Recreation in Western Communities
Recreation in Western Communities
A Man’s Domain. Men had more frequent opportunities for sport in the West than women did. Women might participate in frolics and dances, but most men and women believed that a woman should spend her time on domestic duties. This ideology suggested that women belonged at home and limited their contact with others. Their work was done alone more often than men’s, and women were seldom encouraged to display strength or athleticism. Men, who had more opportunities to work in company with other men, also had more opportunities to play sports.
Hunting and Shooting Contests. In these contests men sought to prove their skill with weapons. In the late eighteenth century competitive squirrel hunts were a popular form of recreation. In one such contest two teams of four men each spent a day hunting squirrels. When they returned, one team had killed 152 squirrels, the other 141. In another example a Kentucky newspaper reported that a group of hunters killed more than 7,000 squirrels in a single day. Shooting at targets was also popular. The winner in such contests might receive a prize of a cow or a barrel of whiskey. The noted painter John James Audubon reported that he observed a nighttime contest in Kentucky in which the goal was to extinguish a lit candle fifty yards away. In this contest one marksman “was very fortunate, and snuffed the candle three times out of seven,” a record that no other was able to match. “Shooting the tin cup,” played in the western Carolinas, was a more dangerous game of marksmanship. In this contest the hunter attempted to shoot a tin cup off another man’s head.
Wrestling and Fighting. Wrestling and fighting contests were popular among men in the West. One brutal form of this sport, popular in the Ohio River valley in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was known as gouging. Unlike wrestling or boxing, gouging had few rules to prevent injury to one man or the other. Contemporary observers commented that the goal was to grab the
opponent’s hair at the temple and gouge out his eyes. Biting, kicking, and kneeing were permitted. Timothy Flint, a New Englander who spent ten years in the Mississippi River valley in the early nineteenth century, was disgusted by the sport. He reported seeing men who had lost an eye and overheard fighters speaking with a “disgusting familiarity about mutilation.” Spectators of such matches also enjoyed watching animals fight. Cockfights and dogfights were both popular throughout the West.
One of the great features of Christmas Day in New Orleans was a contest between a Kentucky coon and a famous terrier dog, known as “Fighting Bob,” which came off … before a refined, fashionable, and aristocratic audience…. At the hour appointed … the two animals were brought into the arena and pitted after the most approved style. The first attack was tremendous, the dog going in confident, while the coon backed to his side of the ropes, and stood on the defensive. The terms of the fight were, that the dog should kill the coon, or that the coon should cause the dog to run and throw him out of time, which, in this instance, was two minutes. The betting at the start was two to one on the dog, a large number of which bets were taken. After the fury of the first attack was over, the dog evidently found that he had an enemy to deal with worthy of his steel, and began to scan more closely the vulnerable parts of his country cousin, and came up to scratch with less haste than at the lead…. [the dog] darted at the coon and seized hold of him, and was seemingly about to finish his mortal career, when his sly old antagonist, by an agile movement, threw his quarters out of reach, and while the dog lay down a moment for wind, seized hold of a paw and led him a three-legged dance around the ring. The backers of the coon shouted, while those of Fighting Bob looked wise and said that the terrier would soon recover himself. But alas! for the vanity of knowing ones, and the short-sightedness of dog fanciers; the coon continued his advantage, threw his opponent about easily, mauled him most incontinently, and finally threw him down and out of time. The excitement in the crowd at this unexpected denouement was intense ….
Source: Kirsch, George B., ed., Sports in North America: A Documentary History, volume 3, The Rise of Modern Sports, 1840–1860 (Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International, 1992).
Horse Racing. Horse races of all kinds were found throughout the West. The most famous and widely advertised contests took place in the cities of the eastern seaboard, but there were also race tracks in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, and San Francisco. Western settlers in smaller communities also set up informal matches of their own. The sport, which was found in every part of the West, was also one of the few sports open to women in the early nineteenth century. While critics worried that horseback riding was indelicate and might even injure women, some women still took part in horse racing and other displays of equestrian skill. Supporters of women’s riding hastened to reassure their readers that such women were still ladies. The competitors in one 1858 contest, according to a reporter, showed a “graceful and queenly bearing,” and the winner of the race finished the course “without disturbing her own or the horse’s serenity in the least.”
John Bernard, Retrospections of America (New York: Harper, 1887);
Foster Rhea Dulles, A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965);
John Durant and Otto Bettman, Pictorial History of American Sports: From Colonial Times to the Present (Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Burns, 1973);
Timothy Flint, Recollections of the Last Ten Years, Passed in Occasional Residences and Journeyings in the Valley of the Mississippi (New York: Da Capo, 1968);
George B. Kirsch, ed., Sports in North America: A Documentary History, volume 3, The Rise of Modern Sports, 1840–1860 (Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International, 1992);
Earle F. Zeigler, History of Physical Education and Sport (Champaign, Ill.: Stipes, 1988).