The Erminette


Curtis Burroughs

The story of the American Erminette is a saga that finds its beginning rooted in other side of the world in a land filled with mystery and intrigue . . . the West Indies. As a popular trading post in the later part of the nineteenth century, the West Indies provided a vital link in obtaining goods unobtainable elsewhere, and was often the last outpost for Asian poultry as they made their long journey to a new home and a new people eager for the new, the improved, and the exotic.

Around the 1860's just such a group of fowl were brought to the shores of America. They hailed from the West Indies and exhibited a beautiful coloration, being mostly white with a few random solid black feathers throughout their bodies. Over the next couple of decades this pair had multiplied and there was a very small but dependable group of breeders raising this stock under the name of West India or more commonly the West Indies. What had made this recent import so unique was not its shape but rather its coloration. As stated in The Poultry World of 1877, volume VI, the West Indies were "fowls resembling very much the Leghorn in size and shape, but the combs were very much smaller, the hen having very much smaller comb, and the cock's comb being about one third the size of the usual Leghorn comb. In plumage they were white, evenly splashed with solid black feathers." What was also noted about the West India was that their preferred coloration would not breed true to type. When two West Indies were bred together they would hatch out in white, white with black spots, and solid black. While breeders of other breeds were very interested in introducing this coloration to their breed, it appears the West India breeders themselves were unable to formally organize the breed. What is known about their lack of organization is that the West India was extinct by the early twentieth century, what is unknown is when exactly they made their departure from our realm.

In losing the West India, we would have lost the unique breeding pattern they were known for had it not been for a Brahma breeder, as well as rose comb and single comb admirers of the day. The first known breeder to transfer the West India coloration to their preferred breed of choice was a Brahma breeder by the name of John H. Sutliffe. As shared in the same publication as referenced above, Mr. Sutliffe "conceived the idea that a cross could be made between these birds (West Indies) and the larger varieties that would still retain their beautiful plumage and add to their weight the heft of the Asiatics. The first year this pair of fowls were mated with the Light Brahma hen, and this cross brought many feathered-legged birds, the West Indias being smooth-legged. At this time in Mr. Sutliffe's yards was a cross between the Earl Derby Game, White Leghorn and a very small pure black variety. Selecting the cocks from the first cross that retained the plumage of the West Indias and that had yellow and heavy feathered legs and small combs (pea combs), they were mated with the above cross, and this produced the second year a very large percentage of truly beautiful birds that still retained the desired plumage. Mr. Sutliffe was highly pleased with the experiment so far, and was well satisfied that in due time they would develop into a variety that would breed as true as the recognized varieties. The third year the same precautions were used as to the selections of breeders. All having legs that were the least colored were rejected, also those without the leg-feathering, and those were placed one side that showed any color aside from black in the feathers that should have been solid black. Small combs were always selected, and the result of the third mating was highly satisfactory, birds being produced that were as finely splashed as the original West Indias, and had taken on weight with wonderful rapidly, and showed as fine leg-feathering as the Asiatics."

After a few more years of selective breeding, Mr. Sutliffe was encouraged by his friends to show his creation, and in December of 1874, in Bristol, Connecticut, Mr. Sutliffe introduced to the world his creation which he had named the Erminette. He continued to show his Erminettes until 1877 when he sold the entirety of his flocks to his son-in-law (J.C. Russell) who was noted in the article to be advertising Erminettes in the back of the 1877 edition of The Poultry World.

(Mr. Sutliffe's Erminettes as continued by his son-in-law J. C. Russell)

When one looks at the picture of J.C. Russell's Erminettes, it's clear that they look to be a variety of the Brahma as known to look at that time. However, it appears that Mr. Sutliffe considered his creation a separate breed due to him naming the birds Erminette instead of coining them as Erminette Brahma which would have signified them as a variety instead of a breed. To add to the notion that Mr. Sutliffe considered his creation a separate breed we find noted in another article written for The Poultry Monthly in 1887 the following; "Of these birds Mr. Redding says: 'The Erminettes are a distinct American breed, originated in this country about twenty years ago by using a pair of handsome fowls imported from the West Indies, and judiciously crossing them with fowls having the blood of Earl Derby Game, White Leghorn, and Light Brahma, in order to produce a fowl of handsome plumage, with yellow legs, small combs, and the weight of the Asiatics'."

However, adding confusion to Mr. Reddig's account we find alongside the article a picture of Erminettes as shared with The Poultry Monthly by Mr. Reddig himself. As you can see in the photo below, the birds differ from Mr. Sutliffe's stock in that this picture shows fowls which are clean legged, of a different build and constitution, and exhibit a rose comb instead of a pea comb. We may find an answer to this quandary in yet another article of The Poultry Monthly written a few years later. In it we find that Mr. Reddig himself was active in creating a rose comb, clean legged version of the Erminette. Quote, "it was Clarence J. Reddig, of Shippensburg, Pa., who originated a strain of Erminettes with rose combs . . . a year or two later, certain Massachusetts breeders were booming Single Comb 'Erminettes'." So, it would appear that while Mr. Reddig recognized the feather legged, pea comb creature bred by Sutliffe as the Erminette, Mr. Reddig sought to create a clean legged, rose comb version of the Erminette. And so began a long period of confusion as to what constituted an "Erminette."

(Erminettes as shown and exhibited by Mr. Reddig)

While Mr. Sutliffe's Erminette was the first exhibited under this breed/variety name, within the next two decades, birds exhibiting rose combs, single combs, clean legs, and bodies resembling the Wyandotte and Rock were all being raised and marketed under the banner of Erminette. According to written accounts, we can document the individuals accredited to the creation of the various Erminette types as follows:

  • John H. Sutliffe of Bristol, Connecticut, developed the pea combed, feather shanked variation which closely resembled the Asiatic breeds of his time. In 1874 Mr. Sutliffe introduced to the public the first of the three primary variations of the Erminette. In 1877 Mr. Sutliffe's entire flock was sold to his son-in-law J.C. Russell who continued breeding this variation for a number of years. It is currently unknown when this strain of Erminette became extinct.

    The Poultry World -- Hartford, Conn. -- Volume VI, Issue No. III -- 1877

  • In 1887 Clarence J. Reddig of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania was accredited with the creation of the rose combed, clean legged version of the Erminette which possessed a body type similar to the Wyandotte as known to exist during this time.

    The Poultry Monthly -- Volume IV -- 1887
    The Poultry Monthly -- Albany NY -- Volume XXII, Issue No. III -- 1900

  • By 1895 C.A.H. Bright of Bridgeport, Connecticut, had established a flock of single combed, clean shanked Erminettes with his son-in-law, Frederick A. Burr of Fairfield, Connecticut, managing his flock well into the 1940's when FB Hutt obtained breeding stock for his genetic experiments. In type Mr. Bright's stock carried traits most similar to the Plymouth Rock of his generation.

    Genetic Basis of the Erminette Breed of Fowls -- F.B. Hutt -- Published in 1964

  • It is claimed that at a poultry show in 1892 there existed a single combed, feather shanked variation to the Erminette. This claim is cited by the following statement regarding a class of Erminettes, "Clean legged, beautiful birds were beaten by feather-legged questionable specimens, simply because the first possessed rose combs and the judge favored single combs." At the present it is unknown who originated this line but it would appear that this variation would have a connection to Mr. Sutliffe's stock due to the feathered shanks.

    The Pet Stock, Pigeon and Poultry Bulletin -- Volume XXII -- 1892

    While few were aware of the various breeders that initiated each variation of the Erminette, the confusion surrounding comb, legs, and type was readily known at the time. This lead many to lament the misfortune of the various opinions and the lack of the breeders to unify themselves under one common Standard. The point is made clear by the following articles:

  • "There have been differences of opinion as to the comb an Erminette should wear ever since that time, and it is owing to this difference of opinion among the breeders of the Erminette that they are not now in the Standard." -- Geo. H Brackenbury (The Poultry Monthly) Mr. Brackenbury wrote in this article that he was of the opinion that the rose comb clean legged version should have been merged into an Erminette or "Ermine" variety of Wyandotte considering how similar the rose comb Erminette was in type to the Wyandotte. This opinion was shared by many during this time period, and due to the fact that the Wyandotte was used in the creation of the rose comb, clean legged variation, it stands to reason why such an opinion was held.

  • "Erminettes . . . have cropped out from time to time in our exhibitions, sometimes being shown with smooth shanks, and sometimes with shanks feathered. They have never been satisfactory enough to secure them to become completely bred." -- American Poultry Advocate -- 1918

  • "The Erminette . . . would have been a standard breed, in all probability, but for the fact that its breeders were unable to agree upon a standard, and bred it, according to individual predilection, with (feathered) and with clean shanks, and with three types of combs -- pea, rose, and single. Even upon shape there was an unhappy divergence of opinion. But it was and is an excellent and attractive fowl." -- Poultry Breeding in the United States by H.S. Babcock

    Add to this confusion of the shanks, comb and body type, was the added confusion of nomenclature which, in this era, was anything but “standard”. Between 1874 (when the first "Erminette" made its appearance) to the 1920's, there was much confusion amongst poultry fanciers concerning the names Erminette and Ermine. Most can vividly recollect the regal robe worn by Royalty which is white with small black markings. This robe is created out of skins of the Ermine (a mammal that belongs to the [weasel] family), which is solid white with a black tipped tail. When making the robe, the Ermine tails are spaced out in an organized way, creating a striking display. The controversy sprang from the fact that two different color patterns derived their name from the same source; the robe worn by Royalty. As a result, there was much confusion about what constituted an Ermine or Erminette, with some individuals and breeders using both names interchangeably when describing one or the other. When one sorts through the history it becomes clear that the Erminette was a color pattern expressing a white bird with random and as evenly spaced black markings as possible and was not a pattern which bred true. The Ermine on the other hand was the same color pattern as the Columbian (or Light in the Brahma, Sussex, and Dorking). In fact, the originator of the Columbian Orpington variety originally coined his new creation the Ermine Orpington as he felt the Columbian name was a fad that would soon fade out and that naming a color variety after the Columbian Fair lacked any depth of meaning as compared to the pattern of the regal robes produced out of the fur the Ermine.

    In studying the history of the Erminette as found in the pages of poultry antiquity, it becomes clear that Mr. Sutliffe considered the birds he called Erminette as a separate breed, but as the next few years rolled out, many others joined in the creation of their own version of the Erminette and within a couple decades the Erminette was found in such varying forms that most in the poultry world were forced to accept that the Erminette was not unified enough to be considered a standard breed, and to some this was a fact that was met with much disappointment.

    However, should one talk to poultry historians of today and ask them if the Erminette was indeed a breed of the past, most will overwhelmingly confirm that the Erminette was indeed a breed in its own right, yet, no one seems to know what exactly the Erminette was supposed to look like outside of its color genetics and how its color genes are to operate. What is known is that breeders of the past were successful in producing specimens that closely resembled Erminette colored Brahmas, Wyandottes, and Plymouth Rocks. What makes studying the Erminette such a difficult task is the fact that all of the information about the Erminette's past is tied to a color pattern as opposed to a standard breed. And it can be added that even those who were trying to breed the Erminette coloration into a variety of their respective breed of choice were unsuccessful in completing this task. Naturally, this knowledge leads us to a question that may be lost to history: if the Erminette was in fact a distinct breed in the past, when did it transform from a color variety to a distinct breed in type and form as well as possessing its namesake coloration?

    Recent History

    In 1940, F.B. Hutt set out to determine the genetic underpinnings of the Erminette. Mr. Hutt had determined that the Erminette coloration was a result of a co-dominance of an unknown gene which he coined "Er" (let the modern reader not be confused by this as our current system of genetic nomenclature lists Er as the designation for the Birchen base on the e-locus). Later professors have since learned that the pattern is not created by a simple co-dominance effect but rather by the result of one dominant white gene over the extended black e-locus gene connected with modifiers that allow for a maximum expression of black. In short, the pattern is produced only in a heterozygous state (albeit similar to a co-dominant effect) and therefore cannot be created to breed 100% true. Because of this there will always be off colors, solid white and solid black. However, when the solid white and solid black Erminettes are breed together, the result is 100% Erminette colored offspring. Below is the genotype in current written form--

    EE ii (Solid Black)
    EE Ii (Erminette)
    EE II (Solid White)

    While reading through the genetic studies put out by the various geneticists, one will notice that the Erminettes under their studious eyes were of a general type and form. When pictures are provided, there appears a type which is clean legged and single combed and has a general build that resembles closely the Plymouth Rock. It thus appears that of the three prevailing "types" of the late 1800's, the last to remain was the single combed clean legged version. If others remained, they did so in secret, and the various studies (particularly FB Hutt's) no doubt helped to forge in the minds of poultry fanciers what the Erminette looked like by virtue of presenting a form and type more unified than had existed in the past. We might even be so bold as to say that if an answer can be provided for our above stated question, it may be that the moment the Erminette transformed from a color variety to a distinct breed was the moment the other two variations went extinct, allowing the Erminette to lay claim of distinction in the hands of default rather than in the hands of organized breeders.

    (Erminette of the type and form as documented in the genetic studies conducted on the Erminette)

    (Erminette pullet and hen from FB Hutt's work with this breed)

    In the latter part of the twentieth century to the very early years of the twenty first century, the SPPA made a list of various breeds that were deemed extinct. On this list was found the Erminette. Shortly after the genetic study flocks had come to a close, the Erminette as a breed and distinct coloration had been lost to the poultry world. Even the most ardent poultry activists and historians could not locate even one flock of Erminettes and so the Erminette was placed on the SPPA's list of extinct breeds in the hopes that awareness of the state of this breed (as well as other breeds on the list) may help to stir up any last remaining remnant flock that might be gracing the farmyard of a breeder far removed from the poultry world before that flock too went extinct.

    SPPA member and nationally renowned poultry breeder Ron Nelson was to become the first and only person to locate a remnant flock of Erminettes. Ron had stumbled across this flock unexpectedly while driving through the countryside in southern Wisconsin. As fate would have it, he caught sight of a flock of birds foraging a farmyard which appeared to have the Erminette color, where single combed, and smaller in size than what was once known to exist within the breeding populations of the traditional variations of Erminettes. (It is currently unknown if this remnant flock contained feathered shanks, clean shanks, or both. When Glenn Drowns obtained the remnants of Ron's flock there was one male which possessed feathered shanks. Due to the outcrossing Ron performed in order to increase the size of his Erminettes is highly possible that he bred against the feathered shanks.) He decided to pull into the property to inquire about this particular flock, and when he did so he was met by an elderly woman (whose name is unfortunately unknown), who shared with Ron that the birds in question were called Erminettes and that they had been passed down in her family for multiple generations. Ron secured hatching eggs and so started his work in restoring the Erminette to its former "glory."

    Being described by many in the poultry fancy as a perfectionist, Ron was unwilling to release any of this stock until he felt they were solid representatives of the breed as he had known them to be. When one looks upon the work Ron had done with his flocks of Erminettes, it appears that they share a similar form and type as the flocks FB Hutt had used in his genetic studies. One is easily lead to believe that it was this type and form which Ron had recognized as the standard breed type and therefore bred towards. As such, the original population which Ron had obtained stock from were too small (either from lack of improvement or generations of genetic isolation), and most likely possessed feathered shanks on at least a few individuals, so he started his improvement program by breeding his foundation stock to his Black Orpingtons in order to increase the mature weights. Within a few generations of selection, Ron was able to produce a flock of Erminettes which bred true to the body type he was aiming for and within the genetic color parameters known only to the Erminette. The Orpington did however add in white shanks and toes and this coloration still lingers today in some of the individuals.

    (Erminette hens out of Ron Nelson's breeding pens currently residing at Sandhill Preservation Center)

    (One of Ron Nelson's Erminette hens at Sandhill Preservation Center)

    Currently, the only known remnant remaining of Ron's Erminette flock reside in the care of Glenn Drowns at Sandhill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa.



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