Skip to main content

1754-1783: Sports and Recreation: Overview

1754-1783: Sports and Recreation: Overview

Introduction. The fertile North American continent provided its inhabitants with much free time for recreation and leisure. Colonists had brought with them European games and sports such as bowling, football, cricket, quoits, and cards. Some of these activities, such as cricket and football, fell out of use as they did not require the kinds of skills the colonists needed in their everyday lives. Colonists continued to enjoy other sports as the century progressed. Hunting and fishing, which had been necessary to sustain life, became recreational activities, and shooting contests, which had been features of militia musters, became sporting activities in their own right.

Native American Sports. Long before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans engaged in a variety of fierce athletic competitions. In addition to hunting, fishing, and war, native societies played games that helped develop their skills in these activities. The native men played a game the French called lacrosse because the stick resembled a bishops crozier. The Iroquois called this game O-ta-dajish-qua-age, and the Cherokee called it little brother war. Teams composed of between five and one hundred men tried to throw a ball (ga-ne-a, in Iroquois) into the other ones goal using only a five-foot netted stick. These competitions could last for days and often involved extremely high stakes. It is said that the 1654 war between the Senecas and Eries resulted from bad faith that the Eries showed after losing a ball game. This sport could be a spectacle or a way to resolve differences between villages or tribes. Among the Iroquois different clans would compete against one another, one team being the Wolf, Bear, Turtle, or Beaver clan to compete against the Deer, Snipe, Heron, or Hawk clan.

Gambling. The native people gambled heavily on these and other sporting activities. While the European colonists did not take up lacrosse, they gambled on virtually everything. In 1752 William Stith preached a sermon before Virginias general assembly on The sinfulness and pernicious nature of gaming. In 1765, William Byrd, one of the colonies richest men, had to sell four hundred slaves to cover his gambling debts. Colonists gambled on horses, cockfights, fistfights, and cards.

Horse Racing. Horses were the essential means of transportation, but they also became an important form of recreation. British aristocrats had made horse racing a form of competition; in the colonies after 1730 wealthy men began importing race horses for breeding purposes. Unlike

British races, which typically were run on a long, straight track, colonists built oval tracks to accommodate large crowds of spectators. In this way American horse races became an activity involving entire communities. In the Chesapeake Bay area the summer racing season began in March and lasted until June, while the fall races lasted from September to November. Every week a different community would hold races. In South Carolina the races became a fixture of colonial life, with the newspapers after 1763 publishing race results and the odds on each horse.

Cockfights. In addition to horse races, the colonies south of New York had chickens that were raised for their fighting ability. Poet Francis Hopkinson wrote of a 1770 match fought in Germantown, Pennsylvania, between chickens belonging to New Yorker James DeLancey and Philadelphian Timothy Matlack, saying that, Chickens

yet unhatched shall curse D[eLancey]s name. Typically the fighting cocks would be armed with steel or other sharp implements on their legs and the match would end when one of them was either dead or unable to get up. These matches would be fought in special pits below an area for spectators who, of course, would gamble on the outcome. Taverns would accommodate these matches as well as other sporting activities such as bull or bear baiting, which had been outlawed in Massachusetts in 1631 but continued to be practiced.

Fighting . In England boxing was becoming refined in the eighteenth century as Jack Broughton (champion from 1734 to 1750) made the first rules for exhibition bareknuckle boxing. Rounds would last until a man fell; there was no hitting below the belt or while a man was down. In America fighting matches had less delicacy and colonists referred to the sport as rough and tumbling. Taverns also drew great crowds to these matches. In America one of the objects of a fight was to gouge the opponent in the genitals with waxed fingernails especially grown for the purpose. While in some cases fighting was simply a way to resolve differences or a result of the colonists large appetite for alcohol, these matches also provided spectators with entertainment and potential for wagering.

Tavern Activities . Taverns provided a venue for blood sports as well as more genteel sporting activities. Benjamin Berrys tavern in what is today Berryville, Virginia, hosted so many sporting activities that the village was nicknamed Battletown. Taverns also became sites for shooting contests or target practice, and Hagerstown, Maryland, in particular, was famous for its shooting matches. Bowling had been brought from Europe, and it was easy for a tavern to provide a lawn area for knocking over pins. Quoits, a game similar to horseshoes, and card games, which became a colonial obsession, were also played in taverns.

Popes Day . Taverns were also meeting places for colonists sharing social or political views. In the mid eighteenth century, colonists began organizing wild celebrations on 5 November, the anniversary of an attempt in 1605 by Catholic conspirators to blow up Parliament. In Boston, mobs of sailors, dock workers, and laborers of all races would organize parades each carrying effigies of the Pope, the devil, and the Stuart pretender to the British throne. In 1745 Boston was the scene of a major riot as these different mobs converged in the center of town. The town then tried to rein in these activities, forbidding them to take place at night. By the 1750s Popes Day had become an all-day holiday in Massachusetts, New York, and other colonies involving parades, fireworks, drinking, and rioting, anticipating the kinds of popular demonstrations of the Revolutionary period.


Olaudah Equiano was an African enslaved when he was eleven years old. He was bought in 1757 by an English sea captain and served for much of the Seven Years War in the British navy. Here he recounts an incident on the British warship Roebuck.

When I went on board this large ship, I was amazed indeed to see the quantity of men and the guns.... There was a number of boys on board, which still made it more agreeable; for we were always together, and a great part of our time was spent in play.

I remained in this ship a considerable time, during which we made several cruises, and visited a variety of places; among others we were twice in Holland, and brought over several persons of distinction from it, ... On the passage, one day, for diversion of those gentlemen, all the boys were called on the quarter-deck, and were paired proportionably, and then made to fight; after which the gentlemen gave the combatants from five to nine shillings each. This was the first time I ever fought with a white boy; and I never knew what it was to have a bloody nose before. This made me fight most desperately, I suppose considerably more than an hour; and at last, both of us being weary, we were parted. I had a great deal of this kind of sport afterwards, in which the captain and the ships company used very much to encourage me.

Source: Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (1789), edited by Robert J. Allison (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995).

Dancing . Perhaps the most common form of physical activity in colonial America was dancing. Almost all Americans danced as a form of exercise as well as a form of social activity. People of different social classes would hold their own dances, with wealthier colonists attending more formal affairs, while people of less status and slaves would also enjoy their own dances. In Charleston, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia formal dances formed a vital part of the social season. In 1768, Bostons Patriot leaders boycotted the dancing assembly to avoid the royal officials and British military officers attending. That same year, New Yorks Dancing Assembly witnessed a less political but as bitter quarrel between the wives of Gen. Thomas Gage and New York governor Sir Henry Moore, each believing she should be first in a country dance.

Fishing and Hunting . The American landscape provided excellent opportunities for fishing and hunting, which were not only sources of food. In 1732 the Schuylkill Fishing Company, a private club for fishermen, drew up rules for fishing. The sport of fishing had become popularized in England in the seventeenth century with a publication of Isaak Waltons Compleat Angler. Other fishing clubs were formed throughout the colonies, and they occasionally engaged in cricket and other athletic competitions with other rival companies. The society of Fort St. David, another Pennsylvania fishing club, also housed a museum of native American artifacts and curiosities. Charleston, South Carolina, had two hunting clubs that merged in 1761. In 1776, Pennsylvanias new state constitution guaranteed citizens the right to fowl and hunt on all open land, and to fish in all boatable waters, providing a liberty restricted in England by the feudal privileges of aristocrats.

Water Sports . In New England colonists raced sailing sloops or rowboats, and in the Chesapeake colonists raced canoes and sometimes galleys rowed by slaves. South Carolina planters who spent their summer months in Rhode Island enjoyed the pleasures of sailing. New Yorkers raced yachts, which were a Dutch innovation (the word yacht comes from a Dutch word for hunting boat). In addition to sailing, many Americans also swam. Benjamin Franklin, who learned to swim in Boston Harbor, at one point considered traveling through Europe as a swimming instructor.

Card Playing . The most popular card game of the eighteenth century was whist. Edmond Hoyles 1742 Short Treatise on Whist codified the rules for this game similar to todays bridge. Charleston had a weekly Whist Club, and in Boston a Card Assembly met every Thursday evening. Cribbage, invented in the seventeenth century, had also become popular, and German and French colonists played a game derived from the Italian tremonta, a game played with three cards. This game required bluffing ones opponents; the Germans played it with five cards and called it pochen (meaning to bluff). The French called itpoque, which the Americans mispronounced as poker. In 1765 the Stamp Act taxed playing cards, requiring a revenue stamp to be placed on the Ace of Spades. Taxing playing cards may have been the most unpopular feature of this act.


John Adams sailed to France in 1778 and recorded this episode of shipboard life.


We have passed all the Dangers of the American Coast. Those of the Bay of Biscay, remain. God grant Us, an happy Passage through them all.

This Morning the Captain ordered all Hands upon Deck and took an account of the Number of Souls on board which amounted to 172. Then he ordered the Articles of War to be read to themafter which he ordered all Hands upon the Forecastle and then all Hands upon the Quarter deck, in order to try Experiments, for determining whether any difference was made in the Ships sailing, by the Weight of the Men being forward or abaft. Then all Hands were ordered to their Quarters to exercise them at the Guns. Mr. Barron [the captain] gave the Words of Command and they spent an Hour perhaps in the Exercise, at which they seemed tolerably expert. Then the Captain ordered a Dance, upon the Main Deck, and all Hands, Negroes, Boys and Men were obliged to dance. After this the old Sailors set on Foot another Frolic, called the Miller, or the Mill. I will not spend Time to describe this odd Scene: but it ended in a very high frolic, in which almost all the Men were powdered over, with Flour, and wet again to the Skin.Whether these whimsical Diversions are indulged, in order to make the Men wash themselves, and shift their Cloaths, and to wash away Vermin I dont know. But there is not in them the least Ray of Elegance, very little Wit, and a humour of the coarsest Kind. It is not superiour to Negro and Indian Dances.

Very likely the dance was not done to clean the mens clothes but to relax them before they faced the dangers of the Bay of Biscay. Within two weeks the ship would have fought two battles and Captain Barron would lose first his leg and then his life.

Source: John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, volume 2, 1771-1781, edited by Lyman H. Btitterfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961).

Evolution of American Sports . Though the American colonists did not continue the British sports of cricket or football, they did begin to develop other sports imported from Europe that better suited their character and environment. In 1762 a British book reprinted in New York showed a batter, catcher, and pitcher with two bases marked by poles. In 1778 soldiers in George Washingtons army were reported to be playing at base at Valley Forge. In 1787 Princeton, New Jersey, forbade local college students to play with balls and sticks on the Common. In April 1779 Philadelphia printer James Rivington advertised golf clubs and the veritable Caledonian BALLS for sale in his print shop. Baseball and golf in the next century would become important American sports. Like the other forms of recreation enjoyed by colonial Americans, these emphasized individual skills in the wide-open American environment.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"1754-1783: Sports and Recreation: Overview." American Eras. . 16 Jan. 2019 <>.

"1754-1783: Sports and Recreation: Overview." American Eras. . (January 16, 2019).

"1754-1783: Sports and Recreation: Overview." American Eras. . Retrieved January 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.