George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Richard Peters, 8 February 1793

From Richard Peters

Feby 8. 1793.

Dear Sir

I send you the best Answers I can make to Sr J. St. Clair’s Queries.1 Had I supposed you wished them sooner I should have paid earlier Attention to them. I return the Book which I have not had Leisure enough to read with the Care it appears to merit.2 I have the Honour to be with the most respectful Esteem Your very obedt Servt

Richard Peters


1GW wrote Sir John Sinclair on 20 Oct. 1792 that he would forward Sinclair’s “queries respecting Sheep,” which were enclosed in Sinclair’s letter to GW of 18 May 1792, to “such Gentlemen as I think most likely to attend to them,” and at some point he sent these queries to Richard Peters for his opinions. Peters’s enclosed response of this date is titled “Answers to Queries relating to Sheep in America—chiefly confined to those of Pennsilvania” and reads:

“Query 1. ‘Is the Breed, so far as it can be ascertained, a native or a foreign Species? Is it wild or completely domesticated? Is it hardy or delicate?’

“Answr The Sheep in America are not Natives. There are no wild Sheep. They are of Course all domesticated. No Animal requires more Care and Attention than this. It is naturally timid & helpless, & seems to have less of the Instinct, which in Brutes is a Substitute for Reason, than any other Beast. It cannot defend itself against its numerous Foes. It is a Prey to Dogs at Home, & if it should stray into the Forrests, the Beasts of Prey would soon destroy it. Some are comparatively with other Sheep, more hardy. But compared with other Beasts, they are all delicate. The apparent Hardiness of some is owing to the little Care taken of them; but these are runted & small—their Fleece bad—Wool coarse & little of it. Their Teeth soon decay, & they are short lived, tho’ they seem strong enough for a Time.

“Qy 2. ‘Is it supposed to be pure or has it been crossed with other Breeds? In what Respect does it chiefly differ in its Shape & Appearance from other Sheep? Whether in Regard to Height, Length, Breadth or otherwise?’

“Answr There has been no general Care to preserve a Purity of Breed. Some Farmers are attentive for a Time, but finally grow negligent. The Stock of all our Sheep is European. The Swedes & Dutch had a few previous to English Settlers. But the Importations, of any Consequence, were from England. The Germans also brought Sheep; & I have known some from Spain, & I think a Pair of Persian Sheep. But the great Proportion is from the English Stock. There are no great Varieties, as the Breeds have been mixed; but the American Sheep resemble most, in Shape & Figure, those of England. In Size they are generally smaller.

Query 3. ‘What is the Average Weight of its whole Carcase? The Weight of the Fore & Hind Quarters? The No. of its Ribs &c.?’

Answr The Average Weight of Sheep, in Pennsilvania when fat, does not exceed 48 lb. Nett. I have known the Carcase of a Sheep weigh 112 lb.; & have heard of one Wt 130 lb. The Weight of the Quarters may be judged of from that of the whole. It lays the Fat most on the Hind Qrs, which are therefore the heaviest. The Number of Ribs are generally twelve on a Side. Some have 12 & a false one.

“What is called the common Run of good Sheep, in the Philada Market, weigh 60 lb., but 80 lb., the Carcase, is not uncommom. The Price of Mutton, the Year thro’, in that Market, is about 4d. ½ dy Currency & the Price of Sheep in Flocks, when poor, is about 7/6d. a piece or 4/6d. Sterling.

Query 4 ‘What is the Nature & Quality of the Mutton?’

“Answr The Mutton of this Country differs as it does in others. That fed on short Bites, & hilly Lands, is the best. The smaller sized, if well fatted, is also the sweetest & best flavoured. It is generally accounted better than the large English or German Mutton. But the small Mutton of Wales, & other hilly Countries, is as good, but I think not superior to ours, in the same Kind of Country. Our best flavoured Mutton is not common in the Market of the Capital. The largest & fattest is to be found there. But the choicest & finest Meat is only to be had at a Distance, in the Neighbourhood of hilly, or, relatively, barren Countries.

“Query 5 ‘What is the Average Weight & Value of its Fleece?’

“Answr The heaviest Fleece I ever knew, weighed 13 lb. Nett. The Price of Wool, on an Average, is an English Shilling Pound. Three Pounds to a Fleece is an ample Average Allowance.

“Qy 6th ‘What is the Nature, Length, Colour & Price of its Wool & the Purposes for which it is best calculated?’

“Answr I am not Manufacturer enough to answer this Question fully. I have seen Home-spun Cloth of the Fabric of an English Superfine. It is said that we have Wool as fine as that of England at least. But it rather appears best calculated for the coarser Kind of Cloths. These are manufactured here to great Perfection & will out-last any imported. The Colour of our Wool is generally white, but it sometimes gets dusky from a Mixture of the black & White Sheep, both whereof we have, the white being, by far, the most common.

“Quy 7. ‘At what Age does the Breed arrive at Perfection & what is the Average Quantity of its Tallow when fat?’

“Answr Few Sheep keep their Prime longer than 7 Years. It depends much on their Treatment. At this Age they generally begin to decline. None will bear to be full fatted & suffered to grow lean, at any Age, They always perish with Disease, if this happens. The Average Weight of the Tallow is about one Eighth of the Weight of the Carcase, if the Sheep is well fatted.

“Qy 8th ‘What is in general the No. of Lambs at each Birth? At what Season of the Year do they lamb? And are the Lambs well covered with Wool when born?’

“Answr Three at a Birth sometimes happen. Two very commonly. Frequently but one. No Care is taken to prevent the Intercourse with the Rams at improper Periods, & therefore the Ewes often lamb in a severe Season. The Time of yeaning is generally from the Middle of February to the End of May. The most are lambed in March & April. Some are dropped at Christmas. They are as well covered with Wool as is common with Lambs of other Countries. It is rare for a Ewe to lamb twice a Year, tho’ I have known it happen.

“Query 9. ‘What is considered to be the best Method of managing the Breed? To what Food are they most accustomed, or seems best to agree with them?’

“Answr The Answer to the first Part of this Query, would require a lengthy Discussion. We have not been attentive enough to establish solid Principles. The Europeans know best how to improve & preserve the Breed of this Animal, because they have had more Experience; & both the Flesh & Fleece are in greater Demand. It is not the particular Race which ought, exclusively, to be attended to, for the same Family of Animals, confined to one-another, will degenerate. The Strain must be crossed, & the Points, Qualities, Size & Figure be selected from a Variety, ’till the perfect Animal is obtained. Some successful Attempts have been made, on this Scale, here: But [Robert] Bakewell, in England, has indubitably established its Practicability & Value. Our Manufactures are not sufficiently flourishing to create extensive Demands for the Fleece, & a small Addition to our present Stock, would glut our Marketts for the Flesh, If it were an Object, the Flesh will bear salting for Exportation; but it will be some time before this will be worth attending to. The best Method we can now take is for every Farmer to keep a few Sheep. Not more than a Score to a common sized Farm. No greater Number should be kept together; & these could be attended to without Injury to the common Affairs of the Farm. A prodigious Number could be raized in this Way; & both the Breed, & all other Circumstances, better managed. Labour is too high, & of Course Hands too scarce, to afford devoting any to the sole Employment of Shepherds; nor is the Demand great enough to induce making the Sheep Business a separate Branch. Premiums given by Government, or from private Subscription Funds, under the Direction of the Agricultural Societies, which are spreading themselves thro’ every Part of the United States, would assist in the Attainment of what is the most wanted—a perfect Breed of domestic Animals—Horses Cattle & Sheep included. Emulation would be set at Work, & the laudable Pride of excelling each other would stimulate intelligent & attentive Farmers to this Kind of Exertion. A Breed, thus obtained, will exceed any Importation. The Animal will be assimilated to our Climate, in which there are some Peculiarities not favourable to all imported Breeders, or their Progeny unmixed.

“As to the Food it is of the same Nature in most Countries—Sheep are close Biters & great Consumers of Pasture. The shorter & drier the Herbage, in Summer, the better—In Winter, they require, in Addition to Hay, Indian Corn-Tops & Blades & other dry Fodder, some succulent Food. But our Snows forbid the Turnep Fodder extensively. I had, one Winter, a great Quantity of the Scarcity Root [mangel-wurzel] & my Sheep were never more thriving. It is the most nourishing & healthy Food I ever experienced for this Animal & horned Cattle. Turneps are watery & thin Food, but Sheep should have these or Carrots. Next to the Camel, the Sheep will subsist the longest without Water. When the Snows lie long, I give them the Branches of the Pine & it has a surprizing Effect, as a Preventive, against their Disorders. Indian Corn is most common for fatting Winter Sheep. It goes the farthest ground & licked dry, adding a little Salt, occasionally. Every Store Sheep should have an Ear or two of Indian Corn, twice a Week. This preserves their Strength & prevents shedding the Fleece. Sheep should not be kept in close Stables, except when the Lambs are young & the Weather then cold or wet. Open Sheds, or Hovels, & Exposure, at their Pleasure, are the most preferable. Cold never injures grown Sheep or strong Lambs. Wet, long continued, kills them. A Change is necessary, both of Pasture & local Situation. They never thrive, if kept more than 5 or 6 Years on the same Farm. Those from hilly Countries will fatten fast in low Lands; but they must be immediately sold to the Butcher.

“Sheep will eat noxious Herbs & Plants which other Beasts avoid. ’Tis true they can eat, without Danger, many Things poisonous to Horses or Cattle. Yet they have no Sagacity in the Selection but stupidly & indiscriminately devour whatever they meet with in the vegetable Creation. They eat the Tops of several Species of the Nightshade, without Injury. But, not being able to distinguish the different Kinds, they are killed by some Species of this Tribe. It is also thus with the Laurel & the Ivy. They eat these without Distinction tho’ some Species of these Productions kills them. There is a low Plant, with a serrated Leaf, striped with White, appearing something like the Aloe, but very small, which, if eaten, is certain Death to them. It is frequent in our Woods, & they eat it whenever it falls in their Way. Sheep, Deer & Goats can feed, with Safety, on many Things fatal to other Animals; but both the latter have more Sagacity in the Selection than the former.

“Qy 10. ‘Their Diseases & Cure’

“Ansr The most common Diseases are the Scower [scour] & Rot. The running at the Nose I take to be a Companion or Consequence of the Rot, which, in its first Stage, seems to be a Species of Catarrh. Wet Weather long protracted—too luxuriant Herbage—wet & sour Pastures, or too much Water will produce the Scower which, is a Forerunner of other Diseases. Removal into dry Pastures stops it. Salt is also a Remedy. The putrid Air of confined Stables, or Folds, wherein too many are kept together, is one Cause of the Rot. I do not believe that when the Taint is fixed, the Animal is ever perfectly cured. Removal to Salt Meadows has checked this Disorder, when in its first Stages. Tarring the Troughs in which they drink, & stinting the Quantity of Water are also beneficial. Camphoir, rubbed on their Gums & given in the Form of Pills, is an excellent Remedy for many Disorders in Sheep. The free Use of Pitch—Pine-Buds & Limbs is an efficacious Preventive & Remedy—Sulphur is beneficial in the first Stages of the Rot. The Scab is not uncommon—Poverty, Filth & too great Numbers together produce it. Lice are also the Companions of Poverty. The radical Cure is to decrease your Numbers & keep no more than can be well fed & attended. In the first Instance, separate the infected from the healthy Sheep. A Decoction of Hellebore or Tobacco, & Tar-Ointment are serviceable in the first Attacks of the Scab, which in its Commencement is a cutaneous Disease. Train or Linseed Oil, poured in a Line from the Forehead to the Tail, along the Back, will banish Lice in Sheep or Cattle—There is an infinite Variety in the Countenances of Sheep. Examine the largest Flocks & you will not find two Faces alike. Some observant Farmers can tell every Sheep, by its Face, in their own Flock. The Changes appearing in the Countenance & Eyes indicate Disease or Recovery. But I know not what are the symptomatic Appearances peculiar to each. I have known some Persons who either had Knowledge of this, or were fortunate in guessing.

“Qy 11. ’The Methods if any to improve the Fleece’

“Answr I am unacquainted with the Methods of improving Fleeces. I have heard of some, but they appear to me whimsical. If the Fleeces begin to fall off in the Spring, owing perhaps to Relaxation from too much Warmth, or Weakness, Indian Corn eaten off the Cobb will set the Fleece, by strengthening the Sheep.

“12. ‘The clipping of the Fleece & its Summer or Winter Weight & Value?’

“Answr The Fleeces are clipt but once a Year. All our Fleeces are taken off in May or June. Sometimes we shear the early Lambs in July or the Beginning of August; but it is not commonly practiced.

Miscellaneous Observations.

“The State of our Population & Habits now preclude us from going extensively into the Sheep Branch. If it ever should become necessary, there are immense Tracts which might be devoted to it. They are now called Barrens. These, when burned, throw up a Vegetation of white Clover, & abound with aromatic Herbs & Plants, favourable & nutritious to Sheep. I do not find our Sheep more subject to Diseases than those of other Countries. But we shall be embarrassed, in our Means of keeping large Flocks thro’ the Winter & in long Winters their Disorders will be more contagious & fatal.

“The Pelts are now manufactured into Parchment & Leather, for various Uses. The latter is often dyed & substituted for Morocco, but it is inferior to it. The Parchment of this Country equals that imported, & can be encreased in Quantity, so as nearly, if not entirely, to supercede the Necessity of Importation.

“The Wolves in our Mountains are formidable to Sheep. But these will decrease, tho’ they may not be extirpated, by the Progress of Settlements. I have been told that the Wolf avoids the Goat, either on Account of its Smell or Appearance. It is said that keeping a few Goats—especially He-Goats—with the Sheep, has been on this Account practiced, with Success, in some of our Frontier Settlements” (DLC:GW).

2The book lent by GW has not been identified.

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