Horse Racing, Shooting, Fishing, & Hunting...
There is abundant evidence that George Washington enjoyed horse racing. In September, 1768, he mentions going "to a Purse race at Accotinck," a hamlet a few miles below Mount Vernon where a race track was maintained. In 1772 he attended the Annapolis races, being a guest of the Governor of Maryland, & he repeated the trip in 1773. In the following May he went to a race & barbecue at Johnson's Ferry. George Washington Custis tells us that the Farmer kept blooded horses & that his colt "Magnolia" once ran for a purse, presumably losing, as if the event had been otherwise we should probably have been informed of the fact. In 1786 Washington went to Alexandria "to see the Jockey Club purse run for," & I have noticed a few other references to races, but I conclude that he went less often than some writers would have us believe.
Washington was decidedly an outdoor man. Being six feet two inches tall, & slender rather than heavily made, he was well fitted for athletic sports. Tradition says that he once threw a stone across the Rappahannock at a spot where no other man could do it, & that he could outjump any one in Virginia. He also excelled in the game of putting the bar, as a story related by the artist Peale bears witness.
Of outdoor sports he seems to have enjoyed hunting most. He probably had many unrecorded experiences with deer & turkeys when a surveyor & when in command upon the western border, but his main hunting adventure after big game took place on his trip to the Ohio in 1770. Though the party was on the move most of the time & was looking for rich land rather than for wild animals, they nevertheless took some hunts.
On October twenty-second, in descending the stretch of the Ohio near the mouth of Little Beaver Creek & above the Mingo Town, they saw many wild geese & several kinds of duck & "killed five wild turkeys." Three days later they "saw innumerable quantities of turkeys, & many deer watering & browsing on the shore side, some of which we killed."
He does not say whether they shot this game from the canoe or not, but probably on sighting the game they would put to shore & then one or more would steal up on the quarry. Their success was probably increased by the fact that they had two Indians with them.
Few people are aware of the fact that what is now West Virginia & Ohio then contained many buffaloes. Below the mouth of the Great Hockhocking the voyagers came upon a camp of Indians, the chief of which, an old friend who had accompanied him to warn out the French in 1753, gave Washington "a quarter of very fine buffalo." A creek near the camp, according to the Indians, was an especial resort for these great beasts.
Fourteen miles up the Great Kanawha the travelers took a day off & "went a hunting; killed five buffaloes & wounded some others, three deer, &c. This country abounds in buffaloes & wild game of all kinds; as also in all kinds of wild fowls, there being in the bottoms a great many small grassy ponds, or lakes, which are full of swans, geese, & ducks of different kinds."
How many of the buffaloes fell to his gun Washington does not record, but it is safe to assume that he had at least some shots at them. And beyond question he helped to devour the delicious buffalo humps, these being, with the flesh of the bighorn sheep, the ne plus ultra of American big game delicacies.
The region in which these events took place was also notable for its big trees. Near the mouth of the Kanawha they "met with a sycamore about sixty yards from the river of a most extraordinary size, it measuring, three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round [almost fifteen feet through], lacking two inches; & not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round."
When at home, Washington now & then took a gun & went out after ducks, "hairs," wild turkeys & other game, & occasionally he records fair bags of mallards, teal, bald faces & "blew wings," one of the best being that of February 18, 1768, when he "went a ducking between breakfast & dinner & killed 2 mallards & 5 bald faces." It is doubtful whether he was at all an expert shot. In fact, he much preferred chasing the fox with dogs to hunting with a gun.
Fox hunting in the Virginia of that day was a widely followed sport. It was brought over from England & perhaps its greatest devotee was old Lord Fairfax, with whom Washington hunted when still in his teens. Fairfax, whose seat was at Greenway Court in the Shenandoah Valley, was so passionately fond of it that if foxes were scarce near his home he would go to a locality where they were plentiful, would establish himself at an inn & would keep open house & welcome every person of good character & respectable appearance who cared to join him.
The following are some typical entries from Washington's Where & how my time is Spent: "Jany. 1st. (1768) Fox huntg. in my own Neck with Mr. Robt. Alexander & Mr. Colville--catchd nothing--Captn. Posey with us." There were many similar failures & no successes in the next six weeks, but on February twelfth he records joyfully, "Catchd two foxes," & on the thirteenth "catch 2 more foxes." March 2, 1768, "Hunting again, & catchd a fox with a bobd Tail & cut Ears, after 7 hours chase in wch. most of the dogs were worsted." March twenty-ninth, "Fox Hunting with Jacky Custis & Ld. [Lund] Washington--Catchd a fox after 3 hrs. chase." November twenty-second, "Went a fox huntg. with Lord Fairfax & Colo. Fairfax & my Br. Catchd 2 Foxes." For two weeks thereafter they hunted almost every day with varying success. September 30, 1769, he records: "catchd a Rakoon."
On January 27, 1770, the dogs ran a deer out of the Neck & some of them did not get home till next day. The finding of a deer was no uncommon experience, but on no occasion does the chase seem to have been successful, as, when hard pressed, the fugitive would take to the water where the dogs could not follow. January 4, 1772, the hunters "found both a Bear & a Fox but got neither."
Bear & deer were still fairly plentiful in the region, & the fact serves to indicate that the country was not yet thickly settled, nor is it to this day.
In November, 1771, Washington & Jack Custis went to Colonel Mason's at Gunston Hall, a few miles below Mount Vernon, to engage in a grand deer drive in which many men & dogs took part. Mason had an estate of ten thousand acres which was favorably located for such a purpose, being nearly surrounded by water, with peninsulas on which the game could be cornered & forced to take to the river. On the first day they killed two deer, but on the second they killed nothing. No doubt they had a hilarious time of it, dogs baying, horsemen dashing here & there shouting at the top of their voices, & with plenty of fat venison & other good cheer at the Hall that night.
Washington's most remarkable hunting experience occurred on the twenty-third of January, 1770, when he records: "Went a hunting after breakfast & found a Fox at Muddy hole & killed her (it being a Bitch) after a chase of better than two hours & after treeing her twice the last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree after being therein sevl. minutes apparently well." Lest he may be accused of nature faking, it should be explained that the tree was a leaning tree. Occasionally the foxes also took refuge in hollow trees, up which they could climb.
The day usually ended by all the hunters riding to Mount Vernon, Belvoir, Gunston Hall, or some other mansion for a bountiful dinner. Mighty then were the gastronomic feats performed, & over the Madeira the incidents of the day were discussed as Nimrods in all ages are wont to do.
Being so much interested in fox hunting, our Farmer proceeded, with his usual painstaking care, to build up a pack of hounds. The year 1768 was probably the period of his greatest interest in the subject & his diary is full of accounts of the animals. Hounds were now, in fact, his hobby, succeeding in interest his horses. He did his best to breed according to scientific principles, but several entries show that the dogs themselves were inclined blissfully to ignore the laws of eugenics as applied to hounds.
Among his dogs in this period were "Mopsey," "Taster," "Tipler," "Cloe," "Lady," "Forester" & "Captain." August 6, 1768, we learn that "Lady" has four puppies, which are to be called "Vulcan," "Searcher," "Rover," & "Sweetlips."
Like all dog owners he had other troubles with his pets. Once we find him anointing all the hounds that had the mange "with Hogs Lard & Brimstone." Again his pack is menaced by a suspected mad dog, which he shoots.
The Revolution broke rudely in upon the Farmer's sports, but upon his return to Mount Vernon he soon took up the old life. Knowing his bent, Lafayette sent him a pack of French hounds, two dogs & three bitches, & Washington took much interest in them. According to George Washington Custis they were enormous brutes, better built for grappling stags or boars than chasing foxes, & so fierce that a huntsman had to preside at their meals. Their kennel stood a hundred yards south of the old family vault, & Washington visited them every morning & evening. According to Custis, it was the Farmer's desire to have them so evenly matched & trained that if one leading dog should lose the scent, another would be at hand to recover it & thus in full cry you might cover the pack with a blanket.
The biggest of the French hounds, "Vulcan," was so vast that he was often ridden by Master Custis & he seems to have been a rather privileged character. Once when company was expected to dinner Mrs. Washington ordered that a lordly ham should be cooked & served. At dinner she noticed that the ham was not in its place & inquiry developed that "Vulcan" had raided the kitchen & made off with the meat. Thereupon, of course, the mistress scolded & equally, of course, the master smiled & gleefully told the news to the guests.
Billy Lee, the colored valet who had followed the General through the Revolution, usually acted as huntsman and, mounted on "Chinkling" or some other good steed, with a French horn at his back, strove hard to keep the pack in sight, no easy task among the rough timber-covered hills of Fairfax County.
On a hunting day the Farmer breakfasted by candlelight, generally upon corn cakes & milk, & at daybreak, with his guests, Billy & the hounds, sallied forth to find a fox. Washington always rode a good horse & sometimes wore a blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots & velvet cap & carried a whip with a long thong. When a fox was started none rode more gallantly or cheered more joyously than did he & as a rule he was in at the death, for, as Jefferson asserts, he was "the best horseman of his age, & the most magnificent figure that could be seen on horseback."
The fox that was generally hunted was the gray fox, which was indigenous to the country. After the Revolution the red fox began to be seen occasionally. They are supposed to have come from the Eastern Shore, & to have crossed Chesapeake Bay on the ice in the hard winter of 1779-80. Custis tells of a famous black fox that would go ten or twenty miles before the hounds & return to the starting-point ready for another run next day. After many unsuccessful chases Billy recommended that the black reynard be let alone, saying he was near akin to another sable & wily character. Thereafter the huntsman was always careful to throw off the hounds when he suspected that they were on the trail of the black fox...
The French hounds were, at least at first, rather indifferent hunters. "Went out after Breakfast with my hounds from France, & two which were lent me, yesterday, by Mr. Mason," says the Farmer the day of the first trial; "found a Fox which was run tolerably well by two of the Frh. Bitches & one of Mason's Dogs--the other French dogs shewed but little disposition to follow--and with the second Dog of Mason's got upon another Fox which was followed slow & indifferently by some & not at all by the rest until the sent became so cold it cd. not be followed at all."
Two days later the dogs failed again & the next time they ran two foxes & caught neither, but their master thought they performed better than hitherto, December 12th:
"After an early breakfast [my nephew] George Washington, Mr. Shaw & Myself went into the Woods back of the Muddy hole Plantation a hunting & were joined by Mr. Lund Washington & Mr. William Peake. About half after ten O'clock (being first plagued with the Dogs running Hogs) we found a fox near Colo Masons Plantation on little Hunting Creek (West fork) having followed on his Drag more than half a Mile; & run him with Eight Dogs (the other 4 getting, as was supposed after a Second Fox) close & well for an hour. When the Dogs came to a fault & to cold Hunting until 20 minutes after when being joined by the missing Dogs they put him up afresh & in about 50 Minutes killed up in an open field of Colo Mason's every Rider & every Dog being present at the Death."
Eight days later the pack chased two foxes, but caught neither. The next hunt is described as follows: "Went a Fox hunting with the Gentlemen who came here yesterday with Ferdinando Washington & Mr. Shaw, after a very early breakfast.--found a Fox just back of Muddy hole Plantation & after a Chase for an hour & a quarter with my Dogs, & eight couple of Doctor Smiths (brought by Mr. Phil Alexander) we put him into a hollow tree, in which we fastened him, & in the Pincushion put up another Fox which, in an hour & 13 Minutes was killed--We then after allowing the Fox in the hole half an hour put the Dogs upon his Trail & in half a Mile he took to another hollow tree & was again put out of it but he did not go 600 yards before he had recourse to the same shift--finding therefore that he was a conquered Fox we took the Dogs off, & came home to dinner..."
Washington went out with Major George A. Washington & others on that day, but found nothing, & that he took still another hunt in January, 1788, & chased a fox that had been captured the previous month. This, however, is the last reference that I have discovered...
Later he acquired a pair of "tarriers" & took enough interest in them to write detailed instructions concerning them in 1796.
Washington's fishing was mostly done with a seine as a commercial proposition, but he seems to have had a mild interest in angling. Occasionally he took trips up & down the Potomac in order to fish, sometimes with a hook & line, at other times with seines & nets. He & Doctor Craik took fishing tackle with them on both their western tours & made use of it in some of the mountain streams & also in the Ohio. While at the Federal Convention in 1787 he & Gouverneur Morris went up to Valley Forge partly perhaps to see the old camp, but ostensibly to fish for trout. They lodged at the home of a widow named Moore. On the trip the Farmer learned the Pennsylvania way of raising buckwheat and, it must be confessed, wrote down much more about this topic than about trout. A few days later, with Gouverneur Morris & Mr. & Mrs. Robert Morris, he went up to Trenton & "in the evening fished," with what success he does not relate. When on his eastern tour of 1789 he went outside the harbor of Portsmouth to fish for cod, but the tide was unfavorable & they caught only two. More fortunate was a trip off Sandy Hook the next year, which was thus described by a newspaper:
"Yesterday afternoon the President of the United States returned from Sandy Hook & the fishing banks, where he had been for the benefit of the sea air, & to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass & black fish--the weather proved remarkably fine, which, together with the salubrity of the air & wholesome exercise, rendered this little voyage extremely agreeable."
Our Farmer was extremely fond of fish as an article of diet & took great pains to have them on his table frequently. At Mount Vernon there was an ancient black man, reputed to be a centenarian & the son of an African King, whose duty it was to keep the household supplied with fish. On many a morning he could be seen out on the river in his skiff, beguiling the toothsome perch, bass or rock-fish. Not infrequently he would fall asleep & then the impatient cook, who had orders to have dinner strictly upon the hour, would be compelled to seek the shore & roar at him. Old Jack would waken & upon rowing to shore would inquire angrily: "What you all mek such a debbil of a racket for hey? I wa'nt asleep, only noddin'."
Another colored factotum about the place was known as Tom Davis, whose duty it was to supply the Mansion House with game. With the aid of his old British musket & of his Newfoundland dog "Gunner" he secured many a canvasback & mallard, to say nothing of quails, turkeys & other game.
After the Revolution Washington formed a deer park below the hill on which the Mansion House stands. The park contained about one hundred acres & was surrounded by a high paling about sixteen hundred yards long. At first he had only Virginia deer, but later acquired some English fallow deer from the park of Governor Ogle of Maryland. Both varieties herded together, but never mixed blood. The deer were continually getting out & in February, 1786, one returned with a broken leg, "supposed to be by a shot." Seven years later an English buck that had broken out weeks before was killed by some one. The paddock fence was neglected & ultimately the deer ran half wild over the estate, but in general stayed in the wooded region surrounding the Mansion House. The gardener frequently complained of damage done by them to shrubs & plants, & Washington said he hardly knew "whether to give up the Shrubs or the Deer!" The spring before his death we find him writing to the brothers Chickesters warning them to cease hunting his deer & he hints that he may come to "the disagreeable necessity of resorting to other means..."
Excerpts from From: George Washington: Farmer Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) Ch 14 A Farmer's Amusements