April 10: 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)

After the war, Humphreys’ distinguished war service, and his friendships with the country’s commanders-in-chief, earned him considerable favor. During the presidencies of both George Washington and John Adams, Humphreys served as foreign minister, first to Portugal from 1791 – 1796, and then to Spain from 1796 – 1801. While ambassador to Spain, Humphreys was introduced to merino sheep, a Spanish breed that was much larger in size but with softer wool than the sheep then bred in New England.

Taking advantage of well-established overseas connections, Humphreys purchased 100 Spanish merino sheep – whose export was strictly prohibited by Spanish authorities – and on April 10, 1802 he shipped them to his homestead in Derby, Connecticut. This made Humphreys the first successful importer of merino sheep in the new United States. As word spread about the superior quantity and quality of the fleece produced by Humphreys’ imported sheep, offers to purchase his livestock as breeding stock came pouring in. Some bids approached as much as $2,000 for a single sheep — nearly 20 times the amount Humphreys had paid in Spain. The merino-triggered 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 constructing a sprawling woolen textile factory on the banks of the Naugatuck River in the modern-day town of Seymour. Completed in 1806, the woolen mill in what became known as “Humphreysville” was the first large-scale woolen mill in the United States. David Humphreys’ efforts revolutionized the nascent woolen industry of the United States and was a significant factor in launching the industrial revolution that transformed 19th-century New England into a manufacturing colossus – a massive transformation that began with sheep on a ship, 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