Current ALBC News Sample Article: September-December 2012
The Extinction of Historic Breeds of Swine
The following article was first published in the March-April 1991 issue of the AMBC News (ALBC changed “Minor” in its name to “Livestock” in 1993), and re-ran in the September 2012 issue of the ALBC News. The research was paid for by AMBC members who sent designated gifts in for the AMBC Extinctions Project. The original full-length report was published later that year as well. The article below is in its original, published form. Several clarifications have been made at the end based on research conducted since the article was published. Though since the founding of ALBC we have not lost any breeds, it is still incredibly important to remember that the threat of extinction for the breeds we work with is very real, exemplifying the continued need for livestock conservation.
The Extinction of Historic Breeds of Swine
By Bruce H. Kalk, PhD
There is an intrinsically close relationship between the history of food habits, the economic development of the livestock industry, and the rise and fall of specific livestock breeds. The extinction of a number of historic swine breeds was directly related to the many changes which took place in the American swine industry between the early nineteenth century, when hogs were kept on small farms for household consumption, and the mid twentieth century, when farmers were producing hogs for distant markets.
Eating habits over the period changed in two directions: away from pork towards other meats and away from lard-type hogs toward bacon-type hogs. Some swine breeds were ill-adapted to survive this transition.
Other swine breeds were lost during the gradual relocation of the hog-raising industry from the eastern seaboard to the Midwest. And finally, several important breeds became extinct due to the mania American farmers have shown for selective cross-breeding of stock for improvement, with little thought given to conserving the original crossing breeds.
For the purpose of this research, I have considered a breed to be “historically significant” if it met any two of the following criteria:
- If it was recognized as a breed ca. 1905 (by which time breed associations were well-developed for swine) by possessing a breed association;
- If it was commonly recognized as an existing breed in livestock manuals ca. 1900-1930;
- If it was recognized in the secondary literature on the history of livestock as an historic breed of some prominence at any point in American history.
The “first wave” of swine breed extinctions occurred among some of the earliest improved breeds introduced to the United States in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the first of these was the Bedford, variously called the Cumberland; the Bedfordshire; or, in New York and Massachusetts, the Woburn hog. This breed first came to the United States during the early nineteenth century, especially in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia. It was also known in New York, where it was held in especially high regard, and in Massachusetts.
While the animal was considered a significant improvement over common stock, it did not survive efforts to selectively cross-breed it with the common stock of Chester County, Pennsylvania, on which it exhibited a “distinctively refining influence” and resulted in the establishment of a new breed, the Chester White. One writer remarked in 1855 that “our hogs have been crossed upon the ‘Berkshire,’ ‘Irish Grazier,’ ‘Woburn,’ &c., until we scarcely know what we have, except that they are hogs.” By 1872, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considered the Bedford already extinct. We can thus date the Bedford’s extinction to sometime between 1855-1870.
The Byfield hog was another victim of its usefulness for selective cross-breeding. The animal originated in Byfield, Massachusetts ca. 1800 when Chester Forham discovered the floppy-eared beast in a local marketplace. It quickly became the predominant breed in New England. The Byfield allegedly evolved from a mix of Bedford, Old English, and Chinese pigs and was itself greatly valued for cross-breeding. Eventually the Byfield immigrated with New England landers west to Ohio sometime before 1816, although it was also known in the South. In Ohio, the Byfield hog was cross-bred with a variety of other breeds resulting in the Poland China hog. Paradoxically, the Byfield, whose characteristics were so esteemed for cross-breeding, was supplanted by its Poland China offspring. Thereafter the Byfield became extinct.
The Irish Grazier1 was another significant breed that died out because it helped produce a more advantageous animal for the competitive market*. Irish immigrants imported their country’s native hogs in very large numbers in the early nineteenth century. The animal was greatly valued for it could readily survive grazing on garden and dairy leftovers with almost no tending at all. In 1839, the Irish Grazier was introduced to the Miami valley of Ohio where it became an element in the development of the “superior” Poland China Breed.
Although frequently criticized for being less profitable than if it were cross-bred (it was slow-maturing and big-boned), the Irish Grazier appears to have remained one of the two or three most popular breeds throughout the country; certainly it was extremely popular in the south on the eve of the Civil War. It is unclear when the breed’s unprofitability resulted in extinction, but the animal is not mentioned in livestock literature ca. 1900, so it apparently disappeared between 1870-1900.
“There might be pages of testimony given in favor of Suffolks,” wrote the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture of one of the country’s most widespread hog breeds in 1863. “We think it no exaggeration to say that we believe three-fourths of the hogs of northern Illinois have strains of Suffolk blood.” The animal, along with the Irish Grazier and Berkshire, was probably the most popular pig in the United States during the 1850s. Farmers praised the Suffolk for keeping easier, maturing younger, and fattening quicker with less expense than other breeds. But the nineteenth century proved to be the heyday of the Suffolk. By the twentieth century, the breed was no longer regularly mentioned in livestock manuals. In 1930, only 303 living registered pure-bred Suffolks existed. The Suffolk seems to have disappeared thereafter.
One of the most significant swine breeds was the Big China hog, considered the “forerunner” of the Poland China breed. John Wallace, a trustee of the Shaker Society, visited Philadelphia in 1816 and procured several of these swine, which he brought back to southwestern Ohio. Agricultural periodicals, namely the Ohio Cultivator and the Western Farmer, frequently lauded the virtues of the Big China for cross-breeding purposes. By 1835, the animal became known as the “Warren County Hog” or, when crossed with the Bedford, Byfield, and Russian hogs, and later on the Berkshire hog, the Poland China.
We know nothing of the history of a number of breeds, including the Russian hog so important to the development of the Poland China. The same can be said of the Siamese, Calcutta, Barnitz, Lincoln, Middlesex, and Newbury White breeds.
The last part of the “first wave” of breed extinctions concerns the various red pigs first known in New York and New England during the late colonial period. Guinea hogs2, from west Africa, arrived in America with the slave trade; their presence here can be documented as far back as 1804. Henry Clay is said to have imported Spanish and Portuguese red hogs to the United States in 1837. These red hogs – “native,” Guinea, Portugese, and Spanish – intermixed on a local basis and cannot be regarded as “improved” animals; local red hog stock was a conglomerate of many ancestors distinctive primarily in geographic terms.
The recognition of two red hog strains, however, paved the way for the establishment of a recognized red hog breed towards the end of the century. In the process of forming an improved breed, however, the unimproved strains ceased to have any individual identity. Saratoga County, New York saw the foundation stock for its “Duroc” strain of hogs develop during the 1820s. Meanwhile, in 1857, James B. Lyman, agricultural editor for the New York Tribune, made reference to the “Jersey Red,” and thus christened New Jersey’s red hog stock a swine breed. These two breeds became the sources of selective cross-breeding which resulted in 1872 in the formal uniting of the Duroc and Jersey Red breeds at the National Swine Breeders’ Convention that year. After 1883, when the Duroc-Jersey breed association formed, no efforts were made to keep the two strains separated from one another.
Despite its east coast origins, the Duroc-Jersey became an increasingly western breed of swine. It attracted considerable attention when exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and has flourished ever since. It may then be said that the “extinction” of the individual varieties of red hogs in America was remarkably official and took place with the establishment of the American Duroc-Jersey Record Association in 1883.
The “first wave” of swine breed extinctions occurred between 1835-1900 (with the exception of the Suffolk, which I have included in this group because it flourished during the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth). The breeds lost included the first improved swine stock importer to America; the predominant breed in New England; the fore-runner of the Poland China; the various strains of red hogs; and two of the three most widespread mid-nineteenth century breeds. The “second wave” of extinctions took place during the first half of the twentieth century when four breeds disappeared: the Essex, the Cheshire, the Curtis Victoria, and the Davis Victoria.
The Essex3 pig, which probably shared a common ancestor with the American Hampshire, was a black swine breed that had by 1840 become extremely popular in Great Britain. The Essex was first imported to the United States in 1820. Early on, the animal was used more by small household-oriented farmers rather than for commodity production for large-scale marketing across the country. Around 1830, British breeders crossed the pig with the Old English, Berkshire, Sussex, and Neapolitan pigs. Known to mature early and feed well off a small amount of food, the Essex possessed a high percentage of fat in its meat. At least one farm manual recommended the Essex as a preferred breed for those with a “desire to realize the largest profits with the least outlay of time and money.”
The American Essex Association organized and began publishing herdbooks in 1890, but the Association only published three volumes. About a century after its arrival in the United States, the Essex was clearly in decline. According to one period livestock book, the animal’s popularity by 1920 had reached “A low ebb… [it is] losing favor year by year,” in part because the Essex was too fatty, too “delicate,” and too often failed to “grow into money.”
The Cheshire hog originated in Jefferson County, New York; this “Jefferson County Hog” was first exhibited at the New York State Fair in 1859. Thereafter it became the primary white hog exhibited at New York’s fair. The Cheshire was small in size but matured at an extremely early age. A breed association for the Cheshire started in 1884 and, by 1906 it had published four herdbooks. In 1905, the association registered 1000 pure-bred Cheshires; in 1910, the Cheshire was the third-most popular swine breed in New York.
Shortly thereafter, interest in this particularly docile animal waned. The final herdbook was published in 1914. Although there were Cheshire herds in many parts of the country and breeders showed the animal throughout the east at agricultural fairs, the Cheshire remained primarily of interest to breeders in New York state. By 1920, outside of the northeastern states, the Cheshire nowhere represented more than 1% of the hog population. By 1930, only forty Cheshires survived; their demise can thus safely be dated to the 1930s.
The Curtis Victoria pig originated in Lake County, Indiana around 1850 out of efforts by F.D. Curtis of Saratoga, New York to develop a new breed by crossing a number of existing varieties of improved swine. Curtis hoped to conserve the best genetic qualities of each of the breeds he crossed. The breed failed to catch on, however, and no known pure-breds existed ca. 1900.
Twenty years after Curtis developed his “Victoria” breed, George F Davis bred Poland Chinas, Chester Whites, Berkshires, and American Suffolks to produce the Davis Victoria, genetically unrelated to the Curtis breed but unwittingly also named for the reigning Queen of England. Breeders of the Davis Victoria claimed that the animal shipped well and was extremely resistant to mange and sun-blisters, thus making the breed particularly attractive to southerners. They also praised its “unusual economy in production of the flesh.” Although a Victoria breed association arose ca. 1900, the organization apparently did not publish herdbooks. Modern livestock manuals do not discuss the breed at all. As of 1930, only 94 Victoria swine existed. The breed clearly died out shortly thereafter.
The historians of extinct swine breeds demonstrate how market forces and the evolution of food habits affect livestock history. By 1920, over 62% of U.S. swine were estimated to be one of two breeds: the Poland China or the Duroc-Jersey. A pattern had long since established itself and resulted in the disappearance of many once-treasured animal breeds. America’s obsession with output alone and the mania for selective cross-breeding to improve animals out of recognizable existence had already exacted their heavy toll on agricultural diversity in the United States.
Updates on breeds from this article:
1. Although today’s Tamworth pigs were originally known as “Irish Grazers,” the Irish Grazier in this article refers to a different breed known by the same name. According to The History of Ohio Agriculture, published in 1900, the Irish Graziers in this article were “white, with a few spots of black, upright ears, light jowl, fine-coating, and would fatten at any age. This was the stock of hogs that gave the Poland Chinas their fine coating and symmetrical form.” Tamworth hogs have a ginger red coat and are unaffiliated.
2. The Red Guinea hog breed mentioned in this article differs from today’s Guinea Hog breed, and disappeared as a distinct population in the 1880s, when most of the red breeds and types of hogs in the eastern United States were combined to form the new Duroc-Jersey breed. Although extremely rare, occasionally today’s Guinea Hog breeders find red highlights in the hair of their Guineas and even rarer, is a completely red individual born. The relationship between the historic Red Guinea and today’s Guinea Hog may be simply the common use of the term “guinea” to refer to the small size of the hogs, not necessarily indicating origins in the Guinea region of Africa.
The exact origins of the Guinea Hog are unknown, but there is some link to hogs imported to America during the colonial period documented as early as 1804 by Thomas Jefferson and other Virginia farmers. Recent ALBC research has placed a “Guinea Hog” breed in England as early as 1767, where they are mentioned in The Complete Grazier as “famous” and “the most profitable for breeding pigs, sweetness of flesh, and for being easily raised and fattened. It is the most hardy of all others, and will make the best shift for its food of any hog that we know.” At that time, they were also referred to as the “Bantam Breed”, the “African hog”, or the “Black French hog”, further adding to the mystery of their origin. The Guinea Hog is once again experiencing the praises it enjoyed years ago, as chefs across the country are taking note of the excellently flavored meat and high-quality lard.
3. The Essex is yet another example of two distinct breeds that have been referred to by the same name – one performed well in the United Kingdom and one performed well in the United States. While the American Essex is extinct, an extremely small population of British Essex still exists. The Guinea Hog may or may not be related to the American Essex. The Essex hog’s history is also obscure. “Guinea Essex” pigs were used in research at Texas A&M University and at the Hormel Institute in the 1960s, though there is little information available about those stocks. ALBC is currently conducting research to further clarify the relationship between Guinea and Essex hogs.
Dr. Bruce Kalk is the Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Southern Connecticut State University. At the time this article was written, he was a PhD candidate in history at the University of North Carolina. He can be reached at Kalkb1@southernct.edu. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. For more information and a complete list of breeds, visit www.albc-usa.org, email email@example.com, call (919)542-5704, or write to ALBC, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312.
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