And seest thou my Cow today Fowler, the Bells ring in to Mattens, Bim Bome, Bim Bome a Bome Bome
- Thomas Ravenscroft, Melismata, Musicall Phansies. London, 1611
At publique Court, help the 22th of May it was concluded by the whole Companie, that the cattell wch were the Companies, to wit, the Cowe, & the Goates should be equally divided to all the psonts of the same company & soe kept untill the expiration of ten yeares after the date above written.
- Plymouth Colony Records, 12:9
Today is an exciting day here in New Plimoth. IT’S CATTLE DIVISION DAY!
One of the reasons that we usually represent the year 1627 in our Village is that it is one of the better documented years, particularly in regards to who is residing in the town. The Plymouth Colony Records contain the full list, dividing all the townsfolk into twelve groups, or lots, of thirteen. Each lot is then allocated specific cattle, which in this case refers to both cows and goats. (In the seventeenth-century, the term cattle tends to more generally refer to any sort of livestock of the four-legged variety.) In 1627 there are also pigs in Plymouth that we assume were so plentiful in their number that they didn’t see the need to so accurately describe their division. Then there are the sheep that Captain Standish is looking to sell in 1628, but they are his in-his-own-particular-thank-you-very-much! Anyway, back to the cows and the goats…in 1627, there are not quite enough for families to be owning and increasing their own cattle, but there are too many for the care of these animals to be shared in a straightforward way. So the decision is made to divide them up, as our Governor says:
…a cow to 6 persons or shares, and 2 goats to the same, which were first equalized for age, and goodness and then lotted for; single persons consorting with others, as they thought good, and smaller families likewise; and swine though more in number, yet by the same rule.
As interpreters of this, especially because we tend to change characters from year to year, we all need prompts in order to remember exactly what our lot was given. And trust me, this is a HUGE deal to our seventeenth-century-selves. The day the cattle was divided in 1627, the town must have been a-buzzing with news, who got what, my-cow-is-bigger-than-your-cow comparisons, when shall we send my bull and your heifer off on a merry junket, etc…..This was exactly what was going on in our staff lounge this morning. William Bradford was frantically trying to remember what he wrote in his journal about this day, Master Alden was wondering why his division is the only one to get *just* a heifer, and there was much rejoicing from me, Fear Allerton, when I realised that one of our newest interpreters, who is playing John Crackstone comes under my lot too! Amidst all the excitement, and certainly adding to it, there was this:
The wonderful, foodilicious Kathy Devlin spent her weekend baking Cattle Division Cookies for us all! What a delight – thanks Kathy! As I dug through this delectable pile of treats, I realised that they were not just treats for our taste buds, but also treats for our interpretation. Here’s what I found on the back of my name tag:
Yup. The Great Black cow, the lesser of the two steers, and two she goats. A quick lesson in seventeenth-century cow nomenclature might be needed in order for you all to fully understand the greatness of this news. A cow is a mature female who has birthed at least one calf, as opposed to a heifer who is an adult female which has not yet calved. Therefore, my Great Black cow is a proven reproducer. This is good. A steer is a gelded male…or as I explain to school children often, he’s not a bull, but a male that will never father any children. A steer is on its way (via extensive training) to becoming an ox, and therefore a PLOWING MACHINE. This is also good. Excellent good, in fact.
This was the second lot, of Mr. Isaac Allerton & his Companie, joined to him his wife, Ffeare Allerton, the four Allerton children, the Godbertson family (Sarah Godbertson being the sister of Master Allerton), Edward Bumpasse and John Crackstone. That’s my division, and what I’ll be talking about for most of the day!
For he blesseth them, and they multiply exceedingly, and he diminisheth not their cattle.
- Psalm 107:38, 1599 Geneva Bible.