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Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg

Short Horn oxen pulling a harrow

The mildness of the air, the fertilities of the soile and the situation of the rivers are propitious to the value and use of man . . . here will live any beasts as horses, goats, sheep, asses, hens, etc.
Captain John Smith, 1612

Horse-drawn carriages, sheep grazing in pastures, oxen pulling carts, and chickens strutting in their fenced enclosures are part of the ambience associated with Colonial Williamsburg. Few visitors realize that the animals they see represent rare breeds whose survival in American livestock farming is threatened. Why show rare breeds when other animals would serve the same purpose?

The answer lies in the commitment of the Coach and Livestock department to show visitors a historically accurate representation of the kinds of animals found in the colonies in the eighteenth century. This effort is linked to the educational mission of the Historic Area and is as important as costumed interpreters in authentic clothing, period furnishings in the buildings and historic tradesmen at work. The "beasts" mentioned by John Smith roamed freely and multiplied rapidly, creating a mongrel population of livestock. Except for thoroughbred racehorses, the preservation of breed characteristics was not a priority for early Virginians. As the colony matured, livestock management and agricultural practices mirrored changes taking place in England.

Scientific ideas from the Age of Enlightenment were responsible for the changes in agriculture in mid-eighteenth-century England. More efficient use of land (the rotation of crops) appealed to Virginia plantation owners whose tobacco-depleted fields were re-planted with wheat, corn, and oats. The talk of England, however, was Robert Bakewell's success in breeding his Leicester sheep for selected desirable traits. His ideas, which were as revolutionary as the political ideas that swept through the colonies, forever changed livestock farming. George Washington, happiest in his role as a farmer, wrote about Robert Bakewell's discoveries in several of his letters, and added Leicesters to his flock at Mt. Vernon. Based on this documentation, the Coach and Livestock department included Leicester sheep in its list of animals appropriate for Colonial Williamsburg.

Acquiring animals that would accurately reflect eighteenth-century livestock proved to be a complicated, often frustrating task. American Milking Devon cattle-the first breed considered authentic for Colonial Williamsburg-and Leicester sheep were breeds designated as "critically endangered" (fewer than 200 annual registrations) or "rare" (fewer than 1,000 annual registrations) by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Nevertheless, the decision was made to acquire and breed animals from the threatened categories and thus contribute to the preservation of once popular farm animals. Selecting a breed of horse to represent a colonial draft horse presented another challenge. The American Cream Draft Horse, a threatened breed of early twentieth-century origin, was chosen because its size, stamina, and temperament were characteristics necessary for a working draft horse. In 1998, the Canadian Horse, a breed familiar in the colonies, was added to the program. Both breeds of horses continue to be listed as critically endangered, an indication that without concerted effort, their preservation is not guaranteed. Dominique, Dorking, Hamburg, and Nankin Bantam chickens, all very old races of domesticated chickens, were chosen for the poultry program, joining the hoofed animals in re-creating the eighteenth-century farm atmosphere of colonial Virginia.

Today, the animals at Colonial Williamsburg play a dual role: they are similar to those found on colonial farms and plantations, and by successfully breeding them, the loss of breeds important to the history and development of American farming livestock is thereby prevented.

American Milking Devon Cattle

Milking Red Devons

Among the first cattle to be imported into the coastal area of Massachusetts Bay was the Devon as a draught, milk, beef animal.
Dublin Seminars for New England Folklife, 1986

The Rare Breeds program at Colonial Williamsburg began in 1986 with the acquisition of American Milking Devon cattle, a breed listed as "critical" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This breed was chosen because it probably represented some of the cattle in and around Williamsburg in colonial times. In 1775, an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette listed a "red cow and calf" and a "red steer" among strays taken from a plantation in Hanover County. By the late eighteenth century, as the agricultural economy placed less emphasis on tobacco, large plantation owners and small farmers alike had more pasture area available to support larger numbers of cattle. Multipurpose cattle like those imported to Massachusetts from Devonshire, England, had distinct advantages for all farmers, but particularly for the small farmer. Devons provided milk for calves as well as dairy products and beef for human consumption. Most important of all, they were superior draft animals. They required less care and were cheaper to feed than horses, and their agility when working on hilly, rocky terrain contributed to their popularity in the New England colonies.

Purebred Devon cattle are beautiful animals of compact medium size with deep to light red coats and curved creamy black-tipped horns. Devon cows are good mothers, have few problems with calving, and produce milk with a high butterfat content. Nevertheless, Milking Devons are not considered a dairy breed, having been surpassed in that capacity by Holstein and Jersey cows. The cows, noted for their longevity, are docile in temperament when treated with kindness.

Devon oxen have the enviable reputation of being intelligent and easy to train when handled properly by a skilled, caring trainer. The result of good training is an animal whose strength and even pace are matched by its ability to endure extremes of climate and exist on less forage than heavier beef cattle. Lighter dairy-type cattle make better oxen, and Devon oxen were the chosen draft animals on the Oregon Trail.

Why did an animal with such diversity fall out of favor? Specialization and mechanization, the twin prongs of progress, are the answers to that question. Devon cows could not compete with other breeds for maximum milk production, and the invention of mechanical farm equipment virtually eliminated the use of oxen as working animals. By 1952, when Devons were nearly extinct, some breeders chose to selectively breed their cattle for beef production, and the breed registry was split between Beef Devon and the traditional multipurpose Milking Devon. In the 1970s, fewer than one hundred Milking Devon cattle remained in the United States; by then, the breed was extinct in England. Thanks to the efforts of a few New England dairy farmers and ox teamsters, the breed was saved from extinction and today the number of cattle is slowly increasing.

The characteristics of Devon cattle that made them popular in colonial times-their manageability, longevity, and diversity-now make them ideal animals for use at historic sites. Milking demonstrations are opportunities for Coach and Livestock staff to answer visitor questions ("Yes, cows do have horns") and, at the same time, discuss the importance of multipurpose cattle in the eighteenth century. The Foodways Program at Colonial Willliamsburg receives the rich, fresh milk to make butter, soft cheeses, puddings, and milk-based beverages. Because of careful selection and breeding, the Milking Devon cattle seen in the pastures at Colonial Williamsburg are the closest in America to the Devons originally imported to Massachusetts in 1623. Each year, new calves born here preserve that original genetic diversity and are a visible testimony to the success of the Rare Breeds program.

Leicester Longwool Sheep

Leicester Longwool sheep

Within little more than half a century the new Leicester had spread themselves over every part of the United Kingdom and to Europe and America.
William Youatt, 1837

Leicester Longwool is now the official name for the "new Leicester" produced by Robert Bakewell's breeding techniques. These sheep were desirable for their meat and for their long, lustrous fleece suitable for blankets and garments where warmth and long wear were important. The Leicester's primary asset, its excellence for selective cross-breeding, was ultimately responsible for its loss. By 1914, one writer claimed there were no purebred Leicester sheep in existence in the United States.

The Coach and Livestock department recognized that their search for a pure Leicester would be a difficult one. The first Leicester to come to Colonial Williamsburg was a Canadian ram (named Willoughby) purchased at an animal auction at Woods Edge Wools in New Jersey. While continuing to look for Leicester ewes, Willoughby was bred to Dorset ewes that produced beautiful crossbred lambs. Tragedy struck in 1988 when someone brutally killed Willoughby. Media attention given to this sad event resulted in an unexpected outpouring of kindness. Donations from young children as well as from large philanthropic foundations enabled Colonial Williamsburg to realize its goal of importing purebred Leicester sheep from Australia.

Ivan Heazlewood, a third-generation Leicester breeder in Tasmania, personally took on the considerable task of organizing a flock of sheep for export to Colonial Williamsburg. He selected ewes from four different flocks and arranged to have them bred to rams that remained behind in Tasmania. He selected a ram for use the following year and included several ewes from his own Meltonvale flock. After clearing all the standard health inspections in Australia, the sheep arrived in Canada for a quarantine period and the final portion of their trip. In February 1990, after many long and anxious months, eight beautiful Leicester Longwool ewes, six lambs, and one ram arrived at Colonial Williamsburg.

Phillip Sponenberg, technical coordinator for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, designed a breeding plan for Colonial Williamsburg to make the most of the genetic material available. He also helped avoid inbreeding and other pitfalls of working with a small population of sheep. Following two successful breeding seasons, Colonial Williamsburg was ready to establish satellite flocks. Three ewes and one ram that were genetic matches were loaned to experienced sheep farmers who understood the genetic importance of the Leicester program. Colonial Williamsburg retains ownership of the original sheep and reserves the right to move any of them if necessary. The farmers retain ownership of half of the lambs produced by their loaner flock. There are now about 250 Leicester Longwool sheep in the United States.

Shearing sheep of their fleece is an annual spring activity.Among the interested spectators at Colonial Williamsburg's shearing demonstrations are hand spinners who find Leicester fleece very desirable for a craft that is growing in popularity. Small amounts of yarn spun from the fleece are now available at the Greenhow Store. Hand shears are used to remove the fleece in one large piece, which exposes the exceptional properties of the Leicester's long, lustrous wool. These demonstrations also provide the opportunity for the Coach and Livestock staff to discuss the importance of the wool trade in eighteenth-century Great Britain and how the restrictions placed on it in the colonies was an underlying cause of the American Revolution.

The lambs, so popular with springtime visitors, are evidence that Colonial Williamsburg's role in the preservation of Leicester Longwools will undoubtedly lead to a brighter future for this special breed.

American Cream Draft Horse

American Cream draft horses

Indeed nothing can be more elegant and beautiful than the horses bred here, either for the turf, the field, the road, or the coach.
J.F.D. Smyth, 1770

Horses bred "for the turf"-the Thoroughbreds responsible for Virginia's reputation as the cradle of horse racing in the United States-were the only horses considered a breed in the Middle Colonies. Yet, they were owned by less than 2 to 3 percent of the population. Horses "for the road or the coach" were less costly but were trained for a specific purpose. Their equipage reflected the wealth of the owner. Horses bred "for the field," the work or draft horses, were preferred to oxen because of their speed while pulling a plow and their versatility.

When Colonial Williamsburg looked for a breed to represent eighteenth-century horses, racehorses with well-documented pedigrees were plentiful. However, the temperament of a Thoroughbred was not suitable for use in the Historic Area, neither would their selection accurately reflect how most horses were used in colonial times. The agricultural economy of Virginia required a draft horse capable of performing fieldwork and pulling heavily loaded wagons. Owning a draft horse often meant the difference between success and failure for the small farmer, even though the cost of a harness and proper fodder added to the expense of owning one of these hard-working animals.

In 1989, Colonial Williamsburg's choice of the American Cream Draft Horse introduced the rarest, and the only modern American breed, into the Rare Breeds program. Because of its friendly disposition, impressive appearance, alertness, good work habits, and strength, the American Cream is ideal for wagon, cart, and fieldwork throughout the Historic Area and at Carter's Grove. These horses are of a rich cream color and are medium sized with pink skin, amber eyes, white manes and tails, and occasional white markings.

The breed originated in Iowa in the early 1900s with a cream-colored draft mare of unknown ancestry known as Old Granny. She consistently produced cream offspring and her great-greatgrandson, Silver Lace, an impressive stallion, attracted Iowa breeders to the Cream bloodline. Clarence T. Rierson bought all the mares sired by Silver Lace, researched the ancestry of each Cream horse, and recorded their pedigrees. He was one of the founders of the American Cream Draft Horse Association, and by the time of his death in 1957, association members had registered almost two hundred horses. The market for draft horses collapsed with the mechanization of agriculture just as the American Cream breed was being established. For fourteen years, the association was inactive, but a few breeders held onto their Creams thus preserving a slender genetic base, which provided the foundation for the breed's survival.

In 1982, when the association was reorganized, breeders worked with the University of Kentucky's Equine Blood Typing Lab to determine the breed's genetic parameters. Their research determined that American Creams were a distinct population within a group of draft breeds, refuting the perception of them as only a color breed. The American Cream Draft Horse Association recognizes that a primary obstacle to the preservation of this still critically rare breed is that it is largely unknown. Increased promotional efforts, aided by the presence of these horses at Colonial Williamsburg, will help to alleviate this problem. Four of the six Creams owned by the Foundation were born here. Three of them are the offspring of Mary, one of Colonial Williamsburg's original brood mares. To prevent inbreeding, Sir Thomas, bred in Iowa, was acquired in 1999 as the stud horse for Mary and her daughter Sarah. Their foals will increase the genetic base as well as add to the number of registrations recorded with the American Cream Draft Horse Association.

The frustration of knowing so little about specific breed characteristics of eighteenth-century draft horses has been replaced by the satisfaction that comes from preserving American Creams whose beauty and strength match the horses described by J.F.D. Smyth in 1770.

Canadian Horse

Canadian horses pulling a Colonial Williamsburg traveling coach

Small, but robust, hocks of steel, thick mane floating in the wind, bright and lively eyes, pricking its sensitive ears at the least noise, going along day and night with the same courage, wide awake beneath its harness; spirited, good, gentle, affectionate, following his road with the finest instinct to come surely home to his own stable. Such were the horses of our fathers.
Etienne Faillon, 1865

The Canadian horses described by historian Etienne Faillon played a vital role in the settlement of Canada and the eastern coastal regions of the United States. The foundation stock came to Acadia and New France early in the seventeenth century and was carried back to Virginia by Samuel Argall's 1616 expedition. The horses later sent to Quebec by King Louis XIV were believed to have Arab, Andalusian, and Barb ancestry, traits that can be found in Canadian horses of today. Because of the geographical isolation of Quebec, the horses were bred for years with little or no influence from outside breeds. The harsh weather and sparse food supply, combined with the hard work expected of the horses, produced a tough, sturdy animal that was affectionately known as "the little iron horse". Canadian horses excelled in every area in which a horse was needed-racing, riding, pulling carriages, and working in the field-making them a truly versatile breed.

By 1800, Canadian horses were well known in the United States and were famous for their use on stagecoach routes in New England. Their strength and hardiness were traits desired for crossbreeding. Their genes can be found in other North American breeds such as the Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, Standardbred, and American Saddlebred. The popularity of the Canadian horse as a general utility animal led to its exportation in large numbers for use as cavalry horses in the American Civil War and for working on sugar plantations in the West Indies. Exportation, the loss of great numbers of horses as casualties of war, and the mechanization of agriculture resulted in the near extinction of the Canadian horse. Like the American Cream, a few concerned breeders determined to preserve the breed and produced their first stud book in 1886. In spite of breeding programs sponsored by the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of Quebec, fewer than four hundred horses remained in 1976. The numbers have increased since then, but the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy still lists the Canadian as critically endangered.

Canadian horses came to Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breed program to fulfill the need for carriage and riding horses. This decision was based on the Canadian's size and physical characteristics along with the documentation of their importation into the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Canadian, a horse of medium build, is usually black, but can also be dark brown, bay, or chestnut in color. The mane and tail are full, long, and wavy, evidence of their Barb and Andalusian ancestry. Their calm, docile dispositions and adaptability recommend them for use in the Historic Area. Ads in the Virginia Gazette and personal diaries and letters from the eighteenth century described horses by their size and color. One of George Washington's carriage horses was a bay mare, and other owners described their lost horses as "a dark bay horse" or "a black horse, a large star in his forehead, and his two Hind Feet white." No evidence exists that these horses were Canadians, but these descriptions closely match the Canadians owned by Colonial Williamsburg today.

All nine of the Canadians owned by the Foundation are black, six of them marked with white stars, and two of them with white socks. Matched carriage horses became a status symbol in the eighteenth century, and the two colts born here in 1999, with their similar markings, have the potential to grow into a matched pair worthy of ownership by George Washington. The colts' names are Ranger and Captain commemorating those long ago horses who ranged from Canada to Virginia and and led the way in bringing the best traits of European breeds to this new world.


Red Dorkings

Mrs. Carter observed, with great truth, that to live in the Country, and take no pleasure at all in Groves, Fields, or Meadows; nor in Cattle, Horses & domestic Poultry, would be a manner of life too tedious to endure.
Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773

Frances Tasker Carter, mistress of Nomini Hall, numbered chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys among her "domestic Poultry." These fowl provided food for her table, feathers for pillows, comforters and mattresses, and manure for her garden. Poultry, held in low regard during the eighteenth century, was usually omitted from farm stock listings. One exception was the inventory taken after the death of Governor Botetourt, which listed "20 turkeys, 18 geese, 9 ducks." The record of the number of chickens he might have owned is noticeably absent. However, the account books of William Marshman, the governor's butler, contain frequent references to purchasing chickens at market or receiving them as gifts. Even that master of record keeping, Thomas Jefferson, did not include poultry in his stock inventories. In an 1807 letter to Ellen Wayles Randolph, he asked "How go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, and on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians. These varieties are pleasant for the table and furnish an agreeable diversification in our domestic occupations." This letter is an indication that Jefferson was experimenting with varieties of poultry in addition to other breeds of animals, as well as providing further proof that caring for poultry was a "domestic occupation" of gentry-class young ladies.

Wealthy plantation owners probably housed their poultry in shelters built for roosting and protection. Dovecotes often were incorporated into the design of other outbuildings to attract the pigeons that were the source of squab, considered a delicacy on a gentry family's table. Unlike Mrs. Carter, the small farmer and most residents of Williamsburg did not provide housing for their chickens. They drove them to roost in orchards or stands of timber, and in a town setting, may even have sheltered them in their houses or other nearby outbuildings. Chickens were expected to forage for most of their food, cleaning up behind the more important meat and draft animals or occasionally receiving table scraps or grain from their owners.

With little information about specific chicken breeds available, Colonial Williamsburg selected four breeds of old races of domesticated chickens for its Rare Breed program: Dominique, Hamburg, Dorking, and Nankin Bantam. The Dominique is one of the first livestock breeds developed in America. Dominiques were well known before 1750 and, by the middle 1850s, were one of the most popular breeds in America. Importation of other poultry pushed the Dominique to the edge of extinction by 1900. A handful of dedicated breeders kept the heritage of the breed intact, and Dominiques still have the qualities for which they were celebrated two hundred years ago.

DominiqueDominiques were well suited to the colonial Virginia habitat because they were medium to small in size with a very hardy constitution. Heavy plumage protected the birds from the weather, and those with rose combs rarely suffered from freezing winter temperatures. Their dark and light irregular barring made them practically invisible when perched in brush or trees. Dominiques were fast growing in spite of having to forage for their food. Their hens were often the first to lay fall and winter eggs and continued without interruption throughout the winter. The usefulness of this special breed did not go unnoticed by farm wives of long ago who valued them for their feathers, meat, eggs, and for calm dispositions.

HamburgThe Hamburg is a very old race of domesticated poultry. The name of the breed is German, but the origin is Dutch. Hamburgs of today owe their present shape and color to the English fanciers who, over a century ago, began the work of refining the "pheasant fowls" of that period. Hamburgs are active, flighty birds that forage well and are capable of flying long distances. They are good egg producers, but their eggs are relatively small. Trim and stylish, with delicate features, they are considered an ornamental fowl. Hamburgs are found in a variety of colors, such as golden and silver spangled, golden and silver penciled, solid black and white. The Hamburgs seen at Colonial Williamsburg are the silver-spangled variety.

The Dorking is one of the most ancient of all domesticated races of poultry. It was brought to Great Britain by the Romans with Julius Caesar, but was known and described by the Roman writer Columella long before it became a popular breed in England. Dorkings have a rectangular body set on very short legs. Their distinguishing feature is their five-toed foot, which Pliny mentioned in his description of the breed in 77 A.D. Because of their relatively large comb, Dorkings require protection in extremely cold weather. They are a general-purpose fowl valued as good layers, are good mothers, and are also quite docile. Dorkings come in white, red, silver gray, and other varieties. Red Dorkings are found at Colonial Williamsburg.

Nankin BantamsNankin Bantams represent the miniature fowl that have been known in Europe since the time of Pliny. In England, bantams are divided between game bantams and the common bantam of the countryside. The birds are buff or gold in color, with black main tail feathers and a rose comb. Nankin Bantams are the latest addition to the poultry population at Colonial Williamsburg.

The chickens seen in the poultry houses and runs around the Historic Area represent breeds that could have been in Williamsburg during the eighteenth century. While general-purpose chickens were the mainstay of the poultry stock, ornamental and bantam fowl were becoming increasingly popular as the colonists copied prevailing trends in England. In addition, the meat and eggs produced by the chickens are used by Historic Foodways to link their programs to the kinds of foodstuffs available in the local markets at the time. Currently, few breeds of ducks or geese are listed as threatened, but the Coach and Livestock department hopes to add historic breeds of pigeons and turkeys to the Rare Breeds Program.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy recently awarded Richard Nicoll, director of Coach and Livestock, its Turn-of-the-Century Conservation Award "for his works in promoting and conserving endangered breeds of livestock and bringing issues before the public." The citation further stated, "Williamsburg's fields and barns could have more easily been populated with more modern and common breeds. It would have saved time and money to use artificial insemination on the rare horses, sheep, and cattle, to avoid road trips to obtain new animals, and to move breeding groups. Yet the rare breeds have paid back the investment by providing interesting topics to discuss, beautiful animals to show visitors, and the feeling that Williamsburg is helping these vulnerable breeds to survive."

In accepting the award, Nicoll said, "I'm delighted for Colonial Williamsburg. I see the animals as a very important part of our conservation program. As we all know, the program is very popular, not only with the visitors but also with the locals. And I'm delighted for my staff. The ALBC gave me the award, but it is my staff that does all the work."

This recognition of fifteen years of work to establish the Rare Breeds program followed closely the construction of a new stable complex on Lafayette Street and the award-winning design of the new stables at Carter's Grove. Trained volunteers give tours of the Lafayette Street stables, an outstanding facility which has attracted visitors from all over the world. Because of the number of visitors and the variety of situations to which they are exposed, the animals at Colonial Williamsburg must be "user friendly." The proper care of them is a never-ending responsibility, and the environment in which they are housed and raised contributes to their well-being. The behind-the-scenes work performed by the Coach and Livestock staff reveals the patience and love of animals that these employees bring to their jobs. They consider themselves fortunate to work with such special animals and to be a part of Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breeds program.

The Turn-of-the-Century Conservation Award opened the door to increased interest and participation in the Rare Breeds program at Colonial Williamsburg. Nicoll is joined by Elaine Shirley, supervisor of rare breeds, and Karen Smith, stable supervisor, in his efforts to guarantee the future of this program and the future of the animals it seeks to protect.

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A few additional thoughts from the Colonial Williamsburg Coach and Livestock Department Staff...

These animals are more than just a museum display or a history lesson on how agriculture has changed over time. They are essentially a safety deposit box for the future and a legacy left to us by many generations of farmers that came before us. The agriculture system in the modern industrialized world, in which only 2 of every 100 people actually farm, was developed because of the diversity of plants and animals from which farmers had to choose. As farming changes, and as new problems and diseases appear, we need diversity more than ever.

Genetic diversity enables a species to survive illnesses, climate changes, and dietary changes. If the American Cream Draft horse becomes extinct, some of the genetic diversity of the horse population is lost forever. Once a breed is extinct, it cannot come back. It may be possible to create something that looks like it, but the new breed is not exactly like the old one. The answers to future challenges may come from breeds that are rare today. It is very short sighted to assume that these rare breeds are useless because they don't fit a 2004 model of farming.

Many generations of farmers selected livestock for particular climates, for different looks, and for a wide variety of jobs. They have passed on a diverse barnyard for us to care for. We owe it to them and to future generations to care for these animals and pass them on, not to make arbitrary decisions about what is useful or useless. Wouldn't it be a shame if all cattle were black and white?

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For information about other endangered breeds, contact American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Post Office Box 477, Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312-0477.

The Interpreter wishes to thank Richard Nicoll; Karen Smith, stable supervisor; and Elaine Shirley, supervisor of rare breeds for their assistance in preparing this article.

This article was written by Laura Arnold, a Historical Interpreter in the Department of Historic Interpretation, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The article originally appeared in the the Colonial Williamsburg Intrerpreter (Winter 2000–2001: vol. 21, no. 4).