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Blood Sports

Blood Sports


Old World. Sports which resulted in the death or injury of animals were part of European recreational life. Bulls, badgers, and bears were tethered so they could not escape and then set upon by dogs. Men on horseback chased foxes with the aid of dogs who tore the foxes apart once the animals were caught. In Spain unarmed men ran in the streets with bulls, and in the end the animals were slaughtered.

Animal Baits. Europeans brought many of their blood sports with them. Bull baits apparently were confined to the New England and Middle Colonies. Bull baiting was one of the sports that taverns sponsored since it was relatively easy to clear a space for the bull and the dogs. These contests, which catered to the lower classes, took place in the evening hours when workingmen and apprentices could get away from their employers and masters. In Virginia at least one tavern offered bear baiting as a recreational alternative. An early Massachusetts account describes a wolf bait in which hunters trapped a wolf, tied it down, and then set their dogs on it.

Fox Hunting. While the evidence is fuller for fox hunting after 1754 (George Washington was an avid fox hunter), the wealthy in the Middle Colonies seemed to have enjoyed this activity during the early colonial period. Outside of Philadelphia an individual simply known as Butler was the hounds keeper for the towns elite. By the mid 1750s an expansion in population and the size of the town had forced Philadelphias gentlemen hunters to move to New Jersey.

Cock Sports. Cock throwing formed a diversion in England on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It involved throwing a stick or a cudgel at a cock tied to a stake. Throwing the cock appeared after 1680 in New England. As in England it marked Shrove Tuesday. But like many other European sports, this one died out. In the Netherlands villagers pulled the goose, during which a goose was tied to a pole and its neck greased. Whoever could snatch the goose (thus beheading it) kept the bird. In New Netherland, Dutch authorities tried to prevent this activity, arguing not that it was cruel or dangerous but unprofitable, heathenish and Popish. Later petitions to the director general and council to allow the sport were refused on the grounds that the custom was being outlawed in Holland. In New Netherland those going after the goose were mounted on horseback.

Gamecocks. Cockfighting was a contest between two roosters, often armed with metal spurs, called gaffs, on their feet. Money and honor rode on the cocks, and breeders of good birds gained reputation just as breeders of good horses did. Unlike horses, however, the losers of a cockfight did not live to run another day since the purpose

of a fight was for one cock to kill another.

Cities. Cockfighting, with its use of an enclosed space or cockpit, lent itself to city life. Cockpits were often associated with taverns and drew men of varied social backgrounds. In 1711 the chaplain to the fort guarding New York harbor, Rev. John Sharpe, spent several February evenings at ye fighting cocks. In 1741 the shoemaker John Romme and his wife also ran a tavern which catered to slaves. There a negro (the father of Mr. Philipses Cuffee) kept game-fowls... and used to come there to bring them victuals. Cocks appealed to high and low, rich and poor, ignorant and well educated. The Philadelphia physician William Shippen wrote to a friend in 1735, I have sent you a young game cock, to be depended

uponwhich I would advise you to put to a walk by himself with the hen I sent you beforeI have not sent an old cockour young cockers have contrived to kill and steal all I had.

Countryside. In the more rural areas cockpits were often associated with taverns and other places where men gathered. In the South, beginning in the 1750s, these were sometimes advertised in the newspapers, and people might come from as far away as forty miles for a day of cockfighting which might include up to sixty birds. All classes of men attended a cockfight, from the highest gentry to the lowest white farmer. Slaves also had their own cockfights, in makeshift rings easily set up and taken down. Betting on various cocks was an essential part of the sport. In the 1760s Robert Wormeley Carter confided to his diary that he had lost over £21 at a large main with many birds. This sum was more than all the property that an average poor man owned.


Berthold Fernow, The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1976);

Daniel Horsmanden, The New York Conspiracy (Boston: Beacon, 1971);

Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia 17401790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1982);

Journal of Rev. John Sharpe, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,40 (1916): 257297;

Nancy L. Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996);

John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, volume 1 (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845).

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