Background. Ball games were part of English village life. Local custom dictated the rules, and there were various ways games could be played. Even football, which evolved into three distinct games—rugby, soccer, and American football—had no set format, rules, number of players, or standardized playing field. In some places the ball was kicked; in others it was carried or thrown. Games could be impromptu or highly ritualized. Teams could have ten players or, in a big match pitting one town against another, more than a hundred. The playing area could be a field, and the goal could be as far as a mile away. Football was a sport for ordinary people. Cricket, on the other hand, was an elite sport from the eighteenth
century onward, although others might occasionally play it. Cricket had rules and a defined field of play. Part of its popularity was the opportunity to place bets.
Teams. Ball sports on the team level did not arrive in the New World until relatively late in the colonial era. There are a few descriptions of football in the seventeenth century. In 1686 at Rowley, Massachusetts, clothiers played some of the neighboring villagers. The game took place on a sandy shore, and the players went barefoot. But this must have been one of the few examples of football, played by those who knew about the game from England. Cricket was never popular in America, although there are a few references to the game. In 1708 William Byrd II played what he called cricket while in
Williamsburg, Virginia, but each team had only two men. At other times he played with four on a side. Europeans who settled in America were not willing or perhaps able to maintain the team sports that they knew in the Old World. Those who did play a team sport were the Native Americans, who had various kinds of ball games. Among the Southern Indians was a form of basketball. Northern Indians had a version of what today is called lacrosse, played with a basket on the end of a stick. A kind of football seems to have been part of Eastern Woodlands culture, stretching from New England to Virginia. In Virginia it was played by women and young boys. European observers were all impressed with how civil the game was, how fair the Indians played, and how little violence was indulged in by the players.
Kolven. Colonists seemed more at home with contests that pitted individuals against individuals, not teams against teams. Two ball sports which did this were kolven and bowling. Both kolven and bowling were sports enjoyed by Europeans. Kolven originated in Holland and is played either on the ground or ice. The game is a cross between golf and hockey. It is played with a club that looks like a golf club, but the object is to move a ball across a court and strike a post. Kolven was probably the game translated as golf that was played at Rensselaerswyck, near Albany, New York, in 1650. Golf as we know it originated in Scotland, and records suggest that from 1502 to 1688 the Stuart monarchs played the game. There are no references to this form of the sport actually being played in America before the Revolutionary War. Kolven must have remained a Dutch sport, as there is no mention of the English playing it.
Bowling. Another individual sport, well known in Europe and brought to America by both the English and the Dutch, was bowling. The most popular version was ninepins, played outdoors on a track or green some twenty or thirty feet long, where bowlers tried to knock down three sets of three pins with a wooden or stone ball. Bowling appears in the earliest accounts of Jamestown, Virginia, as those sent to labor instead went searching for gold or bowled in the streets. In 1636 a herdsman was punished for leaving his cows to play ninepins. By 1654 there were bowling greens in both Fort Orange (Albany, New York) and New Amsterdam (New York City). These were often owned by tavern keepers and formed part of the recreational opportunities provided by inns and taverns. In 1732 the Common Council of New York leased property fronting the fort to some of the colony’s elite so they could “make a Bowling-Green with Walks therein, for the Beauty and ornament of said street, as well as for Recreation.” Charging only a token rent, the Council obviously intended this facility to be open to the public. Two years later it was finished, fenced, and “Very Pretty,... with a handsome Walk of trees Raild and Painted.” The eighteenth century also saw Southern planters and Northern merchants lay out private bowling greens on their estates.
Robert Browning, A History of Golf: The Royal and Ancient Game (London: A & C Black, 1990);
George Eisen, “Early European Attitudes toward Native American Sports and Pastimes,” in Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture, by George Eisen and David K. Wiggins (West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 1–18;
Leo Hershkowitz and Isidore S. Meyer, eds., Letters of the Franks Family (1733–1748) (Waltham, Mass.: American Jewish Historical Society, 1968);
Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973);
Nancy L. Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996);
A. J. F. van Laer, ed. and trans., Minutes of the Court of Rensselaerswyck 1648–1652 (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1922);
Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling, eds., The Great American Gentleman: The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover 1709–1712 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1963).