Uncovering the Origins of ‘English-Style’ Hunting and Equestrianism in Rural Virginia

By Dean Allen

Middleburg, Virginia, lies some 40 miles from the American capital Washington D.C. yet there is something quintessentially ‘English’ about the town and its surrounding areas. The National Sporting Library and Museum is also located here and houses one of North America’s most impressive collections of historic hunting and equestrian related material. Washington - Fox HunterAs a recipient of the John H. Daniels Research Fellowship, I was given access to both this collection and life in this unique part of the United States during the summer of 2013. Several months of living and working in rural Virginia gave me a privileged insight into the culture and identity of this region at the centre of which lies a rich history of English-style hunting and equestrianism.

Further investigation reveals that while forms of modern sport became entrenched within American society during the mid to late 19th Century, equestrian sports and hunting with hounds (in the traditional English manner) were established much earlier in Colonial Virginia. Arriving with the first colonists, these English upper-class pastimes became a vital part of English identity in Virginia and were used by many to recreate a sense of ‘Englishness’ throughout the new territory. Nowhere more so than in the region around Middleburg where records show that organised fox hunts had taken place as early as the mid 1660s.[1] A century later, a young George Washington (pictured) would lead his own pack on his Estate at Mount Vernon and continue a legacy of equestrianism and field sports that defines the ‘English’ of Virginia to this day.

By the end of the 17th century the wide-scale production of Tobacco had transformed both Virginia’s landscape and economy and the use of horses for both business and recreation became a feature of this boom. “Fine houses, carriages, racehorses and foxhunting were the most obvious signs of wealth”[2] and for the growing bourgeoisie, upper-class English-pursuits were considered essential to establish one’s status within the new Colony. Following the founding of Williamsburg as the Virginian capital at the dawn of the eighteenth century, the colony expanded taking on the motto En dat Virginia Quintum (Behold, Virginia gives the fifth [Kingdom]) – ranking herself with the king’s other claimed dominions, England, Scotland, Ireland, and France.[3]

Despite eventually leaving the British Empire, Virginians would continue to share the aristocratic leisure pursuits of their counterparts across the Atlantic. With its cultural lead coming from England, hunting with hounds in particular became “the principal field sport of the landed gentry”[4] throughout the new State. Dress, behavior, even imported foxes and hounds from the ‘Old Country’ ensured that huntsmen from Virginia and neighbouring Maryland could “secure the same sport that many of them had enjoyed in England.”[5] Horse racing and polo too became entrenched in re-affirming the cultural links with Englishness and both sports, alongside fox hunting, remain, as I discovered, an integral part of Virginia’s social landscape to this day.

 


[1] See R. Longrigg (1975) The History of Foxhunting. New York: Potter

[2] Ibid., 169.

[3] P. Rouse (1975) Virginia. A Pictorial History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. P.5.

[4] A. Mackay-Smith (1968) The American Foxhound 1747-1967. Virginia: American Foxhound Club, p 1.

[5] J. Blan. van Urk (1941) The Story of American Foxhunting. New York: Derrydale, p.1.