How Pigs got to America: The Story of Wild Boar & Bacon

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Photo: Wild boar frequently wallow in mud, possibly to regulate temperature or remove parasites. Courtesy - Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak
Photo: Wild boar frequently wallow in mud, possibly to regulate temperature or remove parasites.
Courtesy – Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak

There are few things more synonymous with the Appalachian lifestyle as a good ole hog.  We eat it for breakfast each morning and those of us who were fortunate enough to have enjoyed a true mountain upbringing can still smell the indescribable stench that permeated from the massive barrel of boiling water each November.  With over 1 billion pigs alive on the planet at any given moment, the outlook for this species is one of the best of all creatures roaming the seven continents — and this nation is no exception.

One of my earliest memories has me standing outside of a pigpen with my grandfather, throwing in whatever slop was being served up as swine dinner for the day.

To put it simply, throughout my life, pigs have been about as American as apple pie!

Interestingly, like just about everything else on this continent, hogs, boars, pigs, (or whatever other word you use to describe these animals), are non-native to this hemisphere and were introduced to the New World by European settlers and explorers.  The first pig to have stepped foot upon our nation’s soil was probably only a few steps behind the first white person to have ever done so.

Turns out, the history of pigs is a far more interesting subject than perhaps one would have ever imagined!

Dating back thousands of years before Christ, the Chinese were the first to have domesticated swine and by the time of Jesus’ nativity, pigs had become a staple of diet throughout the Roman Empire; except in and around Jerusalem, where the Jews’ religion forbade the eating of pork — this law was based upon “a belief that pigs were unclean since they ate waste, and there was the fear of disease (no doubt associated with contracting trichinosis from eating improperly cooked pork…” writes Mick Vann.

However, the demand for swine received a major boost around the year 40AD when the Apostle Peter, a Jewish Christian, experienced the following vision from God, which revealed that it was now acceptable for God’s people to eat pig:

“Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.  And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.  And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” — Acts 10

In the centuries ahead, the teachings of Islam would ban the eating of pigs, as would most Jews, but in Christian Europe, the teachings of Acts 10 would pave the way for the consumption of pork to not only flourish but to expand around the world.

The short time to maturity, large reproduction numbers and the fact that they would eat just about anything that was unfit for human consumption all worked to secure the swine’s place in Western Civilization as a meat of choice among the populace.

With the dawning of the age of exploration, explorers also came to appreciate the pig, as traveling with cattle onboard a cramped ship was completely out of the question.  The pig, on the other hand, proved to be more than an accommodating traveler — helping to convert unwanted trash into food along the journey and providing meat for the weary upon making landfall.

Pigs were first introduced in the 1500’s to what is now the southeastern U.S. by Spanish Explorer, Hernando DeSoto.

Kept as pets, the piglets and pigs faithfully followed explorers, breeding along the way and scouring the virgin forests for food.  When the need arose, the explorers would kill one of the pigs, prepare it as food and continue on their journey… with the other pigs in tow.

Due to the thick vegetation, difficult landscape and stubburn nature of the animals, not all pigs stayed with the search parties and it was not uncommon for pigs to be separated from the group.  Other pigs would be intentionally left in an area of rich food, with the explorers planning to return and hunt the animals when food became scarce.

In the years that followed, these “lost pigs” grew into a sizable feral population with very few predators to stop them.

This proved as both a blessing and a curse to Americans on the western frontier, as the wild animals were available for food if one could successfully hunt it, but on the flipside, gardens and fields could quickly become destroyed by the animals.

Eventually, many of these wild pigs were either domesticated or extinguished and in the years ahead, razorbacks ceased being the nuisance they once were to farmers in the Southeast.

In the late-1800s wealthy landowners began restocking their properties with wild boar and in no time at all, the animals had escaped and were intermixing with already established feral pig populations throughout the nation

“The most successful boar introduction in the US took place in western North Carolina in 1912, when 13 boars of undetermined European origin were released into two fenced enclosures in a game preserve in Hooper Bald, Graham County. Most of the specimens remained in the preserve for the next decade, until a large-scale hunt caused the remaining animals to break through their confines and escape. Some of the boars migrated to Tennessee, where they intermixed with both free ranging and feral pigs in the area. In 1924, a dozen Hooper Bald wild pigs were shipped to California and released in a property between Carmel Valley and the Los Padres National Forest. These hybrid boar were later used as breeding stock on various private and public lands throughout the state, as well as in other states like Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia and Mississippi.

In recent years, wild pig populations have been reported in 44 states within the US, most of which are likely wild boar-feral hog hybrids. Pure wild boar populations may still be present, but are extremely localized.

The traditional diets of the American South and Appalachia are heavy in pork, whether it’s bacon, chitlins, BBQ or pig feet… and it’s all thanks to European explorers and their pet food.  So that’s the history of how boar and bacon came to be in America!

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