Sheep in New York Central Park

Once in awhile it is good to know about sheep and their role in history in other parts of the United States so here is it:

Sheep grazed in New York’s Central Park beginning in 1864 and would be found there for the next 50 to 70 years. Two different sources give conflicting data as to how many years the sheep grazed Central Park! More research will be needed to determine the exact number of years that sheep were in the park.

First it is important to understand why Central Park was built. According to the website … “it is the first urban landscaped park in the United States”. The site continues, “The purpose was to refute the European view that Americans lacked a sense of civic duty and appreciation for cultural refinement and instead possessed an unhealthy and individualistic materialism that precluded interest in the common good.” The vision was a pastoral landscape for the rich to be seen and the poor would benefit from the clean air that such a landscape would give.

Construction in the park began in 1857 after a debate on its location. Frederick Law Olmstead, superintendent of the park, and Calvert Vaux, architect, won the park design. The city acquired 840 acres using eminent domain displacing approximately 1,600 people who had been living in the swampy, rocky terrain. Some of these people were squatters and others were legitimate renters; a school and a convent also were evicted. Those evicted did receive compensation, $700, which most felt was below the value of the land that they had improved. This land was chosen as it was not suited for commercial businesses as New York was beginning to develop. Without going through the construction stages or the budget constraints, the park was “less laboriously and meticulously designed, giving it a more untamed appearance.” ( The park became the “Park of the Wealthy.” It is interesting that this website does not state that sheep were ever grazed on its green pastures. So, how did the sheep get there?

Another website states that the two co-designers of the park wanted it to have a pastoral feel which would give it serenity and a romantic feel, just like an English country-side. Now remember, the park was built to bring a cultural feeling to the Americas which supposedly the Europeans thought the Americans lacked. How better than to have a English country-side feel in the city?

The 200 pedigreed Southdown sheep (Dorset today) were introduced to the park in 1864.  A structure was built to house the flock near 64th Street; Sheepfold. The sheep occupied the bottom floor and the shepherd with his family were housed on the second. Every day at 5:30 am, the sheep dog and shepherd would move the sheep across the street from their night dwelling to the park and returned them promptly at 6:30 pm each night. Crossing the road traffic, first horse drawn carriages and then cars, would be halted at both ends of the day.  Their grazing area became known as Sheep Meadow and that name remains today without the sheep, of course!

But, the sheep, who mowed the grass before lawnmowers and provided fertilizer, would not find a friend in the Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses. In 1934, with the park altered to accommodate kids and adult activities, the sheep were forced to go. Moses wanted the house that the sheep occupied turned into a restaurant (Sheepfold is now Tavern on the Green). Moses also saw that the sheep had the real possibility of becoming food for New Yorkers who had moved into the park with the onset of the depression. The sheep that were still here in 1934 were moved to Prospect Park (This is in Brooklyn, a park also designed by Olmstead and Vaux) where another flock was grazing. The sheep were later moved to the Catskills and never to return to Central Park. The date of 1934 would also mean that the sheep were there for 70 years!

Photographs of sheep in Central Park.  The second one on the right is a stereogram which dates to 1880.  The other pictures were taken between 1900 and 1906.  All pictures are from the Library of Congress Central Park collection. (large left LC-DIG-det-4a11102, top right LC-DIG-pga-14135 as it shows a view of New York City, bottom right LC-DIG-stereo-1s07191, large bottom LC-DIG-det-4a08822)


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