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Image Virginia Sport Ways: The Great Chain of Slaughter

Another part of the cavalier legend also had a foundation in fact. This was its association with amusements of a certain type. Here again, the sporting life of Virginia differed very much from that of New England, both as to sports actually played in the Chesapeake colony, and the general relationship between sport and society.

The most striking fact about sport in Virginia was its stratification. From an early date in the mid-seventeenth century, a hierarchy of sports was deliberately created by high authority and actively enforced by law. A special class of recreations was reserved exclusively for the colony’s ruling elite. In 1691, for example, Virginia’s governor Sir Francis Nicholson ordered the establishment of annual tournaments or field days, with prizes for feats of strength and skill. Competition was carefully restricted to “the better sort of Virginians only.” Gentlemen competed for honor among themselves, in a manner that set them apart from the rest of the population.1

By law and custom, horse-racing and betting were also reserved for gentlemen alone. People of “lower estate” were forbidden to compete, and punished when they did so. A famous example was the fate of an unfortunate artisan who failed to keep his station: “James Bullock, a Taylor, having made a race for his mare to run with a horse belonging to Mr. Matthew Slader for two thousand pounds of tobacco and cask, it being contrary to law for a laborer to make a race, being a sport only for gentlemen, is fined for the same one hundred pounds of tobacco and cask.”2

At the same time, the gentry themselves were strongly encouraged by the custom of the country to make extravagant and even ruinous bets on horses. Wagers of hundreds and even thousands of pounds of tobacco were not uncommon. In 1693, one bet between two planters in Northumberland County amounted to £22 sterling at a time when an average planter realized a net profit of only about £8 a year from the sale of his tobacco. It was this excess that caused the courts to intervene, and to insist that only the gentry could play the horses. Poor servants and slaves were permitted to look on, but only gentlemen could place bets.3

Virginia horse races were apt to be spontaneous affairs. In Rappahannock, for example, a race ground lay next to the church. On Sunday mornings, the congregation would commonly adjourn to this field, in hopes that the young bloods of the congregation might challenge each other on the spur of the moment. Even the clergy were in attendance. On at least one occasion the court summoned the testimony of the Reverend James Blair to decide a disputed wager.4

Races also occurred on court days. The gentry of the county liked to gather round a jug of peach brandy, and brag about their horses. When a wager was made, the company would shout “Done! Done!” and adjourn to an open field. The gentleman-justices themselves would sometimes leave the bench and volunteer to decide the winner. The race tracks were only ten or twelve feet wide and a quarter-mile long. At one end of the field the horses would be brought together, wild with excitement, backing and rearing as their riders struggled to turn their heads in the general direction of the finish line. A gun would be fired, and in a billowing cloud of white smoke the race was on. The awkward riders (their old-fashioned horsemanship was much despised by European visitors in the eighteenth century) sat nearly upon their horses’ necks, legs dangling straight down in long stirrups. The animals were compact and wiry—the ancestors of the American quarter horse which was bred for these races. Virginia horses lost about six inches in height during the first century of American history.5 Their heads were small in proportion to their bodies, but their powerful hindquarters allowed them to spring forward with tremendous acceleration. Thomas Anburey wrote that “If you happened to be looking the other way, the race is terminated before you can turn your head.”6

Early Virginia horse races often became brutal bloodsports in which gentlemen-jockeys lashed at one another with whip and spur, in a flying tangle of elbows and feet. Now and again, the riders might agree to a “fair race,” in which no blows were to be exchanged. But Chesapeake races were apt to be wild melees.7

Similar customs surrounded English horse races, which were run with scant regard for people of lesser rank who happened to get in the way. In Northamptonshire, for example, one gentleman wrote of another, “ … he rode down a man and the poor fellow fell from his horse.” No sympathy was shown for the unlucky plebeian who was trampled beneath the galloping hooves. Concern was expressed only for the gentleman-jockey who lost his seat.8

Horse-racing in the Chesapeake was part of a complex culture of sport, which contrasted sharply with the customs of New England.9 The Virginians looked with contempt upon the town games of Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his nephew Peter Carr, “Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” The master of Monticello preferred a gentleman’s traditional recreations of riding and shooting. “As to the species of exercise,” he wrote, “I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize and independence to the mind.”10

Virginia’s favorite amusements were bloodsports. There was an entire hierarchy of these gory entertainments. Virtually every male in Virginia could be ranked according to the size of animals that he was allowed to kill for his pleasure. At the top was the noblest of bloodsports—the hunting of the stag. This was the sport of kings and noblemen in the seventeenth century. It was staged in Virginia with the same elaborate pomp and ritual that had occurred in Europe.

Lesser gentry chased the fox—a quarry that the high nobility despised as low and vulgar until the sport came to be elaborately rationalized by the Meynell family in the eighteenth century. English fox hunting was not easily introduced to the New World. Then, as now, Vulpes americanus made a more elusive quarry than his Old World cousin. At great trouble and expense, the gentry of Virginia imported the red fox from England for their sport in the eighteenth century.

Before that date, fox hunting was an impromptu affair on both sides of the water. It was commonly done with the gun in the seventeenth century, and sometimes culminated in scenes of high savagery. “When they hunted last in Laxton wood,” one English gentleman wrote, “Mr. K. shot a fox before the hounds after they had run him sharply for some time, which they tore to pieces and it has given them very good blood.”11

“Very good blood” was also the object of another entertainment which was followed by the yeomanry and parish clergy on both sides of the water. This was the sport of coursing—an afternoon’s diversion, in which hares, rabbits and small vermin were hunted on foot with the aid of specially trained dogs. Such was the enthusiasm for this pedestrian slaughter that it was not uncommon to have several courses in a single day.12

Husbandmen and laborers amused themselves in a more humble manner, by murdering birds of various sizes in social rituals of high complexity. One favorite bloodsport of farmers in Virginia was called ganderpulling. By an irony of the Christian calendar, this savage event was commonly staged on Easter Monday—a day of riotous celebration in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake. An old male goose was suspended upside-down by his feet from the branch of a tree, and the neck of the bird was lathered with grease. The contestants mounted their horses and galloped past the goose, endeavoring to tear off the bird’s head by brute force as they rode by. The game was dangerous to the galloper as well as the goose. More than one contestant was pulled backward off his speeding horse and succeeded only in snapping his own neck while the goose cackled in trumph. Others lost fingers or thumbs in the gander’s angry beak. But as the contest continued, the bird’s neck was slowly stretched and torn by one contestant after another, until some rural champion finally succeeded in ripping off the head, claiming the body as his prize. In early Virginia, one man remembered that a good ganderpull was “anticipated with rapture.” The scene was a lively one—shouting crowds, a swirl of violence, the goose twisting in agony, dismounted riders rolling in the dust, and finally the climax when the carotid artery gave way and the winner rode in triumph through a shower of crimson gore.13

Apprentices enjoyed still another sort of bloodsport called cockshailing, which they played at Shrovetide. A cock or chicken was tethered to a stake, and crowd of youths tried to torture and kill it by throwing dangerous objects. The Puritans detested this barbarous amusement, and did all in their power to suppress it in New England—without entirely succeeding in doing so. But it flourished in Virginia, as it had done in the south and west of England, where one countryman wrote to another in 1668, “I cannot but give some touch of public affairs—what with the throwing at shrovetide and fighting this Lent time there’s a great mortality of Cocks.”14

Smaller boys amused themselves in yet a different way by the juvenile bloodsport of annihilating songbirds. In Devon, one of these diversions was called “muzzling the sparrow.” A local historian described it thus: “A boy had his hands tied together behind him, and the tip of one wing of a sparrow or other small bird was placed in his mouth. He then tried by the action of his teeth and lips gradually to draw the wing of the bird into his mouth and bite off its head, the bird in the meantime pecking at his cheeks and eyes and endeavoring to escape.”15

At the bottom of this hierarchy of bloody games were male infants who prepared themselves for the larger pleasures of maturity by torturing snakes, maiming frogs and pulling the wings off butterflies. Thus, every red-blooded male in Virginia was permitted to slaughter some animal or other, and size of his victim was proportioned to his social rank. Sport became a great chain of slaughter in this society. A European tourist observed with wonder, “ … everything that is called fighting is a delicious pleasure to an Englishman.”16

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