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How Did Cows Get to America?

Last Updated: 22.04.24


If you’re curious about the origin of cows in America, you have come to the right place since our article will take a close look at this topic and give you all the fascinating facts you are looking to learn. Furthermore, if you still want to find out more, we have a wealth of other articles for you to read, such as the one that will show you which the right beef cattle feed for your livestock is.


The introduction of cattle by the Spanish

After the glowing reports that were carried back to the Old World by Columbus in 1492, the Spanish throne decided to colonize the New World at once. With this purpose in mind, in 1493 Columbus made a second voyage and apart from carrying colonists with him, he also carried a large variety of plants, seeds, and the first shipment of domestic livestock.

The plants and livestock were meant to inhabit this New World, and it is believed that cows were among the livestock that was carried for breeding purposes. It is not known if the attempts to develop an animal industry on the New World were successful then, or if new attempts had to be carried in the following years.

Since during the sixteenth century the small size of the sea-going ships did not allow for large numbers of livestock to be carried, it is very possible that only a small number of cattle were brought over. The first shipment was made up of calves and heifers, and it can safely be concluded that during the first years, there wasn’t a large number of cattle for slaughter.



There are also documents which show that in 1494 Columbus urged the Spanish King and Queen to allow contractors to deliver cattle and beasts of burden to the new land annually. It is not known when this request was adopted and followed; however, by 1512 livestock-farming had become an industry in the West Indies and large numbers of cattle were being raised. In 1594, cattle were taken from Mexico and brought into the present boundaries of the United States.

From as early as 1598, a very large number of cattle was taken from New Spain into what is now the territory of New Mexico. The town of Santa Fe did not get established until 1609, and the cattle business was planted firmly in that section of the country during those times.

Cows were also taken into Florida by the Spaniards at the same time the first permanent settlements were erected, and documents show much evidence concerning the importation of cattle into Florida. These cattle were shipped from the Spanish islands and kept on islands along the coast of Florida to avoid difficulties that could arise with the Indians.

Thus, the first cows to be introduced into the southwest, and into Florida and Louisiana were of Spanish origin. By the 1880s, the cattle herds in Florida were a cross between old Spanish and British stock.


The introduction of cattle by the English

Even if the quest for gold was the main stimulus for English and Dutch explorations in the New World, they were also more than willing to accept the rich and productive land as a substitute to the precious gold.

It was after this realization that groups in these respective countries, including Sweden, shifted their attention to colonization. The first English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607, which is now located in the state of Virginia. By the end of 1609, the colony appears to have been very well stocked with a wide variety of livestock.

It was not until May 10th, 1611, according to Captain John Smith, that cattle were first brought over from England to the New World. With that said, there are reports from other colonists mentioning cattle being present in Jamestown prior to May 10th, 1611.

There’s a discrepancy of approximately one year’s time between Smith’s and other chronicles regarding the exact date when the first import of domestic cattle arrived into Virginia. It is not certain even to this day which is the correct date, but we know that the first cow stable in Virginia was erected in 1611 at the order of Governor Dale.

There is very little information regarding the special use of cattle during these early days of the Virginia Plantations. It is, however, known that they were used as draft animals. There is also an indication of them being used for milk since documents from 1622 show mentions of portions of milk and rice being given to starving members of the Colony.

While interest in livestock was great at that time, it appears that cattle did not multiply very fast since, by 1616, there was a total of only 144 head of cows, heifer calves, steers, heifers, and bulls in Virginia and in 1617 that number managed to decrease to 128. It was not until 1620 that the total number of cattle started to rise to an estimated 500.

By 1630 there was a tendency to change from a tobacco culture to a pastoral type of agriculture and due to the difficulty of fencing, a large number of cattle ran and became wild. As plantations increased in number, so did the private herds which increased not only in number but also in size.

At that time, it was estimated that the number of wild cattle exceeded that of tame cattle, some of which moved on to neighboring regions. As the colonies expanded, the cattle went with the settlers as well, to provide them with dairy products, meat, and leather. The expansion of the cattle industry was greatly assisted by railroads which allowed them to be transported safely to cities instead of having to rely on dangerous cattle drives.



Breeds of cattle

Although there are many breeds of cattle that thrive to this day in the United States, they are not native to this land, and as mentioned above the first were introduced by explorers and settlers from England and Spain.

The Longhorn cattle is the oldest breed of cattle to be brought to America by Christopher Columbus to Santo Domingo, in what today is known as the Dominican Republic. These Spanish cattle were also introduced to Mexico and soon became the foundation for the Texas Longhorn breed.

The first herd of 200 head of Longhorns was driven north in 1690 to a mission along the Sabine River, an area that today is part of Texas. When Texas gained its independence in 1836, the Mexicans returned south, but they let their free-ranging cattle behind. By the end of the Civil War, the Longhorns had reproduced and grown to a population of around 5 million head.

The Devon breed is known as the first importation of English stock to the United States since up to that point all of the cattle that arrived in the New World originated from Spain. The Devon became known as an ideal breed since it was suitable for farm work, quality beef, and dairy production.

Another popular breed is the Hereford that was developed in Hereford, England, and was first introduced in the United States in 1817. Since then it has become one of the most popular breeds in American cattle ranching.




1) When did cattle come to North America?

2) What country introduce cattle to the U.S.

3) The Introduction of Cattle into Colonial North America

4) Surprising Origins of Columbus’ Cattle Found



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