Tuesday, April 20, 2021

They lived off those sheep


During most of the twentieth century Rancho Viejo (where we live) and its surrounding real estate was a succession of ranches the sizes and shapes of which ebbed and flowed as a series of buyers and sellers purchased or sold entire properties and parts thereof. One thing was constant however – sheep.

In the early 1900s the land was a part of the 115,000 acre Mocho Family Ranch – owned and run by turn-of-the-century Basque Country immigrants Jean Baptiste (“James”) and John Mocho, and home to as many as 800 head of cattle and 10,000 ewes. Although the bovines ($80/head) were worth more than the ovine ($14) – sheep raising was by far the bigger business in New Mexico since the late 18th and early 19th centuries. ($2,480 and $434 today respectively.)

It began in 1598 when Juan de Onate and his party of 400-plus Spanish settlers arrived with 2,517 Churro sheep – the first domesticated breed in the New World. The gentle ovine turned out to be ideally suited for New Mexico’s climate and topography. Descended from the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed (corrupted to "Churro" by American frontiersmen) they were prized by the Spanish for their remarkable hardiness, adaptability and fertility. “The settlers and explorers, they lived off those sheep,” explained Spanish Market and El Rancho de las Golondrinas colcha artist and weaver Julia Gomez.

And it turned out that the sheep were better received than the people. When the Pueblo Indians revolted in 1680, they ejected the Spanish and their religion but kept their wooly-coated ruminants. At the end of the 1700s, a century after the Spanish reconquered the colony, sheep raising had developed into a major regional industry.

There were three major reasons: ease of maintenance, difficulty of theft, and “partido."

(1) By the 1700s most New Mexicans lived on small subsistence farms with unfenced fields. It was easy to keep sheep away from the crops, since shepherds were with them all the time. Cattle however had a long history of getting into the farmer’s plots and eating up the winter supply of grain.

(2) The Navajo definitely wanted the Churro – for which they traded and sometimes raided. But their thefts put only a small dent in the total held by New Mexicans. The history of the tribe’s sheep raising and weaving in New Mexico is complicated and often contradictory. Suffice it to say that the Dine ("Di Nay" as they now choose to be called) adapted to using the churro wool to the extent that the ovine became known as Navajo-Churro sheep.

Most hostile Indians however preferred to steal cattle, which were less difficult to round up and much easier to drive long distances.

At the first sign of Indian attack, the Spanish shepherds had instructions to scatter the flock. The plunderers, always in a hurry, would gather what they could and ride on. When the owner came, he might find his shepherds dead – but he could send the dogs out to seek and round up what was left of his sheep. Had they been cattle, he would have suffered a total loss.

(3) But perhaps the major reason for the dominance of sheep over cattle was the development of the “partido” business model in the mid 1800s.

Under this system the owner of a flock (most of the time a “chico rico” (rich guy) lent a specific quantity of sheep to an individual – and expected in return an equal number in three to five years. The renter paid around 20% of the flock to the owner each year. If the sheep reproduced in sufficient numbers, the system worked well for both parties. The owners received annual payments – while someone else cared for their livestock. The renter could build his own flock and eventually lend out some sheep of his own. (Think of a pyramid scheme whose participants have thick, wooly coats.)

But if the flock did not reproduce as hoped, the renter remained in debt to the owner. (Now think of “payday loans” ­– a business whose max interest rate today in NM is 135%.) Or even worse for the sheep-sitter he could become the collateral damage of an Indian attack. Although the partido system resulted in economic opportunity for some – in general it worked to the advantage of the rich.

One of the buildings at las Golondrinas is the Shepherd’s Cabin – an example of the housing in which a herdsman would live while tending his borrowed flock. His family would have remained at their farm, although he might occasionally bring along one of his sons for on-the-job training.

The hut came to us from southern Colorado. It has all of the comforts of a mid-1800s part-time residence including a small dining area, home entertainment center (guitar), and self-defense/hunting implements. The scissors-like objects over the fireplace are blade sheep shears. At Golondrinas professional shearers use such implements to cut the wool off our flock of thirty or so Churros during our Spring Fiber Festival. The resulting fleece i washed and carded at a mill in Mora, NM then comes back to the ranch to be spun, dyed and woven. This “New Mexico True” video about the living museum contains a brief clip of the shearing (pun intended.) 

Patents for shearing machines started to be granted in the 1860s and in 1882, Australian Jack Gray became the first man to completely shear a sheep using mechanical cutters. Machines allowed the wool to be clipped up to three times closer to the skin. However hand-shearers contend that the remaining wool cover left by their method protects the sheep – while their process causes less stress, risk of injury and fewer second cuts – plus increased wool growth and superior fleece for hand-spinners.

Over time the Spanish and the Americans introduced other varieties of sheep to New Mexico and Churro became a minority breed – except with the Navajo. By the early 1800s ovine were the most important asset of nearly all well-off New Mexicans. More stable than bitcoins – and so much cuter. In the 1880s more than 5 million sheep and lambs of various breeds roamed New Mexico. But in 2012 the USDA reported that only about 90,000 sheep and lambs were being raised in the state. One hundred years earlier the Mocho Family Ranch in our part of Santa Fe by itself had 10,000.

The Churro themselves were brought to the edge of extinction during the 1860s when, in order to drive the Navajo out of their homeland their villages were burned and their livestock and people killed by U.S. soldiers. During the "Long Walk" of 1864, about 8,000 Navajo were forced to march from their traditional lands to forced confinement at Fort Sumner, N.M. Before the march, some Navajo were able to release Churro into the hidden canyons near their homes. Then during a drought in 1930, the federal government said the Navajo were overgrazing their lands and killed more than 250,000 Navajo sheep, goats and horses.

“Since the early 1980s, the Churro have been making a comeback, largely through the efforts of the Navajo Sheep Project at the Utah State University and the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association in Ojo Caliente, N.M. [In 2006 there were] about 2,000 registered Churro sheep, and another 2,000 unregistered sheep in the country,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

The Churro at las Golondrinas are carefully bred and monitored to ensure their absolute Churro-ness. (Because of the natural variety of colors and patterns in the breed, it would otherwise impossible to pick out the black sheep in the family.) They live out their natural lives grazing on pelleted food, cat-napping and politely greeting their guests.

It is our way of celebrating these fluffy Spanish ovine for all they have contributed to the making of New Mexico. The admittedly biased Navajo-Churro Sheep Association puts it this way, “the fact that these sheep still exist today is a testimony to their endurance and endearment. No other sheep population in the history of the world has survived so much selective pressure with such dignity and spirit.”

And they just make you smile too – don’t they?


BTW Like Churro sheep, the New Mexican sheep dog traces its bloodline back to Spain and was also introduced to the Americas at the time of the Conquest. They were larger and tougher than the Scotch and English breeds. “I very much doubt if there are shepherd dogs in any other part of the world...equal to those of New Mexico in value. The famed Scotch and English dogs sink into insignificance by the side of them.” (The Practical Shepherd: A Complete Treatise on the Breeding, Management and By Henry Stephens Randall) “Two or three of them will follow a flock of sheep for a distance of several miles as orderly as a shepherd, and drive them back to the pen again at night without any other guidance than their own extraordinary instincts.” (Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies, or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader, 1831-1839)

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