Patriotic Poultry: What did our Founding Fathers Raise?

Patriotic Poultry: What did our Founding Fathers Raise?

On this Fourth of July, I dug into some of our founding fathers’ archives to see if they had a passion for poultry like we do today. Chickens have been an important part of our nation’s history for a while. DNA research suggests that chickens came to the Americas by multiple routes when Dutch and Portuguese slave traders brought chickens from Africa in the 16th century. Even earlier, Polynesia brought the birds to Chile between 700-1390 AD, a century before Columbus!

I was interested to see if our first presidents had specific breeds, as the American Poultry Assocation wasn’t founded until 1873. The organization was created to judge breeds to a standard as the first American poultry show was held in 1849, years prior to the creation of a standard.

Today, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation teaches guests on the subject of chicken keeping by exhibiting five breeds common in the early 18th century including ornamental Polish, Frizzle, Silkies, and endangered Dominique and Nankin. But did our founding fathers have these? (To learn about the 19th century chicken keeping practices check out my article, titled “From Backyards to Factory Farms: The Evolution of Poultry Farming in America” (Issue Oct 2021).

George Washington

Life: February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799

1st U.S. President: April 30, 1789 -March 4, 1797

According to Mount Vernon’s website, the Washingtons raised a variety of domesticated fowl, including chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs. Part of their flock was Dominiques.  The Dominique is recognized as the first American breed of chicken and was somewhat common in the eastern United States as early as 1750, according to The Livestock Conservancy. Initial names of these birds include Blue Spotted Hen, Old Grey Hen, Dominico, Dominic, and Dominicker.

Martha’s cookbook included recipes for sousing or pickling the birds “in imitation of sturgeon,” stewing, boiling, and serving them in jelly. (No thank you!)

Care of the poultry at Mount Vernon was managed by the plantation mistress. According to Mount Vernon, George Washington wrote a letter to his hired servant, John Alton, that Martha and the children will be arriving shortly. To make the best impression on his new family, George wanted “the beds made up, all the furniture polished, and to ‘get some Egg’s [sic] and Chickens’,” suggesting that there were no poultry at Mount Vernon until Mrs. Washington’s arrival.

Turkeys were less common than chickens for the Washingtons. While George was away for eight years during the American Revolution, Martha continued to purchase and raise turkeys – probably wild, non-domesticated, turkeys.  Plantation carpenters built wooden boxes for hens to lay eggs in the spring.

According to the website, turkey was served at both the Washingtons’ table and in the slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Martha’s cookbook included recipes for sousing or pickling the birds “in imitation of sturgeon,” stewing, boiling, and serving them in jelly. (No thank you!)

Archaeologists have found a lot of turkey bones at the enslaved quarters at Mount Vernon. While this suggests that the enslaved ate turkey, there is no records of them raising turkeys – only chickens and ducks. Archaeologists believe this suggests that these birds were acquired mainly through hunting.

Domestic and wild geese were acquired for and raised at Mount Vernon. They were encouraged to interbreed. Martha had many recipes for goose including “roasted; boiled with onions or cabbage; served with a sweet green sauce made of sorrel; or served in a ragoo or as Goose a la Mode, a rather complicated recipe using dried tongue, chicken, sweet herbs, onion, ham or bacon, red wine, ketchup, veal sweetbreads, truffles, morels, butter, flour, pepper, salt, and mace, with some lemon for garnish. Instructions were also given for drying a goose so that it would keep for two or three months.” (No thank you!)

“Agriculture … is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to wealth, good morals and happiness….” — Thomas Jefferson, 1787, in a letter to George Washington, from Paris.

The Washingtons also enjoyed eating duck. Due to the natural large population of ducks in the Chesapeake Bay, ducks were hunted rather than raised domestically.

John Adams

Life: October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826

2nd U.S. President: March 4, 1797-  March 4, 1801

John and Abigal Adams moved to their Quincy, Massachusetts farm in 1788, where they designed a well-laid-out property with fields of grain for livestock. Abigal tended to chickens and livestock in “calamitous cold, and hellish heat.”

Unfortunately, since farming was so common to them, details of their “new breeds of chickens” or “botanical curiosities” or “horticultural experiments” were not written in Adams’ biography.  

Thomas Jefferson

Life: April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826

3rd U.S. President: March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809

Thomas Jefferson, the well-known agriculturist, kept a variety of poultry at Monticello, including chickens, ducks, Guinea fowl, peacocks, pigeons, geese, and turkeys.

“Agriculture … is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to wealth, good morals and happiness….” — Thomas Jefferson, 1787, in a letter to George Washington, from Paris.

Check out these primary sources from letters written to or from Jefferson:

1771. “Thin the trees …. Keep in it deer, rabbits, Peacocks, Guinea poultry, pidgeons &c. Let it be an asylum for hares, squirrels, pheasants, partridges …. court them to it by laying food for them in proper places….

1806 November 21. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). “Davy arrived last night…. he carries also a cage with a pair of Bantams for Ellen.”

1806 November 30. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). “by Davy I sent you a pair of Bantam fowls; quite young: so that I am in hopes you will now be enabled to raise some. I propose on their subject a question of natural history for your enquiry: that is whether this is the Gallina Adrianica, or Adria, the Adriatick cock of Aristotle? for this you must examine Buffon &c.”

1771. “Thin the trees …. Keep in it deer, rabbits, Peacocks, Guinea poultry, pidgeons &c. Let it be an asylum for hares, squirrels, pheasants, partridges …. court them to it by laying food for them in proper places….

1806 December 12. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “I received the Bantams for which I am very much obliged to you they seem to be larger, and younger, than the first and I think them handsomer.”

1807 February 17. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). ” … as for the Bantam she laid one egg in the cold weather and eat it up I am very much afraid she will do all the others so if she does she will be as worthless as the others but in spite of that I am very fond of them and think them very handsome the old ones are quite tame but the new much to the contrary.”

1807 June 29. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). “how go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, & on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians. these varieties are pleasant for the table & furnish an agreeable diversification in our domestic occupations.”

1807 November 1. (Jefferson to Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead). “I expect a pair of wildgeese of a family which have been natives for several generations, but they will hardly be here in time for Davy. they are entirely domesticated, beautiful, have a very musical note, & are much superior to the tame for the table.”

1807 November 11. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “one of my poor little Bantams is dead and the one which I liked best although it was the old one he had got so tame that he would fly up in my lap and eat out of my hand all the children were sorry at his death.”

1808 January 15. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “my Bantams are well but I am afraid I shall never raise any.”

1808 March 11. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “I am in a fair way to raise some Bantams as the hen is now setting she has taken up her residence in the cellar has laid 13 eggs and I hope will hatch some chickens.”

1808 March 14. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). “I am glad to learn you are at length likely to succeed with your Bantams. they are worthy of your attention.”

1808 March 18. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “My bantam will hatch in 10 days and I hope I shall raise some of her chickens but they are so delicate she hatched some last year we took great care of them but they died.”

1808 March 25. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “my bantam will hatch next week.”

1808 March 29. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). “I am glad to hear you expect a family of Bantams. take good care of them. is it not best to put the hen into a tobacco stick coop, in & round which the chickens will always stay.”

1808 April 1. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “my bantam has hatched 8. pretty little chickens and I shall follow your advice about her treatment.”

I found it fun to read the volleying of letter writing. I can sense how excited they are to get their first clutch of bantams to hatch.  It’s like reading a text chain between friends.

Like the other presidents, there are many records of (small) payments to enslaved people for chickens. In addition to distinguishing between bantams and large birds, Jefferson mentions a few breeds, which are comparable to what we have today.  

1808 April 1. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). “my bantam has hatched 8. pretty little chickens and I shall follow your advice about her treatment.”

In a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Anne Cary Randolph, 9 January 1804, he writes, “I have here a pair of beautiful fowls of enormous size of the East India breed”.  

In another letter from Jefferson to Mary Jefferson Eppes, 29 January 1804, Jefferson writes, “since proposing to Anne the undertaking to raise Bantams I have received from Algiers two pair of beautiful fowls, something larger than our common fowls with fine aigrettes. they are not so large nor valuable as the East-India fowl, but both kinds, as well as the Bantams are well worthy of being raised. we must therefore distribute them among us; and raise them clear of mixture of any kind. all this we will settle together in March, and soon after I hope we shall begin the levelling, and establishment of your hen-house.”

A few years later, Jefferson received a letter with the following request: “I am about to Remove to the State of Tennessee have been wrote to by two particular Friends of mine to try to procure from you a pair or two of your Large Fowls. I believe they are called the Chinese Fowls, however they are the largest kind you have…” 

James Madison Jr.

Life: March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836

4th U.S. President:  March 4, 1809 – March 4, 1817

A 560-acre track of land at Montpelier, the home to President James Madison, was overseen by two free white men and an enslaved man named Sawney. In addition to growing vegetables, Sawney raised chickens and eggs to be sold to ‘Miss Dolley,’ James’s wife.

According to Montpelier, like many other plantations, chickens were the one type of livestock that was almost exclusively owned by the enslaved community. Invoices can be found from the Madisons’ White House chef and butler Michel Kromenacker for an 1812 trip to Montpelier with a note saying “paid for chickens at Montpelier” with a total of 50 cents.

founding-fathers-Montpelier
A photo of the South Yard were the enslaved people lived and raised poultry at Montpelier. Photo by Kenneth Garrett, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation
founding-fathers-Montpelier
Another view of the South Yard at Montpelier. Photo by Terry Brock, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Conclusion

In addition to the American Poultry Assocation not being formed until decades after these presidents raised their poultry, there is another reason why most did not include detailed information on the types of chickens they were raising. Back then, most people had chickens. During the time of our founding fathers, raising chickens was seen as a lower-class activity. And because of this, chickens were left out of the livestock accountings. However, bantams and ornamental fowl were considered a royal class hobby and that is why we do get some records of those groups of birds.

Published in June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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