Navajo-Churro: Americas First Sheep
By Connie Taylor, Registrar and Breeder
Americas first domestic sheep arrived over 400 years ago by the Spanish explorers and settlers. The history of the churra importation and distribution is fascinating and complex. Archives indicate that Merinos were too valuable to export from Spain, so the common sheep such as: Churra, Manchega, Castellana and Lacha were sent to the New World. The term "Churro" is translated to mean "common" and now refers loosely to all the breeds mentioned. Navajo-Churro, derived from the original Spanish stock, are now widely distributed in the U.S. with numbers approximately 6,000. Navajo-Churro are considered a landrace breed that reproduces with high predictably.
Livestock, including sheep, came in 1494 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and then in Mexico. Colonization expanded gradually into Nuevo España which is now the Southwest of the United States. In 1540, following the initial expedition of Cortez in 1538, Coronado searched for the Cities of Gold expending 5,000 head of sheep on the journey. The few left in New Mexico were not heard of again. Don Juan de Oñate, in 1598, brought settlers and 2,900 sheep that formed the initial colonization of the Southwest. Spanish ranches prospered in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona with flocks numbering in the thousands. Many sheep were trailed back to Mexico to feed mining towns and they supplied the growing population of the Southwest. In 1849 when gold was discovered in California, churros were trailed west to feed the Gold Fever.
During this period of Spanish colonization, Pueblo Indians were hired and enslaved to herd livestock and to weave textiles. The Dine (the Navajo people), living on the edge of Spanish occupation, acquired a few sheep and horses by trades and by raids on outlying settlements. Following the turmoil of 1680 when the Pueblos revolted against Spanish oppression, the Navajos acquired more sheep, as did the Apaches. The Apaches ate the sheep they took but the Navajos nurtured their acquisitions and expanded their flocks.
As European settlers came west and the demand arose for fine wool in the American textile industry, the churros were "graded up" by crossing with Merino and English longwools. However, some churros remained in the remote Hispanic villages, among the isolated Navajos and on the West Coast. These isolated flocks eventually formed the landrace sheep, the Navajo-Churro, named to recognize Spanish and Navajo influence.
Because the Navajos resisted the settlers who were encroaching on Dine homelands, the U.S. government ordered military actions led by Kit Carson and John Carlton with instructions to destroy Navajo orchards and flocks. There was much bloodshed and in 1865 approximately 9,000 Navajos were forced on the Long Walk of 300 miles to an interment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Terrible conditions here caused the death of many people and their livestock. Some Navajos escaped capture and hid with their sheep in remote canyons of New Mexico and Arizona. After three years, the Navajo were returned to their homeland and were issued two "native" sheep per person from Hispanic.flocks.
The Navajo were such good weavers and shepherds that their mixed flocks grew to 574,821 sheep by l930. The large number of sheep, goats, horses and cattle was problematic for the severe drought conditions of the 1930s, so the U.S. government conducted a stock reduction. Some stock was purchased for $1-1.50 but the reduction progressed so slowly that roughly 30% of each households sheep, goats and horses were slaughtered by government agents and thrown into arroyos or burned. This terrifying Stock Reduction is still vivid in Navajo memory.
For more information, go to Sheep - Preservation.