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Historic Farming

Livestock - Swine

Ossabaw Island hogs in their pen at Great Hopes Plantation.

Ossabaw Island hogs in their pen at Great Hopes Plantation.

Swine arrived with some of the earliest settlers and were quick to reproduce. They gave less meat than cattle, but matured and increased with little care. Colonial farmers referred to their swine as woods hogs, because of their attachment to the forest as a source of food.

As with black cattle, colonists did not distinguish the individual woods hog breeds. American swine were a product of a European, African and East Indian heritage. They came in an array of colors and patterns, from white to black, red, blue, sandy, spotted, belted, or solid. They were long-legged, slab-sided, long-snouted, long-bristled, fierce, and self-reliant. Colonial swine were allowed to range freely and were known for their hardiness. Woods hogs were a challenge to wolves and could consume rattlesnakes. To mark their property, farmers cut notches in their hogs’ ears in a signature fashion that was recorded by the sheriff or a local justice.

Hogs thrived on the abundance of chestnuts, acorns, walnuts, herbs, roots, and fungi of the forest. They also grazed in orchards. By the last quarter of the 18th century, farmers in Tidewater had begun to finish their hogs with corn a few weeks before processing them. Grain had become more plentiful as fields replaced forests. Some farmers believed that finishing hogs with corn would sweeten their meat.

The slaughter took place in late autumn or early winter. All hogs 9 months or older, except those intended for breeding, were gathered together and stunned with blows to the head. Their throats were cut to drain the blood from the meat. The carcasses were scalded in barrels of hot water to facilitate the removal of hair and bristles by scraping. Entrails were removed and the carcasses were hung to drain further. The meat became firm in the cool overnight temperatures and was ready for butchering at dawn. Most hogs provided 100 to 150 pounds of meat and gave less waste than any other domestic animal. Middling farmers generally produced 200 to 300 pounds of pork for domestic use annually. When meat was given as a slave ration, it was often supplied at a rate of about 50 pounds per worker per year.

The pigs we have selected to keep at Great Hopes Plantation conform well to what we might have seen on a middling farm in this location from 1774 through 1781.

The hogs of Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia, are descendants of Spanish pigs brought to the New World more than 400 years ago. They were small range pigs with prick ears, heavy coats and long snouts. Over time, some of the Spanish pigs escaped and became feral in southeastern forests. While most feral pigs eventually mixed with domestic pigs, the Ossabaw Island animals are an exception, having remained a distinct and isolated population. Thus they reflect their early heritage more closely.

As the pigs adapted to Ossabaw Island, they became yet smaller, a process called "insular dwarfism." They also had to adapt to the food cycle on the island, which provides little to eat during the spring season. As an adjustment, the Ossabaw Island hogs developed a unique biochemical system of fat metabolism, enabling them to store a larger proportion of fat than any other hog. In conjunction with this, they have a form of low-grade, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, making them excellent medical research animals. They have been studied for more than a decade at the University of Georgia and other institutions.

The unique qualities of the Ossabaw Island hogs do not limit their uses for traditional production. Although in the wild they are smaller than other pigs, with pregnant sows weighing less than 100 pounds, Ossabaws grow larger in captivity. Colors include black, spotted black and white, red and tan.