Importance of the Merino

A sketch of ‘Clermont,’ one of Livingston’s Merino sheep – published in Gentleman Farmer 1810

After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808*1, the entire course of the American sheep industry changed with the arrival of the superfine-wooled Merino. The merino wool was considered the most desirable of all fleeces, with the lamb’s wool especially prized for luxurious fabrics. Presidents George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were among the best-known sheep raisers.

Along with Merinos, Thomas Jefferson imported native French shepherd dogs (chiens de plaine)*2, which he bought just as he was leaving France in 1789. Jefferson remarked in his correspondence about the wonderful sagacity of the sheep dogs, claiming they had no equal as herding or house dogs. He described them as “the most careful, intelligent dogs in the world, their sagacity is almost human and qualifies them to be taught anything you please.”

Robert R. Livingston, who served in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and worked with James Monroe on the details of the Louisiana Purchase, was appointed minister to France in 1801. During his tenure in Paris, Livingston arranged for the shipment of some of the first French Rambouillet Merinos to the United States. A year later Colonel David Humphreys, minister to Spain, bought a hundred head of Merino sheep and sent them back to the United States.

Twenty years later, after France invaded Spain, William Jarvis, American consul to Portugal, was able to obtain some highly prized Merinos from the royal Escurial flock, which he shipped back to the United States. Ex-president Jefferson and President Madison each received a pair as a gift. After the second invasion of Napoleon and the subsequent confiscation and sale of four enormous Merino flocks, Jarvis was permitted to buy a large number. He employed shepherds and bought dogs to accompany the sheep.*3 With each shipment he was careful not to put too many animals in one vessel, allowing them plenty of air and providing an abundance of hay, barley, and fresh water. For every sheep that reached the United States in safety, he gave the captain 50 cents and the mate 25 cents; consequently he lost very few.

Arrogante *4, a Spanish Sheep-Dog was imported from Spain with a flock of Merinos / Sheep husbandry by Henry Stephens Randall; C. M. Saxton & Co., 1856

A modern Spanish Sheep-Dog, Pastor Leonés, owned by Amadeo Alejandre, similar in type to Arrogante

By mid-1811 nearly 25,000 Spanish Merinos had reached the Atlantic seaboard. Near the close of the 19th century, the Merino or its derivatives, the Rambouillet and Delaine, had spread through the entire country.


*1. Before that time, the export of Merinos from Spain was a crime punishable by death.

*2. The chiens de plaine were likely the Briard/Beauceron:

*3. Jarvis observed, “In Spain, the custom was to employ two shepherds, four dogs, and a pack-horse or mule for every thousand sheep.” He also pointed out, “The boundaries of the pastures are known to each shepherd, and are marked by stones. If a dog sees a sheep straying from its pasture, he walks leisurely along, heads the sheep and makes him return to his flock.” Side Note: Interestingly, Colonel John Downie, a British Commissary, purchased 4,000 Merinos for the King of England, sent about 300 to the United States and the rest to Scotland, his native country. The Certificate and Passport noted he had purchased 3,945 sheep, 18 dogs, 5 shepherd ponies.

*4. Guided by the shepherds and by tough cross-bred dogs, who were trained to pen the sheep and keep them together (and also to protect them against wolves), the flocks slowly advanced, raising up great clouds of dust. – Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age by Marcelin Defourneaux.

See also Herding Dogs in Colonial America:

See also El Pastor Leonés – The Shepherd Dog of Leon:

Copyright © 2010 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor.

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