It seems like yesterday, but likely it was close to two decades ago when I entertained the grandkids with our own version of the Lutheran carol, “Away in a Manger.” Our prairie stanzas were set in a snow-covered landscape and populated with animals suited to the locale--howling coyotes and barking retrievers joining the usual cast of barnyard creatures--denizens vocally present, howling and barking on cue.
Which gets me thinking, just what are, or were, our typical animals--and now I’m thinking domestic animals--here on the Great Plains in the homesteading heyday, the late 19th century? What breeds of livestock were a part of everyday pioneer life?
There are clues in that great ballad of overland migration, “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” The opening stanza informs us that Betsy and her lover Ike ventured onto the plains with
Two yoke of cattle, a large yeller dog,
A tall Shanghai rooster, and a one-spotted hog.
Let’s begin at the end, with that “one-spotted hog.” This sounds like a Hampshire hog, one of the oldest named breeds in America. It is a black beast with a white belt or spot across its midsection. Compare this reference in “Sweet Betsy” to the later one in another standard folksong, “Dakota Land.”
My chickens, they are Plymouth Rock
My horses Clyesdale Norman stock
My cattle Durham, very fine
And Poland China are my swine
Poland China swine originated in the Ohio Valley from the admixture of Hampshire, Berkshire, and what were known as “Big China” hogs. They were huge. So the latter reference, in “Dakota Land,” states the preferred standard for prairie pig farming, while the earlier reference, in “Sweet Betsy,” confesses the scruffiness of Betsy and Ike’s livestock.
They did, however, possess a stylish “Shanghai rooster.” A Shanghai was a gaudy bird, iridescent as a ringneck pheasant. It figures in a lot of hillbilly songs in the country music lexicon. On the other hand, our “Dakota Land” singer boasted the preferred, dual-purpose chicken breed of the mid-nineteenth century: Plymouth Rock, that practical, speckled beauty.
Horses? Sweet Betsy’s were nondescript, but the ‘Dakota Land” farmer specified that his were “Clydesdale Norman stock.” This was a well-crafted bit of crossbreeding. The massive Clydesdale line provided the power for breaking and other heavy work, while the injection of Norman blood produced a more nimble beast, better for such work as drawing a mower or binder.
And cattle? Much as we may revere the iconic longhorn, and credit its place in history, it appears that Continental European breeds largely populated the plains. Of these, the Shorthorn predominated early; the Hereford and Angus herd books of the plains date mainly from the 1890s and later. A favored variety in the dual-purpose Shorthorn breed was the Durham cow, a mottled beast whose line goes back to the origins of the Shorthorn breed.
My folksongs may not be authoritative sources as to livestock lineage, but they are at least an index to the animal inventories of prairie farming. ~Tom Isern