Part 1: How did sheep get to the West?

Map of the Oregon Territory, 1846

That year Junipero Serra lifted the cross by a full creek in the Port of Monterey; — coughing of guns by the eastern sea, by the sea in the west the tinkle of altar bells and soft blether of the flocks.

— Mary Austin, The Flock

How, exactly, did the sheep we see today in California and Oregon come to be here? When did they arrive? Who brought them, and how?

This story will span two posts, both of which focus on domesticated (vs. wild) breeds brought only to California and Oregon. What is today the state of California is historically referred to as Alta (Upper) California, from San Diego north, while Baja (Lower) California is the present day Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

1490-1519 – Spanish Sheep
The earliest domesticated sheep in Baja California were found at Spanish colonies and Missions, having come from Spain to what is now Mexico, and later from Mexico to California. In 1519, Cortez brought coarse-wooled Spanish Churro sheep to Mexico to serve as a food supply. This is the same breed many of us now know as Navajo Churro, the oldest breed in the U.S. In the early 1500s, Merino sheep were considered too valuable to export from Spain.

In 1598, Don Juan Oñate brought the first Churro (2,900 of them) into what is now Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but not to Alta California.

Found at the Postcardy blog

Found at the Postcardy blog

1770-1820s – Missions, Secularization and Trade
In her 1906 book The Flock, author Mary Austin prefaces her first chapter with:

The Coming of the Flocks – How Rivera Y Moncada brought the first of them to Alta California, and a preface which is not on any account to be omitted.”

She writes that “Don Fernando de Rivera y Moncada had gone south with twenty soldiers to bring up the flocks from Velicatá” and references Rivera y Moncada’s journal, presumably the source of this information.

“Velicatá” is short for Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá in Baja California, Mexico, the first mission Junípero Serra founded before going on to establish missions at San Diego (1769) and Monterey (Mission Basilica, 1771). Rivera y Moncada was an overland explorer and he left Velicatá in May 1770 to bring sheep to Alta California, reaching the San Diego Mission in June 1770. According to Austin, “Under the Padres’ careful shepherding the sheep increased until, at the time of secularization, three hundred and twenty thousand fed in the Mission purlieus.”

In his 1941 book Pioneer Woolen Mills in Oregon: History of Wool and the Woolen Trade Industry in Oregon, 1811-1875, Lomax corroborates Austin’s story, telling us that as of 1825 “The nearest sheep were in California where the Spaniards kept great numbers. These sheep were descendants of animals brought by them to the New World in the early part of the 16th century and were largely Merino, degenerated by this time into a scrub type.” I can’t help but wonder if the “scrub type” were Churro rather than Merino, given the historical notes that Merino were too valuable to export and the fact that Churro are the scrubbier of the two.

In the Oregon Territory (OT) domesticated sheep arrived in 1810, approximately 40 years after sheep were brought to the California missions in the 1770s. Despite the lack of historical record on their arrival, the Winship expedition is credited with bringing the first sheep to Oregon. According to Lomax, “The Winship expedition had loaded “goats and other livestock” at the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, for its proposed lower Columbia River trading post.”

One can’t help but ask how ‘goats and other livestock’ came to be on Hawaiian islands in the first place. Fortunately, Lomax tells us that the answer may lie in the journals of Captain George Vancouver, who had seen “California sheep at the Spanish settlement on Nootka Sound.” Vancouver sailed to Monterey, which had a Serra-established Mission as of 1771, and “from there carried cattle and sheep to Kamehameha I during the years 1792-94. These were turned loose on the fertile Waimea upland of the Big Island…” which is how “Honolulu, the principal port of the Islands, thus became the distributing point in mid-Pacific for the first livestock to be carried to the Oregon country.”

Map of the Oregon Territory, 1846

Map of the Oregon Territory, 1846

There is documented sheep trade between Alta California and the OT in the 1810s and 20s, including an amusing story about sheep brought to the OT by a Captain Dominis in 1829:

“Captain Dominis was requested to bring some sheep from California. The Captain was a better sailor than a stock raiser. True, he brought the sheep according to orders, a fine large lot of them, and in good condition, but when they were turned ashore and told to multiply, it was discovered that they were all wethers.”

A wether is a castrated ram. Woops!

Around the same time, the Hudson’s Bay Company had farms at Nisqually and Cowlitz in the OT, and “Both were to be used for the breeding and improvement of CA sheep, which were to be crossed with Merino and Leicester rams.” The fact that CA sheep needed to be crossed with Merino specifically for improvement reinforces my suspicion that the sheep kept by the Spaniards, which Lomax mentions earlier, may not have been Merino but Churro, or a crossbreed. The Hudson’s Bay Company imported sheep from England, which is where the Leicester rams originated, but it’s unclear if the Merino in the OT at this time came from Mexico, Spain or elsewhere.

Austin writes that “After secularization in 1833, the numbers of sheep fell off in California until, to supply the demand for their coarse-flavored mutton, flocks were driven in from Mexico.” What was this period of secularization and how did it lead to a decline in sheep numbers?

The Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833 and “divided the vast mission land holdings into land grants which became many of the Ranchos of California.” I cannot find a definitive account of what happened to the sheep, but they were probably a casualty of, or simply wandered off during, the upheaval of Padres fleeing and the absence of formerly enslaved indigenous people at the Missions.

It’s clear that some of these sheep were sold into the OT and elsewhere in the West, per Vancouver and later observations, but the OT (as we’ve already seen) was also in the habit of obtaining sheep elsewhere.

Lomax notes that, in 1833, “sheep are placed on all farms in Oregon” but the sheep he describes don’t sound like California sheep. They are “Cheviot, Cotswold, Southdown, Leicester, and Merinos… some of them being imported in small numbers from England.” In 1834, Nathaniel J. Wyeth brought sheep and other livestock to Oregon from the Sandwich Islands.

Supposedly, “In 1841 a flock was brought from CA with the permission of the Mexican Government; 3,000 were driven overland and 2,000 more came by sea.” But Lomax points out that these numbers were likely exaggerated, as “It was generally known by the Hudson’s Bay Company officials that the Russians desired to quit their settlements at Fort Ross and at Bodega, California, and were willing to sell the latter, with its stock of 1,500 sheep valued at $1.50/head.”

While it’s possible that the California events of 1833 secularization and Russians vacating Fort Ross in 1841 may have helped bring sheep to Oregon, Oregon also had plenty of English breeds thanks to the presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this story, which takes place in the mid 1840s and 1850s, a time of sheep being driven overland as part of a much larger westward migration.

If you have any questions, historical information, or insights to add to this piece, please add a comment below.


2 Responses to “Part 1: How did sheep get to the West?”

  1. Gina

    Can you give me some insight on Rancho Los Alamitos sheep? Where they came from and how many.

    • anysteph

      Hi Gina! Rancho Los Alamitos once belonged to the Bixby family, and I wrote about them and their sheep in Part 2 of “How did sheep get to the West?” That post includes excerpts from a terrific account by Sarah Bixby Smith, who grew up on the Bixby sheep ranch, and whose father’s story of driving approximately 2,400 sheep West was nearly lost. According to the Rancho Los Alamitos website, “In 1968, the children of Fred and Florence Bixby, the last private owners, donated the family ranch to the City of Long Beach.” Since Rancho Los Alamitos was Bixby land, my guess is that some of its initial sheep were probably some of those driven West by Bixby himself, though I have not yet found information on the breed. In Alta California at this time, however, Navajo Churro and Navajo-Merino crosses were the type of sheep referred to as “California sheep.” Cheers!


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