The wool of Merino sheep was highly prized and for centuries the flocks were not allowed to be exported from their home in Spain. One of the few individuals to get Merinos into the United States was U.S. minister to Spain David Humphreys, who imported twenty-five rams and seventy-five ewes to his home in Connecticut in 1802. The Library of Virginia has a copy of Humphreys’s 1804 book The miscellaneous works of David Humphreys, late minister plenipotentiary —to the court of Madrid, which contains an essay on Merino sheep. Thomas Jefferson was also particularly interested in the improvements of sheep herds and by 1810 had acquired his own herd of Merino sheep. The demand for Merinos soon reached manic proportions, a bubble was created, and like all bubbles there was a crash. (For more on this subject see Monticello’s article on sheep.)
Amongst the Cowling Papers found in the City of Richmond records is a letter dated 14 August 1827 from William DuVal (1748-1842), a Virginia lawyer, legislator, and planter, to Willis Cowling (1788-1828), a Richmond cabinetmaker. Enclosed in the letter is a sample of Merino wool. DuVal wrote to ask Cowling if he would sell two hundred pounds of Merino wool to buy material for slave clothing. Cowling was a good choice for carrying out DuVal’s request as he regularly dealt with merchants in New York and Philadelphia for mahogany and furniture hardware. He also had experience in selling Virginia coal in New York. (For more on Cowling see “Willis Cowling, Richmond Cabinetmaker “in the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winter 2001, Vol. XXVII, No.2)
The transcribed letter below is found in the Richmond City Clerk’s Correspondence that includes both personal and court related material for 1801-1866 (Barcode 1117043).
I have about 200 lb. of Marino Wool of the full Blooded Marino’s which I would sell at 45 Cents pr lb. or exchange for cotton and Wool Winter Cloathing for my Negroes 40 Yards for Men and Boys & sixty yards of single Wove Cotton Wool striped for women and children to be warm & well wove. The balance in white domestic Cotton Shirting from 10 Cents to 12 per Yard. The Wool will make excellent super Fine Broad Cloath. It is not washed and is free from Sheep Burs and Spanish Needles.
I send enclosed a sample of the Wool I expect your Correspondents in Philadelphia or New York would buy it or exchange it for the above Articles or perhaps you may exchange it for the above Articles in Richmond. Inform Mr. Richard Adams that this Fall shall send him Three Marinoses. I have sold 21 more of them.
Write me by Mail & I can send the wool to Richmond. My love to your Lady self & Family and to Mr.Ritter & Lady
Your obliged Friend
-Chris Kolbe, Archives Reference Coordinator
Other Virginians rejected the “foreign” Merino and hoped to promote native American breeds. Deeply concerned about American dependency on foreign manufactures, George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) promoted commercial independence through agricultural reform and the improvement of domestic varieties of livestock. The Library has a copy of his “Address to the People of the United States, on the Importance of Encouraging Agriculture and Domestic Manufactures” (1808), which describes his vision. Custis developed two breeds of sheep, the Arlington Improved and the Smith’s Island, also noted for the flavor of its mutton. From 1805 through 1812 he held annual sheep shearings, which evolved into full-scale agricultural fairs offering premiums for the best blankets, stockings, and yarn and to the family relying the least on imported material.