Rare Animal Breeds in Williamsburg

rare breeds

Feathers, fur, hoofs and horns bring the Historic Area to life. Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds, explains how we show happy animals to the public.


Harmony Hunter: Hi,¬†welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Historic interpreters in big gowns and tricorn hats bring the Historic Area to life, but there’s a supporting cast of characters that’s just as important to making Colonial Williamsburg an authentic 18th-century town. It’s the animals. Elaine Shirley’s back with us today to talk about the rare breeds program at Colonial Williamsburg. Elaine, thank you for being here today.

Elaine Shirley: You’re more than welcome.

Harmony: I’ve said you’re associated with the rare breeds program. You probably have a bigger title than that. What do you do here?

Elaine: Well, my fancy title is Manager of Rare Breeds, but essentially what I do is take care of the livestock day in and day out: register them, make sure that they’re doing well, and that we’re showing happy animals to the public.

Harmony:And we have a lot of happy animals that we show. What are the different species that are represented here in the Historic Area?

Elaine: Well, we have a number of different rare breeds. We have rare breed horses, rare breed cattle, rare breed sheep, rare breed pigs and rare breed poultry.

Harmony: And so in each of those categories you might have a few breeds of horses, a few breeds of chickens?

Elaine: Right. Canadians and American Cream are our two rare breed horses. In actuality, we have three rare breed cattle, only one of which is actively being bred. We have American Milking Devons, we have Milking Shorthorns and we have Linebacks as our three cattle breeds. We have one breed of sheep which is the Leicester Longwool, one breed of pig, which is the Ossabaw Island pig, and two breeds of chickens: the Dominique and the Nankin.

Harmony: I want to ask you a two-part question. Why is it so important to have animals in the Historic Area representing 18th century Colonial Williamsburg, and why have we chosen the ones we have chosen?

Elaine: Well it’s important to have livestock in town, because there was livestock here in the 18th century. I think that’s something people really don’t realize. Coming from the 21st century, we assume farm animals live on farms, but in fact there was livestock living in the Historic Area that we show.

There was livestock living here in the 18th century. There were sheep, cattle, horses and all different types of poultry living in the Historic Area that we show today. Pigs did not live in the Historic Area and the pigs that we have are actually over at Great Hopes, which is out of the town limits in the 18th century.

And we’ve picked the breeds we’ve picked for a variety of reasons. There are other breeds that we could pick, and we’re always talking about, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to add another breed of sheep or another breed of cattle?” So we’re sort of always thinking. Chickens are probably the easiest to add because they don’t take quite as much work and quite as much space.

But we picked animals that are rare because we felt that one of the things we could do here was give them a shop window; give them an opening to the public who wouldn’t normally see them so that maybe one out of a thousand people who comes here says to themselves, “Oh, I’d sort of like to have rare breed chickens or rare breed sheep or rare breed cattle.” And we can spark some interest. Hopefully everybody who sees them starts thinking about rare breeds and why rare breeds are important.

So the Leicester Longwool we picked because we know George Washington had some of them so they have a Virginia history. The American Cream Draft Horse and the American Milking Devon, the Dominique all are American breeds of livestock that need to be conserved. So we felt that these were breeds we could show and hopefully get other Americans interested in. And that’s true of the Ossabaw Pig as well. The Canadian horse we picked partly because of its size. It’s a smaller horse which fits in better with the size of horses in the timeframe we’re talking about so we pick them for a variety of reasons.

Harmony: But all centered around trying to find animals you might have found in Williamsburg in the 1700s.

Elaine: Exactly. Or animals that people who lived here have been familiar with. Unfortunately, in a lot of instances we don’t have breed information given to us in the 18th century. Lost and found ads and inventories will tell you size and color, but they don’t generally give you a breed name. That idea comes along in the 19th century.

Harmony: So you have to kind of be detectives and look at these physical descriptions and then guess.

Elaine: Exactly.

Harmony: What breeds have you discovered using that sort of reverse engineering method?

Elaine: Well the American Milking Devon is probably a really good example of that, because in lost and found ads you see color mentioned virtually in every ad. So when they say, “Gone away from me in James City County one red cow with a red calf at here heel,” then that helps us kind of head towards the Milking Devon. Red cattle are very, very common in inventories and lost and found.

Harmony: We’ve talked about the animals in our Historic Area today and they add a beautiful sense to the landscape. Seeing, as you said, these happy animals, these unusual-looking, beautiful ,healthy animals creates these beautiful sorts of pastoral scenes. The way that we’re using them today is not the way that they would have been used in the 18th century. These were utility animals. These were for food or for transportation.

Elaine: They have a job today and I feel that they’ here as rare breeds, but rare breeds have to have a job. Because if they don’t have a job, then there’s not a point in having them really. And so they do have jobs. We have our ewes lamb every year, our cows calve, about every year or year and a half depending on the situation. At the moment we don’t have a bull, and you have to have a bull to have calves. And we shear the sheep, we gather eggs from the chickens. So they have a purpose being here.

Harmony: Do you think that the lives of the animals we keep today are different than the lives of the animals in the 18th century?

Elaine: I think they have a little bit better life than they had in the 18th century. Our livestock get 21st century medicine and 21st century feed. Certainly we’ve learned so much about how to keep them healthy. A lot of things like micronutrients, thinking about things like selenium and sheep and the fact that a shot, a one cc shot of selenium can sustain them for a whole year and keep them healthy. We vaccinate for rabies, we vaccinate against something called clostridium in the sheep, and so those are things that the animals in the 18th century would have never had the advantage of.

Harmony: We talked about the quality of life and the beginning of life for these animals. Do they live out their lives here? What happens to them after they’re born and calved and lambed?

Elaine: Well it depends on the animal. With the breeding stock we are always trying to improve the breed, and that’s what humans have been doing for thousands of years. Whenever you get an animal, you say, “Is that as good as its parents, is it better than its parents, is it worse than its parents?” Now if it’s worse than its parents you probably do not want to breed it, but if it’s as good as or better then you want to continue that because you’re hoping to improve everything.

So, when we have animals who do not meet the breed standard, I tend to be much more critical of the males than the females. That’s because when you think of the males, they can have their influence felt so much more. One ram could breed thirty, forty ewes in a year. He could have 60 to 80 lambs born. So his influence would be felt much more dramatically than a female who might produce two or three lambs a year.

Harmony: It’s neat for us here in our museum, in our state, in our town to have these animals represented, but it has an impact on a larger scale. What is important about preserving these breeds?

Elaine: It’s important to raise rare breeds for a whole number of reasons but probably the biggest reason is to preserve genetic diversity because we need livestock. We’ve needed livestock for thousands of years and we’re going to continue to need them. And part of what we need them to do is to adapt to different environments, to different temperatures, to different foods, to different diseases that might be present. And if we whittle down our gene pool to a very small number of genetic diverse animals we are whittling down their ability to change and their ability to adapt to these different environments.

So we need genetic diversity in plants, we need genetic diversity in livestock as well so that’s one of the main reasons. One of the reasons I think we should keep them, and I don’t think people really think about this, but if we go back far enough, virtually all of us have ancestors who were farmers. And our ancestors worked very, very hard to give us a really wide variety of livestock and I think we do them a disservice if we allow these animals to die out. These rare breeds also typically have very interesting histories behind them and so I think it’s important just for humankind to have those interesting things available to us.

Harmony: I got to thinking that we use these animals as museum exhibits in the living history museum, that is our Historic Area, and I got to thinking you yourself are kind of a museum exhibit. Your trade, your expertise, the care of animals, the raising and the husbanding, the care that you take of animals is so rarely seen anymore. Do you feel like this is an expertise that our society is kind of evolving away from or has outsourced?

Elaine: I think that’s true with all of agriculture. We’ve really gotten away from agriculture as something that everybody understands and everybody’s involved in. Now having said that, I think we’re starting to see a turn-around with people having gardens, and chickens are the hot pet to have now. More and more townships and counties are allowing chickens in urban settings. So I kind of hope we have turned the corner, but it is a job that not an awful lot of people are familiar with.

A huge part of it is just common sense, to be perfectly honest. You should look at the animals and understand them when they’re healthy so that you can look at them and say, “That animals doesn’t quite look right. That chicken’s not holding his tail quite the way he was. That sheep’s looking droopy.” So you can catch problems before they arise. Because livestock’s pretty good at hiding the fact that they’re ill, because if they’re out on the plains and they look ill then a wolf is going to say, “Hmmmm, that one could be easy to catch.”

Harmony: When people come through the Historic Area this summer, as we hope many, many of them do, what do you want them to look for or what do you want them to appreciate, what do you want them to see when they look at this diversity of animals that they’ll find here.

Elaine: I want them to see their history. To think about the fact that if they had lived 200 years ago they probably would have had a few acres, one or two cows, a couple of sheep, a couple of horses, two or three pigs and a flock of chickens and would have had contact with those animals every day. The women would have been milking the cows every day. The men and the women to some extent would have been working the horses and the cattle in the field. So it’s a tactile, hands-on experience that you would have had 200 years ago.

And I hope you’ll look at the animals and realize that they really are a living safety deposit box for us in the future, and it’s not just us that’s doing it. There are folks all over the United States who are doing it, there are folks all around the world who are really starting to realize how important this is and there are rare breeds folks in Europe and South America and Africa. It’s something that joins all of us.

Harmony: Elaine, thank you so much for being here today.

Elaine: You’re welcome.


  1. Thanks so much for the information about the rare breed program. Are there any walking tours that go to the different venues of the animals that lived and worked in Williamsbug and that may dicuss the rare breeds and thier use in colonial times. I have attended some programs like sheep sheering but are there any that go into more depth?

  2. Enjoyed the Bits and Bridles walking tour several ago. On that visit it stands out more than any of the others, but I love animals. Keep up the good work. Enjoy the Podcast.

  3. I do 19 century travelling living history programs in Texas. I carry with me a horse, and Durham cow and calf. The information yawl have provided me in the past and continue to provide, I always find very informative and helpful in the programs I do. Thank you for the work yawl do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *