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Holstein Origins - Part Two: Introduction to America

When Dutch settlers made their way to America, so did their cattle. Some of the earliest references to the distinct Holland cattle can be traced back to 1621-1625. Documentation also indicates that in 1795, the Holland Land Company sent two bulls and six cows to their agent, John Lincklaen, in Cazenovia, New York. As for the descendants of these original cattle – that information has been lost over time.

Much like the farms across the country are disappearing from the landscape, so are the number of licensed dairy herds. Most farmers choose to replace their herds as it becomes smaller, but this has not been the case in years. From 2003 to 2020, the number of licensed dairy herds has decreased by more than 55%.

Part two of our origins series looks at the early introduction of Holsteins and their official designation in the United States.

Mr. Chenery’s Massachusetts Herd

Winthrop W. Chenery of Belmont, Massachusetts, is credited with the first permanent Dutch cattle establishment in the United States. In 1852, Mr. Chenery purchased a cow from the master of a Dutch ship – the cow was brought along for the ship’s crew, providing fresh milk for the journey. Impressed by the breed, he purchased another bull and two cows in 1857 and four more cows in 1859.

To his dismay, all these cows contracted the lung plague (contagious pleuro-pneumonia). All of these cows and their descendants – with the exception of one young bull – were destroyed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an attempt to eradicate the disease. Convinced that the cattle were superior, Mr. Chenery did not let the previous events discourage him. He imported another bull and four cows, who were lucky enough to escape the disease. Adding this bull and cows to his surviving young bull, he bred with success until he died in 1877.

Official Designation of Holstein-Friesian

Although few cattle have a lineage that traces back to Mr. Chenery’s original cattle herds, the name Holstein can be applied. In 1885, the breed was officially given the official designation of “Holstein-Friesian,” but due to its lengthiness, it was often shortened to “Holstein” in conversation and writing – which has stuck to this day.

As far as is known, the name given has no geographical ties to the cattle that roamed the Holstein region. There is also no evidence that the cows from that region (Holstein or Friesland) were ever actually imported to the United States. The cattle in the region do not even resemble the classic Holstein we see on dairy farms today – these cattle were frail, short-legged, and small in stature. In fact, many find it a complete mystery how the breed name “Holstein” came about because even Mr. Chenery referred to his herd as “Dutch.”

Department of Agriculture Report, 1864

In a private catalog dated 1864, Mr. Chenery also refers to the cattle as Dutch. Still, in an article he prepared in 1864 for the United States Department of Agriculture, he publicly used the name Holstein for the first time. The article Holstein Cattle by Winthrop W. Chenery, Belmont, Massachusetts, titled three cuts of his cattle:

  • Holstein Bull, Hollander

  • Holstein Cow, Texelaar

  • Holstein Heifer, Opperdoes 3rd

In the text, however, he only refers to them as Dutch and incidentally included it in a quote by someone else. He claimed at one point that the text’s titles were originally Dutch but that the officials of the Department of Agriculture changed the name. Accepting their authority, he began using the name exclusively for the cattle. Today, the name has not changed, and most of the cows found on dairy farms are still the Holstein breed revered by Mr. Chenery.

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