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A brief and incomplete look at the history of cattle on the continent.

By Bob Welch

As Westerners, when we think of the original cattle on the North American continent, we think of the Texas Longhorn—and that’s not wrong. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the first of what would eventually become the Texas Longhorn to the Americas.

Within 30 years, Europeans started settling America’s eastern seaboard, bringing a different type of cattle primarily for use as dairy production and beasts of burden. In 1623, the first specifically named purebred cattle, the Devon, came to Plymouth on the ship, Charity. Of course, many kinds of cattle flourished in the East, but there is little record of any other specific beef breeds being imported, sought after or developed in the 17th or 18th centuries, though several dairy breeds were imported and developed.


Illustration of a Devon bull from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Devon bull from Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

In fact, very little evidence of intentional, formal beef breed purity in Europe or the Americas is found until the early 19th century. Mostly, breeds developed with geography as the greatest influence in both the United Kingdom and the European continent. However, during the mid-19th century—as mobility increased—breeders began protecting and formalizing their local bloodlines into the breeds we know today.

After Devons, Durhams—later known as Shorthorns—came to the United States in 1783. Statesman Henry Clay imported the first Herefords to Kentucky in 1817. It wasn’t until 1881, however, that the breed became popular. Aberdeen Angus cattle first came to America in significant numbers in 1878.

Hereford cattle.

Hereford cattle.

Meanwhile, Indian-bred bulls were imported to the southern U.S. in 1849. However, the breed’s identity was lost in the wake of the Civil War. A British cotton and sugar planter in St. Francisville, La., Richard Barrow, was given two Indian bulls in recognition for sharing modern agriculture techniques in India. Soon, the “Barrow Grade” cattle became widely known through the Gulf Coast Region.

During World War I, a young Mexican industrialist of French origin saw Charolias cattle and—impressed by them—imported them to his Mexican ranch. In 1934, they made their way into the United States.

Charolias cattle resting in pasture grass

Charolias cattle.

Simultaneously, the United States was suffering from foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, a highly infectious disease that affects all cloven-hooved animals. According to a report published by the University of Arizona, worldwide losses resulting from FMD equal or surpass the losses produced by all other infectious or parasitic diseases of cattle combined.

While the last FMD outbreak in the U.S. occurred in 1929, it took nine years to completely eradicate. Then, in 1946, Mexico suffered an outbreak and as a result, a treaty between the United States, Canada and Mexico set up a permanent quarantine against cattle coming into any of these countries from Europe or any country where the disease was known to exist.

This embargo prohibited the importation of any new cattle or breeds to North America for basically the next quarter-century.

Progress, however, was hard to stop.

“The old show type of cattle were real short and blocky, and really fat,” says Greg Martin, retired Executive Director of the North American Limousin Foundation. “And by the early ’70s, there was definitely starting to be a lot more emphasis on yield grade, away from quality grade. That was also about the time when the research people in this country were really pushing the beef producers, commercial producers, toward using crossbreeding. That came about because of research that basically said a crossbred animal, most of the time, is going to exceed the average of the two parents because of hybrid vigor.”

Semen collection and artificial insemination were the first methods U.S. cattle breeders used—starting in the late 1960s—to increase the genetic diversity of their herds. Each country handled the importation differently.

Limousin cattle.

Limousin cattle.

The Limousin breed became particularly attractive, but cattle from France were not eligible for importation. According to Oklahoma State University, the Canadian government did agree to accept French cattle after they had successfully completed a strict three-step quarantine program. Before the cattle left France they were held in a three-month quarantine, then once arriving in Canada they were kept on Grosse Isle off the coast of Nova Scotia or St. Pierre Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for another three-month period. Finally, the cattle were required to successfully pass a 30-day “on the farm” quarantine. Once they passed the quarantine, semen could be shipped throughout North America. Maine-Anjou and Saler cattle—other French breeds—followed the same pattern.

The Gelbvieh breeders in Germany worked with Carnation Genetics (the dairy company had expanded into semen importation) to the United States. In Italy, they set up their own quarantine and semen collection program to disseminate Chianina genetics. The Swiss likewise used AI to meet rising demand for their Simmental breed.

Later, as countries eradicated Foot and Mouth Disease and met certain quarantine standards, the importation of live cattle became more commonplace.

Of course, several distinct breeds developed within the United States as well, including the famed Santa Gertrudis of the King Ranch and the Beefmaster breed developed by the Lasater family.

Through modern science, breeds developed the entire world over now roam the ranges of North America. ★

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of the Ranch Record.  Would you like to read more stories about NRHC and ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.