Thursday, August 17, 2017  

The Rare Breeds Program Will astound You!
From Horse-drawn Carriages to Colonial Livestock  

What are the “Rare Breeds”?
There is much more to Colonial Williamsburg than restored colonial buildings. Every aspect of Williamsburg during its colonial heyday has been reproduced including the livestock. Until recently, I was completely unaware that the livestock featured here were part of an ongoing effort to not only accurately interpret living history but also to preserve the gene pool of hearty and robust species of Colonial and American livestock breeds. Often unique and quite handsome, the rare breeds are helping to preserve the genetic diversity of a time proven gene pool. Without the rare breeds program the horses used to pull the wagons and carriages, as well as the other rare breeds of livestock seen here, would not be known to most of us and may have been that much closer to extinction.

According to Richard Nicoll, the director of the Carriage and Livestock Operations at Colonial Williamsburg, “Modern Agriculture is bringing many diverse breeds of livestock to very few breeds. We are doing our small part to save the genetic gene pool of these animals and to show what breeds might have been here in the 18th century.”

Based on historical research, the breeds chosen for use in Colonial Williamsburg are representative of the livestock breeds that may have been present here during the 18th century. Rare breeds are defined as “having fewer than 1,000 animals registered annually in North America.” The animals featured in the rare breeds program include the following:


  • Dominique Chickens — A small to medium sized chicken and one of the first breeds ever developed in America. They are tough little birds that can easily withstand cold winter temperatures due to their heavy plumage.
  • Dorking Chickens — This silver or dark poultry breed is distinguished by its five toes. They are able to forage for themselves, making them a great free range chicken. They can be large and are usually broad breasted. They are beautiful and possess an abundance of hackle feathers, which is a trait most often associated with game birds.
  • Hamburg Chickens — Hamburgs are a very old breed from Northern Europe. Although the name is German, their origination is uniquely Dutch! They were later refined by British breeders and fanciers of the breed. The spangled type of Hamburg we see today in Colonial Williamsburg was kept in Yorkshire and Lancashire over three hundred years ago. They are abundant white egg producers and lovely well-proportioned birds with silver spangled feathers and a contrasting red comb.
  • English Game Fowl — Originally bred for cock fighting, the English Game Fowl are intriguing in appearance and are fearless, strong birds. They have contributed to many of our modern varieties and are favored for their high quality meat and eggs. Eggs from these and the other poultry in the Rare Breeds program are used in the Historic Area Food-ways Program. English Game Fowl tend to be large compared with the other hens and roosters at Colonial Williamsburg. They really do look like they could take a good nip out of any opponent.

Leicester Long-wool Sheep
These beautiful long wool sheep are characterized by a long luxurious coat of ringlets, like the dog of Flanders. They are easy to care for, mature quickly and are prized for their abundance of soft wool and meat. Originating in Great Britain, they were popular in Colonial American and other British colonies. Sadly, they became so rare that the original herd at Colonial Williamsburg had to be imported from Tasmania. Today the Long-wools in the Rare Breeds Program are born and bred at Colonial Williamsburg. Their wool is used by doll makers, weavers and hand spinners. Leicester is properly pronounced “Lester.”

American Milking Red Devon’s
This breed is a versatile breed of cattle that has served a variety of purposes, throughout the ages. In the 18th century the colonists prized this breed for its cream. Being high in butterfat, it was and still is well suited for making cheeses and butter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Red Devon’s are descended from the Red Devon cattle of Devonshire, England. Today they are an all American breed — born and bred at Colonial Williamsburg. Their milk is used in the Historic Food-ways Program at Colonial Williamsburg.

Milking Shorthorn and Randall Oxen
According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, these working animals were the “trucks, tractors and bulldozers of the 18th century.” As we all know, oxen are not a species in and of themselves, but cattle that are bred and trained for work. Milking Shorthorn cattle are either red or white and as the name implies are bred for milk production. They are hard workers and were also prized for their meat.

The Randall Oxen is another breed at Colonial Williamsburg that originated in Vermont. They are sometimes called “Linebacks” because of the white line that extends down the length of their back.

Horses in Colonial Williamsburg
The horses used in Colonial Williamsburg’s rare breeds program are born and breed here, like the other livestock seen in Williamsburg. Two of the most often seen equine breeds are the Canadian Horse and the American Cream Draft Horse.

The Canadian Horse has a regal lineage and is said to be a one of the foundation stocks used in the formation of the American Saddlebred, Standardbred and the versatile Morgan. The original Canadian Horses were shipped as a gift from King Louis XIV of France to the French colony of Quebec, about 1665 and are said to have originated in Brittany or Normandy. These horses are “easy keepers” and highly versatile. They possess good temperament, a sound constitution, high intelligence and endurance. They make wonderful riding or carriage horses and are an important part of the living history experience in Colonial Williamsburg.

The American Cream Draft horse is the rarest of all the animals in the rare breeds program. Just a few more than five hundred still exist in North America. It is the only draft horse breed to have ever been developed in America. Like the other rare breeds, they are also bred at Colonial Williamsburg. American Cream’s are gorgeous large boned horses with pink skin, a medium to dark cream colored coat, and amber eyes. Their white markings, manes and tails are a striking contrast to their Crème Brulé or Champagne colored coat.

Like the Canadian Horse, the American Cream was pushed to the brink of extinction. With revived interest in the breed and programs like the rare breeds program at Colonial Williamsburg the numbers for both of these distinctive and valuable breeds are now increasing.

A Look Behind the Scenes at the Stables, Bits and Bridles
In 2000 the current stables were built with donor funding. The stable complex includes offices, hay and feed storage, grooming/farrier facilities and roomy well maintained stalls. An exquisite and unrivaled collection of harnesses, saddles, bridles, horse hanes and other accoutrements complete the driving and horse related tack/equipment used in Colonial Williamsburg’s Coach and Livestock Program.

A separate building houses the unique and expanding collection of carriages and wagons that are used daily in Colonial Williamsburg. As today’s horse drawn vehicles are used much more often than they would have been during the Colonial era, good maintenance and meticulous care is the key to their longevity.

The Coach and Livestock Department, under the direction of Richard Nicoll, oversees the “Rare Breeds” program at Colonial Williamsburg, which started in 1986 and is funded by generous donor contributions. For more information on the Rare Breeds program, visit Colonial Williamsburg online at www.history.org.

You will be intrigued and your children will be delighted to see animals that they may never see anywhere else and touch part of America’s living history!

Special Thanks to Richard Nicoll, Director of CWF’s Coach and Livestock Department, who gave me a behind the scenes tour of the stables, carriage building and an enlightening overview of what the Carriage and Livestock Department through the Rare Breeds program contributes to animal husbandry and the overall experience at Colonial Williamsburg.

All photos were provided by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation with the exception of the Tack Room, Stables and Carriage Building photos, all by Karin Andrews. Quotes used in the article are from material furnished by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Richard Nicoll.