A guard for men and mice, 380 years ago

It may pass unnoticed like the cat in the crowd this Spring – except in Massachusetts – that America celebrates 380 years since a militia first gathered together in defense of the community.

That moment happened long before our Constitution, or before our standing military.

History-minded officials tell us that the First Muster occurred sometime in 1637, probably with the changing weather, for the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s East regiment – among the other, North and South regiments formed – situated where Salem is today. The Commonwealth, where the re-enactment takes place in April is especially cognizant with the Patriots’ Day holiday.

Records point out that the General Court ordered their organization the year prior, or on the day of the National Guard’s birth, Dec. 13, 1636.

Men, aged 16 to 60, were ordered to keep a weapon, train and defend the colony, so they met up and began their duty.

Historians also point out that the First Muster is significant because it represents the first use of a law to raise a military force in English North America.

Acclaimed history artist Don Troiani painted a rendition of this moment. The First Muster is my personal favorite among a series of heritage paintings commissioned by the National Guard.

The militia is shown in a field outside their colony. I like to believe that their homes’ chimney smoke and their dress signify that the temperature may be chilly; however, the daisies painted on the field signify Spring.

There are muskets in hand, and men are lined up receiving instruction. Their looks seem miss-matched. One man has a hole in his sock. There’s a drummer too, sitting crossed-legged on the ground. He looks across the field, out of the frame. Others look distracted, but some men in the ranks pay close attention to the speaker with the big, white feather on his helmet.

If you look closer, you will see one item that no one pays any attention: a cat.

That cat is why I admire this painting so much – because no one I talk with ever recalls it, but they smile when I point it out.

The cat is in the foreground and seems more concerned with an object than with the group of armed men – who might be looking for a moving target in a moment. I find that notion rather funny because it signifies that the animal might be important – it’s not scared of them.

Seventeenth-century cats had their duties too.

“In 1637, that cat, just like [us], were immigrants,” said Dr. Leslie A. Lyons, a professor and a feline and veterinary expert at the University of Missouri, who I asked what a cat’s role might be in the colony.

It turned out that Doctor Lyons has a brother serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard, so she found the painting interesting, personally and professionally.

“As people came to the New World to escape various persecutions and for new opportunity – they brought their cats too,” said Lyons. She added that cats were common on ships for vermin control and continued this role.

“We have done genetic research on cats that suggests that the ‘racial’ population of domestic cats in the USA is mainly from Western European cats. Thus, this cat’s relatives would have been also from the UK, Germany, Denmark and such,” said Lyons. “The cat is a black and white bicolor – which would have been a typical cat coloration at the time as well.”

Doctor Lyons’s help was insightful. The cat was a respected member of the colony. No one but the village idiot would shoot a cat that protects your food-storage and gives you companionship in the wilderness.

I contacted Mr. Troiani too, a while ago, to tell him how much I enjoyed his paintings, as well as to ask if the cat was intentional; was it possibly a representation of the militia’s domestic tie?

Mr. Troiani replied: “Most of it was shot at a friend’s house who collected 17th Century arms and armor, and we used his collection,” he said. “The cat just walked into the modeling session, and I decided it was interesting, so I included it.”

I was not disappointed in his answer; after all, a cat is just a cat. Coincidences happen, but his answer supported my notion that our nation’s past is strangely manifested, despite the attention, or lack of, that we give it. The National Guard and cats have not strayed from their muster.

Image: First Muster, a National Guard Heritage Painting by Don Troiani, courtesy the National Guard Bureau

 

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