History of American Milking Devon Cattle
New England Cattle:
Red "Natives" of Devonshire Extraction
by Kristina Bielenberg, Old Sturbridge Village, August, 1976.


In my own estimation, the best breed of cattle decidedly for all purposes that I have seen, are the fine red cattle of Old Hampshire and Worcester counties in Massachusetts. The cows are clean limbed and well formed, and usually good milkers; the oxen large, exceedingly active, and of quick growth, very hardy, and remarkably handsome . . . . That this breed is capable of improvement, may be very true; yet I have known bulls sold from an ordinary drove of cattle, for fifty to seventy five dollars, to a farmer to turn on to the farm, and of nothing more than the common breed of
ULMUS. (From a letter to the editor of the "Genesee Farmer" reprinted on page 116 in the October 24, 1832 edition of the "New England Farmer")

When the English settled along the coast of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, they brought with them neat cattle from their home districts or from the counties nearest the ports of their departure. Although there is some evident that black-and-white Dutch, Danish yellow, Lincolnshire, long-horned Lancashire, and Sussex cattle were imported into the Bay Colony, the principle or dominant stock appears to have been of Devonshire extraction. As emigration proceeded from the eastern shore in the interior of New England, these cattle became intermixed until, as Lewis Allen in his American Cattle noted, "they became an indefinite compound of all their original breeds, and composing a multitude of all possible sorts, colors, shapes and sizes." By the last decades of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth, however, the New England cattle were described by many admirers as a "breed", so carefully had certain characteristics been cultivated in them. Although brindled stock was frequently found in Massachusetts, the "red natives," with their upright and spreading horns, attracted the most attention for they provided "the primary objects of the New England farmer - labour, beef, and rich milk for butter and cheese."

The introduction of improved Shorthorns (Durhams) into New England, beginning with the importations of Cornelius Cooledge and Samuel Williams about 1818, promoted interest in cattle combining both good milking properties with early maturity. The offspring of Denton, Coelebs, and Wye Comet were to be found throughout Massachusetts and Maine - Denton's progeny winning most of the premiums offered by the Worcester Agricultural Society during the 1820s. Yet, there were many farmers and progressivists who challenged the claim that the common cattle were inferior to the imported stock and their crossbreeds.

Perhaps the most outspoken proponent for the red native was Timothy Pickering who personally waged a war of correspondence against Shorthorn breeder, John Hare Powel. Their letters were published as a serial in both the "American Farmer" and "New England Farmer" magazines throughout the better part of 1825. Pickering believed that the native breed, which was well "accommodated to the food given for its support," could be perfected through careful selection, breeding, and management. As evidence, he cited the record of the Oakes or Danvers cow which in 1813, at four years of age and with ordinary keep, yielded 180 pounds of butter. In 1816 her yield, from May 15 to December 20 plus the butter made while she suckled her calf, was 484 1/4 pounds. This increase was largely due to her change in diet - a rich gruel of Indian corn meal stirred into her own skim milk. The returns, however, were very impressive for a cow purchased from a common drove.

In the hilly portions of New England where the pastures were often short and the work hard, the chief merit of the Devon-type native was its excellence as a draught animal. Lewis Allen stated that "for ordinary labor, either at the plow, the wagon, or the cart, he is equal to all common duties, and on the road his speed and endurance is unrivalled." It was claimed that these cattle could trot along at six miles per hour with an empty cart, whereas the "heavier oxen (Shorthorn) . . . for want of activity would be ineligible; and for the road particularly unfit, - their feet . . . would fail." The Westminster and Sutton natives were so highly regarded by those who attended the annual Worcester Cattle Shows that Mr. Lowell, chairman of the Committee on Livestock of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, offered the following opinion in 1821: "If we could transport the best working cattle of Worcester and Norfolk . . . to Great Britain, they might challenge all the three kingdoms to compete with them in all the various points of labour to which cattle are applicable."

Praises for the former deeds of Massachusetts cattle were numerous, yet there remain few eighteenth or nineteenth century sources which provide an accurate genotypic or phenotypic description of the red native. William Youatt acknowledged that even in Britain the various breeds were intermixed and that the Devons of Devonshire were simply the purest form of a type of Devon. The North Devon very likely possessed bloodlines from Somerset and Dorset. Nevertheless, the native was classified as a medium-sized bovine of the middle-horned group.

In New England cattle of Devonshire extraction were variably described as red, red-brown, mahogany, and chestnut in color. The hair was generally fine and glossy, and it was not uncommon for the winter coat to be curly like moire. The horns were tipped in black and the tail tapered to "a brush of white hair." An Englishman, Mr. Featherstonhaugh, after traveling some 1500 miles through several of the United States, stated that "thousands of oxen are to be seen throughout this country, somewhat lighter in colour, but bearing all the marks of this (Devon) blood, except the yellow colour of the muzzle, and the ring round the eyes." It is possible that these variations were provided by the occasional infusion of South Devon blood or that of other light-colored cattle having dark nose and eye patterning. Samuel Boardman in his Maine Cattle, likewise stated that the native cattle, before their improvement in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, were lighter in color and that their characteristic horns were "somewhat coarser and less tapering than that of the Devon, and showed a good deal of the Sussex coarseness and weight about the forehead" and shoulders. It appears that through selection and perhaps crossbreeding the red native acquired by the mid-nineteenth century some of the "deer-like" refinement and symmetry of the improved North Devon; however, its horns, although in form and waxy color similar to the Devon, were presumably larger.

Although it was conceded that the Shorthorn was larger and more easily fatted for the market, the Devon was recognized for producing a fine, lean carcass on grass feed alone. One victualler claimed that "the average weight of our common cows fattened to be good beef, is 100 lbs. a quarter." Pickering wrote that "The few farmers who have lately fallen in my way, of whom I could make inquiry, have answered, that oxen which when fattened would weigh 1000 or 1200 pounds including beef, hide and tallow, are quite large enough for all the labour of our farmers." Henry Colman in his Fourth Report of the Agriculture of Massachusetts stated that the cattle of Franklin county "in general are of a medium size, the cows varying, when fatted, from 600 to 800 lbs. when dressed; and the oxen at five and six years old, from 900 to 1600 lbs." Mature bulls weighed, when dressed, between 1000 and 1200 lbs. From these figures it can be seen that the cow, bull, and ox were proportionately different in size.

The red native was considered to be a good milker from the standpoint that it produced more butter per pound of milk than most any other breed available to New Englanders before the importations of Channel Island cattle. Although the Devon-type cow presumably lacked some of the angularity found in most of the dairy breeds, she was broad in the ribs, "barrel-like", or what some writers described as "roomy." The Oakes cow produced a pound of butter from 7 quarts of whole milk. The most general figure given was from 12 to 16 quarts, wine measure, per pound. In an article entitled Native Stock, published in the "Genesee Farmer" (January 28, 1832), a farmer offered the following opinion: "There are but few instances of the old breed of heifers that do not make tolerable cows, to produce in common feed from 7 to 12 quarts of milk, wine measure, at a milking." The average yield of milk for a native cow, as given by Colman, appears to have been from 4 to 5 1/2 quarts daily or from three to five pounds per week from June 1 to November 1 and from 6 to 7 pounds of butter per week in June after freshening. According to the "Inquiries" of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, the average product of the dairies in five parts of the state was 92 pounds of butter annually and as much skim milk cheese. The average in England was from 112 to 140 pounds of butter, but this was the product of cattle kept on good pasture the year round. Considering the generally poor conditions under which the red native was kept, it is to the breed's credit that the cows should have given milk with a 5.5 to 6 percent butterfat rating.

Indeed, the Devon-type cattle of New England, as so often pointed out by Timothy Pickering, were efficient feeders; and, if they had received the same attention to diet and management as the imported Shorthorns, they might have served equally well as meat and dairy animals. Their fine muzzle, prominent and clear eye, long neck without dewlap, and delicate forelegs attracted the fancy of many farmers. The agility and intelligence of the ox was highly valued. These characteristics and others contributed to the long popularity of the red native; for as late as 1861, the Commissioner of Patents reported that in New England the farmers still preferred their cattle of Devonshire extraction despite the availability of even more improved English breeds.

Editor's Note, (1976):

The Devon ox may still be seen drawing sap from the sugar orchard in springtime or pulling weights at the fair in autumn, but the introduction of beef bulls into New England's herds is quickly altering the conformation and milking characteristics of the old gene stock. A New England Milking Association was formed in the early 1950s in an effort to isolate and preserve the breed-type. This organization disbanded a few years later with the result that diminishing bloodlines and poor record keeping now threaten the existence of the remaining cattle population. The American Minor Breeds Conservancy would like to see the "milking" Devon re-established in New England. To ensure the survival of the breed, the Conservancy is presently assisting Old Sturbridge Village with a survey to identify all viable breeding stock. We would appreciate any information concerning the location of these cattle.

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