In early colonial America, gentlemen with a little time on their hands enjoyed plenty of hunting & fowling in season. Less wealthy professional hunters searched for skins to sell or trade. And even common farmers hunted to augment their family's food supply. As cities expanded at the end of the 18C, townsfolk, most of whom had moved to the city from the countryside, searched for nearby venues for hunting and shooting.
Early American Hunting, Fowling, & Shooting History
The sheer quantities of wildlife available for the taking in the early British American colonies, at first without legal restrictions of any sort, must have seemed like paradise to Englishmen arriving on the Atlantic coast of America. In England, hunting was severely restricted, both because wildlife was scarcer, and because hunting was a traditional privilege of the upper classes.
1773 Mr. and Mrs. Robert Crafton by Benjamin West (American painter, 1738-1820 This image painted, after he had left Pennsylvania for England)
In early America, it was not easy to acquire a firearm. While many arms were supplied from abroad, those created or repaired by Americans often used a mixture of parts from prior guns. There were only a handful of true gunsmiths in America in its first 150 years. But gun ownership grew steadily up to the American Revolution. An examination of household estate inventories taken during the period show several trends in gun ownership in colonial British America before 1776. There were high numbers of guns in mid18C America. Guns were much more common than swords or other edged weapons. Women owned guns. The guns listed in the inventories were not old or broken guns. Scholars estimate that at least 50% of male & female wealthholders owned guns in 1774 colonial America.
Rural settlers sometimes depended on arms to help feed their large families, as well as to provide personal, physical protection, & to fulfill local militia demands. The heavily wooded terrain of the New World provided a bounty of game ranging from turkeys, geese, ducks and game birds to the larger deer, bear, elk and moose. In England, only the wealthy were allowed to trap game. In the American colonies nearly everyone could trap, and most free white landowners could hunt with firearms. There were few restrictive rules, although most colonies banned hunting at night for fear of wounding precious cows and horses.
1776 North Carolina Half Dollar Hit or Miss
1623 In colonial America, the vast flocks overhead must have seemed even more amazing than the liberty to hunt. Emmanuel Altham’s 1623 description of Plymouth Colony declared, “that one man at six shoots hath killed 400.”
1640s There was a smith named John Dandy who appears in the Maryland records at the Maryland State Archives during the 1640s. In 1644, he may have made the first gun in the American colonies. In 1647, he claimed to have made a gunlock 8 years earlier, probably in England, since he arrived in Maryland in 1642.
1650 In 1650, Lord Baltimore appointed Robert Brooke to a position in the Province of Maryland. Brook arrived from England on June 30, 1650, with his wife, 8 sons, 2 daughter, 28 servants and his hounds.
1656 John Hammond’s description of 1656 Virginia describes “Water-fowl of all sorts are… plentiful and easy to be killed…. Deer all over the country, and in many places so many that venison is accounted a tiresome meat; wild turkeys are frequent, and so large that I have seen weigh near threescore pounds.”
1679 At a plantation on Chesapeake Bay, Jasper Danckaerts, visiting America 1679-80, noted, “There was a boy about twelve years old who took aim at them from the shore, not being able to get within good shooting distance of them, but nevertheless shot loosely before they flew away, and hit only three or four, complained of his shot, as they are accustomed to shoot from six to twelve and even eighteen or more at one shot.”
1782 Colonel John Onslow by Ralph Earl (American painter, 1751-1801)
1705 Robert Beverley’s 1705 description of Virginia declared that: “I am but a small Sports-man, yet with a Fowling-Piece, have kill’d above Twenty [wild fowl] at a Shot.”
1710 When explorer John Lawson sailed to the Carolinas in 1701, he noted that even "the meanest Planter" in America could enjoy hunting. "A poor Labourer, that is Master of his Gun" might hunt under the law.
1769 Gilbert Stuart (American artist, 1755-1828) The Hunter Dogs
1710-50 German and Swiss rifle makers in Pennsylvania began producing flintlocks suitable for use on the American frontier around 1710. Settlers soon began "shooting at a mark" to sharpen their skills. The mark was usually a knot on a tree or an "x" marked on a slab of wood. Villages and settlements had a shooting matches on weekends and holidays, often attracting a hundred or more marksmen. A common target was a piece of board, blackened in the smoke of a fire or charred, on which an X was slashed with a knife, the intersection marking the centre. Shooting at a wooden figure of a bird atop a pole, as crossbowmen had in the Middle Ages, was also a popular target. Live turkey shooting—the bird tethered behind a box or rock so that only the neck and head showed—was a standard event. The first forms of these public competitions were "rifle frolics" or "turkey shoots," offering prizes of beef, turkey, or other food items. Matches were usually one-shot affairs fired from a distance of 250-330 feet from either the standing or rest shooting positions.
18C English woodcut
1732 Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County in Virginia founded a neighborhood pack of hounds called Castle Hill Hounds.
1747 The earliest surviving record of American fox hunting in the modern manner, by what is now known as an organized hunt, maintained for the benefit of a group of foxhunters rather than for a single owner, is instituted by Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax in 1747, in northern Virginia.
1750-1776 Prominent colonials who maintained foxhound packs included Maryland’s Charles Carroll and George Calvert and Virginia’s Charles Lee and George Washington. Washington's diaries indicate a great enthusiasm for the sport. He was first introduced to fox hunting, while in his teens by Lord Thomas Fairfax, who settled in Virginia in 1746. Fairfax was a devoted fox hunter who brought his horses and hounds with him from England.
Unknown American artist, The Start of the Hunt 1780
Between 1759 and 1774, Washington spent a great deal of time breeding his own hounds, giving them such romantic names as Musick, Countess, and Truelove. He inspected his kennels twice daily and hunted the dogs several days a week from September until May. Often he would hunt with his neighbors’ packs as well. Mount Vernon was frequently aswarm with guests from near and far, who rode with him to the hounds. They would take the field at dawn after a candlelight breakfast of corncakes and milk. A typical Washington diary entry of the time is one of January 1, 1768: “Fox Hunting in my own Neck with Mr. Robt. Alexander and Mr. Colvill. Catched nothing.” And February 12 of the same year: “Went fox-hunting with Colonel Fair-fax, Capn. McCarty, Mr. Chichester, Posey, Ellzey and Manley, who dined here with Mrs. Fairfax and Miss Nicholas—catched two foxes.”
1783 Reclining Hunter by Ralph Earl (American painter, 1751-1801)
1757 Charles Lee was reputed to be so fond of his pack that he allowed the hounds to follow him everywhere, even to his host’s dining table when visiting. Little is recorded about Thomas Jefferson’s taste for the sport, although it was reported, that while in his teens (1757), “attending the Reverend Mr. Maury’s School in Virginia,” Jefferson fox-hunted on foot with his classmates. “A little later, however, he rode to hounds and was both enthusiastic and capable.”
Unknown American artist, The End of the Hunt 1780
1766 One of the 1st the organized hunting clubs was established near Philadelphia on October 29, 1766: the Gloucester Foxhunting Club. Its initial meet of 27 members was held on the grounds of the Philadelphia Coffee House on the corner of Front and Market streets. From then on, hunts were held regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays. Philadelphia gentry hastened to join: Benjamin Chew, one-time chief justice of the Pennsylvania supreme court; James Wharton and John Cadwallader, from distinguished Philadelphia families; Thomas Mifflin, later a Revolutionary general and member of the First Continental Congress; and Robert Morris, financier and later United States senator from Pennsylvania, among others. Articles were drawn up including a call for dues of 5 pounds “current money” to be paid for the upkeep of the pack. In 1774, the members decided to add an air of elegance to their sport, adopting a uniform of a dark-brown coat with “lapelled dragoon pockets, white buttons and frock sleeves, buff waistcoat and breeches, and a black velvet cap.”
1768 On Long Island in New York, fox hunting was introduced shortly after the Gloucester Hunt began, when an Englishman named John Evers began to hunt his own hounds near Hempstead in 1768. He imported dogs, horses, and huntsmen from the British Isles.
18C English woodcut
1774 James Yeomen and John Collins, watchmakers, advertised their ability to repair guns for "Gentlemen." All the advertisements targeted gentlemen and promised guns "as neat as in England." New-York Gazette (September 18 1769, November 7, 1774)
1776 The new Pennsylvania constitution spoke to hunting in that state, "The inhabitants of this state shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times on the lands they hold, and on all other lands therein not inclosed; and in like manner to fish in all boatable waters, and others not private property."
1781 Hunting was enjoyed in Brooklyn as early as 1781, although no formally organized hunt existed there until 1856. A notice appeared in the Royal Gazette on November 14, 1781, reading: “Hounds will throw off at Denyse’s Ferry, on the estate of Denyse Denyse, Esq., at the Narrows [now Fort Hamilton] at 9 o’clock, Thursday morning, and a guinea will be given for a good, strong, bag fox.” (A bag fox is one brought to the hunt in a sack and turned loose to give the horses chase.)
1783 A subscription hunt (one where the members subscribe by paying dues), the St. George Hunt, was formed on Long Island in 1783. It listed active members as Henry Astor, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Charles Lee, and George Washington.
1784 Gentleman by Ralph Earl (American painter, 1751-1801)
1805 Benjamin Waldron also opened a sports garden in New York City in 1805. He erected a target range in the field adjoining his garden and offered free use of the field pluse target to "gentlemen, civil or military" to whom he would sell powder, balls, flints, and liquors of the best kinds.
1814 Even New York City, on the island of Manhattan, produced a hunting club, the Belvidere, shortly after the War of 1812. Edward Prime was the founder, and he called the meets in front of Cato’s Inn, situated at what is now Sixty-seventh Street and Third Avenue. Cato’s took its name from the owner, Cato Alexander, a popular black man who catered to the foxhunter trade.
1822 William N. Blane, an Englishman traveling through America in 1822 and 1823, described the astonishment when he informed Americans that British game laws prohibited hunting deer in public lands, and even limited hunting on one’s own land to the wealthy. “Such flagrant injustice appeared to them impossible….”