George Washington turned to Red Devons for their pulling power, good beef, and fresh milk.
Today the term "Ruby Red" may be used to describe a juicy grapefruit or a rich port. But in the 18th century, a Ruby Red was a very important and versatile member of the plantation community.
When it came to selecting cattle, oxen and dairy cows, George Washington definitely preferred representatives of the Red Devon breed, which were commonly referred to as "Ruby Reds."
Surviving records tell us that Washington had at least 166 head of cattle at Mount Vernon in 1765, so Devons played vital roles in Washington's plans for animal husbandry. Today, the estate is home to eight Devons, including Quincy, the lone bull in the group. There are also three cows, two heifers, and a pair of hardworking oxen.
Then and now, the strength of Red Devons was harnessed to complete some of the more strenuous tasks on the estate. The same breed also supplied beef, veal and milk, and associated products such as butter, cream and cheese.
According to Alan and Donna Jean Fusonie, co-authors of George Washington, Pioneer Farmer, the Devon breed was originally brought to Massachusetts in 1623 from Devonshire, England. In New England, the oxen did the heavy work on the rolling, rock-strewn fields. With limited available farmland to inherit or purchase, a number of New Englanders ventured south with their stock to resettle on rich tracts in Pennsylvania. During the decades prior to the American Revolution, superior cattle stock from Pennsylvania was probably introduced into northern Virginia by the stream of settlers moving farther south in search of arable land. Once introduced to the breed, it almost immediately became one of Washington's favorites.
When it came to raw power, Red Devon oxen were hard to beat. They could bear the weight of massive equipment and pull more weight than the average draft horse. Washington's journals report that he generally used oxen in the field until they reached the age of eight. Then the animals would enjoy a yearlong holiday in the pasture, where they quickly fattened up. But they went to the slaughterhouse before reaching the age of ten.
We know that in 1785, there were 26 draft oxen at Mount Vernon. But clearly, the number fluctuated as Washington balanced the need for power in his fields with the necessity of fattening and slaughtering the animals before the quality of beef began to decline.
George Washington had all of his cattle branded with the letters "GW," and the location of the brand usually indicated to which farm the animals belonged. In 1765, for instance, 24 animals that resided at Dogue Run Farm were branded on "the left buttock." Those living at Muddy Hole Farm were branded on the left shoulder.
Always looking for new ways to create income for the plantation, Washington was also eager to develop a working dairy. Soon after marrying Martha Custis, Washington opened a small dairy near the kitchen, probably to supply milk, cream, and butter to plantation residents.
In 1788, Washington was thinking much bigger, hoping to cash in on the growing populations of Alexandria and Georgetown. That spring he ordered his manager to construct a dairy at River Farm, to be followed by the construction of similar operations at Union and Dogue Run Farms.
For reasons unknown, only one dairy was constructed, and Washington remained frustrated that his dairy's productivity continued to come up short. In what would be his last instructions to his farm manager James Anderson before his death four days later, Washington wrote, "It is hoped and will be expected, that more effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is almost beyond belief, that with 101 Cows... I am obliged to buy butter for the use of my family."
Washington's keen interest in Red Devons reveals once again that he considered himself, first and foremost, a full-time farmer.