Copied from the American Wool Council
Wool Education Center
200 Clayton Street
Denver, CO  80206
The history of the sheep industy began in central Asia 10,000 years ago.  As early as then, man had discovered the value of sheep as a two product animal.  It could provide two of life's essentials, soft warm covering and food.  The earliest sheep growers used the sheep's fleece as a kind of tunic.  It wasn't until 3500 BC that man learned to spin wool.
Sheep helped make the spread of civilization possible.  Once men discovered the usefulness and warmth of wool clothing, they could travel and live in comfort beyond the plains of Mesopotamia where the average temperature was 70 degrees.  They opened new frontiers where the climate was colder.  At the same time, they were assured a good food supply so long as they kept their sheep.  The Hebrews who lived on the plains of Mesopotamia were the greatest shepherds in the history.  You can find many references to sheep in the Old Testament.
Sheep and wool spread to Europe between 3000 BC and 1000 BC throught ancient Greece.  During the next thousand years, Greeks, Romans and Persians contributed to improvements in sheep breeds.  The Romans were also responsible for the spead of sheep to North Africa.and Europe.  The Romans also established a woolen manufactury in Winchester, England as early as 50 AD.
The Merina, the sheep producing the finest diameter wool fiber, is said to have descended from a strain developed during the reign of Claudius, 41 AD to 54 AD.  The Merino breed resulted from a crossing of the Tarentine sheep of Rome with the Laodician sheep of Asia Minor by breeders in the provinces of Terraconenis in Spain.
Later, during the dark ages, the Merino breed deteriorated. It was later revived by the Saracens when they conquered Spain early in the eighth century.  With their guidance, a wool export trade was established with North Africa, Greece, Egypt, Byzantium and Constantinopie.  When the Saracens were finally expelled in the fourteenth century, Spain lost its world trade and thousands of weavers and others engaged in the manufacture of wool were banished
The Merino sheep, however, remained in Spain and were a rich source of income for the country.  Income from the wool trade helped to finance the voyages of Columbus and the Conquistadors.  Guarding her source of wealth closely, Spain refused to export a single ewe under penalty of death until 1786.  That year, Louis XVI imported 386 ewes from Spain and crossed them with sheep on his estate at Rambouillet, developing the Rambouillet breed which is considered one of the most desirable in the world.
Wool weaving was one of the first basic communal industries established in Europe emerged from the dark age.  During the twelfth century the growth of weaving in Florence, Genoa and Venice was stimulated by the defeat of Greece by Roger II, the Norman who had also conquered Sicily.  With this triumph, Roger took a hundred Greek weavers and sent them to Palermo as slave labor.  In Italy their work was immediately copied by the Italian weavers.
Wool history and the history of England are closely interwoven.  Legend says the first sheep were brought to the island by the Phoencians sometime between 800 and 500 BC.  From these sheep come the meat-producing or "mutton" types, as contrased with breeds raised primaily for wool.
In 1337, King Edward III, known as the "royal wool merchant," forbade the continued exportation of wool from England.  He decreed importation of woven goods and the wearing of garments made of foreign wool would not be permitted.  At this same time, he invited dissatisfied Flemish weavers to settle in England.  His action gave new life to the English wool industry, opening new markets at home and abroad, and encouraged weavers to improve the quality of their products.  Later, Flemish weavers fleeing the Spainish invasion settled in England.  By 1660, wool textile exports were two-thirds of England's foreign commerce.
England's "empire of wool" reached its zenith during the reigns fo Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.  Henry's seizure of the flocks of the monasteries and their redistribution to court favorites and supporters led to vast unemployment among shepherds when the new owners fenced in the sheep.  Unable to pay their debts, many shepherds were imprisoned.  It was discontent with the unfairness of this situation, together with other factors, that created a surge of immigratin to the American colonies.
At the same time, emerging countries, together with Germany and France, were becoming competitors for wool markets, particularly in American.
The discovery of new machines, such as the spinning jenny invented by James Hargreaves, the wool combing machine developed by Samuel Lister and the perfection of the water-powered loom by Edmund Cartwright, combined to change the wool indusry.  Then, with the introduction of steam power, England replaced her hand spinning and weaving industries to stay in the competition.
The introduction of more and improved machinery increased wool production and markedly expanded the English textile industry.  This also led to the growth of the sheep industry to Australia, New Zealand  and South Africa.  It happened, for example, that in 1797, the commander of an English supply fleet acquired 13 Merino rams and ewes sent to the governor of South Africa as a gift.  The commander sold the sheep to an English Army officer, who settled in Australia.  From this small flock descended the famous Australian Merino we know today.
Sheep were also an important source for food in the New World.  When Columbus made his second voyage in 1493, he included sheep among the livestock he took to Cuba and Santo Domingo.  In 1519, when Cortez began the expedition which could open Mexico and the western United States, he took with him the offspring of Columbus' sheep as a walking food supply.  These sheep were not the famous Merinos, but the large, coarse-wooled Spanish "Churros" developed for meat instead of wool.
During the colonial period, though England tried to discourage the wool industry in American, yarn and even sheep were smuggled into the new country.  Fifteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they purchased 40 sheep from the Dutch on Manhattan Island.  Gradually, with sheep smuggled from England, the flock was enlarged until 1643 there were 1,000 sheep in Massachusetts colony alone.   By 1664, the sheep population had grown to 100,000 and the General Court of Massachusetts had passed a law requiring youths to learn to spin and weave.  By 1698, northern colonists were shipping wool to other counties in return for trade goods.  The English were enraged, and made sheep and wool trading an offense punishable by having the offender's right hand cut off.  The resentment of the colonists to restrictions on sheep raising and wool manufacturing in American by England was, together with the Stamp Acts, one cause of the Revolutionary War.
Despite threats and punishments, the wool industry in American flourished, with spinning and weaving considered acts of patriotism.  Home knitting was also encouraged as each yard of knitted cloth could be traded for six pounds of tobacco.  George Washington raised sheep on his Mount Vernon estate, and he and Thomas Jefferson were both inaugurated in suits made of American Wool.
During the period following the American Revolution, however, the new country's leaders were acutely aware of the lack of fine apparel wool.  Men like Washington and Jefferson encouraged the establishment of Merino herds.  In 1808 Spain sold some of her finest Merios to the United States.  By 1811, about 29,000 head had been imported and the Merino breed was firmly implanted in the United States.
As settlers moved west during the 1800's, they took with them flocks of sheep from the eastern seaboard.  Most of these sheep were of English breeding, more suited to producing lamb than wool.
One of the great stories of sheep herding is of "Uncle Dick" Wooten, trapper, Indian fighter and buffalo hunter.  One of the hardy men who trailed sheep, he accomplished an almost unbelievable feat in 1852.  Leaving Taos, New Mexico, with 9,000 sheep, he trailed across the forbidding Indian-held deserts of what are now New Mexico, Arizona and southern California, arriving in Sacramento a year later with 8,900 sheep, worth at the time, $50,000.  Now, a fleet of 20 trucks could make the trip in less than 24 hours.
Today, the sheep is still valued greatly for the wool and meat it produces.  A unique natural resource, the sheep converts forage more efficiently than any other ruminant, and forages where other animals can't.  With sheep in each of our 50 states, they fill our needs today just as they filled the needs of the stone age man.

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