Last week’s glimpse into some historical breeds of American poultry made us realize that in fact the oldest chicken breed here at Curbstone Valley, is our feather-footed Dark Brahma, ‘Frodo’.

Our Dark Brahma - 'Frodo'

We decided to do some digging into the history of this breed…and inadvertently opened up a rather large, and controversial, can of worms.  It seems that Frodo’s ancestry is murky at best.

Today the Brahma fowl fall into the Asiatic class of poultry.  The ancestors of the Brahmas were known as Chittagongs, Gray Shanghaes (now Cochin), or Brahma Pootras.

The controversy surrounding the origin of Frodo’s breed originates with two prominent poultry-men in the mid-late 19th Century.  Lewis Wright of London, England, and George Pickering Burnham of Melrose, Massachusetts.  These two men argued extensively in the published literature, for many years, about the true origin of the Brahma breed.  Wright contended the breed originated from stock brought to Connecticut, via New York, from East India.  Burham says the original stock was imported from Shanghai, China, and that he was responsible for developing what became the Brahma breed in America.

Map from Burnham's 1874 text showing the region the Asiatic breeds originated from


Lewis Wright contended in his book The Brahma Fowl: A Monograph that the Brahma originated with Gray Shanghaes (now Cochins) imported into New York from Luckipoor, up the Brahmapootra River in India. The birds were reportedly obtained by a Mr. Nelson H. Chamberlain of Connecticut in 1849, shown in exhibition in 1850 in the United States, and subsequently exported to Britain.  In this book Wright states “The Brahma Fowl was unquestionably first introduced into England as late as the year 1852, when two pens were shown at Birmingham by Mrs. Hozier Williams and Dr. Gwynne.  It was said this fowl was a new breed, imported from India.”

Dark Brahma male, 1874 (Public Domain Image)

Burham disagreed with Wright’s origins of the Brahma.  Burnham declared to Wright that the written historical record of fact states that “Mr. Geo P. Burnham exhibited in Boston the first Gray Shanghae fowls ever seen there; from which stock, bred in his yards, Dr. John C. Bennett produced the first so-called ‘Light Brahmas’ ever shown in the world.; (also that) Mr. Geo P. Burnham sent to England, early in 1853, the first trio of ‘Dark Brahmas’ ever seen there, or anywhere else, which latter (from the same original stock) went from Mr. Burnham’s yards in Melrose, Mass., direct to Mr. John Baily, of London.”

Illustration of Burnham's first Dark Grey Shanghae hen, 1853 (Public Domain Image)

Both men agreed that the breed originated in the United States, before being exported to Britain.  The principle bone of contention seemed to be the origin of the stock birds (China or India) and who specifically was responsible for developing the breed in America.

Illustration of Dark Brahma feather patterns circa 1902 (Public Domain Image)

George Burnham, in his book The China Fowl overtly states “I originated the Dark Brahma fowl in my own yard, at Melrose, Mass.” In a direct rebuttal to Wright’s assertions in his book of 1871, Burnham states “The Dark Brahma, or Dark “Gray Shanghae,” is my patent, Mr. Wright.  I originated it, in 1853…Look over the records, and see if you can find any “Dark Brahmas” spoken of — anywhere on earth — until my first splendid trio went out to John Baily of Mount Street, London”. He further states  “…I have never seen a finer lot of the LIGHT variety than those I shipped to her British Majesty in 1852, from my yards; nor have I ever seen a better trio of the DARK strain than the three splendid birds I first shipped in 1853 to John Baily, of Mount Street, London.” Believe it or not, Baily paid $100 for this trio of birds in 1853.  That’s more than $2,800 in today’s money!

However, Lewis Wright countered Burnham with “So far as positive evidence is concerned, it must be considered decisively the fact that Burnham’s account is a deception…and that all the genuine ‘Brahmas’ were bred from the original pair first brought into Connecticut by Mr. Chamberlain [from India].”

History does indeed acknowledge that George P. Burnham sent 9 of his best ‘Brahma’ fowl to Queen Victoria in 1852. However, in Burnham’s book, The China Fowl, he almost contradicts himself by saying “I never sent over to Her Majesty any so-called ‘Brahmas,’ early or late.  I never said I did.  I never pretended I did; and no one, save Lewis Wright, has ever said, or pretended, I did!”

Indeed, in Wright’s Brahma Fowl of 1871 he declares “Mr. Burnham, of the United States, who, it will be remembered, sent over some of the earliest so-called ‘Brahmas’ as a present to Her Majesty, in 1852 affirms that he originated them.”

Illustration of Dark Brahma Fowl circa 1902 (Public Domain Image)

Burnham does go on to say that between 1852 and 1853 he did breed over sixteen hundred “Gray Shanghaes” in his poultry yards in Melrose, Mass., and proceeded to send them all over Britain and the United States, but he contends that he never once called them “Brahmas” (considering that name to have been an invention of Wright’s).  Burham’s hang-up seems to be on whether these fowl are called ‘Brahma’ or ‘Shanghae’.  Brahma as a breed name didn’t become popular until the 1870s, and up until 1871 Burnham called all of his birds Shanghaes.  Was the crux of the entire argument simply a squabble about what the breed was called?  Surely the argument runs deeper than that, but thus far, at least part of this squabble really seems to have been that petty.  Regardless as to what Wright or Burnham called them, reportedly breeding pairs of Burnham’s birds, after having being received by the Queen, were briefly valued in excess of $150!  I suppose that amounts to today’s equivalent of ‘The Colbert Bump’. Sorry Frodo, as much as we’ve become smitten by the Brahma breed, even Stephen Colbert couldn’t get us to spend that much for chickens!


George Pickering Burnham gifted 9 'Gray Shanghaes' (Light Brahma) to Queen Victoria in 1852

So, wading through (some of) the arguments about Brahma origins, if  Burham’s account is true, then all ‘Brahma’ fowl have origins in Chinese Shanghae (Cochin) stock, imported from Shangai, via New York, to Burnham’s Melrose poultry yards between 1849-1850.  The breed was bred and refined by him (and others from his stock) in New England, and exported to Great Britain, and his birds alone were the antecedents of the Brahma breed.

In 1921 though, the American Poultry Journal published a piece on the Light Brahma supporting Wright’s assertion that Chamberlain in fact originated the breed.  According to C. C. Plaisted of Connecticut, the oldest breeder of Light Brahmas at the time “The first pair of these fowls, about which there has been so much discussion and so much written, was brought by one Charles Knox to Mr. Nelson H. Chamberlin, a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1847.  They were first bred by Mr. Chamberlain in 1848.  Mr. Chamberlain paid for his first pair of these fowls the sum of five dollars–considered at that time a fabulous price…Mr Knox reported seeing two pairs…just arrived on an East Inda vessel, and that he had the refusal of the pair until the next trip…The result was the selection of the grays as a venture and their removal to Hartford.” The remainder of the 1921 article alludes to Burnham as nothing more than a mercenary author and marketer.  Perhaps that is true…after all, how else does one garner $150 for a pair of chickens in 19th Century America!?  The problem with history, is it’s dependent on the transcription and interpretation of those who write it.

Was Wright, right? One of Lewis Wright's dark Brahma hens, Juno (1871)

Regardless as to the quibbles over who developed the breed, or where, it’s clear that this breed was phenomenally popular in the mid-late 1800s, and along with the Cochin fowl, triggered a period of ‘Hen Fever’ in the United States and Britain around 1850.  The Brahma’s popularity persisted for more than 30 years unabated.


Brahma Male (left) and Female (right)

In 1871, an article in Southern Farm and Home Magazine stated “When turkeys are difficult to rear, the Dark Brahma ought to be introduced on account of its size; for Christmas dinners it is a fair substitute for the former.  We have one that at five months weighed eight pounds.”

In an 1880 edition of Poultry Monthly, is a lovely article about a prize-winning Dark Brahma, a cockerel named ‘National King’, and one of his hens ‘Countess’.  ‘King’ had just won first place in the National Show in Indianapolis in 1880.


1880 National Show winner "National King" and his hen "Countess"

However, in 1886, despite the Brahma’s popularity in the mid-19th century, it is stated in the First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture. (Rhode Island) that “The Dark Brahmas: Have fallen into disfavor. Why, is a mystery.  I can attribute it to no reason beyond the fact that as exhibition stock they are exceedingly hard to breed up to 92 or more points of excellence owing to the requisite pencilling demanded in a first-class specimen.” Indeed, other articles state that due to difficulty in breeding (for accurate color), that the Dark Brahma in the United States is less popular than the Light Brahma.


Pair of Dark Brahmas as illustrated in 'The Feather' in 1901

By 1901 however, their favor appeared to be returning.  A beautifully illustrated article in The Feather in 1901 summed up the breed as:


A description of the Dark Brahma breed published in The Feather, 1901

In 1903 an article in Commercial Poultry highlights the commercial value of the Dark Brahma breed:

1. They will stand more cold than any other breed.
2. Their combs are small and will not freeze in the coldest weather.
3. They are a very heavy winter layer, laying beautiful, large brownish eggs.
4. Chicks will mature and make broilers from two to four weeks ahead of other breeds.
5. Can stand confinement far better than other breeds, and will not fly over a thirty-inch fence.
6. They cost no more to keep than a scrub, and when matured weigh from nine and a half to fourteen pounds, making one of the finest table birds that can be raised.

More than a century later, despite the nebulous history of the Brahma breed, it is accepted by those that own and breed them now that they are productive birds of an extraordinarily pleasant disposition, and we are very happy to have Frodo as part of our flock, regardless as to his origins.

At 15 weeks old, Frodo's saddle feathers are FINALLY breaking through

By next Friday we hope to bring you news of Frodo’s reintroduction to the flock…providing our persistently pecking pullets will permit him to join them, without doing him any further harm.

Further Reading, regarding both versions of this ‘fowl’ controversy:

Wright, Lewis The Brahma Fowl: A Monograph 2nd Ed. 1871 Orange Judd and Co Publishers.

Burnham, George The China Fowl: Shanghae, Cochin, and “Brahma” 1874 Rand, Avery, & Co., Boston.