Goldfish in America: How the U.S.’s First Non-Indiginous Fish Came to America

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Though goldfish had been raised in the Orient for centuries, they didn’t come to America until the 19th Century. Just when they first came to the U.S. is still unknown.

Goldfish have long been part of American culture. They have served as pets, as ornaments, and as sources of income and of entertainment. It is not clear when goldfish first arrived in the United States, but there is evidence that these Asian members of the carp family were swimming in American ponds and streams, and even in American homes as pets, long before the first recorded shipment in 1878, according to Leo G. Nico and Pam L. Fuller in their article “Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Nonindigenous Fish Introductions in the United States.” (Fisheries, January 1999)

Early Reports of Goldfish

Bred in China for their color, goldfish were the first non-indigenous fish brought into the United States. The historical record does not confirm an arrival date, but stories with references to goldfish abound. In 1826, the Utica (NY) Sentinel and Gazette noted the presence of a goldfish pond along the Erie Canal.

By the 1830s, goldfish food was being sold in stores, suggesting that goldfish-raising had begun on a small scale. This is confirmed by an account of a visit by actress Fanny Kemble to a florist in New York City, where she remarked on a greenhouse cistern filled with goldfish. P.T. Barnum took credit for importing the first goldfish in 1850, although no evidence supports this claim. Pet stores were selling goldfish by the mid-nineteenth century, and interest increased after P.T. Barnum opened the first public aquarium in 1856, according to G.F. Hervey and J. Hems in The Goldfish (London: The Batchworth Press, 1948, pg. 61).

By 1879, it was reported that “goldfish could be found in great number in the Hudson River of New York,” and that goldfish were being sold in New York City markets as a food fish. Hugo Mullertt of Ohio declared in The Goldfish and its culture (Cincinnati: McDonald and Eick, 1883, pg. 7) that goldfish had been swimming in Ohio waters since the early 1840s, and could, by 1883 when he wrote, be found in many streams in that area.

Ammens Imports Goldfish

The first official record of goldfish being imported into the United States appeared in 1878, when Rear Admiral Daniel Ammens brought a shipment of goldfish from Japan to the United States Commission on Fisheries (created in 1871).

These goldfish were kept in ponds that had been created for European carp, introduced into the United States as a supplementary food source for farmers. Some of these ponds were located on the grounds of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC and in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. For a shipping fee of two dollars per can, the government would ship the fish by rail car and truck all over the country. The goldfish were prolific, and were sold along with the carp.

Becoming Popular

The goldfish thrived in the United States and became a cash crop for farmers.