence, twelve rails double-staked & ridered: kept up four or five years arter old master was gone.”


Jefferson’s Love-Hate Relationship with Dogs

When stationed in Paris as Minister to France 1784-1789, Jefferson became intrigued with the writings of Georges-Louis Leclerc, a famous French naturalist that Jefferson admired. The Frenchman wrote of his admiration for the intelligence and character of the Briard Sheepdog, which he said was “instinctively prone to industry.” They were nimble and cheerful herd dogs that were strong and reliable with good dispositions.



This captured Jefferson’s imagination, and traversing the French countryside he sought out and bought a Briard that happened to be pregnant. In fact, the dog —which he named “Buzzy”— gave birth on Jefferson’s return voyage across the Atlantic to America, as mentioned by Isaac when he described Jefferson’s dogs:

“He had dogs named Ceres, Bull, Armandy, & Claremont: most of em French dogs: he brought em over with him from France. Bull & Ceres were bull-dogs: he brought over Buzzy with him too: she pupped at sea: Armandy & Claremont, stump-tails—both black.”

Jefferson enjoyed the dogs and the Briards were put to work at Monticello herding sheep. Jefferson’s French friend Lafayette sent him two more so that he could breed them for friends and neighbors, who became intrigued when they heard of the industrious dogs.

The dogs stayed outside, except for one occasion when Jefferson brought a puppy inside to help his grandson shed his fear of dogs.

However, Jefferson’s love of dogs also had its limits, particularly when other breeds would kill sheep and livestock. There was a minor epidemic of this phenomenon around his county of Albermarle, and he banded together with some others in the region to draft legislation to tax the ownership of dogs in an effort to encourage the reduction of the overall dog population. He even suggested what could be the first dog license:

“…should we not add a provision for making the owner of a dog liable for all the mischief done by him, and requiring that every dog shall wear a collar with the name of the person inscribed who shall be security for his honest demeanor?”


Grizzly Bears on the President’s Lawn

In his last year as President, Jefferson was gifted two young grizzly bears by Captain Zebulon Pike, who purchased the two bear cubs when returning from an expedition in the southern region of the great Continental Divide. Pike sent them to Jefferson along with a letter describing how they were “considered by the natives of that country as the most ferocious animals of the continent.”[6]

Jefferson realized they were too dangerous and troublesome to keep, so he made arrangements to have them donated to a museum in Philadelphia.[7] However, it took two months to make arrangements for their travel. During that time they outgrew their cage and were placed in an enclosure on the lawn of the President’s House. For passers-by, it must have been quite a spectacle.


Jefferson’s Songbird — the White House’s First Pet

When Monticello was being constructed, Jefferson acquired a mockingbird, enamored with its songs and their ability to mimic other birds and sounds. He loved their “melodious powers, uncommon intelligence, and affectionate disposition.”[8]


Mockingbird (Source link)

He went on to acquire several more mockingbirds, and one even became his close friend. He would let it out of its cage to fly free, and it would often land on his writing-table or even his shoulder, singing and observing what Jefferson was doing. He even taught the bird to swoop down from above and take a morsel of food from between his lips. Like a faithful dog, when Jefferson went upstairs to rest, the bird would hop and follow him up the stairs and sit on the couch and sing.

Jefferson loved the bird so much that he even brought it with him to the White House when he served as President. In fact, Jefferson is believed to be “the first president to have a pet [that lived] in the White House…” The bird would even ‘sing’ duets with Jefferson:  when he played violin, the bird would “pour out his song along with the violin.”[9]

Mockingbirds never existed in the wild in Virginia, however not long after Jefferson’s death they began appearing in the wooded areas, and today are still heard singing around Monticello.


[1] Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 70-71. See Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 71.

[2] Isaac Granger Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[3] The Rev. Peter F. Fossett, ONCE THE SLAVE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, New York World, January 30, 1898

[4] Isaac Briggs to Hannah Briggs and Children, November 21, 1820, Isaac Briggs Notebook, Accession #38-530, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in Peterson, Visitors, 90.

[5] Isaac Granger Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. McGregor Library, 1951

[6] Pike to Jefferson, October 29, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription link

[7] Jefferson to Ann Cary Randolph, November 1, 1807, in Family Letters, 313. Transcription link 

[8] Margaret Bayard Smith, 1806

[9] Caulkins, Janet V. (1992). Pets of the presidents. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press. pp. 12, 14. ISBN 9781562940607.