April 10: David Humphreys Brings the Sheep That Shaped New England


Have a merino wool scarf or sweater that you absolutely love? You can probably thank Connecticut native David Humphreys for that.

David Humphreys, born in Derby in 1752, was one of the most accomplished Connecticut men of the Early Republic.  A Yale graduate, he served under General Israel Putnam in the Revolutionary War and, after obtaining the rank of Colonel in 1780, was appointed aide-de-camp to General George Washington’s headquarters staff, where he served with distinction.

David Humphreys, as painted by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1808 – 1810. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Humphreys’ distinguished service in the War earned him considerable favor with Washington and his fellow Federalists.  During the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, he served first as foreign minister to Portugal from 1791 – 1796, and then to Spain from 1796 – 1801.  While living abroad, Humphreys was introduced to Spanish merino sheep, which were much larger in size than the varieties of sheep bred in New England in colonial times.

Taking advantage of his well-established overseas connections, in 1802 Humphreys purchased 100 Spanish merino sheep and on April 10 shipped them to his homestead in Derby, Connecticut, making him the first successful importer of merino sheep in America. As word spread about the superior quantity and quality of fleece attributed to Humphreys’ sheep, offers to purchase his livestock came flying in, with some bids approaching as much as $2,000 for a single sheep — nearly 20 times the amount Humphreys had paid in 1802. The sheep craze spread throughout New England, and by 1840 New Hampshire alone was said to have 600,000 grazing sheep. Many of the low stone walls in New England’s fields and forests are legacies of the Humphrey-induced sheep-borne transformation of the landscape.

Not content with merely breeding and selling his prize-winning merinos, the ambitious Humphreys began construction of a sprawling woolen textile factory on the banks of the Naugatuck River, in the modern-day town of Seymour, the year after he imported his sheep.  Completed in 1806, the woolen mill at what became known as “Humphreysville” was the first large-scale woolen mill in the United States. David Humphrey’s efforts revolutionized the nascent woolen industry of the United States helping launch the industrial revolution that transformed New England in the 19th century into a manufacturing Colossus– and it all began today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Holly V. Izard, “David Humphreys, Soldier, Statesman, and Agricultural Innovator,” connecticuthistory.org

Dorothy Debisschop, “The Merino Sheep and Oxford Industry,” Oxford (CT) Patch