The terrier was called Guerriere.
USS Constitution’s second lieutenant, Beekman Verplank Hoffman, named his dog for HMS Guerriere, the British ship defeated by Constitution on August 21, 1812 in the Americans’ first major naval victory of the War of 1812.
It’s not clear exactly when or where Hoffman acquired Guerriere, but the dog was on board with him when Constitution sailed from Boston in December, 1814.
Life could be pretty good for a small dog on a large ship. With lots of spaces to explore, a rotating watch of attentive crew, and constant activity on deck, dogs were long welcome on board many ships as companions and rat catchers. Until modern regulations chased many of them from the decks, dogs, cats and other pets had a long history of accompanying sailors on board both navy and commercial ships.
Constitution was no exception. There are indications of numerous dogs on board Constitution at various points in her sailing career, but no others are known by name or appear as prominently in the records as Guerriere. According to the accounts, Guerriere the Terrier was particularly well suited to life on a ship, and endeared himself to the crew with his acute senses and antics on deck.
Guerriere was apparently quick to understand what was happening on deck, and eager to join the crew in their work. “So a display of almost natural 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,” wrote chaplain Assheton Humphreys, whose journal account provides our primary knowledge of Guerriere. “[B]e the talking part as it may, he frequently did work.”
When the crew was maneuvering the ship, Guerriere would come to the mast captains, take the bitter end of a line, and lead it down the deck for the crew. Every time the drum beat to quarters, Guerriere would run to the taffrail at the stern of the ship. He’d stay there until the drums called for the boarders and firemen to man their positions. “[H]e would always go with them and when they returned to their quarters or guns he would return to his former station,” according to Humphreys.
On one occasion in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, Guerriere’s keen senses picked up a ship to windward before anyone on the crew was aware of it. On February 13, 1815, while Humphreys and Lieutenant Henry Ballard were walking the deck, Guerriere appeared at Ballard’s feet, “uncommonly frisky and was rather troublesome.”
As soon as the dog knew he had Ballard’s attention, he leaped to the hammock netting on the rail, “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 had not yet discovered…”
After chasing the ship down, Constitution discovered it was the Portuguese frigate Amazon, bound from the Canary Islands to Lisbon. There is no indication of whether Guerriere’s attentiveness got the lookouts in trouble that day.
Sadly, a promotion for Hoffman led to the death of Guerriere. Following Constitution’s battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on February 20, 1815, Hoffman was directed to take command of Cyane as a prize and took the dog with him.
However, as the three ships sat anchored in Porto Praya harbor in the Cape Verde islands, Guerriere leaped overboard and began swimming back to his familiar home on Constitution.
The crew of Constitution quickly launched a small boat, but the harbor proved too much for Guerriere, who drowned before he could be retrieved.
When Constitution arrived back in the United States, news of Guerriere’s death was picked up by the national news magazine, Niles’ Weekly Register, which called him “a fine terrier, who was a great favorite on board the ship.”
This month, as the USS Constitution Museum commemorates the ship’s victory over HMS Guerriere, we are also celebrating the life of Guerriere the Terrier – the sea dog of ”Old Ironsides” who won over the hearts of her crew.
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.