Plymouth Rocks: Rock-solid American chickens

It’s the first chicken breed listed in the American Poultry Association Standard: Plymouth Rock. The barred variety, meaning the alternating dark and light lines on the feathers, was the first recognized in the 1874 original and remains the best known. You’ll often hear them called simply Barred Rocks.

The 1912 edition of Harrison Weir’s Poultry Book invited H.P. Schwab, experienced breeder and secretary of the American Plymouth Rock Club, to re-write its entire Plymouth Rock chapter. Weir, an Englishman, didn’t do justice to this popular American chicken. “Their constitutional vigor appears to have no limit,” Schwab wrote. “They thrive anywhere and under all conditions.”

Plymouth Rocks were developed in Massachusetts after the Civil War and named for one of the state’s most famous landmarks. They were originally shown at chicken shows in the Dorking Class, which has since been subsumed in the American class.

H.P. Schwab acknowledges that “All agree that the cross which was the source of this breed was first made by Joseph Spaulding of Putnam, Connecticut.” He began with a single comb Dominique male on a Black Cochin (at that time, the clean-legged Shanghae), and others later added Minorca, White Cochin, Black Spanish, Gray Dorking, Buff Cochin and others.

Barred Rocks were first shown by D.A. Upham in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1869. Upham was an influential breeder whose chickens were used to develop several of the prominent strains that went on to become important commercial birds.

Rocks and Dominiques  have yellow skin, the result of their Cochin heritage. Rocks have single combs. The Rock shape is the most important quality: a broad back, medium length, rising with a slight concave sweep to the tail. Broad shoulders and strong tail feathers well spread, carried moderately upright, “build up the back to the proper ending.”

Plymouth Rocks are useful, active, dual-purpose chickens that have attracted many followers over the years. Their eggs range from lightly tinted to dark brown. Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, considers it “the perfect bird for outdoor production,” along with New Hampshires.

Their admiring breeders have developed six additional varieties recognized by the Standard: White, Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge,  Columbian, and Blue. Bantams are also recognized in Silver Penciled and Black.

Barred Plymouth Rocks and Jersey Giants are the preferred traditional breeds for chicken meat production today at Heritage Foods USA, a food broker working with small producers. As Schwab wrote in 1912, “They are a business fowl in every sense of the word, one that never deserts its post nor shirks its duty.”

Contact Plymouth Rock Fanciers of America for more historical and exhibition details.