Fido is a common generic name we use when referring to any dog. It’s a Latin word that means “to trust, believe, confide in”, and the name is defined as “I am faithful.” However, there are few references to the name throughout the pages of time, and it’s not a name found on most popular dog names lists – except briefly during one period in history. So if Fido has never been popular, how did it become a common name used to mean any dog? To answer that question, we have to go back to the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president.
Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. When he was 9, his father moved the family to Perry County, Indiana where they squatted on public land and carved out a living hunting and farming on a small patch of land. In 1830 the Lincolns moved to Macon County, Illinois, and 22 year old Abraham decided it was time for him to move on. He supported himself working odd jobs while teaching himself law. Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1837, took his bar exam, and settled into a law practice. Throwing his hat into the political ring, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, and went back to his law practice after leaving office. He returned to the political stage when he accepted the nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention to run for president. Back then, the Republican Party was today’s Democratic Party.
Lincoln suffered bouts of depression that made it difficult for him to work. He found comfort with his pets during times of despair, and they became his lifeline to pull him out of his darkness. Throughout his life, he was passionate about animals with a special fondness for cats, and was an outspoken advocate for animal rights, as well as human rights.
While still in Springfield, Lincoln brought home a medium sized yellow mixed breed retriever/shepherd pup. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but it was sometime around 1855. Lincoln named the dog Fido. The pair were constant companions and it was common to see them strolling together around town. Fido usually carried a newspaper, small package, or other objects in his mouth for his owner. When Lincoln stopped at his favorite barbershop for a trim, Fido sat outside waiting patiently. Although, he was quick to leave his post if he saw children he knew playing nearby.
Fido had the run of the house, much to the disapproval of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, who didn’t share her husband’s love for animals. She didn’t like the muddy tracks Fido left around the house, and wasn’t amused when he claimed a horsehair sofa as his. But, she tolerated the dog and for five years Fido lived a carefree life with his family until 1860 when Lincoln was elected president. Mary saw an opportunity to get rid of Fido. Loud noises frighten him, he was wary of strangers and hated trains, and the family would have to travel to Washington D.C. by train. She pointed out Fido’s distaste for trains and how he would freak out every time the train whistle blew. Because of scheduled stops along the way, it would take 11 days to get to the nation’s capitol. The dog had already been terrified by cannon blasts, ringing church bells, fireworks, and crowds of people after Lincoln’s election, and it wouldn’t be fair to put Fido through more trauma on a train ride he would hate, and more celebration activities once they reached D.C.
Fido may have had the run of the house, but it was Mary Todd who ran it and Lincoln despised arguing with his wife. He reluctantly agreed to leave his beloved and faithful dog behind. Lincoln made arrangements with John Roll, a local carpenter who had two boys a little younger than Lincoln’s sons Tad and Willy, to take Fido. Roll had done repairs on the Lincoln home and the two were acquainted, which made Lincoln feel like he wasn’t leaving Fido with strangers. Roll promised to take good care of the dog and return him to Lincoln when he came home after serving his term in the White House. Before sealing the deal, however, Lincoln had a few stipulations for the Roll family, which they agreed to. Fido was to have the run of the house, he was never to be tied up outside or left alone in the backyard. He was never to be punished for running through the house with muddy paws, must be let inside or outside whenever he scratched at the door, and he was used to being fed from everyone at the table during meals and the practice must be continued in the Roll household. Fido’s favorite couch was given to the Roll family so he would feel comfortable in his new home.
Lincoln’s sons were extremely upset with having to leave Fido behind and didn’t understand why he couldn’t go with them to Washington. To ease their pain, Lincoln took Fido and the boys to a local photography studio and had photographs taken of the dog. He gave each son their own copy, and Fido became the first presidential dog to be photographed.
Even in the days of Lincoln, people clamored for news about celebrities and famous people. Newspapers wrote accounts of Lincoln’s pets, including Fido. Several papers published reproductions of the photos taken of Fido for Tad and Willy. It wasn’t long before dog owners began to name their dogs Fido, and the name topped a list of the most common dog names for that one and only time.
President Lincoln’s term in office was during a dark period in American history. He had enemies, but was also very respected and admired around the country. After his assassination on April 15, 1865, grief stricken mourners lined the side of the tracks and watched silently as the train carrying Lincoln’s body back to Springfield rolled by. People from around the country gathered at the Lincoln home in Springfield to pay their last respects. John Roll took Fido back to his old home to pay his respects, and let the grieving public see the dog Lincoln had left behind. One person said, “Touching the President’s dog gave me the feeling that I had touched the man himself and seen his humanity. It brought me comfort in this time of grief as touching this dog must have brought the President comfort during his life.”
Shortly after Lincoln’s death, the photo taken of Fido when Lincoln left for Washington was printed on small cards and sold as souvenirs. Today, original photos can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars from Lincoln memorabilia collectors.
A year after Lincoln’s death, faithful Fido was killed by a drunken man who mistook the dog’s friendly approach to be threatening and stabbed him. Abraham Lincoln was thought of as a common man from humble beginnings, and Fido was seen in the same way. His faithful name lives on to represent all common dogs, and Fido became a generic name that means any dog.
Pictured: One of the poses of Fido taken by F.W. Ingmire at his Springfield photography studio in 1861.
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