Object of the Month

Adventures in Animal Husbandry: the Bull Admiral in Essex County

Imported Bull Admiral Broadside

Imported Bull Admiral

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This broadside, from the Timothy Pickering papers, advertises the availability of a recently-imported short-horned bull named Admiral for breeding with Essex County cows. The importation of Admiral and other English cattle was an effort on the part of Massachusetts farmers to improve their livestock.

A cow and bull story

The 10 July 1824 issue of the New England Farmer contains a report of a meeting of the trustees of the Massachusetts Agricultural Society announcing the receipt by the ship Bowditch, Caleb Curtis, Captain, of "One full bred Herefordshire Bull, of one year old, and a full blooded heifer of the same breed … purchased by Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin and by him presented to this Society—and also a four year old full blooded heifer of the Short horned breed … also purchased by Sir Isaac Coffin, and presented by him to this Society for the amelioration of the breed of cattle of his native state." The Atlantic crossing apparently bothered the hearty bovines not a whit, the Recording Secretary reporting that "they appeared as if they had been just taken from a fine pasture."

Sir Isaac Coffin was born in Boston in 1759 and was a descendant of the Nantucket Coffins. Although he was an officer in the Royal Navy during the Revolution, by his own account, "during the whole controversy, he never saw an American without beholding in him a fellow countryman, and that he never found one of them in distress but that he was prompt to relieve him." In addition to his benefactions to the agriculture and fisheries of his home state, in 1827, Coffin established the Coffin School on Nantucket. Appropriately, the bulls he sent to Massachusetts were named in his honor—Sir Isaac (the Herefordshire) and Admiral (the short-horn).

The decision was made to place the bull Admiral and heifer Annabella with Ezekiel Hersey Derby of Salem for one year; the Herefordshires were placed with John Prince of Roxbury. All were the property of the Agricultural Society, and farmers of the state were invited to take advantage of them. The article continues with pedigrees of the animals and a description of the various advantages of the breeds.

Soon after this meeting announcement, the broadside above was published in Salem. Apparently, however, Essex County farmers were not entirely sold on breeding their cows to the foreigner Admiral. In March of 1825, Derby, who had been hosting Admiral and Annabella since their arrival, wrote to Pickering, "I am mortified to say that very few persons, except myself have as yet felt disposed to send their fine cows to him." He goes on to encourage Pickering in his role as President of the Essex Agricultural Society to talk up Admiral among the farmers of the county. Sure enough, on 6 April, Pickering issued a handbill "To the farmers of the county of Essex" comprising Admiral’s vital statistics and a suggestion that "it would be a subject of regret if the farmers of Essex" should miss the opportunity of breeding their cows with Admiral. To close the deal, Pickering notes "I intend to put two of my best cows to this extraordinary animal in the present season." It is unclear what the results of this were for Pickering's herd.

Admiral was not the only foreign bull looking for love in Essex County in the mid-1820s. Gorham Parsons of Brighton, who owned a farm in Byfield, Mass., offered his Alderny bull to Pickering and the farmers of Essex County for as long as needed in the quest to improve the cattle stock of Essex. In May of 1826, Pickering penned detailed instructions to Joseph Brown, who was to guide Parsons' bull in his progress through Essex County, beginning with "The bull must be used gently—doing nothing to irritate him."

Timothy Pickering, gentleman farmer

Prior to his career in farming, Pickering gained great renown in public service. Born in 1759, Pickering was one of nine children born to Deacon Timothy and Mary Wingate Pickering of Salem. He was a member of the Class of 1763 at Harvard and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar five years later. He was active in the Massachusetts militia and in February of 1775, men under Pickering's command turned back British troops searching for contraband at North Bridge in Salem, an event known as "Leslie's Retreat." In 1777, Pickering was appointed an Adjutant General; in 1780 he was elected Quartermaster General. After the war, he served as Postmaster General, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, United States Senator, and member of the United States House of Representatives. After losing his bid for re-election to the House in 1816, Pickering retired to Salem to live the life of a gentleman farmer.

Pickering's papers from his retirement years offer a wonderful glimpse of the lives of farmers in the early nineteenth century, full of memoranda on crops, announcements of new agricultural inventions, descriptions of cows and their milking habits, and lists of fruits and vegetables grown by Pickering and his fellow farmers. Pickering was also the first President of the Essex Agricultural Society, formed in 1818, and the papers contain information on that Society's early efforts.

For further reading

The Timothy Pickering papers reflect his wide-ranging career, consisting of family and general correspondence; business and legal papers; military papers; agricultural papers; papers concerning Pickering's missions to the Indians; correspondence, official documents, and historical notebooks collected for a proposed history of the United States during the Revolution; political notebooks and journals; account books (1780-84) of the Quartermaster General's office; and papers of his children and other family members.

Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin [Boston, 1829].

New England Farmer, 10 July 1824, p. 402-403.