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 man 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 the Old Testament.
Sheep production is man's oldest organized industry. Wool was
the first commodity of sufficient value to warrant international
- 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
- 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 worm resistance.
- 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.