J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 30, 2018

The Final Fate of Jefferson’s Four-Horned Ram

On 23 Feb 1808, a week after young Alexander Kerr, Jr., died from being gored by a four-horned ram on the grounds of the Presidential mansion, Thomas Jefferson made plans to move that animal to Monticello.

Jefferson wrote to his plantation manager, Edmund Bacon, about his flocks:
I am glad to hear you have lost no lambs. you must attend to the males being cut at a proper season in the spring; and at shearing time remember that the lambs are not to be shorn. I have here 18 ewes and shall have about the same number of lambs from them, by a many horned ram, all of which I shall propose to have driven to Monticello in the summer. this breed being very different from the big-tail we shall have to provide two separate ranges for them.
Jefferson wrote nothing in that letter or others to Bacon about the “many horned ram” attacking people and therefore perhaps needing special attention. The manager and an enslaved wagoner named David Hern came to Washington, D.C., and got Jefferson’s Presidential flock to Monticello.

According to one anti-Federalist newspaper, “a female child of one of the President’s domestics”—i.e., his slaves—had been among the ram’s victims; “her person has become disfigured.” That report may have been exaggerated for political reasons. But Jefferson does appear to have had a blindspot when it came to that killer animal.

The President’s established interest in improving American sheep grew after he instituted an embargo on British and French goods in December 1807. The U.S. of A.’s ability to manufacture its own woolens became even more appealing. He therefore loaned out his rams to other Virginia sheep farmers and promoted the fleece of his own flock.

On 13 October, Jefferson wrote to James Ronaldson, a Philadelphia manufacturer:
I happen by accident to have obtained the Iceland or Shetland race of sheep of many horns. it is from their wool I understand that the famous Shetland stockings are made which I believe sell for a guinea a pair being as soft as fur. as this peculiar wool may possibly be useful for some manufacture here, I send a fleece of it as a sample, by my grandson [Thomas Jefferson Randolph], who is going to Philadelphia, and who will put it into your hands. and I am encouraged to take this liberty by the zeal which your letter manifested for the promotion of manufactures. the request I have to make is that you will be so good as to have ascertained whether there will be any particular utility in raising this kind of wool, & what would be it’s probable price in Philadelphia, if encouraging I can probably extend it’s produce to any requisite degree in my neighborhood.
Within two weeks, that man replied that all the weavers and craftsmen who’d seen the fleece said it was suitable for blankets only. Still, Jefferson remained determined to find value in that many-horned ram.

In October 1809 Jefferson told Sen. John Milledge of Georgia: “I have for you a very fine Iceland ram with 4. horns, who will be sent down the river, as soon as the season restores it’s navigation…” Milledge wrote back, “I thank you for the Ice land ram, the wool from the breed of that animal, will answer for clothing our negroes.”

In 1811 Jefferson promised to send a younger four-horned ram to Milledge, but on 5 June he had to report bad news:
The many-horned ram which I was to have sent to Norfolk for you was killed by his sire. this abominable animal killed moreover two fine Barbary rams for me, & was so dangerous generally that I was obliged to have him destroyed. I found the species very worthless.
Jefferson maintained hopes for that animal even after it had killed a boy and injured one or two others in Washington, but once it started kill other rams in his flock, especially those of his favorite breed, he decided it had to die.

1 comment:

Donald Carleton, Jr. said...

The whole story of the four-horned ram just adds to the picture of a kind of moral callousness on TJ's part...thanks for bringing it to light.