The sheep population at Mount Vernon soared after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. In the fall of 1785, George Washington owned 283 sheep, including nineteen rams, 167 ewes, fifteen lambs, and eighty-two wethers (neutered males). Fourteen years later in 1799, the flock had more than doubled to 640 sheep.1
In addition to purchasing sheep for Mount Vernon, Washington also received and gave them as gifts. In July of 1798, James Athill, a prominent Antiquan who had visited the Washingtons the previous year, sent the retired president a ram and four ewes "of the breed in these islands. . ." Athill noted that while they might not be "equal to the sheep of American, they might be interesting because of the "singularity of their appearance."2
The small Antiquan flock arrived at Mount Vernon by early September 1798. Washington wrote to thank Athill and explain that he was sending in return a ram and five ewes from Mount Vernon, partly as an experiment. Washington explained that "although it is a fact well ascertained. . .that the Woolly tribe of animals change their coating whenever they are removed to hot Climates …if you are so disposed, the fact may be established under your own eyes."3
Washington was frequently preoccupied by the amount of wool taken from the sheep each year. He corresponded with several agricultural experts about his flocks. Washington bragged to one Englishman, "Nor is the wool of our Sheep inferior to that of the common sort with you." He went on to explain "as a proof," that he had sent a fleece "promiscuously taken" from one of his sheep to British agronomist Arthur Young, who "put it, for examination, into the hands of Manufacturers," who "pronounced it to be equal in quality to the Kentish Wool."4
Sheep Shearing at Mount Vernon
Washington believed that his absence from Mount Vernon due to the American Revolution and the presidency had been detrimental to his flocks. As he noted to another correspondent, "Before I left home in the spring of 1789 I had improved that species of my stock so much as to get 5 ¼ lbs. of Wool as the average of the fleeces of my whole flock; and at the last shearing they did not yield me 2 ½ lbs." The solution he looked for was through "procuring (if I am able) good Rams and giving the necessary attention." Washington then confided that the sheep were "with me, as you have declared them to be with you, that part of my Stock in which I most delight."5
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens
1. "Enclosure: Schedule of Property, 9 July 1799," Papers of George Washington Retirement Series, Vol. 4, 519.
2. "James Athill to George Washington, 21 July 1798," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 2, 436.
3. "George Washington to James Athill, 4 September 1798," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 2, 584.
4. "George Washington to Sir John Sinclair, 20 July 1794," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 33.
5. "George Washington to Harry Dorsey Gough, 23 August 1797," The Writings of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 36.