by Jennifer BurckeI grew up celebrating Independence Day with sparklers and barbecue. I lived in Kansas then and we didn’t really need an excuse to eat barbecue. We viewed a warm weather holiday as an opportunity and seized it.
Chickens are an integral part of our nation’s long history. Many organizations today work diligently to preserve that history. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy promotes the preservation of historic breeds in danger of extinction including chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation educates its visitors on the subject of chicken keeping by exhibiting five breeds common in the early 18th century. Visitors can see the endangered Dominique and Nankin along with the ornamental Polish, Frizzle and Silkie.
When our nation celebrated the first “Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America” in 1777, it was more notable to be an American who didn’t keep chickens. Chickens were easily accessible to the colonists and critically important to their daily survival. They were equally important to our Founding Fathers and the settlers who came before them.
Chickens arrived in the New World after long voyages to Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Rock in 1620. Those chickens helped travelers endure long journeys at sea and set down roots in their new communities in the New World. In those settlements, a chicken was a prized possession and held the promise of the incredible ability to produce food for your family.
In the early 1800s, chickens were a common sight on large plantations, estates and even the yards of modest homes. They were likely to be seen strutting through the streets of the early cities and towns looking for food. In those days, chicken was rarely seen on the dinner plate of average citizens.
Most notably, he aimed to incorporate their manure as rich fertilizer in the cultivation of his gardens and crops. In fact, he didn’t only collect fertilizer from his farm animals. He also constructed and located his “necessaries” within the aesthetic design of the grounds at Mount Vernon. Years ago, when I visited, I noticed these impressive, elevated structures with brick foundations and even photographed them. Only after reading Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners did I learn that they were in fact the outhouses purposely located in the ornamental gardens at Mount Vernon.
A discussion of our nation’s history of farming would be incomplete without mention of Thomas Jefferson. He loved agriculture and believed that its advancement should be our primary national endeavor. His affection for gardening and farming included an affinity for chickens. While living in the President’s House, Jefferson exchanged letters with his granddaughter Ellen regarding a pair of bantams he had sent her. It was his hope that she would have the opportunity to experience the joy of chicken raising.