Chickens in America

We now welcome back to the blog our occasional guest, the chicken.  (By the way, for those concerned, our backyard birds are just fine.  They don’t mind the cold.)

I recently cracked open the book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.  I was especially drawn to the chapter about chickens in early America.  It turns out this is especially pertinent in this month of honoring Black history.  It also has connections with our ongoing conversation about reparations. 

British settlers brought chickens to Jamestown, and chickens arrived in New England on the Mayflower, but the bird wasn’t a prominent part of the early American life or diet. 


In 1692, the Virginia General Assembly made it illegal for enslaved persons to own horses, cattle, or pigs.  This was a direct response to several individuals having bought their freedom from the proceeds of animal sales.  The chicken wasn’t worth much, so wasn’t on this list of banned financial assets.

Lawler writes:

On the expanding farms of the colonial South, African Americans began to breed, buy, sell, and eat fowl as they saw fit…Chicken bones account for a full third of all bones found among the African American quarters in Maryland and Virginia plantations, and plantation records show frequent cash payments to slaves for poultry.  Owners granted slaves authority over chickens because the birds were of negligible economic importance and reduced plantation spending on feeding field hands, and many slaves of West African descent retained skills in poultry raising inherited from their ancestors…Free and enslaved African Americans created extensive chicken networks both on and off plantations, with free Blacks serving as middlemen. (pp. 193,194)

After emancipation, it was Black women who built on their expertise with chickens to grow entrepreneurial enterprises.  When Blacks came North en masse during the Great Migration, their routes came to be known as the Chicken Bone Express because of the food they packed to sustain them for the travel and the discarded bones all along the way.

The rise in popularity of fried chicken seems to have complex origins, but its most successful promoter, Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, became its iconic face.

Lawler writes: After three centuries of cultivating flocks, cooking fowl, and laying the foundation of the modern poultry industry, African Americans found themselves relegated to the sidelines and stereotyped as chicken thieves even as fried chicken emerged as a quintessentially American food.  (p. 196)

The work of reparations rightly focuses on the multitude of barriers to wealth-building Black folks have faced in this country.  Before reading this book I didn’t realize how closely those lovely birds in our back yard were part of this story.