America’s history has long been linked with domestic animals. It is hard to imagine what our nation would have looked like in its early years without the hard-working horse and ox, let alone the backyard flocks of chickens.
While many, many breeds have been important to our nation throughout the years, a few stand out as iconic. These breeds fed colonists, transported pioneers, helped with the chores on farms and ranches, and altered entire industries.
The Quarter Horse is truly an American breed, reflective of the nation’s changing lifestyle and progress westward. Its earliest ancestors came with the Spanish conquistadors. Native Americans captured Spanish horses of various bloodlines and traded them as far as the Atlantic seaboard.
Here English colonists adopted the Quarter Horse and crossed it with Thoroughbreds to create the ultimate all-purpose horse for plowing, riding, and short-distance racing. This versatility made it the ideal steed for settling new lands. Wherever the frontier was, there the Quarter Horse was to be found, pulling wagons, plowing fields, and performing any other tasks that were asked of it.
But it was in the American West that the Quarter Horse truly came into its own. As early as the 1820s, early settlers introduced the Quarter Horse to Texas. Here it received a second infusion of blood from its original Spanish ancestors, as it was crossed with mustangs and Indian ponies to increase its natural toughness. The new and improved Quarter Horse also inherited cow sense, an uncanny ability to outsmart a wily bovine, essential in those days when longhorns ran free. Early Quarter Horses were soon employed moving cattle north to railheads. From that time on, the Quarter Horse was first and foremost the mount of the rancher and cowboy.
Today, the Quarter Horse is the world’s most popular horse breed, with over 5 million animals across the globe. It is also the most popular breed in America, probably thanks to its exceptional versatility. For that reason, it is sometimes called “America’s Horse.” The Quarter Horse is strongly associated with Western culture, including rodeo sports and ranch work, but it also has a place in the East as a good all-around family horse. Texas recognized the Quarter Horse as its state horse in 2009.
2. Devon Cattle
The story of the Devon is the story of America. The first cattle in New England were Devons, three heifers and a bull shipped to Plymouth Colony in 1623 at the behest of Edward Winslow. After clearing and plowing the land at Plymouth, the breed spread quickly throughout the developing country. Everywhere the colonists settled, the Devon went with them, from New England to Florida.
The Devon supplied butter for George Washington’s table in the peaceful days before the Revolution. It appeared on the state seal of Vermont when the war was over and the Constitution was ratified. It pulled the covered wagons of land-seeking pioneers venturing out on the Oregon Trail. And it broke the prairie sod in the days of the Homestead Act. According to the American Devon Herd Book in 1868:
The only objection ever presented to the breed, is “they are small;” but we can keep more of them, and that on shorter pastures and coarser food.
But the faithful Devon ox fell out of favor as America became an industrialized society due to that very objection of size. The Holstein and the Jersey replaced it in the dairy parlor. On the beef side of things, cattle feeders found that larger breeds ate more grain and therefore brought better profits to the feedlots. And after World War II, who needed cattle for draft work?
Better days have come again to the Devon. The polled beef type proved to be a success in the sale barn and the grassfed industry alike. The traditional type, known as the American Milking Devon, is far less popular than its meatier cousin, but its numbers are holding steady due to continued interest in homesteading.
In southern England, a landrace breed of dog was long used to herd the large sheep and cattle common there. However, the Americans were the ones who developed the innate abilities of the English Shepherd (not to be confused with the closely related Scotch Collie). Colonists often brought these dogs with them to their new homes, and perhaps crossbred them with other dogs of collie type.
Not only was the English Shepherd able to herd any kind of stock, it could deter intruders, kill rats, supervise the children, tree a squirrel or possum for the evening meal, and, when night fell, keep a watchful ear open in defense of its home and family. (In 1885, the Kansas State Horticultural Society recommended keeping one to protect trees from rabbits.) Little wonder, then, that the English Shepherd moved across the continent with the pioneers. Only on the ranches and sheep ranges of the West did another dog take precedence, its cousin the Australian Shepherd.
Since the English Shepherd was a working dog belonging to the family farmer, few considered AKC registration as a possibility. This kept the heritage of the English Shepherd as a versatile and genetically diverse landrace intact. However, it was not without consequences. Although in 1937 dog expert Leon Whitney wrote that the English Shepherd was likely the most common dog in the country, as industrialized agriculture took the place of family farming, the English Shepherd found itself without a job. Other breeds were better known and better promoted to the general public as pets. The English Shepherd dwindled perilously.
Fortunately, a revival of interest in small-scale farming has gone hand in hand with a revival of interest in the versatile English Shepherd. Hobby farmers have rediscovered the breed and are giving it a place in their country lifestyle. This increased awareness has in turn brought the breed to the attention of agility enthusiasts. The current English Shepherd population is nearly impossible to estimate. While puppies are hard to locate, the breed can nevertheless boast a small but extremely dedicated following.
4. Cotton Patch Goose
The Cotton Patch goose has a foggy history, but one that appears to involve the admixture of many different breeds imported by early colonists. This goose was most common in the rural South, where it weeded cotton patches and corn fields until surprisingly recently. It also provided food for families and down for featherbeds.
During the Great Depression, the Cotton Patch goose was of vital importance to many, helping families in the South survive by giving them a source of eggs, meat, and fat for home use or to sell.
However, with the advent of widespread herbicide use after the 1950s, weeder geese became unnecessary. The breed’s population declined sharply. Interest arose once again in the early 2000s thanks to the revival of homesteading and more natural ways of farming, although the breed is still far from secure.
Okay, so the mule is technically not a breed of anything. However, it has been far too important to American history to neglect here.
The person who played the greatest role in making mules popular in America was George Washington. Seeing a largely undeveloped country before him, he realized that a sturdy animal would become the basis of agriculture and transportation for years to come. Washington concluded that the nation needed a large work mule. When King Charles III of Spain learned of Washington’s quest for the right jack, he graciously sent two to America. One died at sea, but Washington put the other, named Royal Gift, to stud along with a Maltese jack from Lafayette. The particular blend of donkey breeds Washington developed gave rise to the American Mammoth Jackstock—a donkey created for the purpose of breeding draft mules.
Soon afterward the economic growth of the nation gave additional impetus to mule production. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Cotton became king in short order, and the mule became a valued field hand in the South, where the climate was too hot and humid for horses and oxen. Mules also pulled canal boats in the 1800s. Meanwhile, the birth of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 created still more demand for mules, as did the opening of various parts of the West to settlement.
Before long, the mule had become an American icon, numbering over 5 million on our shores by the 1920s. It had its place on farms from New England to the Deep South, from the East Coast to the Desert Southwest. Many states bred mules, but none became so firmly associated with the animal as Missouri, the nation’s center of mule production.
The mule suffered with the horse when machines became the norm. By the late 1960s, there were fewer than 10,000 mules in America, but a fascination with sustainable farming and traditional methods of raising crops once again increased the production of mules. People with small acreages and an interest in living at a slower pace now frequently choose mules as their preferred work animals, particularly in the South. The mule also thrives in the West, where it remains a favorite for packing and trail riding in rough country.
6. Berkshire Hog
The first Berkshires in America appear to have arrived in 1823. Although they were very popular, particularly in the mid-1800s, early importations typically did not last long in a pure state. Berkshires were quickly absorbed into the generic pig population due to the marked genetic improvement they created in their offspring. Nevertheless, at this early date the Berkshire was foundational to a number of other American breeds, including the Poland China.
In 1875, however, a group of hog breeders met in Springfield, Illinois, to discuss importing more Berkshires, this time with the intent of keeping the breed pure to take advantage of its superior abilities as a lard hog. This group of enthusiasts created the first pig registry in the world.
During Word War II, lard was heavily rationed, reducing its use in the American kitchen. After the war, saturated fat got a bad rap among the health-conscious, so even more Americans turned away from cooking with lard. Fortunately, Berkshire breeders were up to the task of adapting their pigs to the new lean meat paradigm. The result was a breed that could produce pork with superior color, texture, marbling, and moisture content.
Despite these excellent qualities, the Berkshire is no longer as popular as it used to be, since other breeds are necessary for the three-way cross common in the modern pork industry. Nevertheless, it is still the third most common breed of swine in America.
7. Rambouillet Sheep
In the 1700s, Spanish Merino sheep were commonly used to improve the native sheep of France and Germany. The Rambouillet breed was the result, and it was imported to America in 1840.
This breed became the basis of the range sheep industry in America due to its tolerance of extreme climates and its fine, crimped wool, which was very uniform. Today, Rambouillet is still a prominent breed in the West, accounting for roughly half the sheep population.
8. Plymouth Rock Chicken
The Plymouth Rock, despite its Pilgrim-sounding name, was developed in the mid-1800s. It probably originated from crosses of Dominique, Java, Cochin, and others.
Due to its superiority as a dual-purpose producer of meat and eggs, the Plymouth Rock was easily America’s favorite chicken from the breed’s origin to World War II. Its rapid growth and superior meat quality made it an obvious choice for the development of broiler crosses.
Unfortunately, it was this broiler industry that proved to be the breed’s undoing. The hefty, fast-growing Rock-Cornish cross used for commercial chicken production quickly became far more popular than the original Plymouth Rock. Most of the breed’s population fell by the wayside except for the White Rocks necessary to produce the cross. Fortunately, the Plymouth Rock population is now recovering because country living enthusiasts appreciate its dual-purpose capabilities.
9. Angora Goat
The Angora first came to the United States when the sultan of Turkey gave seven does and two bucks to Dr. James B. Davis of South Carolina as a thank-you gift for his work in aiding Turkey with cotton culture. This flock arrived in the South in 1849 along with Davis’s new Brahman cattle.
At least three more importations of Angora goats into North America occurred during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These goats were hardy and performed well in America. In Texas, they were selected for kemp-free fiber and ease of shearing. The result was that, by 1900, American mohair rivaled the native Turkish product.
Even today, much of the global supply of mohair comes from the United States, particularly from the state of Texas. Ranchers in the Lone Star State raise Angora goats commercially, but hobby farmers are bringing the breed to new locations in small numbers. Commercial Angora goats are traditionally selected for white hair. On small farms, however, red, brown, black, and pinto goats are gaining in popularity to supply unique colored mohair to the hand-spinning niche.
10. Belgian Hare
First off, the Belgian Hare is not a hare at all, but a show rabbit bred to look like a wild hare. It was first shown in America in 1877, and what followed is almost inconceivable.
Prior to 1900, over 6,000 Belgian Hares were imported to America, creating a rabbit-showing boom. Prices for show and breeding rabbits rose astronomically, one male setting a record of $5,000. Even millionaires like Rockefeller, Dupont, and J.P. Morgan invested in rabbits.
The boom went bust around 1902, partly because the breed had limited use other than show. True, it did commonly appear on the dining table of the day, but it was far too thin for anything like commercial meat production.
The Belgian Hare population was threatened in America for many years, although it is now recovering. It is still used primarily for exhibition.