Animals of all kinds played an important role in George Washington's life and the economy of Mount Vernon. Learn more about some of the more important animals that were found on the estate.

Horses

Thomas Jefferson once referred to George Washington as one of the finest horseman of his time. As an avid horseman, Washington maintained a stable of fine, well-kept horses. They provided transportation, pulled carriages, worked in the fields and wheat treading barn, and were even used for recreation. Washington enjoyed fox hunting on the Estate and had a pack of hounds specifically for this purpose. He owned an Arabian stallion named Magnolia who raced in Alexandria. Nelson and Blueskin were two of George Washington’s favorite horses and carried him during the Revolutionary War. Today, Mount Vernon is home to 11 horses. We have draft horses that pull wagons, plow, and harrow the fields. Four of our draft horses are Shires, a breed developed in England and is critically endangered. Our smaller horses work in the 16-sided wheat treading barn from July to October, demonstrating how wheat kernels were separated from the stalk.

Nelson - One of Washington's Favorites

VIDEO: Get close to the plow in this video showing 18th century plowing techniques

Cattle

During the peak of George Washington’s farming operation, over 300 cattle lived on the Estate. Cattle provided meat, milk and associated products like butter, cream, and cheese. They were also a reliable source of labor on the farm. Washington branded all of his cattle with “GW” for identification purposes. Mount Vernon raises Milking Devon cattle, a breed developed in England and brought to Massachusetts in 1623. The Devons are known for their deep red color and versatility. They are a hardy breed and can thrive in rugged conditions. Mount Vernon’s heritage breed program raises Devons as part of a conservation effort to help preserve the breed. The cattle are listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy, meaning less than 200 animals are registered in the United States annually.

Oxen played a very important role on the farm, performing many jobs such as plowing and hauling carts. They were often referred to as a “poor man’s working team.” We have a working team of oxen, Jed and Jake, who haul compost and straw in a cart. Jed and Jake were born at Mount Vernon and trained by our staff.

Cattle at Mount Vernon

Sheep

Mount Vernon was home to many sheep in George Washington’s time. His flock number ranged from 600-1,000 sheep. Sheep were very important, providing wool for clothing and blankets, manure for crop fertilization, meat for mutton and spring lamb, and lanolin for ointments. Today, Mount Vernon raises Hog Island sheep, a rare breed that is native to Virginia and dates back to the 1600s. Hog Island is a barrier island off the Delmarva Peninsula where the sheep survived for hundreds of years until the Nature Conservancy purchased the island in 1974. The sheep were dispersed to historic sites mostly in Virginia. While we are not sure this is the breed Washington raised, they resemble sheep found in the colonies in the 1700s. Hog Island sheep are listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy. Due to the critically low numbers of the sheep, Mount Vernon is involved in a careful breeding program. We follow Washington’s timeline for both breeding and shearing. Every October, our sheep are divided into breeding flocks and we welcome new lambs in March. Our sheep are sheared every May using hand shears for the public to see. We currently have close to 70 sheep on the property as part of our conservation effort.

Sheep at Mount Vernon

Hogs

Hogs were very popular in the 18th century as a valuable source of food. George Washington’s hogs ran loose in the woods, foraging on nuts and insects, until they were gathered in the fall for fattening. Ham, salted pork, bacon, lard, scrapple, and chitterlings were all very common foods in colonial times. Today, Mount Vernon raises Ossabaw Island hogs. Ossabaw Island is off the coast of Georgia, near Savannah. They are descendants from pigs brought to the New World over 400 years ago by Spanish explorers. Ossabaw Island hogs come in a variety of colors – gray, black, red, tan and even spotted. Listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy, Mount Vernon has been breeding the Ossabaws for over 20 years. We have sold piglets to other historic sites and hobby farmers all over the country who are committed to preserving this rare breed. Often in the spring through fall months, we have a litter of piglets for our visitors to see. A typical litter size for the Ossabaw is 4-8 piglets, with our largest litter of 11.

Hogs at Mount Vernon

Mules

Fondly nicknamed “The Father of the American Mule”, George Washington began breeding mules at Mount Vernon after he received a stud jack from the King of Spain in 1785. In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette sent another jack and two jennets (female donkeys) to Mount Vernon. A mule is a hybrid cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Washington was very fond of horses, but became convinced that mules worked longer and harder than horses and required less feed. In 1785, Washington’s inventories listed 130 horses and no mules. In 1799, 58 mules lived on Mount Vernon and only 25 horses. Today, Mount Vernon has a team of mules that work on the Pioneer Farm Site plowing and harrowing fields, hauling compost, and pulling wagons. We also have an American Mammoth donkey that represents “Royal Gift”, Washington’s present from the King of Spain.

Donkeys at Mount Vernon
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