Odd Absences

I was out at Traveller’s Rest yesterday because Mrs. Overton’s garden nags at the back of my mind. I need to someday take the whole house tour, but it’s expensive and I’m cheap. But two things struck me as I was out there, well, three. 1. Mrs. Overton knew how to work an herb garden. It wasn’t some slave of hers (or not totally), but her calling the shots on what was in that garden. And her first husband was a doctor. As the woman of that house, she would have sat at some interesting intersections. I think her garden reflected that. 2. The kitchen is missing. Well, almost all the old outbuildings are missing, with the exception of the weaving house, the smoke house, and a building up front that I forget what it is. But the kitchen is really noticeable in its absence because the smoke house is still there–the other building that would have been incredibly close to the house. I tried to suss out where it would have been, just using my eyes and the size of the trees. 3. In the weaving house, there was a hank of wool yarn. You can tell it’s wool as opposed to cotton because it’s got a little stiffness to it, the curve of yarn holds its shape instead of folding under its own weight. I assumed the yarn on the loom was therefore wool, but this morning that seems stupid. It could have been cotton. Now I wish I’d given it a sniff. Anyway, my point is that nm is right, there’s an odd absence of sheep in Middle Tennessee.

We talked about this with the Bell Witch. People must have had sheep, especially early on, or what did they make clothes from? Sheep would be a good use of the rocky land to Nashville’s south. But we’re not a heavily lamb-eating culture and you don’t see a lot of sheep around now. I also haven’t run across any mention of people having sheep. But the Overtons had a weaving house and they didn’t grow cotton (they appear to have been a diverse farm at first and then, when they pared down into growing one main crop, it was tobacco), so… right? What’s being woven in the weaving house, then? I wonder if this is some weird sexism problem. If women cared for the sheep and women used the sheep’s products, and if the sheep never contributed to the commercial culture of the farm, did it just not get mentioned? Kind of went without saying? Or am I just somehow failing to notice mention of sheep? I feel like I’m geared up to notice their mention, but maybe I’m not.

yarn 1 yarn 2 yarn 3


9 thoughts on “Odd Absences

  1. There would have been some, but not many, sheep in the 18th century European settlements of Tennessee. The available breeds up to 1820 (when the Merinos come into popularity) were finicky beasts, prone to disease and rapid death. They didn’t give much meat for what they ate and when they were kept feral (as was often the American practice), they didn’t give much wool. They were easy pickings for wolves and other predators; if you wanted a good shearing, your animals required extraordinary supervision. (The one-off sheep or lambs were kept very much near, sometimes in, the home – everywhere that Mary went…that’s why the lamb trots on into school…)

    Honestly, when I just did a quick search of online probate inventories from Tennessee (admittedly not a sound method of inquiry, but a quick and dirty indicator), I didn’t find many sheep at all before 1820, when they grew comparatively more widespread, as one would have expected with the improvement in breed. Certain areas seem like sheep growing centers — like the Grassy Valley area around Knox County. (Scots-Irish might have drove them up en masse from NC? Can’t imagine Highlanders wanting to live without mutton.) The so-called Swiss Colony folks also had herds of sheep. Other women are clothing their families with cotton and flax and perhaps trading for woolen yard goods somewhere else.

    Mid-south merchants were buying commercially made cloth (and hand-woven “country” cloth made by women in the mid-Atlantic and elsewhere). If you do decide to go look (yay!), probate inventories are your friend. It’s not necessary that a house have a loom (those could be shared in a neighborhood – the words to look for are tackle and loom), but textile processing homes have vats or barrels to soak flax, cards (helpfully labeled as cotton cards or wool cards), spindles, spools, reels, or Great wheels and small wheels…

    Here’s a kindred spirit: https://weavingahistory.wordpress.com/tag/spinning/

    And this master’s thesis might be up your alley too… http://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1165&context=etd

    I guess eventually Tennessee gets its sheep together, so’s to speak (in the 1840s and 1850s), but the early period…not so much.

  2. Merinos didn’t become popular in the US until the 1820s? I … what? They’re prized in Castile from the 1270s on. So that’s kind of weird. Not that I’m doubting what you say, Bridgett; I just find it odd.

    If you’re not going to have large herds of sheep (which the Spanish and Spanish-Americans and Native Americans who were influenced by them liked to have) and take them around to season-appropriate pastures all the time, they’re still great to have around in the English fashion: pastured on fallow, composting their own manure because their sharp hooves cut it into the soil. They did need guarding, but a boy or girl could do that if they were pastured. Neither the meat nor the wool may be ideal, but combine wool and (eventually) meat with the way they improve the soil, and they’re a natural for mixed agriculture. Once you go over to concentrating on a single crop for sale, and don’t use mixed-farming rotation of fields, sheep become much less attractive than larger cattle, though. And if you don’t have merinos available I guess that would make them less popular again.

  3. The Spanish kept a pretty tight hold on Merinos until Bonaparte invaded, at which point Spanish officials allowed export. A guy named William Jarvis (who worked as Consul to Portugal) introduced the breed to his home state of Vermont in the early 18teens and they spread thereafter to other parts of the US. Bakewell Leicester Longwools were the rage in the 18th century, at least in VA. Not sure what stock they were running in New England…I know that prior to the Revolution, the British had banned or restricted imports of sheep, but there were huge flocks in New England anyhow (many kept on islands and left to range feral).

  4. Well, the Spanish tried embargoing a lot of animals that actually got exported anyway. Horses, for one — but that just made them more desirable outside the peninsula, and there were always people willing to take them out. I thought the same was true with sheep (that the restrictions on exporting them were more theoretical than anything else), but maybe not. (Obviously, the British ban on export to the New World didn’t work.)

    Is it wrong of me that feral sheep make me think of that Republican woman’s commercial from a few years back?

  5. The Brits didn’t try to embargo sheep until the 1680s because it would not have done them any good. The Dutch, bless them, would sell anything to anyone and loved sticking it to the British woolen industry almost as much as New Englanders wanted to be warm during the Little Ice Age. While English herds took a big hit during Metacom’s War, they sufficiently rebounded so that by the early 1690s, merchants from Massachusetts were exporting richly dyed woolen goods back to Europe. That prompted the Wool Act of 1699. The sheep trade thereafter was pretty much domestic and intercoastal, so far as I know. As far as the Spanish shepherding goes, they imported tons of sheep to Central America — generally credited with creating widespread soil erosion and accelerating an already bad agricultural situation. I have no idea what breeds they imported, but there doesn’t appear to be much interior trade up the mid-continent rivers.

  6. Well, Columbus brought sheep to the Caribbean from the Azores, and I don’t know what breed they were. I don’t think merinos, which thrive on the Meseta, would do all that well in a humid climate at sea level. Cortes brought both churros (good for meat and cheese, less wool than merinos) and merinos to Mexico. And I think the elevation of Central Mexico would have been fine for them. At any rate, the herds there got so big that all the expeditions into northern Mexico, Nuevo Mexico, and California took flocks with them.

  7. As far as “what were they weaving”, one definite possibility is linen/hemp; that seems to have been a very common cloth in the South (Frederick Douglass mentions linen shirts), and hemp grows quite nicely in Tennessee.

  8. A question, and a general observation.

    Question: Could they have kept goats before sheep were widely available, and spun their coats into yarn? In the modern era, I’ve knitted with cashmere and angora, for sure, and perhaps even homely old TN fainting goats could make a lovely wool, maybe a cover for your fainting couch?

    The observation: I love reading you guys. B, Nm, Bridgett, y’all rock.

  9. Good point about goats, Jess. The Spanish used goats for milk and meat and took them pretty much everywhere they had a colonial presence. You could find goats in what’s now Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia, but they don’t appear to have made it into TN in any substantial numbers up to the 1820s. The Dutch also liked goats and kept more goats than sheep because they were more cost effective (blessed are the cheesemakers). The British colonists tended to use them (when they used them, which wasn’t all that often) for milk only…apparently they just didn’t want to eat goat if they could get pig and pigs bred so rapidly. Historians like Virginia Anderson argue that much lot of diasporic livestock cultivation is cultural — what a culture believed about an animal (the British believed that goats were what the Spanish and non-Christian Africans ate, so we didn’t want to eat that…goats were associated with the demonic and the Devil was the Great He-Goat…witches used goats as familiars, so you kept goats at your own peril) is important to consider when trying to figure out why some stock caught on and others didn’t.

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