Colonial Williamsburg sheep
Leicester Longwool sheep
Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

Navajo Churro ewe
Navajo Churro ewe
Photo courtesy of Bid A Wee Farm

 Communal grazing in Moldova
Communal grazing



    Sheep in history

    Early domestication
    Sheep were domesticated 10,000 years ago in Central Asia, but it wasn't until 3,500 B.C. that people learned to spin wool. Sheep helped to make the spread of civilization possible. Sheep production was well-established during Biblical times. There are many references to sheep in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Sheep production is man's oldest organized industry. Wool was the first commodity of sufficient value to warrant international trade.

    Sheep in the New World
    In the 1400's, Queen Isabella of Spain used money derived from the wool industry to finance Columbus and other conquistadors' voyages. In 1493 on his second voyage to the New World, Columbus took sheep with him as a "walking food supply." He left some sheep in Cuba and Santo Domingo.

    In 1519, Cortez began his exploration of Mexico and the Western United States. He took with him sheep that were offspring of Columbus' sheep. These sheep are believed to be the descendents of what are now called "Churros." The Navajo Churro is the oldest breed of sheep in the U.S. Despite efforts by the U.S. government to eradicate the breed, Navajo Churros are still raised by Navajo indians.

    The Gulf Coast (or Florida) Native is another breed of sheep believed to be directly descended from sheep brought to the New World by Spanish and French explorers. Feral until the early 20th century, Gulf Coast Native sheep are known for their natural resistance to worm parasites.

    Early American history
    During the 16th and 17th centuries, England tried to discourage the wool industry in the American colonies. Nonetheless, colonists quickly smuggled sheep into the States and developed a wool industry. By 1664, there were 10,000 sheep in the colonies and the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law requiring youth to learn to spin and weave.

    By 1698, America was exporting wool goods. England became outraged and outlawed wool trade, making it punishible by cutting off a person's right hand. The restrictions on sheep raising and wool manufacturing, along with the Stamp Act, led to the American Revolutionary War. Thus, spinning and weaving were considered patriotic acts. Even after the war, England enacted a law forbidding the export of any sheep, but wethers.

    Presidential shepherds
    George Washington raised sheep on his Mt. Vernon estate. Thomas Jefferson kept sheep at Monticello. Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both inaugurated in suits made of American wool. James Madison's inaugural jacket was woven from wool of sheep raised in his home in Virginia. President Woodrow Wilson grazed sheep on the White House lawn.

    In conflict
    Sheep raising has played a role in several historical conflicts such as the "Highland Clearance," American range wars, and the English "enclosing of the commons." The Highland Clearances consisted of the replacement of an almost feudal system of land tenure in Scotland with the rearing of sheep. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.

    In the U.S. range wars, violent conflicts erupted between cattle ranchers and sheep herders as both competed for land to graze their livestock. Britain's close of the commons was similar to the Highland clearance; open fields were enclosed into individually-owned fields for sheep farming, displacing many subsistance farmers.


Last updated 19-Apr-2021
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