What were the “Sheep Wars” of the mid-1800s?

For close to two centuries Nantucketers maintained much of the island outside of town as unfenced Common and Undivided Land where sheep grazed freely throughout the year and were rounded up every June for shearing. Owners kept track of which sheep were theirs by distinctive notches in their ears—the sheep owner’s equivalent of branding.

Sheep at the 'Sconset Golf Course.
Sheep at the ‘Sconset Golf Course, 1915 P4654

To keep the sheep out of the streets, the town was fenced in with just a few gates. A couple of men were regularly employed as field drivers. Their job was to round up and impound livestock that managed to get inside the fence or that did not belong on the commons. Impounded sheep were identified by their earmarks, and the owner was called to bail them out by paying fees to the pound keeper and the field drivers. This annoyed the owners and sometimes led to lawsuits by owners who believed their sheep had been unlawfully impounded.

Beginning in the 1820s the land area of the commons was diminished as owners of grazing privileges exchanged them for set-offs of private property. The set-offs were not fenced, and sheep roamed onto them. This led to acrimony as land owners protested that sheep were trespassing and also that individuals who still possessed grazing rights were pasturing more sheep on the remaining commons than they had a right to.

Attendees at the February 1848 Town Meeting were taken aback by “the controversy between the sheep-owners on the one hand and the land-owners on the other.” According to the reporter for The Inquirer, “From the amount of feelings manifested by the different speakers, we would judge that the difficulty can hardly fail to end in open war between the parties…a war that may only die out when both sheep and land shall have been used up paying its legal expenses.”

That is exactly what happened. According to court records from 1853, “This case grew out of the raid upon the sheep. In order to encourage the Field Drivers to ‘clear the Commons,’ the Town voted to indemnify them against all losses.”

So encouraged, the field drivers had set to work. On April 21, 1848, it was reported that, “The work of clearing the commons commenced yesterday. We were at the pound about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when there were in, as near as we could judge, about five hundred sheep and twelve or fifteen cows.” The next day the number of impounded sheep had risen to a thousand, while the number of cows held steady.

Some owners came, paid the fees for their livestock, and took the animals away to presumably less contested pasturage, but others abandoned their animals. Starting on April 29 and continuing throughout May, the field drivers placed a weekly notice in the newspapers that there were eighty unclaimed sheep in the pound. The notice included a list of the earmarks of the sheep in question.

Then the lawsuits commenced, with sheep owners suing the field drivers for illegally impounding their animals. The proceedings continued on into the 1850s, with decisions sometimes going for the field drivers and sometimes for the sheep owners. Only the pound keeper got off free. The court ruled that whether the sheep had been taken legally or illegally from unenclosed land, the pound keeper’s only legal responsibilities were to feed and water the animals in his care and to collect the fees when their owners came to pick them up.

The Town of Nantucket did not keep its promise to indemnify the field drivers for the court costs even after the field drivers sued the town. As a result, when field driver Thomas B. Field died in 1895, his front-page obituary in The Nantucket Journal recalled that his property had been “swept away” in the “great sheep-driving agitation” of 1848.

A century after the sheep wars, of the thousands of sheep that once had grazed on the island, there were only two herds left—the Bartlett herd of about a hundred to the west and the Coffin herd of about thirty-five in Siasconset.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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