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The Cornish, first known as the Indian Game chicken, was developed around 1820 by Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert of England. General Gilbert claimed to have produced the breed from a cross of Red Aseel over a Black Breasted Red Game of the Lord Derby type. The original purpose was to combine the power of the Aseel Game with the speed of the English Game. Later writers also report that by 1886 any cross of an English Game (aka Old English Game) and Malay chicken were referred to as “Indian Game”. The breed was developed to produce a superior fighting chicken and in that it was a failure – losing much of the “Game” character of the parent breeds. But the cross did produce a unique fowl. About Devonshire and Cornwall, England, the “Indian Game” found supporters and continued to be bred.
In appearance, Indian Games are very close feathered, with little or no down apparent. The feathers are short and often quite narrow. Their size is deceptive; the close feathers cause one to expect them to be much lighter than they really are. Males weigh 10.5 lbs, and females weigh 8 lbs. The body of the Indian Game is muscular and strong in appearance. No other breed of poultry more closely represents the ideal of an “Atlas” or “Hercules” poultry equivalent. They have very wide skulls, only medium length necks, thick, short shanks, and their legs are set wide apart. Their bodies, when viewed from above, are heart shaped – the broad part of the heart being the front of the bird and the tail corresponding to the tip of the heart. Unique to the breed is the fact that the type of the male and female are identical.
Like so many breeds, the Indian Game was promoted during the 1800’s as the ultimate all around chicken breed. But in this they were not only misrepresented, but it was said that they “…are nearly if not quite the worst domestic fowls for ordinary use.” The heart shaped body type of the breed reduces room for egg production and the breed is only a poor to fair layer of tinted eggs. The Indian Game chickens were found in America to be neither hardy, nor prolific, nor fast growing. The close feathering of the breed prevented them from standing exposure to the elements well and rendering them inappropriate for northern climates. They have very large appetites, and grow fairly slowly.
The breed was accepted to the American Poultry Association’s (APA) Standard of Perfection in 1893 as Indian Games. In 1905 the APA change the name to Cornish Indian Game and White Indian Game (a white variety being developed and recognized in 1898). But early supporters of the breed in America felt that term “Game”, being associated with cock fighting, was not only inappropriate in describing the breed’s character, but was holding back its popularity. So in 1910 the APA renamed the breed “Cornish” and moved it from the Oriental class to the English class of fowls. Cornish is a much more appropriate name as the breed was created in and around Cornwall, England, and is not from India. The Cornish chicken was first recognized as an APA standard breed in 1893 in the Dark variety. Other varieties were later recognized in: White, 1898; White-Laced Red, 1909; Buff, 1938; Black, not recognized.
The extreme-width of the breast of the Cornish chicken, and overall large portions of meat, has intrigued many breeders for decades. As breeders faced the challenge of bringing Cornish to market successfully, and profitably, two niches were found in which the Cornish excel. Due to the muscular nature of the breed, young birds could be harvested early to produce a small, tender, flavorful, and meaty one-pound bird – the now well-know “Cornish Game Hens.” The second way in which Cornish could be marketed to advantage changed the meat poultry industry indelibly. It seems that Cornish were ideal to crossbreed with American breeds to produce extremely fast growing market poultry. Today the backbone of the commercial poultry industry is the Corn/Rock broiler, a cross of White Cornish and White Plymouth Rock chickens, which can be harvested in only six weeks.