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A General History of Randall Lineback Cattle

By Joe Henderson and Phil Sponenberg
For The Randall Lineback Breed Association

Summary

The Randall Lineback Breed Association was formed in 2005 to “Preserve, Protect, and Promote” this unique American breed which is threatened with extinction. Its history is the history of America, reaching back almost four hundred years into the dawn of New England. These cattle are a living window into America’s past.

Today’s Randall Lineback breed of cattle is the last survivor of the once numerous “all-purpose” local landrace breeds of cattle that became popular throughout New England beginning in the late 1600s. These landrace breeds of cattle produced the milk, provided the meat, and did the heavy agricultural work of New England for hundreds of years. The precise origin and antecedents of the Randall Linebacks are shrouded in the mists of time, and will most likely never be known exactly, because they preceded the era of “purebred” cattle. However, the distinctive color pattern, the blood types, and the history of cattle introduction and breeding in New England all help to determine the likely origins of this breed.

Numerous European cattle from different homelands were introduced into New England in the first half of the 1600s. That century brought three formative trends to bear on New England cattle: first, over time, the imports were mixed together; second, they were isolated from further crossing; and, eventually, third, individuals with desirable traits were selected to produce hardy, useful cattle that served local demand for milk, draft, and meat for centuries thereafter. After 1650 the numbers of European cattle imported to New England diminished considerably due to the availability of cattle from elsewhere in North America and the high expense of new importations from Europe. Thus, North American sources of breeding stock from as far south as Virginia and as far north as Quebec became important breed stock sources for New England through the late 1600s, 1700s and mid-1800s while at the same time importations from Europe drastically diminished. The farmers in local areas created populations of cattle for local purposes and conditions. Local populations of “all-purpose” cattle were developed during the 1700s in the Mid-Atlantic and New England American colonies. It stands to reason that these cattle would have “all-purpose traits” since these early centuries demanded homesteading stock, in many cases for subsistence farming. These are referred to as “landrace” breeds.

“Landrace” is a designation that is used to denote animal populations that arise in local areas for local production purposes. The breeding of landraces is usually fairly casual, and they gain uniformity mainly through their isolation from other livestock. This landrace pattern of development results in useful breeds, adapted to their particular geographies. This was true of the New England lineback cattle of the 1700s and 1800s. A drive to specialization, and the resulting introduction of standardized pure breeds of specialized cattle in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s led to the eventual disappearance of most landrace cattle. The local cattle suffered two fates. Some were graded up with purebred bulls, becoming over time more and more like the purebred breeds of those bulls. Others were replaced outright by the pure breeds, which tended to emphasize a particular attribute such as volume of milk production, or amount of marbled beef. Changing to the standardized pure breeds brought with it some increase in production – but also a decrease in adaptation to a particular geography, along with that geography’s climate, parasite and disease prevalence, and forage.

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The Early History, 1600s and 1700s

The fine details of the early importations of cattle into New England are mysterious and uncertain. The earliest cattle introductions were of “prebreed” cattle. Most of these cattle had a geographic descriptor, such as “Alderney”, or a physical descriptor, such as “a white-backed cow” at Plimouth Plantation. “Prebreed” is the designation used for these early cattle because standardized pure breeds of cattle did not develop until very late in the 1700s, increasingly through the 1800s, and on into the 1900s.

At the beginning of the 1600s there were direct importations to New England from Europe. However, in addition, cattle could have entered both from what is now Quebec, as well as from the more southern coastal colonies of North America, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. As early as1608 Quebec imported cattle from Normandy, Brittany, and Alderney. The Alderney cattle could easily have provided some of the blood types in today’s Randall Lineback cattle. The origin of the distinctive lineback pattern of the Randall linebacks is uncertain, but Normandy cattle are one potential source of the pattern.

The 1620s saw the importation of cattle from the Netherlands into New York and New Jersey. These cattle were generally black and white, a few were red and white, and they were reputed to be good dairy cattle. Dutch cattle were taken in the 1630s to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. The exact type of Dutch cattle is uncertain, but linebacks persist in the Netherlands even today. These easily could have been the source of the distinctive colors and lineback pattern of the Randall Lineback, and blood-types clearly show some relationship to Dutch cattle.

In the 1620s, English cattle were imported to Massachusetts as well as to other areas. For example, Virginia is known to have imported numerous English prebreed cattle in the early 1600s. By 1636 Massachusetts was well stocked with cattle; so much so, that Massachusetts was able to supply other areas. Most of these cattle were red, and of a Shorthorn type. However, English cattle do occasionally sport the colorsided, or linebacked, pattern even today, and these could easily have introduced the distinctive pattern of the Randall Lineback. One modern English breed, the English Longhorn, carries the linebacked pattern. In a few other British breeds, such as the Galloway and the Welsh Black, occasional animals persist with the distinctive pattern. These breeds indicate that the color pattern was present in Britain, and it is likely that it was even more widespread in earlier centuries and then became lost as breeds became standardized on a few colors or patterns. Indeed, one cow imported by the Pilgrims to Massachusetts was contemporaneously referred to as a “great white-backed cow” and indicates that linebacked cattle were among the earliest cattle imported to New England.

In 1627 Swedish cattle were taken to Delaware. These cattle were never described, so it is uncertain what they looked like. One linebacked Swedish breed survives, the Fjällras, which is black and white with the colorsided pattern. Danish cattle, most of which were yellow, were taken to New Hampshire in 1630. These were from the south of Denmark, and were likely similar to various gold or yellow North German or Danish cattle.

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1700s and 1800s

During the 1700s and 1800s very few cattle were imported into North America. The expense and difficulty of shipping cattle was only warranted for early importations to a region that lacked cattle. After their introductions in the 1600s, the European cattle multiplied and were crossed one with another, so that by the 1700s the American cattle population was sufficient to meet the demand for cattle services and products such as meat, milk, and oxen. The lack of importations resulted in the North American cattle populations being able to respond to local conditions and breeder preferences to foster useful and unique types of American cattle. These were the landrace cattle populations of New England.

As well as providing dairy products and meat, these landrace breeds provided the power to transport heavy loads and to till the fields. These cattle performed extraordinary feats in extraordinary times. As an example, outside Boston, in 1776, George Washington and his fledgling army, with no heavy artillery, faced the British, well-protected in the city by their cannons. Henry Knox, in one of the most extraordinary feats of the long War of Independence, departed Boston to retrieve the heavy cannons and mortars of Fort Ticonderoga. He arranged for eighty yoke of New England landrace oxen and their drovers to pick up the artillery on sledges at the southern end of Lake George and to haul these many tons of deadweight over the hills and valleys of New York and western Massachusetts. Without these landrace cattle and their drovers, the heroic feat of getting the artillery to Dorchester Heights and the subsequent liberation of the city of Boston would not have happened.

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New England Breeds, 1800s and 1900s

The imported cattle from the 1600s influenced the type of New England cattle that was common until the importation of standardized pure breeds beginning about 1850. After that date, the New England landrace cattle began to decline as they were either crossed out of existence with the new imports, or were replaced outright by them. Remnants of the landrace survived up until the late 1900s, but by then had become rare and peripheral to mainstream cattle production in New England.

The 1800s saw cattle being used for local draft, dairy, and meat production. By far the most important uses were draft and milk. Oxen were widely used in New England as beasts of burden and tillers of the soil longer than in most other parts of America. New Englanders switched to horse drawn implements much later than the rest of the country. The New England cattle were active and strong, but had a reputation for being late maturing. In some areas the cattle went by the name “Cream Pots” in reference to their aptitude for milk production, although the color and type of these cattle is uncertain. This designation had general acceptance in commerce, and these cattle could have eventually become a standardized breed had they not been eclipsed by purebred European dairy breeds that came into America just as the Cream Pots were gaining recognition.

In addition to the Cream Pots was a second breed type based on New England landrace cattle. This was the Columbia breed, which saw local acceptance in the late 1800s and early 1900s as dairy cattle. Columbia cattle were linebacks, but the crisply marked sort with solid colored heads. Columbia cattle were never very numerous, and also eventually lost place to the imported European breeds.

Along with the Cream Pots and the Columbias were numerous poorly characterized local cattle, kept and appreciated for milk production, ox production, and then finally for meat production. These were generally solid red, although colors did vary. Over the years most of the red ones were absorbed into the Milking Devon breed. The other colors tended to fall by the wayside, except in a few herds. In the early days of the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (which later became the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy), the Lineback cattle within this larger local cattle population received a great deal of attention. A few herds of old-type linebacks could be found, and a handful of breeders tried to salvage what was left of the cattle. The linebacks varied from a solid crisp type (typical of Holderness, Columbia, and Pinzgauer breeds, but more widespread in the past) to a flecked and roan type (typical of Witrick, English Longhorn, and Randall Lineback cattle as well as other breeds). The linebacks were named by their distinctive white backs,over a variety of colors including black, red, brown, and others.

One tantalizing detail of the Randall Lineback is the distinctive lineback color pattern. While this pattern is reasonably rare in America, it has a fairly wide distribution in countries that border the North Atlantic and it could have arrived here from a number of sources. Cattle loosely described as “linebacks” are referred to in some colonial records from various of locations, including Massachusetts and Virginia, and cattle of this color may have occurred in many areas in colonial times.

Unfortunately, the distinctive lineback color pattern is dominant, and this means that it transmits readily to crossbred calves. As the 1900s, and especially the final half of the 1900s, progressed it became more and more common for breeders to resort to crossbreeding, generally with Holsteins, and by this means the old original New England landrace type was brought to extinction – with the exception of Samuel and Everett Randall’s linebacks.

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Samuel and Everett Randall’s Herd, Sunderland, VT

In 1912 Samuel Randall bought a farm in Sunderland, Vermont. It is unclear whether he purchased the farm with any resident cows, brought some with him, or bought animals separately and developed his own herd. He had grown up on a farm with dairy cows and was very familiar with dairying and New England farming. In the early 1900s a 250-acre farm, with 60 tillable acres, was profitable from the proceeds of a 20-cow herd and other products. With him Samuel brought his seven year old son, Everett, and his wife, May. Everett Randall’s son, George, presently a Board Member of the Randall Lineback Breed Association, was born in 1938 and spent many years on the family farm. He saw the difficulty of keeping a 20-cow herd profitable in the mid-1900s and sought other opportunities.

For almost seventy-five years, Samuel Randall and his son Everett kept an all-round family farm, raising corn for silage, haying, logging, sawyering, milking, sugaring, and keeping small farm animals. Horses were used for heavy farm work until the tractor came in 1954. The cows were milked twice a day in a 22-stanchion barn. In the warm weather months they spent days and nights outside. Their rations were generally supplemented with grain from E.C. Crosby and Sons, Danby, VT. Come winter, however, they were kept inside almost 23 hours a day, with one outing for water. In wintertime they mainly ate the corn silage, cut by hand and then mechanically chopped, and hay, which was kept loose until the Randall family began baling hay in 1956. While milk production varied by season, it averaged approximately 2 gallons per cow per day. Milk shipping ceased in 1955, when a refrigerated bulk tank was mandated by the agricultural authorities.

Samuel Randall made the breeding decisions for the lineback stock until his death in 1962, and then Everett Randall continued until his death in 1985. They were both very proud of their lineback color pattern. They referred to the cows as “ our Linebacks ”. Asked about the breed selection criteria, George Randall commented that animals were selected for their color pattern as much as for anything else. Drawn as he was to the pattern of his linebacks, Everett Randall’s favorite color-side was the uncommon red color. Samuel and Everett Randall spent most of their long lives unknowingly creating and tending the herd of linebacked cattle which was destined to be the last genetic link with the American landrace herds of previous centuries in New England. Dr. Phil Sponenberg of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine has conducted blood typing studies confirming that the herd was long closed to outside crosses. In addition, blood types are consistent with an origin in North Atlantic-type breeds. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get any closer to specific relationships because all cattle from the North Atlantic region tend to be interrelated to some extent.

Upon Everett Randall’s death the Randall Linebacks lost their keeper. After a number of animals had gone to slaughter, Mr. Robert Gear, recognizing the Randall herd’s unique genetic makeup, sought a buyer for the remaining animals. After a false start in 1985 with owners who became uninterested, Robert Gear again sought a conservation-minded owner. Cynthia Creech, of Artemis Farm in Tennessee, answered the call and, at great personal sacrifice, began the rebuilding effort with only nine Randall Lineback females and six males. Conservation has proceeded in an organized genetic fashion under the tutelage of Dr. Sponenberg so that the remnant of Everett Randall’s life work was not lost. Conservation of this line of cattle became all the more important as the remaining threads of New England Landrace cattle became extinct. The Randall line of Sunderland, Vermont is all that remains.

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1990 Until The Present

The 1990s saw a few other conservationists and organizations such as the Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation, (HRBF), join the ranks of Randall Lineback breeders. However, the natural rate of reproduction was slow and most herds remained quite small. By 2002, there were only approximately 100+ purebred Randall Linebacks in the world, many concentrated in the Creech herd in Tennessee. The hot and humid Tennessee climate and foraging conditions were less than ideal for this New England breed. In May 2002, an undivided 25% interest in 64 purebred Randall Linebacks and 15 crossbred animals of the Creech herd was sold to The Chapel Hill Farm in Virginia. The Randall Linebacks began arriving in the Shenandoah Valley soon thereafter. Virginia brought with it the devotion of more manpower, better facilities and substantial financial resources for the conservation of the herd. It also promised better weather, cooler conditions with potentially fewer parasites, better fodder, the potential to use embryo transfer to propagate the herd, and professional local facilities to draw, freeze, and preserve purebred semen. Four objectives were agreed upon for the jointly-owned herd: “1. directly increasing the numbers of breeding animals from the Artemis Farm herd; 2. the preservation of the distinct Randall Lineback bloodlines; 3. the creation of other sizable satellite herds; 4. the promotion of the breed.”

Though she could not stay in Virginia full-time, by the spring of 2003, Ms. Creech had moved essentially all of the Tennessee herd to Chapel Hill Farm and by the fall had taken up residence on the Virginia farm. Despite promising beginnings, by summer of 2004 Ms. Creech had found other opportunities and moved on to Connecticut. To divide the herd, Dr. Sponenberg’s friendly offices were used to balance the genetic representation of the herd remaining at Chapel Hill. Additionally, much of the Randall Lineback purebred stock residing at Swiss Village and the Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation in Vermont were transferred to Chapel Hill Farm. Ms. Deborah Hamilton and Mrs. Pat Hastings, who owned these Randall Linebacks, now serve on the Board of The Randall Lineback Breed Association.

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The Randall Lineback Breed Association’s Role

The Randall Lineback Breed Association was formed by a group of concerned breeders in 2005 to preserve the name of the breed, and to advance the interests of the greater Randall Lineback herd in a number of ways, including: geographic dispersion, market development, public promotion, semen availability, population increase, disease protection, animal registration, and improved data gathering. Largely through the efforts of its Board member, David Randall, Randall Lineback Cattle have become the first Vermont State Heritage Breed. The Randall Lineback Breed Association has successfully protected the name of the breed listing in conservation organizations. Recent developments to strengthen the situation of Randall Lineback cattle include not only their conservation, but also their herd expansion through embryo transfer of selected stock, mainly at The Chapel Hill Farm, Berryville Virginia, as well as through natural increase. Increased numbers of preferred stock and an expanded group of sires will help greatly in making this genetic resource secure for future generations.

Thus, through happenstance, difference of opinion, and hard work, there are today two geographically distant large herds of Randall Linebacks, one in Virginia and one in Connecticut, and a number of medium-size herds. There are two Randall Lineback breed associations. Sam and Everett Randall had 22 milking stanchions. There are eight or more times that number of Randall Linebacks in the world today. While much is left to be done, more is known today about the Randall Linebacks than ever before. Their future is far from secure, but substantial progress is being made. They remain America’s rarest cattle.

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info@randalllineback.com

©2006 Randall Lineback Breed Association

Randall Lineback Breed Association
P.O. Box 797
Berryville, VA 22611