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James Madison and Merino Mania

“The great zeal for this precious breed of sheep, resulting from irresis[ta]ble evidence of their merit has raised them to such a value in this Market…”
James Madison on merino sheep, 18101

Improving American products – both agricultural and manufactured – was an important goal for many public-minded citizens in the young United States. James Madison was no exception, searching out the most efficient plowing methods, the most pest-resistant wheat varieties, and livestock breeds with the most desirable characteristics. One particular breed of sheep captured the attention of well-to-do farmers in the 1810s: merinos, prized for the quality of both their wool and their meat. Like many of their contemporaries, Madison and Jefferson became enthused (perhaps obsessed?) with the idea of importing merino sheep, breeding them, and distributing them widely to improve the quality of American wool.


Early Flocks at Montpelier

President Madison was not the first to raise sheep at Montpelier. Sheep husbandry was part of the plantation economy from its earliest years. When Madison’s grandfather Ambrose Madison died in 1732, a few months after arriving at Mount Pleasant, his inventory included 19 sheep and a pair of sheep shears.2 We don’t know whether Ambrose brought the flock to Mount Pleasant with him, or if they had been raised by the enslaved laborers whom he sent to the site in 1723. Ambrose’s sheep are the earliest to be documented in this area.3 (For more about the change in name from Mount Pleasant to Montpelier, see Montpelier: What’s in a Name?)

Madison’s father, James Madison Sr., continued to raise sheep during his ownership of Montpelier. In 1798, Madison wrote to his father about a possible purchaser for some of the sheep: “If you intend to let Mr. Anderson have any of your sheep it may be well for you to drop me a line to that effect by the post.”4 According to an 1835 deposition given by overseer Thomas Melton, James Madison Sr. “sold off the choice [sheep] from his flocks a short time before his death” in February 1801. The rest of the sheep were “considerable” in number but “indifferent” in quality.5 There were 77 sheep listed in Madison Sr.’s estate inventory, taken in September 1801. The sheep were apparently undercounted in the inventory, since estate sales records show that 93 sheep were sold from the estate between September and October 1801. The widowed Nelly Madison bought 13 sheep, and the other 80 were sold to buyers outside the Madison family.6

Breeding a Better Sheep

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Madison and Jefferson corresponded with a number of gentleman farmers who were intently concerned with improving American breeds of sheep. (Madison’s brother-in-law John George Jackson and his nephew James Madison Hite were among his correspondents.) They sent each other samples of wool, compared the merits of various breeds of sheep, and circulated treatises by Robert R. Livingston and Richard Peters. George Washington Parke Custis advocated for the native Smiths Island sheep. Others preferred imported breeds such as the broad-tailed Barbary. One breed, however, became the focus of what was variously called an “ardor,” a “mania,” and even an “influenza”: the Spanish merino.7 Pureblood merinos were highly valued. Crossing them with common American sheep was seen as a way to improve the quality of the flock. As Livingston wrote to Madison regarding quarter-merino sheep, “even that degree of blood makes a very considerable difference both in the Quantity & quality of the wool, as well as in the beauty of form.” Livingston also praised “the excellence of Merino mutton,” considering the merino “the fattest, the best flavoured, & the most easily kept of any sheep.”8

Robert Livingston gave James Madison a copy of the 1809 edition of Livington’s Essay on Sheep; Their Varieties—Account of the Merinoes of Spain, France, &c.… Livingston explained to Madison that his “little treatize … was written with a view to remove the prejudices of common farmers, who are suspicious of every thing new, & to instruct them as to the mode of forming & managing a flock.”9Madison replied that “Interesting as [the subject] is in itself, I perceive that you make it more so by your advantageous manner of treating it.”10

Reestablishing a Montpelier Flock

James Madison Jr. did not buy any sheep from his father’s estate in 1801. He was, however, raising broad-tailed sheep as early as 1806, based on his comment to Richard Peters in May 1811 that “I have had broad tails, 4 or 5 years on my farm.”11 The first mention of Madison attempting to acquire merino sheep is in October 1808, when he requested Richard Forrest to purchase a few merinos for him at an upcoming sale.12 In December 1808, George Washington Parke Custis offered to provide the President a spring lamb from his Smiths Island flock.13 We don’t know whether Madison acquired any sheep from either the October sale or from Custis’s offer.

The first time that we do know that Madison acquired merino sheep was in 1810. William Jarvis, the American consul at Lisbon, reserved a breeding pair of merinos for Madison and another for Jefferson from a shipment that arrived in Alexandria in May.14 Madison’s overseer Gideon Gooch transported both pair of merinos and a ewe lamb to Orange. Gooch arrived on June 6, 1810, and notified Jefferson to send someone from Monticello to pick up Jefferson’s ram and ewe at Black Meadow, a dependent farm of Montpelier located near Gordonsville.15 This is one of two mentions of Black Meadow in connection with sheep, and could refer either to a temporary or permanent location for sheep. Jarvis had earlier advised Madison that the merinos “will require housing a[t] nights for seven or eight months in the year.”16 Madison found “that the arrangements necessary for the original pair, would provide for a small flock.”17 This could suggest that Madison had a sheep barn or enclosure built at Black Meadow or elsewhere.

Madison acquired additional sheep in 1810 and 1811. Tobias Lear, the American consul general to Algiers, sent eight Algerine rams for Madison to keep or to distribute “in a way you may judge most beneficial.”18 (This Algerine breed was also referred to as Barbary, Cape, Cape of Good Hope, broad-tailed, or large-tailed.) After the rams arrived in September 1810, Madison gave several to friends, including Jefferson and Isaac Coles. The one other mention of Black Meadow is in regard to these rams; Gideon Gooch wrote to Jefferson in October 1810, “I have two Barbary Rams at Mr Madisons farm Blackmeadow which I Brot on from washington last week one for you the other for Colon[el] Coles…”19 From Lear’s shipment, Madison kept one broad-tailed ram, one broad-tailed lamb, and “a very large handsome sheep with 4 horns” which was not a broad-tail. The lamb and the four-horned sheep died soon after Madison acquired them. Madison requested that Lear obtain another pair of broad-tails for him, but Lear was unable to do so after a diplomatic incident compelled him to leave Algiers.20

James Madison wrote to Robert Livingston, “In the middle States, I have long been of opinion that we kept on our farms, too many black cattle, and too few sheep, and that a valuable revolution would be found in a reduction of the former, and augmentation of the latter. The motives to it are now greatly strengthened by the additional value given to their fleeces by the merino blood.”21 Image by Derek Sewell from Pixabay

William Jarvis allotted Madison two merino ewes in a shipment that arrived in October 1810, and Madison purchased four more from Jarvis’s shipments.22 In January 1811 Madison asked his brother William to purchase eight or more sheep for him at an advertised sale, if the sheep were sold at the low prices he anticipated.23 By early 1811, then, Madison’s flock included the merino ram, ewe, and lamb from Jarvis’s original shipment; six merino ewes from Jarvis’s later shipments; an Algerine broad-tail ram; the broad tails Madison had raised since approximately 1806; and possibly eight or more merino ewes obtained by William Madison. These were the same varieties observed by the Baron de Montlezun on his 1816 visit to Montpelier: “I went today to one of the farms of the President … the merinos, the large-tailed rams of the Cape of Good Hope, and their cross-bred offspring with the old stock, make up numerous flocks, the wool of which is highly prized and brings a good price.”24 Jefferson noted in 1813 that Madison was successful enough in breeding merinos that he “sells some ram lambs, but not ewes. … I do not know mr Madison’s prices, but in general the price of these rams is fallen to from 50. to 100.D. a piece.”25

A letter from Nelly Willis to her aunt Dolley Madison suggests that the production of merino yarn at Montpelier was in the experimental stages in June 1812:

I have attended to yr request about the Merino Wool but on enquiry learn that it is extremely difficult to spin & that you have not a good yarn spinner amongst yr Women I wished Mrs Gooch to do it but she alledged the want of time as an excuse—one of my spinners would I am sure be adequate to it if I could procure suitable cards but they are not to had in the County—however I have set her about it with such as I have & if an opportunity should occur to Fredbg will try to get better but am told they are very sacarce, even there—if you can get cards no 10 had better lay some by—the machine does not answer for the Marino wool.26

The fact that there were no expert yarn spinners within the Montpelier enslaved community in 1812 is another hint that sheep husbandry had been only recently reestablished at Montpelier.

Dolley consigned a “parcell of wool” to Georgetown merchant John Mason in 1813. Mason wrote back a year later to report its sale for a low price in Philadelphia.27 In September 1814 Alexandria merchant Anthony Charles Cazenove (acting as an agent for Dupont, Bauduy, & Co. of Wilmington, Delaware) paid $428.75 for a shipment of Montpelier wool.28 (By comparison, James Madison paid $487.50 for ten mules in February 1814.29) Clearly wool production had the potential to contribute significantly to Montpelier’s income, but as was the case with other agricultural products, good prices rarely lasted. Cazenove offered $1.25 per pound for unwashed, full-blooded merino wool in 1814; his price fell to 90 cents the next year.30 By 1822, Fredericksburg merchant Robert MacKay reported a top price of 40 cents for unwashed wool and suggested that shipping Madison’s wool to Boston might bring a better price.31

This modern-day merino sheep has the thick wool prized by Madison and his contemporaries. Image by Derek Sewell from Pixabay

Madison’s interest in sheep husbandry seems to have waned during retirement. In 1825 he mentioned his sheep while reflecting on crop failures and uncertain prices to nephew James Madison Hite: “Had I counted enough on these failures, I might have turned my attention more to the object which is attracting yours, particularly the Merino part of the flock: As it has happened, I have not done more keep that part, up to about forty or fifty, and have reduced the other parts to a mere supply of mutton & wool for household use.”32 The “other parts” of the flock likely included the broad-tailed sheep, as well as any remaining descendants of the 13 sheep his mother bought from his father’s estate. Madison considered “the mutton of the broad tails, superior by far to any I ever tasted of other sheep.”33

Madison’s comment that he kept the broad tails and any other non-merinos “for household use” (in the broad sense) suggests their mutton and wool was also used to supply the needs of the enslaved community, as well as supplying Madison’s own table. This is the only hint in the documentary record of mutton as food for the enslaved; bacon, pork, and poultry are the meats specifically mentioned in other descriptions of foods eaten by enslaved workers at Montpelier. Archaeologists have found sheep bones in the context of slave dwellings at Montpelier, however, confirming that mutton was part of the diet of the enslaved.34


Sheep at Montpelier After James Madison’s Death

“We are all in high health, and looking on promising crops, Flocks and Herds,” Dolley wrote cheerfully to her friend Anthony Morris in 1839.35 A newspaper account from the same year estimated the number of sheep at 100, on Montpelier’s 1800 acres. By comparison, it noted 300 sheep on Governor James Barbour’s nearby 5000-acre plantation.36

When Dolley sold Montpelier to Henry Moncure in 1844, the livestock was included in the sale. Forty-seven sheep were listed among the animals received by Moncure’s overseer J. B. Chewning, according to an 1845 receipt.37 It’s possible that this receipt reflects the transfer of only a portion of the livestock at one specific point during the complicated sale of the plantation. Alternately, if 47 sheep constituted the entire Montpelier flock, this would suggest that a number of sheep had been sold or slaughtered in the last years that Dolley owned Montpelier.

Given how sparse the records of Montpelier plantation management are, it’s remarkable that the Madisons’ correspondence allows us to trace so much of the rise and fall of sheep husbandry at Montpelier. “Merino mania” not only pushed James Madison to try to improve his flock by cross-breeding with superior sheep. The “mania” also prompted Madison and his colleagues to write about their sheep acquisitions in so much detail, that we can track a wooly paper trail from the markets of Algiers and Lisbon all the way to the sheep pens at Black Meadow.