The Dutch Belted Cow: A Research Mystery

Have you ever heard of an Oreo cow? They’re really handsome looking black cows that have a big white stripe in their middles, just like the cookie. I’ve seen a few out in Missouri near my wife’s family’s farm. They aren’t very common, but if you  happen by one they’re hard to miss. These cool looking cows have a really interesting back story that I was able to uncover that involved museums, circuses, a long search on the internet, and even the famous P.T. Barnum! If you’ve got a few minutes then take a seat and I’ll take you through the whole thing.

Recently, we were in an antique store, and my wife and I were looking at an old children’s book on farm animals. I wish I could remember what the book was called but I just can’t. But what I do remember was there was one page with a big picture of an Oreo cow! But what most caught our attention was the accompanying text that called it a “Dutch Belted Cow.” We had never actually known what Oreo cows were actually called, so this was a cool surprise. I texted my father-in-law and he confirmed that the so-called Dutch Belted was the same as an Oreo cow, but of course that wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more!

When I got home that day, I decided to search “Dutch Belted Cow” online to read up on them for fun. Since they’re uncommon in the U.S. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. Turns out this was just the beginning of my month-long research adventure! The first thing I learned is that there are in fact two kinds of cows that can be called Oreo cows. The first, the Belted Galloway, is the smaller breed of the two, and has been bred for beef production. Originally from Scotland, Belted Galloways are double coated and hardy grazers, which allows them to survive easier in harsher areas and not do too much damage to the land they’re on. Dutch Belted cows, on the other hand, are significantly larger and are bred for their milk. Also called Lakenvelder, they’re originally from Holland (go figure) and are known for their ability to produce little grass into lots of milk and for the quality of their milk even when the cows are older. There is even a Dutch Belted Cattle Association of America that was established in 1886!

“They are wonderfully productive as milkers, combining as they do, beauty and utility in its highest development.”

The Logan Republican (Utah), September 16, 1908.

As I was bouncing between a couple of different websites, I noticed a curious factoid that kept popping up- apparently the legendary P.T. Barnum had imported the first Dutch Belted cows to the United States in 1840 to appear in his circus. How cool is that?!! Who would have thought that someone like Barnum, who I usually associate with circuses and amazing curiosities, was responsible for us having a small yet thriving population of these cool cows here in the U.S.?

Barnum and Bailey Circus Horse
This is the same guy who brought fine dairy cattle to the United States? Photo Credit: “P.T. Barnum and James Bailey.” c. 1881-1891. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
PT Barnum and Tom Thumb
Photo credit: “P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb” c. 1850. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

However, none of the websites I was looking at provided any sources for the Barnum origin story which drove the historian in me crazy. Some websites/blogs even quoted Barnum directly but never cited where it came from. Some quick searching couldn’t find source of any quotes either. I was getting more curious but didn’t know where to go to find more information! I have to admit, my initial search was pretty lazy- I googled the phrase “dutch belted cow, pt barnum,” and then just opened whichever links looked promising. After getting to the 3rd page of Google (there’s hardly ever anything worthwhile past the second page), I decided that I needed to get serious about my searching.

The United Opinion, Dec 3 1886
From the “United Opinion” (Vermont), December 3, 1886.

So I began searching again, but more earnestly this time. I started with The Autobiography of P.T. Barnum, published in 1855. I have a copy (but I haven’t read it yet), so I checked the index- nothing under dutch belted cow, cattle, Holland, or any other related terms. I also found the book on Internet Archive and did a word search of the entire book just to be sure. Still nothing. After that, I visited the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper database. There were a lot of 100+ year old articles about the Dutch Belted cow, and many of them did confirm the Barnum origin story! The earliest mention of Dutch Belted cows I could find was from January of 1884, and the earliest article that referenced the cows and P.T. Barnum was from 1886. I was getting closer to the 1840s, but was had 40 years to go. So I kept digging deeper.

My next thought was to see if there were any archival collections that might be helpful. After a quick google search, I discovered that both Tufts University and the New York Public Library have collections of Barnum’s correspondence and other papers, but sadly none were related to the Dutch Belted cows. I also checked out “The Lost Museum,” an American Social History/CUNY project that has lots of archival materials and a really cool virtual tour of Barnum’s American Museum as it existed between 1841 and 1864. They had a digitized copy of an American Museum guide book from 1850, but sadly there were no mentions of any cows anywhere (though there were lots of different animals on display). It looks like there is a lot more surviving documentation on Barnum’s museum than on his circus in the antebellum period, and this wasn’t getting me any closer to the Dutch Belted cow…

Barnum American Museum.JPG
No cows in here… Image credit: Barnum’s American Museum Illustrated Guide, 1850.

I felt like I was back to square one again. Historic newspapers, books, archival collections, and records of the American Museum all seemed to get me closer, but still nothing to confirm that Barnum actually brought the Dutch Belted cows over to the U.S. in 1840, and how that actually went. Then, I had a lucky break! While skimming a copy of the Jersey Bulletin from 1906 that Google books had, I found a little snippet about Dutch Belted cattle that had a direct quote from Barnum: “I found their unique and singular appearance not their best recommendation, for the are excellent milkers.” Getting closer to the original source! I googled this particular phrase and soon found the original source: Barnum’s 1872 memoir called Struggles and Triumphs, or, Forty Years’ Recollection of P.T. Barnum. Here’s the full quote from the book:

“I have some very fine imported stock, including several head of the celebrated white-blanket “Dutch cattle,” which excite the curiosity and attract the attention of all who see them. These cattle are black, with a distinctly defined white “blanket” around their bodies, giving them a very unique appearance; and when they struck my fancy in Holland, some years ago, I imported several of them: nor is their singular appearance their best recommendation, for they are excellent milkers, and my dairy and farm products keep my table constantly supplied…” (776)

I had been looking at his autobiography, but apparently he also published this! Looking back, I guess I should have looked for a full list of Barnum’s writings before I assumed that that was a dead end. Turns out Barnum published multiple versions of his autobiography (each with significant alterations) and many other memoirs and writings, so I shouldn’t have just looked at one copy of his autobiography and called it good. Lesson learned!

So my research story ends here. I won’t call this a complete success, but I am satisfied with what I’ve found so far. Finding Barnum’s own words about the Dutch Belted cow is good enough for me, though I wish there were more sources from the 1840s or even the 1850s that talked about the breed. I may continue to dig deeper in the future, Barnum’s term “white-blanket ‘Dutch cattle'” is a different way of describing the breed than I’ve seen in other sources, so maybe if I change my search terms I might uncover something else! Also, I wonder if the archivists at NYPL and Tufts, or the historians who worked on the virtual American Museum project might know of any other unpublished sources (or anything that isn’t online) that might be useful too? Maybe I’ll get in touch with someone soon…

Anyways, hope you enjoyed my research adventure! It was fun looking for more info on Dutch Belted cows and it was exciting to finally get some answers!

Barnum and Bailey Circus poster
I’d rather be in a room filled with Dutch Belted cows! Photo Credit: “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows: The Greatest Wild Animal Display in History.” 1924. Renwick Gallery, Smithsonain Institution.






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