The first cats arrived in the Americas aboard ships full of European colonists. Cats had first joined sailors aboard ships thousands of years ago, when humans first put to sea, so when the first European ships came to North America, cats came with them. Some of those cats may have jumped ship to form societies of their own, while others probably accompanied the colonists to early settlements.

By the time the Pilgrims experienced their first successful harvest in 1621, it is likely that they shared some table scraps with a Thanksgiving cat or two.

The Arrival of the Thanksgiving Cat

Historians often claim that the ancestors of the American Shorthair breed probably landed at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims after a stormy voyage aboard the Mayflower, but these cats are shadowy figures in history. The ship's manifest indicates that at least two dogs were aboard — a Mastiff and a Spaniel — but it doesn't specifically list cats. Still, cats had become such fixtures aboard ships by 1620 that the crew of the Mayflower would almost certainly have set sail with a number of cats on deck.

Cats in the Colonies

Life in the American Colonies was hard, and everyone — no matter how cute and playful — had to work hard to survive. Cats had an important job in colonial farms, storehouses, and homes. Wild animals, such as mice, rats, and even snakes, threatened to consume vital food stores and spread disease to vulnerable settlements. Because of this, the colonists relied on their cats to keep any pests at bay.

Most colonists appear to have had pragmatic but friendly relationships with cats. Rather than pets, they called especially pampered animals "favorites" — a term that might refer to a cat, cow, goat, or even a tame deer. Such animals were not quite pets, but they were often petted and given treats or collars made of ribbon.

Even the Puritans, referred to as stodgy in history books, must not have been immune to feline whimsy. Cats appear alongside their owners in many formal portraits from the 1700s and early 1800s, usually found in more relaxed poses than their human companions. A common proverb of the time advised, "You will always be lucky if you know how to make friends with strange cats."

Living the American Dream

By the mid-1800s, more affluent segments of society began to realize that cats were as beautiful as they were useful, and cat breeding became popular in Britain and western Europe before spreading to the United States. The rising popularity of suburban and urban lifestyles in the early 20th century helped cats shift toward lives as indoor pets.

From hardworking colonial mousers to 21st-century pets, cats have found a special place in American society. Are you thankful for a cat in your life this Thanksgiving?