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New Video! “George Washington’s Woolly Tribe”

By Caitlin Conley
February 9, 2015

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

Welcome to Part II of our video series “George’s Farm Animals.” This time we explore how GW cared for his sheep, which were his favorite part of his stock. Perhaps he enjoyed them so much because they were incredibly useful; they not only brought in money with their wool, but provided mutton and helped fertilize his fields. When he returned home from the Revolutionary War, GW instituted a careful breeding program in order to increase the numbers and strength of his flocks. When he had to leave again to assume the presidency, unfortunately the quality of his stock suffered, as it had during his absence for the war.

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First edition title page of Arthur Young’s published correspondence with George Washington

He corresponded with noted agricultural experts of the day on all topics related to agriculture. In fact, one of the most enjoyable parts for me in doing research for this series was reading the correspondence between Arthur Young and GW. Young was fascinated by all aspects of American agriculture, and George wrote him long letters that described the landscape of Virginia, his frustrations with his fellow farmers, and his hopes for the future of American agriculture. Throughout this correspondence, George voiced particularly strong opinions about the importance of raising sheep.

The video features a letter to Henry Dorsey Gough, letters to and from Arthur Young, and a letter to James Athill. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition gives the following biographical information for each.

Henry Dorsey Gough (c.1745-1808) was a merchant and land speculator who lived in Baltimore County, Virginia. He raised improved breeds of livestock at his country estate, Perry Hall. He was also the president of the Maryland Society for Promoting Agriculture in 1786. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: George Washington to Harry Dorsey Gough, August 23, 1797.

Arthur Young (1741-1820) was a prominent English agriculturalist who became the leader of the movement to modernize agricultural methods in England. In 1784, he began editing, and writing most of, the annual periodical Annals of Agriculture, volumes of which he periodically sent to GW. He began a long correspondence with GW in 1786, exchanging seeds, plans, books, and more. Read the full text of the letters between Young and GW here: George Washington to Arthur Young, 4 December, 1788, George Washington to Arthur Young, 18-21 June, 1792, Arthur Young to George Washington, 17 January, 1793, and Arthur Young to George Washington, January 25, 1791.

GW identifies James Athill (unknown dates) as the Speaker of the Assembly of Antigua in his diary entry on Athill’s visit to Mount Vernon on November 13, 1797. Athill sent GW five sheep and exotic plants from Antigua as a gift; in return, GW sent a ram and five ewes. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: George Washington to James Athill, 4 September, 1789.

Bringing these documents to life are Mount Vernon’s rare Hog Island sheep, a breed native to Virginia. We’re not sure what kind of sheep GW raised, but this breed is a close approximation to what sheep would have looked like during his time. For more information on Hog Island sheep, see Mount Vernon’s website and the Livestock Conservancy website.

Watch the video on our video page, and please let us know what you think! Stay tuned for Part III, coming next week!