In 1809, a man named William Jarvis sent a flock of Spanish sheep to America and altered the landscape and the economy of Vermont. The shipment of prized merino sheep eventually turned Vermont’s subsistence farmers into wealthy ranchers, fed the new woolen mills and deforested the landscape.
William Jarvis was a Boston Brahmin who built a successful trading house dealing in European commodities. He got to know Lisbon, Portugal, well, and served as Thomas Jefferson’s consul to Portugal from 1802 to 1811.
Jarvis discovered a secret closely guarded by the Spanish: Their merino sheep produced fine, thick wool that was soft, water-resistant and long-fibered.
When Napoleon invaded Spain, Jarvis took advantage of the resulting chaos and sent thousands of merino sheep out of the country. He was, in a sense, a 19th century version of Ben & Jerry’s.
He sent a staggering number of sheep to America. According to the Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association in 1879, 15,767 merino sheep arrived on the East Coast from Spain from 1810-11. Ships carrying the Spanish sheep arrived in Boston, New Haven, Portland, Providence, New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk. Jarvis even sent eight to Jefferson.
In 1811, Jarvis bought an estate in Weathersfield, Vt., near his relatives in Claremont, N.H. He brought thousands of sheep, along with Spanish shepherds and dogs to tend them. He evolved into a zealot for the merino sheep, giving speeches, lending money to farmers who wanted to raise them and buying an interest in a woolen mill in Quechee, Vt.
His timing was good. The local production of wool simply couldn’t supply the emerging woolen industry. Farmers had tried and failed to figure out how to improve the breed of sheep. Several others attempted to promote the Spanish sheep, but no one really paid attention.
Then came the economic crisis caused by the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Nonintercourse Act of 1809. Wool factories could no longer buy wool from Britain, and farmers could no longer sell their grain overseas.
Merino mania then seized Northern New England, especially Vermont. Textile manufacturers paid farmers $2.00 for a pound of merino wool, while common wool sold for 37.5 cents a pound. Common sheep sold for $2, while Merino rams sold for as much as $1,500 each.
Farmers stopped growing wheat and grain and started raising the Spanish sheep. They cut down thousands of acres of trees because the sheep needed the land for grazing.
The craze subsided by 1823. Isaac Holmes wrote, in An Account of the United States of America, derived from actual observation, during a residence of four uears in that Republic; including Original communications,
The sheep or Merino mania has now subsided. Four or five years ago, the sum of 1500 dollars was paid for a ram of the Merino breed. One thousand dollars was a very common price for an animal which would not now sell for fifty.
Boom and Bust
But the Spanish sheep, now known as the Vermont Merino, was here to stay. By 1830, Merino sheep were Vermont’s principal livestock, and Weathersfield was one of the richest towns in New England. The character of the sheep changed, too. In 1812, the average fleece of a Vermont sheep was 6 percent of the animal’s weight. By 1844, the average fleece of a Vermont sheep – with all those Spanish genes — was 15 percent of its weight, and by 1865 it rose to 21 percent.
Over the next decades, sheep farmers were subject to booms and busts. Wool prices plummeted because of competition from huge farms in the western United States, Australia and Argentina. Protective tariffs on wool also declined. Prices fell from 57 cents a pound in 1835 to 25 cents in late 1840, and two-thirds of Vermont’s sheep were killed between 1846 and 1850. Many farmers went out of business.
There were nearly 4 million sheep in New England by 1840, but half as many by 1860.
A second wave of Merino mania struck in the 1860s. Cotton was scarce and wool was needed for military uniforms. The sheep population doubled in some places. Some Vermont Merinos rams sold for as much as $5,000. A breeder named George Campbell took his prize Vermont Merinos to Hamburg, Germany, for an agricultural fair in 1863. He brought 12 sheep, the only Americans there, and they beat out 1,761 Merinos, some from the Royal French flock, for two first prizes and one second.
William Jarvis wasn’t alive to witness the second craze for Spanish sheep. He died in 1859 and was buried in Weathersfield. A merino sheep was inscribed on his tombstone.
This story about Spanish sheep was updated in 2020. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about the Guernsey cow and her passionate followers here.
Image of Merino ram: By Cgoodwin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7697403