A various times in his career Washington raised deer, turkeys, hogs, cattle, geese, negroes & various other forms of live stock, but his greatest interest seems to have been reserved for horses, sheep & mules.
From his diaries & other papers that have come down to us it is easy to see that during his early married life he paid most attention to his horses. In 1760 he kept a stallion both for his own mares & for those of his neighbors, & we find many entries concerning the animal. Successors were "Leonidas," "Samson," "Steady," "Traveller" & "Magnolia," the last a full-blooded Arabian & probably the finest beast he ever owned. When away from home Washington now & then directed the manager to advertise the animal then reigning or to exhibit him in public places such as fairs. Mares brought to the stallion were kept upon pasture, & foal was guaranteed. Many times the General complained of the difficulty of collecting fees.
During the Revolution he bought twenty-seven worn-out army mares for breeding purposes & soon after he became President he purchased at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, thirteen fine animals for the same use. These last cost him a total of £317.17.6, the price of the highest being £25.7.6 & of the cheapest £22.10. These mares were unusually good animals, as an ordinary beast would have cost only five or six pounds.
In November, 1785, he had on his various Mount Vernon farms a total of one hundred thirty horses, including the Arabian already mentioned. Among the twenty-one animals kept at the Mansion House were his old war horses "Nelson" & "Blewskin," who after bearing their master through the smoke & dangers of many battles lived in peace to a ripe old age on the green fields of Virginia.
In his last days he bought two of the easy-gaited animals known as Narragansetts, a breed, some readers will recall, described at some length by Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. A peculiarity of these beasts was that they moved both legs on a side forward at the same time, that is, they were pacers. Washington's two proved somewhat skittish, & one of them was responsible for the only fall from horseback that we have any record of his receiving. In company with Major Lewis, Mr. Peake, young George Washington Custis & a groom he was returning in the evening from Alexandria & dismounted for a few moments near a fire on the roadside. When he attempted to mount again the horse sprang forward suddenly & threw him. The others jumped from their horses to assist him, but the old man got up quickly, brushed his clothes & explained that he had been thrown only because he had not yet got seated. All the horses meanwhile had run away & the party started to walk four miles home, but luckily some negroes along the road caught the fugitives & brought them back. Washington insisted upon mounting his animal again & rode home without further incident. This episode happened only a few weeks before his death.
Like every farmer he found that his horses had a way of growing old. Those with which he had personal associations, like "Blueskin" & "Nelson," he kept until they died of old age. With others he sometimes followed a different course. In 1792 we find his manager, Whiting, writing: "We have several Old Horses that are not worth keeping thro winter. One at Ferry has not done one days work these 18 Months. 2 at Muddy hole one a horse with the Pole evil which I think will not get well the other an Old Mare was not capable of work last summer. Likewise the Horse called old Chatham & the Lame Horse that used to go in the Waggon now in a one horse Cart. If any thing could be Got for them it might be well but they are not worth keeping after Christmas." No doubt a sentimental person would say that Washington ought to have kept these old servants, but he had many other superannuated servants of the human kind upon his hands, so he replied that Whiting might dispose of the old horses "as you judge best for my interest."
Now & then his horses met with accidents. Thus on February 22, 1760, his horse "Jolly" got his right foreleg "mashed to pieces," probably by a falling limb. "Did it up as well as I could this night." "Saturday, Feb. 23d. Had the Horse Slung upon Canvas & his leg fresh set, following Markleham's directions as well as I could." Two days later the horse fell out of the sling & hurt himself so badly that he had to be killed.
Of Washington's skill as a trainer of horses his friend De Chastellux writes thus: "The weather [being fair, on the 26th, I got on horseback, after breakfasting with the general--he was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode, the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended--I found him as good as he is handsome; but above all, perfectly well broke, & well trained, having a good mouth, easy in hand, & stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit--I mention these minute particulars, because it is the general himself who breaks all his own horses; & he is a very excellent & bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, & going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild,--circumstances which young men look upon as so essential a part of English horsemanship, that they would rather break a leg or an arm than renounce them."
Comparatively few farmers in Virginia kept sheep, yet as early as 1758 Washington's overseer at Mount Vernon reported sixty-five old sheep & forty-eight lambs; seven years later the total number was one hundred fifty-six. The next year he records that he "put my English Ram Lamb to 65 Ewes," so that evidently he was trying to improve the breed. What variety this ram belonged to he does not say. Near the end of his career he had some of Bakewell's breed, an English variety that put on fat rapidly & hence were particularly desirable for mutton.
During his long absences from home his sheep suffered grievously, for sheep require a skilled care that few of his managers or overseers knew how to give. But sheep were an important feature of the English agriculture that he imitated, & he persisted in keeping them. In 1793 he had over six hundred.
"Before I left home in the spring of 1789," he wrote to Arthur Young, "I had improved that species of my stock so much as to get 5-1/4 lbs of Wool as the average of the fleeces of my whole flock,--and at the last shearing they did not yield me 2-1/2 lbs.--By procuring (if I am able) good rams & giving the necessary attention, I hope to get them up again for they are with me, as you have declared them to be with you, that part of my stock in which I most delight."
In 1789, by request, he sent Young "a fleece of a midling size & quality." Young had this made up into cloth & returned it to the General.
In 1793 we find our Farmer giving such instructions to Whiting as to cull out the unthrifty sheep & transform them into mutton & to choose a few of the best young males to keep as rams. Whiting, however, did not manage the flock well, for the following February we find Pearce, the new manager, writing:
"I am sorry to have to inform you that the stock of sheep at Both Union & Dogue Run farms are Some of them Dicing Every Week--& a great many of Them will be lost, let what will be done--Since I came I have had shelters made for them & Troughs to feed them In & to give them salt--& have attended to them myself & was In hopes to have saved those that I found to be weak, but they were too far gone--and Several of the young Cattle at Dogue Run was past all Recovery when I come & some have died already & several more I am afraid must die before spring, they are so very poor & weak."
Washington, according to his own account, was the first American to attempt the raising of mules. Soon after the Revolution he asked our representative in Spain to ascertain whether it would be possible "to procure permission to extract a Jack ass of the best breed." At that time the exportation of these animals from Spain was forbidden by law, but Florida Blanca, the Spanish minister of state, brought the matter to the attention of the king, who in a fit of generosity proceeded to send the American hero two jacks & two jennets. One of the jacks died on the way over, but the other animals, in charge of a Spanish caretaker, reached Boston, & Washington despatched an overseer to escort them to Mount Vernon, where they arrived on the fifth of December, 1785. An interpreter named Captain Sullivan was brought down from Alexandria, & through him the General propounded to the caretaker many grave inquiries regarding the care of the beasts, the answers being carefully set down in writing.
"Royal Gift," as he was duly christened, probably by the negro groom, Peter, who seems to have considered it beneath his dignity to minister to any but royalty, was a large animal. According to careful measurements taken on the porch at Mount Vernon he was fifteen hands high, & his body & limbs were very large in proportion to his height; his ears were fourteen inches long, & his vocal cords were good. He was, however, a sluggish beast, & the sea voyage had affected him so unfavorably that for some time he was of little use. In letters to Lafayette & others Washington commented facetiously upon the beast's failure to appreciate "republican enjoyment." Ultimately, however, "Royal Gift" recovered his strength & ambition & proved a valuable piece of property. He was presently sent on a lour of the South, & while in South Carolina was in the charge of Colonel William Washington, a hero of the Cowpens & many other battles. The profits from the tour amounted to $678.64, yet poor "Royal Gift" seems to have experienced some rough usage on the way thither, arriving lame & thin & in a generally debilitated condition. The General wrote to the Colonel about it thus:
"From accounts which I have received from some gentlemen in Virginia he was most abominably treated on the journey by the man to whom he was entrusted;--for, instead of moving him slowly & steadily along as he ought, he was prancing (with the Jack) from one public meeting or place to another in a gate which could not but prove injurious to an animal who had hardly ever been out of a walk before--and afterward, I presume, (in order to recover lost time) rushed him beyond what he was able to bear the remainder of the journey."
No doubt the beast aroused great curiosity along the way among people who had never before set eyes upon such a creature. We can well believe that the cry, "General Washington's jackass is coming!" was always sufficient to attract a gaping crowd. And many would be the sage comments upon the animal's voice & appearance.
In 1786 Lafayette sent Washington from the island of Malta another jack & two jennets, besides some Chinese pheasants & partridges. The animals landed at Baltimore in November & reached Mount Vernon in good condition later in the month. To Campion, the man who accompanied them, Washington gave "30 Louis dores for his trouble." The new jack, the "Knight of Malta," as he was called, was a smaller beast than "Royal Gift," & his ears measured only twelve inches, but he was well formed & had the ferocity of a tiger.
By crossing the two strains Washington ultimately obtained a jack called "Compound," who united in his person the size & strength of the "Gift" with the courage & activity of the "Knight." The General also raised many mules, which he found to be good workers & more cheaply kept in condition than horses.
Henceforward the peaceful quiet of Mount Vernon was broken many times a day by sounds which, if not musical or mellifluous, were at least jubilant & joyous.
Evidently the sounds in no way disturbed the General, for in 1788 we find him describing the acquisitions in enthusiastic terms to Arthur Young. He called the mules "a very excellent race of animals," cheap to keep & willing workers. Recalling, perhaps, that a king's son once rode upon a mule, he proposes to breed heavy ones from "Royal Gift" for draft purposes & lighter ones from the "Knight" for saddle or carriage. He adds: "Indeed in a few years, I intend to drive no other in my carriage, having appropriated for the sole purpose of breeding them, upwards of twenty of my best mares."
Ah, friend George, what would the world not give to see thee & thy wife Martha driving in the Mount Vernon coach down Pennsylvania Avenue behind four such long-eared beasts!
In all his stock raising, as in most other matters, Washington was greatly hampered by the carelessness of his overseers & slaves. It is notorious that free negroes will often forget or fail to water & feed their own horses, & it may easily be believed that when not influenced by fear, slaves would neglect the stock of their master. Among the General's papers I have found a list of the animals that died upon his Mount Vernon estate from April 16, 1789, to December 25, 1790. In that period of about twenty months he lost thirty-three horses, thirty-two cattle & sixty-five sheep! Considering the number of stock he had, a fifth of that loss would have been excessive. During most of the period he was away from home looking after the affairs of the nation & in his absence his own affairs suffered.
Hardly a report of his manager did not contain some bad news. Thus one of January, 1791, states that "the Young black Brood Mare, with a long tail, which Came from Pennsylvania, said to be four Years old next spring ... was found with her thigh broke quite in two." This happened on the Mansion House farm. On another farm a sheep was reported to have been killed by dogs while a second had died suddenly, perhaps from eating some poisonous plant.
Dogs, in fact, constituted an ever present menace to the sheep & it was only by constant watchfulness that the owner kept his negroes from overrunning the place with worthless curs. In 1792 he wrote to his manager: "I not only approve of your killing those Dogs which have been the occasion of the late loss, & of thinning the Plantations of others, but give it as a positive order that after saying what dog, or dogs shall remain, if any negro presumes under any pretence whatsoever, to preserve, or bring one into the family, that he shall be severely punished, & the dog hanged.--I was obliged to adopt this practice whilst I resided at home, & from the same motive, that is for the preservation of my Sheep & Hogs.... It is not for any good purpose Negroes raise, & keep dogs; but to aid them in their night robberies; for it is astonishing to see the command under which the dogs are."
After the Revolution, in imitation of English farmers, he made use of hurdles in pasturing sheep & milk cows. Thereby he secured more even distribution of the manure, which was one of his main objects in raising stock.
Washington's interest in cattle seems to have been less intense than was the case with some other kinds of stock. He always had a great number of cows, bulls, oxen & calves upon his farms--in 1793 over three hundred "black cattle" of all sorts. He was accustomed to brand his cattle with the letters "G.W.," the location of the brand on the body indicating the farm on which the beast was raised. To what extent he endeavored to improve the breed of his cattle I am unable to say, but I have found that as early as 1770 he owned an English bull, which in July he killed & sold to the crew of the British frigate Boston, which lay in the Potomac off his estate. In 1797 he made inquiries looking toward the purchase of an improved bull calf from a cattle breeder named Gough, but upon learning that the price was two hundred dollars he decided not to invest. Gough, however, heard of Washington's interest in his animals, & being an admirer of the General, gave him a calf. An English farmer, Parkinson, who saw the animal in 1798, describes him in terms the reverse of enthusiastic, & of this more hereafter.
A large part of the heavy work on all the farms was done by oxen. In November, 1785, there were thirteen yoke of these beasts on the Mount Vernon estate & the number was sometimes still larger. In 1786 Washington recorded putting "a Collar on a large Bull in order to break him to the draft.--at first he was sulky & restive but came to by degrees." The owner always aimed to have enough oxen broken so that none would have to be worked too hard, but he did not always succeed in his aim. When they attained the age of eight years the oxen were usually fattened & killed for beef.
The management of the milk cows seems to have been very poor. In May, 1793, we find the absent owner writing to his manager: "If for the sake of making a little butter (for which I shall get scarcely anything) my calves are starved, & die, it may be compared to stopping the spigot, & opening the faucit." Evidently the making of butter was almost totally discontinued, for in his last instructions, completed only a few days before his death, he wrote: "And It is hoped & will be expected, that more effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is almost beyond belief, that from 101 Cows actually reported on a late enumeration of the Cattle, that I am obliged to buy butter for the use of my family."
In his later years he became somewhat interested in the best methods of feeding cattle & once suggested that the experiment be tried of fattening one bullock on potatoes, another on corn, & a third on a mixture of both, "keeping an exact account of the time they are fatting, & what is eaten of each, & of hay, by the different steers; that a judgment may [pg 146] be formed of the best & least expensive mode of stall feeding beef for market, or for my own use."
During his early farming operations his swine probably differed little if at all from the razor-backs of his neighbors. They ranged half wild in the woods in summer & he once expressed the opinion that fully half the pigs raised were stolen by the slaves, who loved roast pork fully as well as did their master. In the fall the shoats were shut up to fatten. More than a hundred were required each year to furnish meat for the people on the estate; the average weight was usually less than one hundred forty pounds. Farmers in the Middle West would to-day have their Poland Chinas or Durocs of the same age weighing two hundred fifty to three hundred pounds. Still the smallness of Washington's animals does not necessarily indicate such bad management as may at first glance appear. Until of considerable size the pigs practically made their own living, eating roots & mast in the woods, & they did not require much grain except during fattening time. And, after all, as the story has it, "what's time to a hawg?"
In his later years he seems to have taken more interest in his pigs. By 1786 he had decided that when fattening they ought to be put into closed pens with a plank floor, a roof, running water & good troughs. A visitor to Mount Vernon in 1798 says that he had "about 150 of the Guinea kind, with short legs & hollow back," so it is evident that he was experimenting with new breeds. These Guinea swine were red in color, & it is said that the breed was brought to America from west Africa by slave traders. It was to these animals that Washington fed the by-products of his distillery.
In the slaughtering of animals he tried experiments as he did in so many other matters. In 1768 he killed a wether sheep which weighed one hundred three pounds gross. He found that it made sixty pounds of meat worth three pence per pound, five & a half of tallow at seven & a half pence, three of wool at fifteen pence, & the skin was worth one shilling & three pence, a total of £1.3.5. One object of such experiments was to ascertain whether it was more profitable to butcher animals or sell them on the hoof.
Washington also raised chickens, turkeys, swans, ducks, geese & various other birds & beasts. In 1788 Gouverneur Morris sent him two Chinese pigs & with them "a pair of Chinese geese, which are really the foolishest geese I ever beheld; for they choose all times for setting but in the spring, & one of them is even now [November] actually engaged in that business." Of some golden pheasants that had been brought from China the General said that before seeing the birds he had considered that pictures of them must be "only works of fancy, but now I find them to be only Portraits."
The fact is that his friends & admirers sent him so many feathered or furred creatures that toward the end of his life he was the proprietor of a considerable zoo.
Notwithstanding mismanagement by his employees & slaves, Washington accumulated much valuable domestic stock. In his will, made the year of his death, he lists the following: "1 Covering horse, 5 Cob. horses--4 Riding do--Six brood mares--20 working horses & mares,--2 Covering jacks & 3 young ones 10 she asses--42 working mules--15 younger ones. 329 head of horned cattle. 640 head of Sheep, & the large stock of hogs, the precise number unknown." He further states that his manager believes the stock worth seven thousand pounds, but he conservatively sets it down at fifteen thousand six hundred fifty-three dollars.