Dogs have been man’s best friend for a long time, and sailors liked dogs as much as anyone. They provided companionship on a long voyage, and a dog good at catching rats and mice would be a great asset on a vermin-infested ship. Visitors to the Museum’s hands-on exhibit, All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812, may have noticed paw prints along the floor and a friendly puppy hanging around. He’s not there by chance.
When USS Constitution sailed from Boston in December 1814, the ship carried nearly 485 sailors and one intelligent canine. Acting Chaplain Assheton Humphreys took a liking to the little dog and gives us the full story in his journal:
“A terrier dog (named Guerriere) belonging to Lieut. [Beekman Verplank] Hoffman [the ship’s Second Lieutenant], from the very great sagacity with which he was gifted had become a great favourite with all hands officers and men. So a display of almost natural [i.e. human] faculties did he exhibit that many were of the opinion that he would talk were it not that he feared he should be set to work, be the talking part as it may, he frequently did work, for whenever all hands were called to about ship he was sure to pay his respects to the Captain of the mast who placing the end of the weather fore brace in his mouth he would lead it along in as perfect order as any two legged sea dog and perform various little duties about the mast full well.
“Never would the drum beat to quarters but with every token of the greatest satisfaction he would repair to the taffrel [sic], and there remain until it again beat for boarders, firemen, &c when he would always go with them and when they returned to their quarters or guns he would return to his former station.
“On this day his sagacity appeared preeminent. ‘Twas about 4 o’clock P.M. Lieut. [Henry] Ballard and myself were walking the weather side of the quarter deck lamenting our hard luck in not falling in with an Enemys [sic] ship altho’ we had almost bearded the lion in his den, and all unconscious of any craft being near us. Guerriere who was playing about the heels of Lieut. Ballard appeared uncommonly frisky and was rather troublesome, at length becoming an incumbrance [sic] he attracted the particular attention of the Lieut, perceiving which he jumped upon the hammock clothes and stretching his head to windward began to bark most vehemently;‑ upon looking to discover what attracted his notice lo! and behold! there was a large frigate standing down before the wind under a press of sail, which the gentlemen at the mast head [i.e. the lookout] had not yet discovered, fearing perhaps to look to windward lest “the winds should visit their cheeks too unduly” as my friend Hamlet the dane [sic], says. Hove about and hauled too on the larboard tack head to the northward, at 5 she crossed our stern took in her topgallant sails & hauled by the wind to the southward; tacked ship and made sail in chase of her. At 9 ranged close alongside of a large frigate with her gun deck lit up and apparently all hands at quarters, hoisted our colours with a lanthorn to windwards of them that they might be discovered distinctly; perceived her colours flying but could not make them out, hailed to know what she was, received no answer, hailed a second and third time with no better success; an order was sent down to the gun deck not to fire unless she returned the fire from our Quarter deck; fired the three forward carronades on the Quarter deck into her; a reply was instantly made that she was the Portuguese frigate Amazon from the Canary islands bound to Lisbon (a little out of her way to be sure) ordered her to heave to, with which she complied, but blowing heavy and a high sea up could not board her, filled away under double reefed topsails to the Westward and Southward‑‑‑‑”1
Poor Guerriere, he was his master’s best friend, but he was also attached to “Old Ironsides.” Lieutenant Hoffman took him to the ex-HMS Cyane, after the Americans captured the British ship in February 1815. At Porto Praya, where the American frigate and her prizes lay at anchor together, Guerriere bounded over the side and began to swim for Constitution. A boat was lowered from the ship, but it was too late — Guerriere drowned. He had made such a favorable impression on the crew, however, that his story made it into the newspapers when Constitution returned to the United States! Niles’ Weekly Register called the dog “a fine terrier, who was a great favorite on board the ship.”2
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.