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Part 1: A History Lesson

By Hypatia Francis

Nearly as old as European settlement itself, the history of wool in North America is one of frontiersmen, bandits, and often bloody conflict. In this first article in our three-part series on the rise and fall of the wool industry, we dig into the role of sheep in the lives of early settlers, and unearth some interesting facts about an animal whose importance is often downplayed.

The first domestic sheep to step foot—well hoof, really— into the New World was the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed brought over on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493.  The Churra is a small, hardy sheep. By today’s standards, the quality of its wool is fairly poor. So, why did the Spanish choose to bring this breed to the New World?


Jeanne Carver, co-owner of Imperial Stock Ranch, an Oregon sheep-and-cattle ranch that has been operating continuously since 1871, has an answer. According to Carver, “Fine wool sheep in Spain were considered so valuable that it wasn’t allowed to take them out of the country.” So, instead of the Merino, a breed prized for its fine fleece, the Spanish brought over the Churra, followed by the Manchega, the Castellana, and the Lacha. These sheep, which would later become known by American frontiersmen as Churro, were used mainly for their meat, with their wool seen as a by-product—perhaps not the most promising start for the wool industry in North America.


Things didn’t really take off until more than a hundred years later, in 1598, when Don Juan de Oñate brought settlers and 2,900 sheep from Mexico up along the Rio Grande, and established a colony in the Southwest. Spanish ranches prospered in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Navajo, living on the outskirts of Spanish occupation, gradually acquired Churro sheep through trade and raids. Eventually, as other breeds were brought to the new world, the Navajo crossed the Churro with Jacob sheep, and a new breed was born: the Navajo-Churro.


"Sheep Flock in Owens Valley, 1941" by Ansel Adams. From the series "Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments," U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.


Meanwhile, on the other side of North America, colonists were slowly building their own flocks. Craig Chartier is the director and principal archaeologist of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. His research on the daily lives of colonists in New England has included looking at the role of livestock in the Plymouth colony. According to Chartier, while cattle arrived in Plymouth earlier, sheep filled an important role in the lives of the colonists.


Unlike the sheep brought over to the New World from Spain, the sheep shipped to the 13 colonies appear to have been used mainly for wool. Little is known about which breeds the colonists brought with them, but Chartier’s archaeological digs in New England have turned up, among other things, sheep bones. He says based on the evidence, it looks as if colonists were keeping the sheep for a long time, which points to using the animals for wool rather than for meat. Historical records back this up. “England was trying to build up their wool production to compete with the Netherlands,” says Chartier, “so they were encouraging colonists to bring sheep over to produce wool which would then be shipped back to England.”


By the mid-1600s, woolen mills were up and running in New England, and the 13 colonies were home to roughly 100,000 sheep. When the Franco-Dutch war broke out, imports from England were temporarily cut off and colonial cloth manufacturing expanded. The wool industry was considered so important, explains Chartier, that “there were laws saying that every town had to have a certain amount of land set aside for sheep so they could produce wool.” Massachusetts even passed a law requiring young people to spin and weave.


The Wool Act of 1699 banned the export of wool from any British colony, either overseas or between colonies. England was the only place to which colonists were allowed to export wool. A colonist caught breaking this law risked losing his right hand. Along with the Stamp Act of 1765, and other oppressive actions, this policy helped incite the American Revolution.


During this same period, flocks were being established in French colonies in North America. In 1664, colonists in New France brought the first sheep over from France. Three years later, New France had a flock of 45 sheep, and by 1671 colonists in Acadia had 407 sheep. Sheep were seen as vital to the daily lives of the settlers, being an important source of both clothing and food. Sheep were so common in New France that 18th century Swedish botanist Peter Kalm noted in his book, published in 1770 in English as Travels in North America, “every countryman commonly keeps a few sheep which supply him with as much wool as he needs to clothe himself with.”


The Napoleonic Wars nearly destroyed the Merino wool industry in Spain, and the breed finally made it to the New World. But it was not the most promising introduction. William Foster of Boston, Massachusetts imported the first Merino sheep in 1793 and gave them to a gentleman to keep. This man, ignorant of the value of Merino wool, slaughtered and ate them. Merino sheep were introduced into Vermont in 1802. By the mid-1830s, the state had a million sheep, and the price of wool stood at 57 cents a pound, a very good price in those days. Within ten years however, the price had dropped to 25 cents a pound. Sheep-raising in Vermont simply couldn’t keep up with the more efficient competition from the Western states.


Sheep grazing in Wheatland County, Montana circa 1942. Photography by John Vachon.


As settlers moved west, range wars erupted between cattle ranchers and sheepherders over grazing rights. Racism played a role in these conflicts, as many sheepherders were either Hispanic or Native American. The sheep wars, as they become known, were not minor skirmishes. In the space of fifty years, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 sheep were slaughtered during these conflicts.


In the 1850s thousands of Churro, descended from the first sheep brought over by the Spanish, were trailed west to feed Gold Rush prospectors. The remaining Churro were crossed with wool sheep to supply an increasing demand for garment wool for Union and Confederate uniforms. Throughout the Civil War, the U.S. Army fought not just the Confederates, but waged a campaign against Native Americans. In 1863, the U.S. Army destroyed Navajo flocks, nearly wiping out the breed of Navajo-Churro entirely. Prior to the Navajo War, their sheep numbered between 250, 000 and 500, 000. Following the Long Walk, those numbers had been reduced to 940 sheep.


In the years following the Civil War, tracts of land became available to white Americans as the federal government forcibly resettled native peoples onto reserves. Sheep-raising on the open range expanded throughout the American West, with ranches on which sheep numbered in the thousands.


In the early 1900s there were so many sheep in the west that they were starting to have an effect on their surroundings. In the Colorado Plateau for instance, overstocking of sheep in the area’s highlands brought forest regeneration to a standstill. Cotton might have been king, but wool was a close second. By 1942, there were 56 million head of sheep in the U.S. Not bad for an animal so often dismissed by history.


Hypatia Francis is a Montreal-based editor, writer, and translator. When she isn't wrestling with split infinitives, she likes to travel, cook, and read long, mind-improving books. While Hypatia is an enthusiastic knitter, she has yet to get beyond the stocking stitch.