Dominique Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

Dominique chickens were very popular in 19th century America for their self-sufficiency. They are good foragers that do well on free ranges.

The Dominique Chicken breed is a good heritage poultry breed for those who want a bird known for staying in the middle ground: Not too big or small, not incredibly prolific but certainly steady, in both egg and meat production. This hertiage chicken breed is also calm and docile. The basic farmyard chickens brought to the New World by the English colonists were probably similar to the common Dorking, Old English Fowl, and Old Sussex Fowl that were all present in southern England in the seventeenth century. These birds arrived with the colonists before the later importations to England of the Asiatic Games, Cochins, and Mediterraneans. The Dutch colonists to the New World may have also brought along their indigenous chickens, such as the old Hamburg stock.

Whatever their exact origin, the smallish, barred Dominique type was well known before 1750. One hundred years later, one poultry writer would state that Dominique chickens were “so familiar as to need no description.” They were sometimes described as Dominickers, Pilgrim Fowls, Puritan Fowls, or Plymouth Country Fowls. Both rose- and single-combed birds were seen, although the rose comb seemed to be more common. An often-heard expression was “spunky as a Dominicker rooster.”

There is a great deal of evidence attesting to the Dominique as a popular farm bird over the eastern half of the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. President Abraham Lincoln owned Dominiques. This early farmstead chicken had to be a hardy, self-sufficient bird. Other than a few scratch grains, feed scavenged from the livestock, or food scraps, the chickens around the cabin or farmhouse had to forage for seeds, insects, and plants on their own. The irregular barring lent them protection from the predators that surrounded the farm. Fluffy, heavy plumage kept them warm in rafters or coops, and the little rose combs were far less likely to freeze in winter. The hen would raise a clutch or two of chicks to provide chickens for the cooking pot. The Dominiques were excellent layers, and their feathers were used for pillows, comforters, and mattresses or feather ticks.

At the first poultry show in Boston in 1849, these rose-combed, barred birds were entered as Dominiques. The import of the Asiatic breeds also began in the 1840s, to great interest and enthusiasm. The Plymouth Rock was partially developed from a Dominique cross in 1865 and exhibited four years later, although the name Plymouth Rock was also used for Dominique-type birds even earlier in New England. In 1870, the managers of a state poultry show in New York resolved the confusion over names. The barred birds were divided into medium-sized, rose-combed Dominiques and medium- to large-sized, single-combed Barred Plymouth Rocks. The next year, the Dominique Standard of Excellence confirmed that only rose-combed birds were acceptable. Most likely, a great many large single-combed Dominiques were absorbed into the new Barred Plymouth Rock breed.

Both the Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock were accepted into the Standard in 1874. With the increased interest in poultry improvement, the Dominique gained greater uniformity in type and size, but the Plymouth Rock went on to great popularity along with other new and improved breeds. The Dominique began its fade into obscurity, for it was already regarded as old-fashioned. By the turn of the twentieth century, agricultural writers were warning that this traditional breed needed rescue for it had been arbitrarily lost in the rush to adopt newer breeds. Soon even the Dominique’s history was being lost. By 1916, the USDA’s Farmer’s Bulletin on Standard Varieties of Chickens dismissed the older Dominique by declaring that “similarity in plumage of the American Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock has been the cause of the former’s popularity.” In 1946, a poultry science textbook explained that the Dominique, like the Chantecler, had “not been generally adopted by the public, and therefore few flocks are found” (Winter and Funk 1946, 32).

By the mid-twentieth century, the Dominique was rarely seen, and many knowledgeable people worried that it would become extinct. The ALBC was extremely concerned when it could locate only six National Poultry Improvement Plan flocks totaling 110 hens. The ALBC also worried about impure flocks and whether the Dominique existed only in exhibition strains. Fortunately, four breeders persisted in keeping and breeding this historic American breed: Carl Gallaher, Robert Henderson, Henry Miller, and Edward Uber. Almost incredibly, many old bloodlines were saved, including one historic flock more than a hundred years old. Much of this preservation was a quiet effort with birds passed from breeder to breeder.

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