Livestock cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens arrived with the first European settlers. It was common for farmers in many areas to allocate nearly ninetenths of their land to animal pasture rather than crops, providing more butter and meat for their tables and wool for their homespun clothing. Since most farmers had very fertile land, livestock and grain excesses were common. And, as urban populations grew exponentially throughout the colonial era, foodstuff surpluses became increasingly important.
The 25,000 to 30,000 people in mid-eighteenthcentury Boston, Salem, Providence, and similar towns relied exclusively on local farmers who provided meat, butter, and other foodstuffs. Planters living near the small but growing towns of Williamsburg and Annapolis fattened cattle and hogs for quick sale, supplying residents in each city with nearly 300,000 pounds of meat a year.
The planters who had left Barbados to settle South Carolina came to America expecting to produce goods for exportation and turned to satisfying the growing demand for salted pork and beef in the West Indies. Within ten years of settlement, Carolinians had thousands of hogs and cattle, with the richest men owning several hundred of each. Slaves and servants drove some animals back to pens at night, but most livestock remained in the woods, necessitating a semiannual roundup. Once captured, the animals were driven to Charles Town, where they were butchered and sent to the islands. As rice replaced cattle in the South Carolina low country, herders moved to the upcountry of the colony and to Georgia. In the 1760s and 1770s, Georgia cattlemen produced thousands of barrels of salted meat each year for export.
Livestock was essential to settlement. Former servants and laborers in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake bought livestock even before they built houses. When a family set up a farm, they purchased a cow or two, a few swine, and some dunghill fowl. Early in the seventeenth century, cattle were scarce, but by mid-century they were plentiful. Cattle herds grazed the open range, and hardy swine lived off the forests. Mid-Atlantic and Southern farmers acquired horses, while New Englanders bought oxen.
Chesapeake fathers, godparents, and other relatives often gave children livestock as gifts. Throughout the colonies, daughters of both middling class and poor men received livestock as part of their dowries. Animal ownership did not ensure subsistence and market crops, but at least the new family could plow fields and put eggs, milk, butter, and meat on their table. The new farm family then cleared the land and planted crops so they could pay off the debts accrued from livestock purchase.
Livestock caused innumerable tensions between whites and Native Americans. As white farmers took over the land, they altered the topography, permitting their cattle and hogs to forage in fields and woods in competition with animals hunted by Native Americans or even in the native’s unfenced cornfields. To preserve the available food for their livestock, colonists killed animals like deer that Native Americans relied on for subsistence. When Native Americans killed roaming livestock for meat not recognizing them as private property the colonial farmers became furious. Some rich farmers hired natives and poor whites to tend their livestock. The white herdsmen, dependent on the money earned tending animals, resented the competition of the natives and sometimes reacted violently.
As lands became more settled and hunting diminished, many Native Americans turned to livestock husbandry. By the middle of the late seventeenth century, Native Americans living among settlers in New England, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley were herding livestock. They particularly liked pigs, because the animals required little care and could be hunted when left to their own devices. King Philip, the Pequot sachem, raised huge numbers of hogs in the 1660s, setting them to graze on Hog Island. This eventually led to war because Portsmouth farmers also used the island. Native Americans also sold pork in Boston, often procuring firearms in return.
The few native residents who remained in the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake turned to herding to support themselves. William Taptico, the last leader of the Wicomico tribe in Virginia, raised sheep, milk cows, and hogs during the 1710s. In times of war, soldiers often drove off vast numbers of livestock to keep the animals from being used by their enemies, or they simply confiscated the animals for their own use. During the American Revolution, the patriots regularly ordered the removal of livestock to safe havens out of reach of the British army. From March 1777 through 1780, livestock was relocated from the New Jersey coast; from the Wilmington, Delaware, area, Darby Creek, Pennsylvania, and Kent County, Maryland; from parts of the Eastern Shore of Maryland; and from the North Carolina coast. This removal of livestock caused great hardships for local residents, who depended on the animals for milk, meat, plowing, and transportation. Solomon K. Smith See also: Agriculture; Horses. Bibliography Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. “King Philip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England,” William & Mary Quarterly 51 (1792): 6001 6024. Kulikoff, Alan. From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Oakes, Elinor F. “A Ticklish Business: Dairying in New England and Pennsylvania, 1750 1812.” Pennsylvania History 47 (1792): 195 212.
Livestock Gallery Photos