Ear marks and horse censuses

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn the days when livestock mostly roamed loose in New England towns, it was critical that farmers could identify which animals belonged to them – to avoid disputes, identify stolen property, or recover damages if your crops were ruined by the neighborhood’s hogs.  While branding with a hot iron was done, mostly the system they used involved nicks, slits, or holes, etc., cut into the animal’s ears (similar to humans piercing their ear lobes), called “ear marks.” The types of cuts and patterns were registered with the town clerk and sometimes would be inherited from father to son. I think some of these farmers were far more assiduous in recording their animals’ ear marks than they were in recording their children.

The Eastham town records contain some really nice registrations of animals and ear marks. In 1658 John Mayo’s “cattle” (not only cows, but horses, pigs, sheep, and oxen, etc.) were marked with “a halfe Crop on the fore Side of least eare & a halfe Crop on the hinder Sid of the right eare.” A “crop” was a blunt cut across the tip of the ear.  Giles Hopkins’ animals had a half crop on the left ear and a whole crop on the right ear, Josiah Cooke had slits down the top of both ears for his marks, and William Merrick, Sr., had a swallow tail on the top of the left ear and a slit on the fore side of the same ear. By the 1660’s apparently all animals owned by Eastham residents had an “E” hot branded on them to facilitate retrieval from neighboring towns.

These registrations become all the more interesting once the town progressed to recording the color and natural markings of each horse as well as their ear marks, creating a horse census for Eastham. In 1660 Thomas Williams had a young mare he bought from Goodman Bangs. She was about a year old, black with a blaze down her face, four white feet, and a wall eye (where there is an abnormal amount of white eye ball visible). Some of you may remember an old poem about horses with a white face and four white feet not being desirable!

This “census” also provides an excellent indicator of the economic status of the farmers. Between 1659 and 1667, Josiah Cooke registered a dozen horses; Joseph Rogers, seven; and Miriam Deane, six, for example.

Who says town records are “dry” and uninteresting?

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

7 thoughts on “Ear marks and horse censuses

  1. Great post. I love learning how our relation to livestock and agriculture shaped our system of governance and our vocabulary. (Think “earmarks” and “pork barrel legislation.”)

    As an aside, several of my New Hampshire ancestors were elected to serve as hog reaves, responsible for rounding up stray pigs and bringing them to the town pound. Since hogs can devastate crops with remarkable speed, keeping them contained was critical to ensuring the food supply.

    1. Deb, Yes, hogs and cows in a garden ready to harvest was serious business in “subsistence” farming. There are probably more court cases over animals than anything else!

  2. I have used the granting of one man’s earmark to another man as clue to the date of the first man’s death.

  3. .”..far more assiduous in recording ear marks of cattle than births of their children…”made me smile to read that; thanks for inserting humor into your blogs from time to time!

  4. I rally like your article I have seen these marking before I did not pay close attention to it I’m my husbands family. Which brings me to mention have you ever heard of people writing down a birth of a child and mentioning birth marks on the child in the 1800 error? My husbands family from Woodstock. Maine in a book the parents noted a making on all their children’s ear

    1. Christine, that’s fascinating. I’ve never heard of anyone recording human birth marks, but in that case it must have been extraordinary to have multiple children with the same marks.

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