The U.S. is now home to half the world’s chickens, but the bird is not native to the Americas. (Sorry, but the prairie chicken, which is a native American bird, is actually a type of grouse.) Chickens as we know them were brought by early colonists and, like the humans they accompanied, the birds intermingled to create something brand new. A breed known as the Dominique, or sometimes the Pilgrim Fowl, which sports black-and-white plumage and a rose comb is generally regarded as the first distinctly American chicken. Its murky origins probably lie in crossbred chickens from England, but its characteristics—spunky, adaptable, hardy and self-sufficient—make it quintessentially American. By the early 19th century, Dominiques were well established in the eastern U.S., and an 1853 poultry handbook declared the breed so familiar that a detailed description “will hardly be necessary.” Ten years later, the Annual Register of Rural Affairs crowed, “The breeder and cook behold with delight…the large quantity of high flavored and good profitable flesh.” The Dominique eventually relinquished pride of place in the barnyard to larger, more productive birds developed by corporate poultry operations. Today, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, there are fewer than 5,000 breeding Dominiques in the U.S.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.