Queen Isabella of Spain financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortez with money derived from the Spanish wool industry. It was based on the sale of wool from Merino sheep. However, when Columbus made his second voyage in 1493 to Cuba and Santo Domingo, he brought ultra-hardy, coarse-wool Churro meat sheep instead of Merinos. In 1519, part of Cortez’s walking food supply was comprised of their descendants. These became the ancestors of one of today’s rarer dual-purpose wool and meat breeds, Navajo-Churros. Spanish conquerors took Churros to South America, too, where they replaced the “sheep of Peru” (llamas) as primary livestock.
The first sheep in the new American Colonies set sail for Jamestown in 1608, but the colonists ran out of food and ate them during the winter of 1609. Fifteen years after settling Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims purchased sheep from Dutch dealers on Manhattan Island, though they probably had a few sheep before then. By 1643, there were 1,000 sheep in Massachusetts Bay Colony alone. Records show that Governor Winthrop of the Connecticut Colony acquired a flock of Southdown sheep in 1646. Although Britain soon forbade further importations, colonial Americans continued smuggling thousands of sheep.
By 1698, America was exporting woolen goods back to Europe. English leaders were outraged and soon outlawed the American wool trade, punishing participation by cutting off a person’s right hand. Restrictions on raising sheep and manufacturing wool, along with the Stamp Act, led to the American Revolutionary War. Spinning and weaving were soon considered patriotic acts. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, all of whom raised sheep at their estates, chose American-made woolen suits to wear at their inaugurations. The first wool factory in the United States was established in 1788 in Hartford, Conn.
Many breeds came to North America in the 1800s. The first Border Cheviots, for instance, came to America in the 1840s when Thomas Laidler, a shepherd on the Cheviot Hills between Scotland and Northern England, sent each of his four children living in New Lisborn, N.Y., three Cheviot sheep. Perhaps our lambs are their descendants.
Closely shorn grass lawns first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of wealthy landowners. In olden days, even in America, large estates used sheep to keep the grass clipped short. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grazed sheep on the White House lawn. Woodrow Wilson revived the custom during World War I for two reasons: According the White House Historical Association, the flock, which numbered 18 at its peak, saved manpower by cutting the grass, and President Wilson raised $52,823 for the American Red Cross by auctioning their fleeces.
Parks kept sheep for lawn cutting services, too. William Zinsser, writing in The American Scholar magazine, says that when he was a boy in the 1930s, he and his sisters fed stale bread to some of the 300 sheep that kept Central Park spiffy in earlier days. When not out grazing, the flock lived in an ultra-fancy red-brick barn with Victorian Gothic gables and spires built in 1871. Those were lucky sheep!