Monday, 16 September 2013 19:17

New Mexico Gold, Las Ovejas (Sheep)

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Sheep near Wolf Creek Pass, 1969, Arthur Scott Sheep near Wolf Creek Pass, 1969, Arthur Scott


New Mexico Gold,  Las Ovejas (Sheep)


Arthur Scott




   I took this poor picture from the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad near Wolf Creek pass in 1969. Forgive the quality, but it is old like me. As I was going through these slides, I was reminded how important sheep and wool production was to New Mexico. Between 1850 and 1938,sheep were the “gold” of New Mexico.

    It seems somewhat ironic that the Conquistadors came seeking gold and wealth but yet brought the future wealth with them. When the Conquistador Onate arrived, in addition to 400 men, among the livestock he reportedly brought, were 2700 Spanish churro sheep. The industry has contributed to the wealth and political power of families like Governor Armijo the Chavez’s, Catrons, Maxwells, Lunas,  Governor Otero, Ilfelds (buying and shipping wool east), Burns’, and the MacGillvarys.  All were pioneers in the sheep industry in New Mexico. Historically, the majority of the sheep were located in three counties, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, and Union.

   The industry also encouraged the immigration of Basque shepherds and their dogs that became known as “New Mexican shepherds.” The dogs have since become the breed we now know as “Australian Shepherds.”

    Here are the numbers of sheep in New Mexico over the years. I can not vouch for accuracy as they were taken from several sources. The USDA numbers for 1938-2013 are probably most accurate. They do, however, illustrate the increase in wool required during both World War I and II( uniforms, blankets, cold-weather gear) and also the dramatic decrease in the wool industry with the development of synthetic fibers during the late 1940’s and the end of an era.


        Year         Sheep

      1600             2,700

1820              200,000

1850           Largest sheep producer in US.

1880            2,000,000

1900            5,000,000

1938            2,337,000

2007                 130,000

2013           100,000 (not even in the top ten states for sheep production)

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