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1600-1754: Sports and Recreation: Overview

1600-1754: Sports and Recreation: Overview

Old World Models. Throughout history all societies have had sports of some kind. The Native Americans had a long history of both team games and individual contests. Some of the team sports were also played by women, and many of these contests had ties to religion. Early accounts of Native American sports were positive and contrasted the cheating and foul behavior that marred some European games. Africans also had a long history of games. The skill that most impressed Europeans was swimming, which for Africans (and Native Americans) was tied to a personal cleanliness that Europeans lacked.

Gender. Europeans, more than either Native Americans or Africans, confined most sports to males. Women rarely competed in games of skill. Females fished but did not hunt, and they did not race on land, sea, or ice although they often were spectators. Women played billiards and gambled at cards and dice games, but in private homes, not taverns. Indeed, respectable women only entered taverns while traveling.

Animal Sports. Many colonial sports involved animals. These could be hunted or fished. They could be raced either at impromptu pick-up races along the street or on more-formalized race courses. By 1754 there were several race tracks in the colonies, and the first jockey club had been organized. Colonists also enjoyed some animal sports that modern Americans would consider cruel. The most famous of these was baiting, in which a large, potentially dangerous animal such as a bull, bear, or wolf was tied down so it could not escape and was then set upon by dogs. Eventually the larger animal was killed, although it could also kill or maim its tormentors in the process. Wild animals were also allowed to turn on one another in arenas or pits. Cockfighting, in which spurred cocks were set in an enclosed ring to fight to the death, was popular throughout the colonies. Men rather than women attended blood sports.

Individual v. Team Sports. In their original homelands colonists might have indulged in team sports. Various football games pitted one town against another. The Native Americans played on teams. But settlers in America seem to have left these practices behind. Except in New England, most people came from different countries and so had differing local traditions. There was also a lack of the old European calendar year, which specified when people would take time off and celebrate. For whatever reason, in America team sports did not last. Instead, individuals competed against individuals, thus honing a personal identity and prowess at the expense of a more collective, cooperative sense of identity.

Gambling. Just as sport is found in all cultures, so is the gambling which often accompanies it. Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans all knew about gambling before they encountered one another. Both men and women could bet. Races and blood sports lent themselves to betting, as did the various card, board, table, and dice games that colonists played. Taverns and coffeehouses provided the main setting for men getting together to play games. In addition men and women played together, for money, in private homes.

Recreation. Sports and various outdoor activities were considered healthy in the colonial period. Fresh air was often considered a tonic, especially for those who through illness or work had been kept indoors. Men and women enjoyed walking and riding either on horseback or in carriages or sleighs. Fishing and hunting were often recreational rather than necessary. The countryside offered opportunities to take in the beauties of nature, and the colonists showed a sentimental, romantic attachment to lovely views, meandering creeks, and majestic waterfalls.

Limitations. While colonists in this period enjoyed various sports, the day of a real sporting scene was yet to come. Aside from horse racing there was little organized sport. Philadelphias elite organized a few fishing clubs, which allowed them to gather together on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The fellowship, eating, and drinking was probably as large a draw as the fishing. No major sports figures emerged from this period. Given the lack of organized sport, there were no professional athletes. Isolated individuals probably excelled at one thing or another, but their exploits were only known locally. The wealthy were businessmen or planters, busy with other things and so unable to devote themselves entirely to recreational pastimes. The day of the sportsman was yet to come.

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