New Hampshire’s First Cattle: Captain Mason’s Yellow Cowes

June 1st is World Milk Day and this is National Dairy Month, so it’s the perfect day to write about cows and cattle. It is also time for a confession of sorts–the black and white Holstein cow that I have displayed for 12 years on the Cow Hampshire banner is not historically correct.

Today Holstein cattle are most quickly recognized and cows of Holstein descent make up over 90% of the cows on U.S. dairy farms. But New Hampshire’s earliest cows were not Holsteins.

Cows and cattle are not even native to North America, with buffalo being our only indigenous bovines. All American cattle were imported–the first established in the southwest by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1500s.  “The cattle introduced at Jamestown, Va., were from English breeds, with some mixture of Spanish cattle from the West Indies. In New York the cattle were largely of Dutch origin. In Pennsylvania the cattle were brought over by the Dutch and Swedish settlers. At Plymouth, Massachusetts the cattle were brought from Holland and England. The ships which arrived at Boston contained mostly English breeds, the Devon predominating. In New Hampshire Capt. Mason introduced a large yellow breed from Denmark. In Canada the importations were largely from France…..” In addition, there were a large number of nondescript cattle that were not attributed to a specific breed.

Norse mythology image from the century Icelandic manuscript NKS 1867. Royal Danish Library.

With the general cattle history out of the way, lets focus just on New Hampshire.  No doubt you will find this next bit of history as interesting as I did.

The earliest documentation of New Hampshire cattle is mentioned in a letter dated 6th of August 1634, Ambrose Gibbons manager of Captain John Mason’s plantation on the east coast of New England (encompassing portions of Maine and New Hampshire) wrote to his employer: “you have here at the great house 9 cowes, 1 Bull, 4 calves of the last year and 9 of this yeare, the prove very well, farre better than ever was expected. They are as good as your ordinary Cattle in England and they goates prove some of them very well, both for milke and breed. if you did send ashippe for the Wester Ilands of 6 scoore tunne or there-abouts for cowes & goates it would be profitable for you. A good husband with his wife to tend the Cattle & to make butter and cheese will be profitable, for maides they are soon goune in this countrie.”

According to the old history books, since John Mason’s earliest employees were Danes, he had provided Danish cattle that were familiar to them. Though women had been sent as his employees to the American colonies, being scarce they were soon married and no longer available to milk his growing herd of cows. Since yellow cows are not prominent in New Hampshire today, one has to wonder what became of them.

Engraving showing cattle and milkmaids, found
on a twenty dollar bill issued in Portsmouth NH
by the Piscataqua Exchange Bank.
Now obsolete currency.

A deposition dated 6 November, 1685 provides the answer to this question. Nathaniel Boulter and John Redman of Hampton swore before a justice of the peace regarding the disposition of certain cattle after the death of Captain John Mason: “Capt. Mason had made a great plantation at Piscataqua and Newihewanock, where there were a great stock of cattle, and much land improved–and these deponents about forty years since, did see a drove of one hundred head of great cattle, or thereabouts, that came from off Capt. Mason’s plantation at Piscataqua, and drove through the town of Hampton, towards Boston, by Capt. Norton and others, the servants of Capt. Mason or his heirs, and there sold and disposed of (as these deponents were informed) by the said Capt. Norton, who did them settle himself in or near Boston, and deserted the plantation at Piscataqua, and these deponents do further testify that such cattle were commonly valued at five and twenty pounds the head, being very large beasts of a yellowish color, and said to be brought by Capt. Mason from Denmark….

Cows on shore. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase and gift of Dwight Wardlaw. Oil on canvas painting of cows, Thomas Hicks, 1862.

After 1700 very few cattle were imported from Europe, the majority being bought, sold and traded from within the current cattle population of the Americas. Captain John Mason’s original yellow cattle and their progeny were scattered through Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and formed the foundation stock for the early settlers in the New England colonies.

After the American Revolution the importation of cattle began again in earnest when the focus shifted to “purebred” cattle, and to the production of milk over the hardiness of the heretofore “nondescript” cattle.  These nondescripts today are called “antique,” “heritage” and “landrace” cattle.  They are quickly going extinct.   Organizations like the SVF Foundation and the Livestock Conservancy are trying to “protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.”

You can help too by supporting farmers and organizations who protect these heritage cattle (and other animals).  My first step is to change my logo animal to reflect the antique cattle breed that first contributed to New Hampshire’s agricultural economy.

The yellow cow on the “Cow Hampshire” banner is in the primitive style of John Vine, a 19th century artist. The “yellow cowe” has now officially taken the place of the black and white Holstein that graced my blog for so many years.

Yellow cattle shown on 1816 map of New Hampshire by Phillip Carrigain. Harvard Digital Collection.


How Cows Changed the World; A Cow’s Life by M.R. Montgomery, 2004.

The Fight for America’s Disappearing Ancient Dairy Cows, The Atlantic, August 22, 2017.

Once Near Extinction, Vermont’s Heritage Cattle Come Home, by Kathleen Masterson, VPR, Nov 5, 2015

American Milking Devons: Colonial Williamsburg | more stories |

The Dairy Industry in New Hampshire, by Ivan Comings Weld, New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts, Durham [NH]. 1905 at Hathi Trust.

1. The Ancestry of Domesticated Cattle, by Elisha Wilson Morse; United States Bureau of Animal Industry, 1912
2. Capt. John Mason: The Founder of New Hampshire Including His Tract on Newfoundland, 1620 etc., by Charles Wesley Tuttle, Volume 17; 1887.
3. Station Bulletin: New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, “The Extent And Division of the Dairy Industry in New Hampshire,” by Ivan Comings Weld; 1904.
4. Nathaniel Boulter’s and John Redman’s Depositions. Transactions of the Agricultural Societies in the State of Maine, Maine Dept of Agriculture, 1859
5. Capt. John Mason, the Founder of New Hampshire, by John Ward Dean, Charles Wesley Tuttle, Prince Society. 1887

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7 Responses to New Hampshire’s First Cattle: Captain Mason’s Yellow Cowes

  1. It seems strange not to see the black and white cow on your header but I’m sure after a while we’ll get used to the new “yellow cowe.”

  2. I’d been wondering about the reason behind the change!

  3. Sally Benson says:

    Fascinating. Thsnk you. Am researching family early 1800 Grafton County.

  4. Amy says:

    Wow, this is so interesting! I had no idea that all cattle were originally from Europe or that they were yellow. I am glad you shared this! And changed your logo. 🙂

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