George Washington was decidedly an outdoor man. Being six feet two inches tall, & slender, he was well fitted for athletic sports...outdoor sports he seems to have enjoyed hunting most. He probably had many unrecorded experiences with hunting deer & shooting turkeys when a surveyor & when in command upon the western border, but one of his journeys filled with wild game was his trip to the Ohio in 1770. Though his 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...Their success was probably increased by the fact that they had two Indians with them.
Few 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." 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..."
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." In fact, he much preferred chasing the fox with dogs to hunting with a gun.
Fox hunting...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...January 4, 1772, the hunters "found both a Bear & a Fox but got neither..."
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...
One of 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." A hunting day usually ended by all the hunters riding to Mount Vernon, Belvoir, Gunston Hall, or some other mansion for a bountiful dinner...
The Revolution interrupted Washington'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...
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 slave 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 Washington breakfasted by candlelight, generally upon corn cakes & milk, & at daybreak, with his guests, Billy & the hounds, sallied forth to find a fox...When a fox was started none rode more gallantly or cheered more joyously than did he...Jefferson asserts, he was "the best horseman of his age, & the most magnificent figure that could be seen on horseback..."
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 Washington 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."
Washington described one hunt 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..."
Another slave was Tom Davis, whose duty was to go shooting 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, plus quails, turkeys & other game.