Red Meat for Empire: New England Cattle, the British Empire, and the Disruption of Revolution

This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.

By Strother E. Roberts

Samuel White’s threat was a bold one, especially as it was being issued to a Continental Army colonel at the height of America’s War for Independence. If not left alone to go about his business and drive his cattle to market, White declared, he would “raise a force… from Canada” that he would lead against New England’s vulnerable northern frontier. It was September 1778, and the threat proposed by White was exactly what Colonel Timothy Bedel of the Continental Army had been charged with guarding against.[1]

Barely a year had passed since the American army had thwarted British General John Burgoyne’s invasion of the Hudson Valley from Canada. Now, a year later, Bedel’s superiors feared that the enemy’s next attempt might strike down the Connecticut River, into the heart of New England. A veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, and a respected and wealthy landowner in Haverhill, New Hampshire, on the banks of the Connecticut, Bedel had been entrusted with preparing the region’s defense. Over the last year, he had raised men for service and collected provisions. It was this very preparation that drew Samuel White’s ire down upon Bedel’s head. Not wanting to deplete the supply of meat on-the-hoof available to his troops, Bedel had prohibited the export of cattle from the northern Connecticut Valley.[2]

Not only was Samuel White’s threat against Bedel a bold one, it is also somewhat surprising given what else is known about him. White was a doctor in Newbury, New Hampshire (later Vermont), just across the Connecticut River from Bedel’s Haverhill. Although we have no clear evidence of his loyalties during the Revolution, White seems to have been at least sympathetic to the Patriot cause. He treated the wounded and smallpox-ridden survivors of the disastrous 1775 assault on Quebec City as they trickled through the Connecticut Valley on their way back to their New England homes. He also traveled with New Hampshire militiamen to the Battle of Bennington, the American victory that denied Burgoyne’s army much needed supplies in the lead-up to Saratoga, and treated the wounded in the battle’s aftermath. It seems White kept cattle as a supplement to the income he earned from medicine, making him representative of many early New England doctors – especially those living in frontier areas – who often farmed alongside their doctoring duties.[3]

Indeed, White’s plans to drive his cattle out of the Connecticut Valley to market – probably in the Boston area – were perfectly ordinary. Livestock owners in New England’s interior had been driving their livestock to the region’s coastal towns – again, most notably in the Boston area – for over a century. Cattle, swine, horses, and, very occasionally, sheep funneled out of the region’s hinterlands towards its ports. Having reached these coastal markets, most were butchered, barreled, salted. Some of this meat fed the urban populations of the ports, but most was sold as provisions for fishing or merchant vessels, or else exported to feed enslaved laborers in the West Indies or free consumers elsewhere in the Atlantic world. The horses, of course, were spared this fate, as were some cattle, which were exported, most commonly to the West Indies, to serve as draft animals on sugar and other plantations. Britain’s Army and Navy had also, historically, proven eager customers for New England’s livestock. In times of peace, but especially during war, soldiers and sailors stationed in the colonies from Newfoundland to the Caribbean enjoyed (or, at least, endured) New England salt beef and pork and employed New England oxen and horses as draft animals.[4]

Drawing of multiple men milking a cow.
“A Picturesque View of the State of the Nation for February 1778 (caricature),” Westminster Magazine (March 1, 1778), 66; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom.

Cattle, it should be remembered, were not merely goods for export – they were strategic commodities. It was this fact that pitted White and Bedel, two men from neighboring New Hampshire towns who very well may have known each other before the war, against each other. White represented an economic tradition. New England may not have been able to offer the highly profitable staple crops of other colonies – tobacco, sugar, rice, etc. – but it was, nonetheless, an integral part of the British Empire. New England’s soils could, after all, still grow grass – with a little help from the sun and rain. New England Cattle, like White’s, transformed this grass (and, increasingly, corn) grown at the edge of empire into the muscle that carried the creatures to market, where that muscle was rendered into meat, and sold off to help fuel the labor of economic activities more central to the British imperial endeavor. New England salted meat fed the region’s own fishermen and those of Newfoundland, as well as the enslaved plantation workers of the mainland South and Caribbean sugar islands. And, in the all-too-common periods when the peace of the British colonies was shattered by imperial wars, New England’s cattle also helped to feed the British imperial war machine.[5]

If White represented imperial tradition, Bedel represented the forces tearing the empire apart. Bedel meant to break, at its source, the commercial network that had tied New England cattle to consumers in the far-flung corners of the British Empire. Indeed, the disruptions of war signaled the death-knell for the flow of flesh – beef, but also pork and salted fish – that had formerly made New England a larder for the British Caribbean colonies. During the war, the enslaved populations of the islands faced famine. After the war, British prohibitions on American traders forced planters to seek new sources of meat and draft animals.[6] New England cattle, meanwhile, increasingly fed the region’s own industrializing urban populations. But such gazing at the future distracts from the events of 1778 and Bedel’s insistence that the only imperial war machine that White’s cattle would end up feeding would be an American imperial war machine.

Bedel got his way, of course. He had a regiment of Continentals to back him up. Samuel White never followed through on his threat to raise a company of invaders from Canada, perhaps because Bedel had him arrested and held in military custody for an unrecorded length of time. Others in northern New England actually carried on a cattle trade with Canada during the Revolution. Driving their cattle north up the valley, they met with Canadian agents who paid them and then took the animals farther north, likely to be slaughtered and salted to feed British forces. Perhaps this had been White’s plan, although it is just as likely that he was heading his cattle toward Boston. Indeed, White’s outburst was likely nothing but bluff and bluster uttered in anger at being denied the liberty to sell his cattle as he pleased, and as landowners in New England’s interior had long done. Whatever direction he drove his herd, White could have expected to command war-time prices for his beef-on-the-hoof – certainly higher than the price Bedel offered to reimburse him, presumably in devalued Continental dollars. [7]

White’s disappointment at having his cattle commandeered was the reaction of a former imperial subject long accustomed to disposing of his cattle in an imperial marketplace. Bedel’s insistence that the cattle remain in New England was a statement of military necessity in the service of a nascent nation. The cattle faced the butcher’s block either way, but – as two New England neighbors traded threats over the animals’ heads – these cattle’s role as red meat for empire was undeniable.


Strother E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, and the author of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early Modern New England (University of Pennsylvania Press). His research focuses on the ecology and economy of the indigenous and Euro-American communities of the North American northeast from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. He is currently working on his second book, a history of European and Indigenous dogs in early New England and New France.

Title Image: Jacob van Strij, Landscape with Cattle (ca. 1800), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, 91.26.8.

Further Readings:

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Hart, Emma. “From Field to Plate: The Colonial Livestock Trade and the Development of an American Economic Culture,” William and Mary Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January 2016): 107-140.

Hsiung, David. “Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775-1776,” The New England Quarterly 80, no. 4 (December 2007): 614-654.

O’Shaugnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Roberts, Strother E. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early new England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Endnotes:

[1] Jacob Bayley to Timothy Bedel, September 25, 1778, “Timothy Bedel Papers, 1771–1787” Acc. #1180-1, Box 1 of 1, Folder 1C, “Correspondence, 1777,” New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, NH.

[2] Joshua Bayley (Justice of the Peace) of Newbury in the County of Orange, Vermont, Sworn Statement, 10 Nov 1821, “Timothy Bedel Papers,” Folder 1A, “Correspondence 1771-1775.”

[3] Littleton, NH (town), Exercises At the Centennial Celebration of the Incorporation of the Town of Littleton, July 4, 1884 (Concord, NH: N.H. Democratic Press Company, 1887), 136-145; Frederic P. Wells, History of Newbury, Vermont: From the Discovery of the Coös Country to Present Time (St. Johnsbury, VT: The Caledonian Company, 1902), 81, 329.

[4] Strother E. Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[5] Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy, 4-5, 170-172, 176-177, 197-198. 

[6] Richard B. Sheridan, “The Crisis of Slave Subsistence in the British West Indies During and after the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 33, no. 4 (October 1976), 615–641; David Watts, “Cycles of Famine in Islands of Plenty,” in Famine as a Geographical Phenomenon, ed. B. Currey and G. Hugo (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1984), 58; Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 161–163, 174.

[7] Bayley to Bedel, September 25, 1778, “Timothy Bedel Papers, 1771–1787,” Folder 1C; Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy, 163.

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