By Doug Ottinger – The history of chickens and other domestic species of poultry has long been an integral part of our American history. From the earliest colonists arriving on sailing ships, frontier settlers, and pet chickens at the White House, we as Americans have always loved poultry.
From the earliest days at Plimoth Plantation to the colonial era, heritage chicken breeds and other fowl were repeatedly mentioned. Red Dorking fowl were kept by the Pilgrims at Plimoth. Years later, written records from Colonial Williamsburg would indicate that some breeds we call heritage chicken breeds today, including Dorkings, Dominiques, and Hamburgs were common. Fancy breeds such as Polish, Silkies, and Nankin bantams were also kept by the wealthier citizens.
Roosters and rooster behavior were admired by the early citizens. Fighting cocks were admired for their bravery and willingness to defend their flocks and territory. To many, they symbolized a firm, fighting resolve to stand up to all enemies. One of the interesting facts about roosters is they became popular themes for folk art during the formative years of the new nation. So admired was the rooster, it lost by only two legislative votes, to the Bald Eagle, as our national symbol. Other facts about roosters that many frontier people admired were their refusal to back down from a fight when challenged, and their willingness to take on seemingly any enemy, no matter the size.
On a sadder note in our history, African slaves were often barred by law from owning larger livestock. Chickens were one of the few animals that African slaves could own in Colonial America. George Washington even forbade his slaves to own ducks or geese at Mount Vernon. It was feared that any livestock of any significant economic value could be sold by the slaves and provide them with money to escape or somehow gain their freedom. Working with what they had, slaves were often allowed to market their chickens and were able to use them to a small economic advantage.
While most people consider it very cruel today, cockfighting was one of the most popular sports in early America. By some accounts, it was only exceeded in popularity by horse racing. Cockfighting was popular in the colonies, as well as with later frontier settlers. A surprising number of our founding fathers, as well as later statesmen who lived on the frontier during their formative years, were great fans of, and often involved in, cockfighting. Abraham Lincoln was one of these. He enjoyed the sport very much and was well-known as a cockfight referee. It is said that he received the moniker, Honest Abe, of his strict honesty when officiating.
Cockfights were no small event. They were generally announced several weeks in advance, in both frontier newspapers and posted bills. Participants and observers would come from 30 or 40 miles around to participate and watch. The matches were generally held at inns or taverns and were hosted by the innkeepers. The owners made money on food, drink, and lodging during the events. Large social events, heavy gambling took place at the fights. Large amounts of cash would often change hands during a two or three-day match. The tavern and innkeepers also acted as book-makers during the events and received a cut of the posted bets. One of the most interesting things about the fighting birds and breeding stock was the value placed upon them. During this period, utility fowl were often left to forage for themselves and driven into orchards or groves at night to roost in the trees. Gamefowl, however, might be kept in coops, barns, or even in a room of a frontier cabin or home. A good fighting rooster could mean actual cash money at a match, and cash could be hard to come by on the frontier.
Chickens were also loved as pets. In 1862, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia received a shipment of live chickens for food. It seems that one little black hen managed to escape. Stories differ on where she hid for the night. Some versions claim she roosted in a tree above Lee’s tent. Another version claims the little hen took shelter inside the flap of the tent. In any event, Lee, who came from a family of poultry keepers, took a liking to the little hen, keeping her as a pet. She traveled with him during many military campaigns for the next couple of years. Named Nellie by the general, she reportedly provided him with many eggs for breakfast during their stay together. According to several history notes, the hen was nowhere to be found when Lee’s army was preparing to retreat from Gettysburg. A mad scramble ensued to find her. Alas, she was finally found, safe and secure, hiding in the corner of one of the supply wagons.
While not connected with the history of chickens, there was also another barnyard bird that became a celebrity-of-sorts, during the Civil War. In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to make the final Thursday of November a day of Thanksgiving and Praise. In commemoration of the event, a private citizen gave the first family a live turkey, to be slaughtered and roasted for their private meal on the given day. Tad, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, took a liking to the turkey. Naming it Jack, he treated it as a pet and the turkey began following him around the grounds of the White House. One day, Tad learned of the bird’s fate. Distraught, he ran inside and interrupted an important meeting that his father was having with several high-ranking senators. According to the story, Lincoln stopped what he was doing to listen to his son. When Tad had finished, his father took a pen and wrote out a reprieve of execution for the turkey. He handed the slip of paper to the boy, who promptly delivered it to the White House cook — the first presidential turkey pardon in United States history.
This was not the only poultry species to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Grover Cleveland raised Shawl Neck game chickens while in office. Theodore Roosevelt’s children had a one-legged rooster for a pet, as well as a spotted hen named Baron Spreckle. Years later, movie actress, Marie Dressler, would give Calvin and Grace Coolidge a white goose as a pet. Eventually, the goose disappeared from the White House, the official story being that someone left a door open and the large fatted fowl simply flew off, never to be seen again. Yes, America has had a large love affair with barnyard and backyard fowl throughout the years.
What unusual, interesting, and little-known facts about the history of chickens can you find?