We’ve all learned the stories of Christopher Columbus, conquistadors, Pilgrims and Native Americans, colonists and pioneers. We were taught to honor the earliest settlers to this country, but what about those animal heroes who braved the New World, making the Pilgrims’ lives possible, the livestock breeds from Colonial times? Colonists carried many breeds of livestock with them while making this epic journey. These animals supplied food, clothing and labor for the early settlers, yet their legacies are often unsung.
Remnant groups of many historic livestock breeds face new obstacles as modern agriculture favors “improved” breeds. Even worse, many foundational breeds of American agriculture are on the verge of going extinct. Today, let’s celebrate some of the four-legged settlers that became the foundation stock of modern American agriculture. They are a living testament to our past, and a genetic resource for our future.
Marsh Tacky (Colonial Spanish) Horse
Although the exact origin of the Marsh Tacky horse is unclear, it can be attributed to Spanish stock that arrived on the coast and islands of South Carolina as “drop offs” by Spanish explorers, and also to stock brought over by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. During the American Revolution, Marsh Tackies were used by many of the troops of the famous “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion. Known as the “Father of American Guerrilla Warfare,” Marion not only was a great tactician, his troops inadvertently had the technical advantage of riding horses superbly adapted to the rough and swampy terrain of the region. British troops mounted on larger European breeds were at a disadvantage in trying to maneuver in the dense, wild swamps of the lowlands.
The Marsh Tacky is a sturdy, well-balanced and easy-keeping horse. Its gentle nature and easily managed size (13.5 to 15 hands) historically made the Marsh Tacky the preferred mount for women and children, but the breed’s strength, prowess and fearlessness in the field made it popular as a working animal utilized for hunting and herding cattle. They are a direct remnant of the horses of the Golden Age of Spain, and the type is mostly extinct now in Spain. The breed remains critically rare.
Ossabaw Island Hogs
Early explorers brought livestock to the Americas beginning in the 1500s, including pigs that escaped or were deliberately set free in the New World. One of these is the Ossabaw hog, a feral breed that has lived for centuries on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia.
The isolation of these island hogs has given rise to a breed that is the closest genetic representative of the historic swine brought over by the Spaniards.
The Ossabaw breed is biologically unique. The periods of feast and famine on the barrier island led to a biochemical adaptation similar to non-insulin dependent diabetes in humans, making the pigs a natural animal model for researching Type II diabetes. Ossabaw hogs are usually black, although some are black with white spots or light with black spots. Adult pigs are hairy, with heavy bristles around the head and neck. The breed is particularly well-suited for sustainable or pastured pork production. A few populations of Ossabaw hogs have been established on the mainland, but the critical status of this breed makes it a conservation priority.
Milking Devon Cattle
Beginning in 1623, the Pilgrims imported British Devon cattle to New England. The hardiness of the breed and the ready availability of the cattle near British ports made them an obvious choice for the transatlantic voyage. The breed became well-established in Colonial America, spreading as far as Florida. Later, Devon oxen were the draft animals of choice for pioneers braving
the Oregon Trail. By the 1950s, the market for tri-
purpose cattle was shrinking, and the Devon faced extinction. Breeders who continued to select their animals for the traditional purposes of milk, meat and draft helped give rise to the American Milking Devon breed.
Today, the American Milking Devon is distinct from other Devon populations around the world. Milking Devons are a rich, ruby red with black-tipped, white horns. They’re medium-sized and adapted to survive on high forage diets. The breed is prized by artisan cheese and butter makers for its high butterfat milk. With fewer than 200 Milking Devons left in the United States, this American original may soon be a historical footnote.
Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought goats from Spain to the Caribbean Islands and from there to what would become the United States and Mexico. As a ready source of milk, meat and hides, Spanish goats were taken everywhere the Spaniards went and became an integral part of subsistence production. The use of goats for meat was also important because it allowed cattle to be reserved for draft power, essential for crop production and transportation. Spanish goats were the only goats known across the southern United States and in most other parts of the Americas for more than 300 years.
Spanish goats are hardy and rugged, thriving on rough forage and in difficult environments. They have excellent resistance to internal parasites. Goats weigh from 50 to 200 pounds, with the largest animals representing strains that have been selected over many decades for meat production. Spanish goats are usually horned and are found in a variety of different colors. While the breed’s population numbers are improving, it needs our help to conquer its uncertain fate.
Leicester Longwool Sheep
The Leicester breed was introduced to North America before the Revolutionary War. Originally from England, the Leicester – or English Leicester – was developed by innovative British breeder Robert Bakewell, who was the first to use modern selection techniques to improve livestock breeds. His work influenced such minds as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. It is said that George Washington used Leicester rams in improving his Mount Vernon flock, and he owned several purebred ewes. The breed was popular throughout the early Colonies, but lost favor during the 1800s. By 1900, the breed was in severe decline, and it was likely extinct in the United States by the 1930s. In 1990, in an effort to preserve this living piece of American Colonial history, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a historic site in Virginia, reestablished the breed in North America by importing sheep.
Leicester Longwools are medium to large sheep, weighing 180 to 250 pounds. The fleece is heavy, curly and soft handling. The breed is known for the sheen and brilliance of its wool. Leicesters are eager grazers, making good use of abundant pasture, and they are docile and easy to handle. Though the breed has been reintroduced to the United States, it remains globally rare.
Carolina born and bred, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Basset Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.