From earliest settlement, Tennesseans herded livestock–horses and mules, cattle, sheep, and swine–in addition to farming. Indeed, livestock became as important to Tennessee’s antebellum economy as cotton or tobacco. Many early observers pointed to the grassy rangeland and the natural mast and noted the suitability of the region for livestock. The large herds of deer and buffalo underscored the thriving conditions for livestock.
White settlers brought livestock of bloodlines that mingled breeds introduced by British, French, and Spanish colonists. In a preview of American cowboy culture, the Tennessee settlers allowed their cattle and hogs to range freely, rounded them up, and often branded them for long drives to market. In the Carolinas, mounted slaves sometimes tended cattle and became adept horsemen. The use of such cowboys spread across the South and into Texas as families moved west.
Faced with poor shipping opportunities, East Tennessee livestockmen drove cattle, hogs, and even turkeys up the Great Wagon Road to Virginia and over the Charles Town (Charleston) Road to South Carolina. Davy Crockett’s father hired the youth as a drover to Jacob Siler on a cattle drive from Jefferson County, Tennessee, to Rockbridge County, Virginia. The road from Newport to Asheville, North Carolina, witnessed huge annual caravans of drovers and their hogs moving to market. Native Americans also took up livestock raising, and an 1828 census of the Cherokees shows they owned 22,400 cattle and 7,600 horses. The state’s large herds of cattle and hogs led to the development of tanneries, and leather became a significant Tennessee export. Many early towns list a tannery among their first industries.
Settlers from North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania brought Shorthorn, Ayrshire, and Devon stock. East Tennessee highland “native” cattle bore a striking resemblance to the forest-bred herds of the Scottish Black Kerry and Aryshire and were likely brought from Scotland into North Carolina. These cattle were extremely hardy, smaller than Shorthorns, angular, surefooted, and seldom of a solid color unless black. Hard to fatten, they gave a very rich milk. The cattle of the East Tennessee valley and Middle Tennessee were larger and easier to fatten, more valuable for beef, with traces of Shorthorn and Devon bloodlines. West Tennessee cattle were similar to those of Middle Tennessee, but until the late nineteenth century, western counties raised cattle in smaller numbers than the rest of the state.
Cattle received little breeding attention until the 1830s, when competition promoted by agricultural fairs encouraged improved stock through introductions of blooded cattle from England and elsewhere, with attention given to Patton, Teeswater, and English breeds. A revival of attention to breeding occurred about 1855, as interest in fairs spread across the state.
As Tennessee lost its frontier aspect, horse breeding grew in importance. Andrew Jackson led efforts to bring the best horses of East Tennessee to the mid-state, and breeders imported stallions and mares from the eastern states and Europe. Sumner, Davidson, Giles, and Maury Counties became well known for their fine stock. By the mid-1800s the state had gained a reputation for fine stock, and Tennessee horses were exported to other regions. Tennessee is the only state to lend its name to one of the world’s most popular horse breeds, the Tennessee Walking Horse. Harlinsdale Farm in Williamson County produced Midnight Sun, one of the breed’s most famous horses. By 1860 Tennessee also had become the leading state for mule production, serving the increasing demand for mules in the cotton-producing states.
Many livestock men viewed Middle and West Tennessee as ideal in climate and pasture for sheep production. Some early settlers brought sheep and used the wool for home consumption. In the 1820s Merino sheep were introduced, and later Cotswold, Southdown, Leicester, and Oxfordshire sheep were brought to the state. Clifton Place in Maury County was known for its sheep production. Many farmers permitted their sheep to range half-wild, which decreased the amount and value of the wool. In sharp contrast to this practice, Mark R. Cockrill experimented with breeding a superlative animal. His efforts paid off when the Davidson County farmer won the gold medal for the finest wool in the world at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London.
By the mid-1800s Tennessee ranked as the top southern state for swine production, becoming the leading state in the nation in 1850. Hogs thrived in the state’s mild climate, which supported rich, mast-producing forests of chestnut, oak, and hickory, in addition to corn production. Free-roaming pigs sometimes became feral and entered folklore as the wild “razorbacks” of the South. Swine breeders took pride in their stock, importing lines from Europe and elsewhere. The Berkshire breed drew the most advocates–Berkshires were raised at the Davies Manor plantation in Shelby County, for instance–but other popular breeds included Essex, Poland China, Neapolitan, and Sussex swine. On the eve of the Civil War, Tennessee’s hog population numbered about 1.5 million.
The Civil War devastated the livestock industry, as occupying armies confiscated or killed meat-producing herds, horses, and draft animals. In 1874 Agricultural Commissioner Joseph B. Killebrew wrote that Tennessee had provided a larger number of cavalry horses to both armies than any other state. The war so reduced cattle herds that ten years later, Tennessee cattle numbered only 700,000 head, a 30 percent reduction from the 1860 figure. So few cattle remained after the war that livestockmen had to replace their herds with cattle imported from Kentucky and other states. Several farms, including that of Lazinka Brown Ewell and Richard Ewell in Williamson County, specialized in livestock sales. Next to the Ewell Farm stood the Cleburne Jersey Farm, established by Maclin Campbell circa 1870, which became the state’s oldest Jersey dairy farm and the second oldest Jersey dairy farm in the country. Breeders recommended shorthorns for all of Tennessee except the East Tennessee highlands, where Devons were suggested. Jerseys and Ayrshires were preferred for dairy production or for the city family that kept a cow. For many plain folk, herding ended, and livestock production continued only for household and farm use. Farmers unable to afford blooded cattle “made do” with free ranging scrub cattle. During the late nineteenth century crop farmers and blooded livestock producers entered into a protracted dispute with poorer farmers over attempts to legislate requirements for fencing. The dispute centered on who should be required to fence–crop farmers or cattle producers–as well as the definition of legal fencing. County extension agents and business progressives like the members of the Kiwanis Club banded together in the early twentieth century to rid the state of scrub cattle and replace the poor stock with blooded cattle. In Hamblen County in the mid-1920s, in fact, agents and businessmen staged “trials,” where scrub cattle were “condemned” to death and sent to the nearest packinghouse for their “execution.”
Dairying rose in popularity after 1865, and Holstein lines were added to Jerseys. In 1872 the Tennessee Jersey Cattle Club was formed, and it is now the oldest farmers’ organization in the state. A U.S. Dairy Experiment Station, specializing in Jersey cattle, was established near Lewisburg in 1929. Private landowners, like Frank Mars of the Milky Way Farm of Giles County, also bred Jersey cattle for optimal milk production. From 1936 to 1940 Marshall County was the leading Jersey cattle county in the nation. Major national corporations located milk product plants at places like Fayetteville (Borden) and Murfreesboro (Carnation). By 1950 Tennessee ranked fifth in the nation for cheese production. Beef cattle production rose similarly during the postwar period.
In the 1990s livestock farms dot the state, and Tennessee still remains the chief mule center of the nation. According to 1999 cash receipt figures from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, livestock and dairy products made up 37 percent of the total, more than cotton, corn, tobacco, and soybeans combined (30 percent). Farmers in East and Middle Tennessee now derive more income from beef cattle and dairy herds than from crops. Nearly one million cattle, hogs, and sheep are exported for sale annually, continuing Tennessee’s long heritage in livestock production.