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Contests and Fights

Contests and Fights


Foot Races. Foot racing is among the oldest of human sports. It requires no equipment or paved track. All European, African, and Native American nations undoubtedly pitted the speed of one person against another. In England there were also womens races, which were more like sack races than actual feats of speed. In the colonies racing was popular throughout the period of 1600 to 1754. On muster days militiamen in the Chesapeake often engaged in races and wrestling. Gov. Francis Nicholson celebrated St. Georges Day in New York by sponsoring prizes for various sports, including foot racing. William Byrd II mentions several impromptu foot races in his diary, although he himself did not run. Perhaps in his midthirties he felt himself too old, or he might have viewed it beneath his station to engage in such an activity.

Boxing. Pugilism was a popular sport in England, where it pitted two men against each other with their bare fists; in America the same form applied. Boxing was apparently a lower-class sport and one in which one or both parties could be badly hurt. It was the kind of sport that gentlemen wagered on but did not participate in. Boxing was one of the spectator sports that drew men to taverns, where they would watch and bet.

Cudgels. Another type of man-to-man fight was cudgels, in which the participants each held a long, heavy stick with both hands. Using the stick both to attack and parry, each fighter tried to wear down the other. The man left standing won the match. Cudgels matches occurred frequently on muster days or during certain celebrations. They could also be sponsored by various taverns. Contests featuring man-to-man combat were also popular in the backcountry, especially among the Scots, whose major migration to America would be after 1754.


Kym S. Rice, Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1983);

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

Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling, eds., The Great American Gentleman: The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover 17091712 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1963),

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