Delaware Poultry Club
©Delaware Poultry Club 2013
The History of the Delaware Chicken
     Written by Kathy Thayer, with collaboration from Kathy Bonham, Nicole Hollingsworth & Stacy Tate

If an individual was to do an Internet search for the origins of the Delaware they will be hard pressed to find any helpful information. The reason being; the story of how this once powerful breed came into existence is a very simple story that is not extensively documented. The same generic facts are posted over and over across the Internet.  Those facts are:
* The breed was established in or around 1940 by a hatchery man named George Ellis, who lived in Ocean View, Delaware.
* Mr. Ellis originally called his newly developed breed “Indian Rivers” named after his hatchery and the nearby river. He later decided to change the name of the breed to the state of origin.
* The breed was founded for the meat industry and was the choice of broiler birds until the Cornish Rock crosses took over the meat market.
* Mr. Ellis used Barred Plymouth Rock males to mate with New Hampshire females that produced a small population of “silver sport” offspring. These “sports” with the Columbian pattern were then mated to produce the Delawares that we know and love.
* Mr. Ellis established his line of Delawares with a fine specimen that he named “Superman.” “Superman” was one of the silver sports. His hope was to establish a breed that could replace the Barred Rocks in his breeding program. The plan was to mate “Superman” with the New Hampshire hens to produce Columbian patterned birds that were mostly white, having fewer dark pin feathers that would be easier to dress at processing time.
* The Delaware breed was recognized by the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection in 1952.

  Some of the facts that are overlooked and not often mentioned regarding the origin of the Delaware are:
* The Delaware is a quick maturing breed when compared to other heritage breeds. The fast level of maturity made the Delawares very desirable for processing at a younger age when compared to slower growing breeds.
* The Delaware gets all of its best qualities from the “parent stock” of the Barred Rock and the New Hampshire. Some of these qualities include meaty flesh; fast feathering; hardiness; good egg production of brown eggs; docile & friendly dispositions; and on occasion the Delaware hen may go broody.
* The breed was just coming into popularity when the Cornish crosses trumped the Delawares in popularity during the early to mid 1950’s. Therefore the Delaware breed did not have a chance to become as popular as other well-known dual purpose breeds.
* Because of the decline in interest of the Delaware breed during the early to mid 1950’s, most of the intimate knowledge of the breed has been lost and they have become endangered because of the lack of quality breeding stock across the country.

  A quick view of the genetic history of the Delaware:
* Although the Delaware is often referred to as having the Columbian pattern, it is not the same or related to the Columbian Plymouth Rock. A lesson in genetics tells us that the Columbian pattern restricts where color will be placed on the chicken. The body is usually one solid color while the hackles, wings and tail are the areas of solid black on Columbian patterned birds. These areas on Columbian patterned birds are usually solid black. The coloring of a Delaware is barred and not solid, thus causing confusion to the reference of the Columbian pattern.
* The silver sport offspring that were produced from the Barred Rock/New Hampshire matting lacked the factor for the extension of black pigment to all of the plumage which would have been transmitted to the silver sport offspring by the Barred Rock male. The result was a bird that was mostly white but showed irregular barring in the hackle; primaries and secondaries of the wings; and on the tail. This is the Columbian factor or pattern.
* The Columbian factor is what restricts the black and shifts it to certain locations on the bird’s body. On the Delaware female, the black is restricted to the primaries and secondaries of the wings and to the tail while the hackle shows irregular barring. In the Delaware male the pattern of color is restricted to the hackles with irregular barring; the primaries and secondaries of the wings, and the tail which is also barred.
* Although the Delaware was the result of “silver sports”, it does not imply that those sports where any form of gray or silver in color. Chickens have 2 kinds of pigments that determine their plumage color. One pigment color is black, and the other is a yellow/red pigment. The absence of these colors produces “silver” which actually looks white. The white plumage and white under color of the Delaware set it apart from The Columbian Rock. The Columbian Rock has a bluish-slate under color that proves the Columbian Rock is not “silver” like the Delaware and therefore not related to the Delaware.

After reviewing the available facts and genetics of the breed, many questions still remain unanswered regarding the origin of the Delaware. With a little thought and research, we can speculate what the response may be to some of these questions. 

Why did Mr. Ellis choose to mate Barred Rock males with New Hampshire females to produce a better broiler?
     One likely answer is that the Barred Rock was the most popular dual purpose breed in American history. The Barred Plymouth Rock is cold weather hardy, grows to be a nice size broiler, and is a prolific layer of brown eggs. They are also a friendly, docile breed that makes them a pleasure to have in the back yard or small farm environment. The Barred Rock was established in the 1800’s and was admitted to the APA Standard in 1874. The Barred Rock has spent many years proving it’s worth and status as the most popular breed in American history. 
     The New Hampshire is a descendant of the well-known breed, the Rhode Island Red. The Rhode Island Reds were selectively bred to produce a strain that was faster to mature and feather out quickly. {These are key characteristics of the Delaware.} The New Hampshire was the result of many years of selective breeding and was admitted to the APA Standard in 1935. Mating the most popular broiler breed (Barred Rock) to the faster maturing breed (New Hampshire) would produce offspring that is the best of both worlds.

Now that leads to a new question: 

Why did we need a faster growing broiler?
     In the 1940’s the face of agriculture underwent a huge change. The world was facing a global war that started in 1939 and lasted until 1945. Everyone was glad to leave the great depression behind and buy war bonds. The small farms of America witnessed many of their sons or farm hands leaving to join the military or go to the big city were they could help the war effort. The poor farmer had to industrialize his farm due to lack of help. He did not have the luxury of time because he was overwhelmed with his daily workload. It was during this time in history when many of our modern advances in farming were being established out of necessity. Because of these advances, the local farmer could do less work with less help in less time. The local farmer of that day and age would have benefitted greatly from a breed of chicken that would be hardy to most climates, be calm and docile so as not to produce problems for the farmer, as well as be ready for market or the dinner table at a younger age. 

Why did the Delaware lose popularity to the point of virtual extinction if they were such a great breed?
     As the agricultural industry grew, so did other industries such as Super Markets and Fast Food chains. In 1952 a man from Kentucky named Harland Sanders began to franchise his now famous recipe for a fast way to get tasty chicken. The birth of this franchise created increased demand for rapid growing meat birds to supply the growing fast food chain. This turn of events helped the Cornish crosses to take over the meat market. If a farmer were stay in business, he would have to sell his crops or meats to the large Super Market or meat supplier or deal with their competition. This competition would make or break many farmers. Some farms such as Purdue chicken farms made a name for themselves by selling their product to the Super Market or meat supplier. Purdue had to keep up with supply and demand and needed a breed of chicken that would grow even faster than the Delaware. Along came the Cornish/White Rock cross. This was a breed of chicken that would be ready for market in less than 14 weeks. How could the local farmer compete with that? Even if that farmer had a better tasting, healthier bird he could not compete with the Cornish cross regarding the rate at which the birds grew. The Delaware was just starting to become popular with the small farmer in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s when the Cornish cross began to flood the market. Therefore the Cornish cross over shadowed the Delaware before the Delaware had enough time to make a name for it’s self. Breeders of show birds and chicken fanciers did not take interest in the Delaware because it was a utility bird that was losing its utility to the Cornish cross. Some of the old-time farmers kept the Delaware around, possibly because of its friendly demeanor or its unique looks or perhaps to hold on to a piece of American history. Many of these old farmers have since passed on, taking with them their wealth of knowledge regarding the Delaware breed. The number of breeding stock in the country has greatly dwindled causing the Delaware to be listed as “critical” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as recently as 2009. The 2010 census updates the breed status to “threatened,” which means, “Fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in the United States and an estimated global population of fewer than 5,000.”

In addition to the drop in numbers of breeding flocks in the country, many large-scale hatcheries have started to produce hybrid birds in place of the old historical American breeds. These hybrids are often referred to as “production” birds. Hatcheries created these hybrids to be more productive egg layers, and in doing so they lost a lot of the important genetics of the historical breeds. This loss of genetic information due to cross breeding caused the population of heritage Delawares to decline even further, adding to the breed’s critical/threatened status.

It has been just the last few years that folks are once again turning to this almost lost breed for their backyard flocks due to the Delaware’s hardy nature, majestic look or even their exceptionally friendly personality. The number of quality breeding stock in the country is low but the movement has begun to increase those numbers and keep this part of history alive. Most large poultry shows do not feature the Delaware because they are such an uncommon breed. The Delaware has many qualities that need to be perfect to bring it into a show ring. The glistening white plumage with the irregular barring on the hackle do make the Delaware pretty to look at, but any poultry show judge will tell you that this is one tough breed to show with so many qualities that have to be “just right.”

It is the hope of the Delaware Poultry Club to spread the word about this wonderful breed and spark new interest in people to keep the Delaware breed alive. We want to see the breed regain its glory from the days of old and gain the popularity that it briefly had approximately half a century ago.


"The Birth of an American Legend", Kirk Keene, Plymouth Rock Fanciers Club of America's Web Site,

"The Chicken Calculator", Henk Meijers,

Commercial Poultry Production, Dean R. Marble and Fred P. Jeffrey, Ronald Press Co., 1955 

"Delaware Chicken", American Livestock Breeds Conservancy,

"History of KFC",,

"New Hampshire (chicken)", Wikipedia,  

"New Hampshire Red Chicken", Poultry Pages,

"Origin of the Delaware Breed", Edmund Hoffmann, Ph.D., Canning, NS, Canada, December 24, 1995,

"Plymouth Rock (chicken)", Wikipedia,  

"WWII Causes a Revolution in Farming", Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group, Wessels Living History Farm,