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Amusements - Outdoor Sports

( Originally Published 1902 )

AT all seasons of the year, the New Yorker was fond of both outdoor and indoor amusements. The traditional sour-visaged Puritan would have been out of place here. There was singing, dancing and feasting all the year round. In the winter there was shooting, skating and sleighing. In 1704, Madame Knight noticed the pleasure-loving character of the town :

"They are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had been. . . They are sociable to one another, and courteous and civil to strangers and fare well in their houses. . . . Their diversion in the winter is riding sleys about three miles out of town, where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery ; and some go to friends' houses, who handsomely treat them. Mr. Borroughs carry'd his spouse and daughter and myself out to one Madame Dowe's, a gentlewoman that lived at a farm-house who gave us entertainment of five or six dishes, and choice beer and methegolin, cyder, etc. all which she said was the product of her farm.

` I believe we met fifty or sixty sleys that day; they fly with great swiftness, and some are so furious that they'll turn out of the path for none but a loaden cart. Nor do they spare for any diversion the place affords, and sociable to a degree, their tables being as free to their neighbours as to themselves."

The absence of anything approaching asceticism in the character of the community as a whole became still more marked as wealth increased. Deep drinking and gambling both were very prevalent. Men of all classes celebrated the New Year with revelry which sometimes terminated tragically. It was difficult to stop gambling. In 1742, it was declared that gaming at taverns and other public-houses for money or strong liquors had by fatal experience been found to be attended with many evil consequences not only by violating and corrupting the manners of the people, encouraging them to idleness, deceit and many other immoralities, but that it had a manifest tendency to the ruin of many. It was therefore enacted that if any innkeeper should thenceforth keep any billiard table, truck-table, or shuffleboard-table, and permit anybody to game by day or night, he should be fined twenty shillings for each offence. He was also to be fined if he allowed any youths under the age of 21, or any apprentice, journeyman, servant, or common sailor to gamble with dice or cards. Thus gambling was reserved for merchants and the gentry.

Lotteries, when properly authorized, were scarcely recognized as a form of gambling. They were used for all sorts of purposes, such as building gaols, hos pitals, colleges and churches, and for disposing of real estate. When, however, people began to multiply lotteries for individual profit, laws were made to stop them. In 1747, an Act against private lotteries was passed to remedy the " pernicious consequences to the public by encouraging numbers of labouring people to assemble at taverns where such lotteries are usually set on foot and drawn." At a lottery in 1765 some of the prizes were : curious silver coffeepots, tankards, pint mugs, sauce-boats, punch-strainers, curious chiming table clocks, gold rings, gold rings set with diamonds, snuff-boxes, beautiful French fans, shoe and knee-buckles, silk umbrellas, and a library of books, including Swift, Pope, Addison, Shakespeare, Gay, Smollett, Hume, Steele and Lady Montagu's Letters of Travel.

Shooting was a favourite sport, and there was plenty of game at hand. We have already seen that for a long time it was customary for people to shoot over other men's land. Deer were scarce in the immediate neighbourhood of the city, but plentiful on Long Island. In 1706, an Act to preserve deer made a close season from January 1 to August 1, in Suffolk, Queens, Kings, Westchester and Richmond.

Fatal accidents due to carelessness or defective sight, when one hunter mistook another for the game, were as common then as now. These were sometimes reported rather flippantly.

One of these, in 1734, reads :

"We hear that on Tuesday last one Reinier Sickelse, at Gravesend on Long island, being out a Hunting and by Chance espied a Fox, which he pursued, and after some time thought he saw the Fox, behind some Bushes, and Fired at it ; but when he came to the Place (without doubt to his great amazement) he found that he had shot a Woman who was busy gathering some Berries. The fatal mistake was occasioned by her wearing an Orange Brown Wast-Coat. The Man is in a very melancholi condition."

Another reads (1754) :

"A melancholy affair happened near this City. One Jacob Kool, in his rounds a gunning, noticed something moving in a thicket of bushes and not readily distinguishing the object, imagined it to be a bear; and having no bullets about him, withdrew to a neighbouring house and requested a number, telling the people there was such a beast at a small distance. Upon this two of the inhabitants, one Johan Baltas Dash, and a negro man, taking down their pieces, they all three loaded with balls, and coming near the thicket, Kool discharged his gun into the middle of it, as did likewise the others, when hearing a groan and seeing the motion of a man's leg, they found their mistake. It afterwards proved to be the body of Mr. Cornelius Vonk of this City, who walking out to refresh himself, laid down under the thicket to rest, where, it is supposed, he fell asleep. The Jury brought in their verdict Chance medley. (Short-sighted persons are not fit to go a gunning ; they there-fore would do well to go to Ohio, where, as they can't see distinctly, they may kill as many Frenchmen as they please instead of bears.) "

There was great complaint in 1759 that it was unsafe to walk in Mr. Bayard's woods on account of the fowling there.

Game preserves were kept by some of the gentry, as has already appeared in the case of Governor Cosby. The close seasons established for various kinds of game point to a desire to maintain good sport. Additional evidence of this occurred during the severe winter of 1764–5 when the mercury fell to 35° below zero. On January 31st, we learn :

" The late severe weather having destroyed great numbers of small birds and seeming to threaten an extinction of the species of several sorts, at least for some years to come in these parts, especially quails, we hear several gentlemen have caught and purchased considerable numbers of them which they keep in cages properly sheltered from the cold, and feed, in order to set them at liberty in the Spring to preserve the breed."

Besides game-preserves, some of the rich gentry had deer-parks. In 1749, John Schuyler advertised :

"Whereas some persons have of late entered the park of the Subscriber, on New Barbadoes Neck, in the County of Bergen, and have there shot and killed some of my deer in said park. These are therefore to forbid all persons to enter into said park, or to carry a musket or firelock on any of my en-closed lands or meadows without my leave first obtained for so doing under the penalty of being prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law."

Mr. Schuyler offered £3 for evidence of anyone having killed his deer. Good marksmanship was cultivated in New York, even as it was on the frontier. Sometimes a shooting-match was held in the form of a sweepstakes, the prize being some object of value instead of money. On one occasion the prize was a house and lot ; on another, a gold watch. In 1734, we read "To be shot for, a lot of land 37 ft. 6 in. broad in Sacket's Street. April 7th, 8th, 9th, loth (Easter) one ball at loo yards, at the Sign of the Marlborough Head in Bowery Lane, 5 sh per shot, best shot in the four days to have the lot." One of these advertisements gave an unusually minute description of a fashionable piece of furniture of the day (1753) :

" To be shot for on the 22d of January next, a good mahogany chest of drawers, with eagles' claw feet, a shell on each knee and fluted corners, with good brass work and locks. Those that intend to try their fortune for the same, may apply to Mr. George Peters in Broad Street, where they may see the above. There will be twenty chances at 14/- each chance."

Boating and fishing were largely indulged in. Pleasure boats were at the wharves of every country seat that had a water-front. In 1732, Gov. Montgomerie's " fine large barge, with awning and damask curtains " was sold at public vendue. In 1736, Captain Rickets's Pleasure Boat was to be sold (being very well fitted). " The yacht or Pleasure Boat belonging to Captain Roddam, with good sails, rigging," etc., was offered for sale at Mr. Ackland's Coffee House in 1751.

Out-of-door games were extensively played on the Common and other open spaces in the city, as well as outside its limits. Bowls was played in many a garden as well as on its special green near the Fort. Golf was no stranger to officers and gentry. In 1729, Governor Burnet's inventory mentions " Nine gouff clubs, one iron ditto and seven dozen balls." This governor was an enthusiastic sportsman. He owned five cases of foils, an extra one, three fowling-pieces and a cane fishing-rod. Other games were fives, tennis and cricket. In 1766 " James Rivington imported battledores and shuttlecocks, cricket-balls, pillets, best racquets for tennis and fives, backgammon tables with men, boxes and dice." Cards were imported in enormous quantities.

Besides sea-fishing, the rod and fly afforded exercise and enjoyment. Sea-bathing also had its votaries. In 1760, an advertisement read : A cold Bathing-house opposite to Mr. Nicholas Roosevelt, at the North River, is kept in order for the use of gentle-men or ladies by Abraham Fincher, who takes care to have the water let in every tide and has it convenient for use from half flood to half ebb." In 1769, a cork-cutter named Jarvis Roebuck, who lived at the foot of Pot Baker's Hill and also " sold all sorts of cork and corks," informed the public that he had " cork jackets of different prices for swimming, which has saved many from drowning."

Cockfighting was a popular pastime. Silver and steel spurs were on sale in many stores. " Very good cocks " were to be procured at the sign of the FightInc,- Cocks near the Gentleman's Coffee House. The less fashionable Dog's Head in the Porridge Pot also supplied them. Bull-baiting was one of the joyous sports patronized by the gentry. Bulls were baited on Bayard's Hill at the fresh-water pump. In 1774, " John Cornell, near St. George's Ferry, Long Island, gave public notice that there would be a bull baited on Tower Hill at three P. M. every Thursday during the season." (See page 271.)

The Long Island plains afforded splendid runs for foxhounds, and in the Autumn, when the fields had been reaped, packs had the right to hunt over them. The hounds often met in Bergen Woods also.

The English love of horseflesh early displayed it-self here. Colonel Nicholls, the first English governor, ordered that a stake should be run for on the present site of Garden City, which was then known as Salisbury Plain. This plain, sixteen miles in length and four in breadth, was covered with fine turf and entirely destitute of trees. From its resemblance to Newmarket Heath, the course was called Newmarket, and the first race was run there about 1666. From 1670, there were two race-meetings a year till 1775, and these were attended by the gentry of New York and New England. There were several other courses on Long Island, particularly one around Beaver Pond, Jamaica. The value of the plate varied. Two examples will suffice :

" On Monday last ended the races round Beaver Pond near Jamaica, L. I., for a purse of £12, which was won by a gelding from Maryland belonging to Mr. John Combes of Jamaica." (June 3, 1755.)

"N. Y. Freemason Purse of £1oo to be run for around the Beaver Pond at Jamaica, L. I., best 2 of 3 heats, each heat 3 times round the pond—whole bred English only excepted." (Apr. 23rd, 1763.)

To improve the native breed, the very best foreign blood was imported, and before long there was great rivalry between English and American horses. In 1764, at the Newmarket races, the 50 purse was run for by Mr. Smith's bay horse Hero, Mr. Thorne's grey horse Starling, and Mr. Leary's bay horse Old England, all bred in and imported from England. Starling won first and second heat, successively, winning the purse. The keenness of the rivalry between the native and foreign stock may be seen in the following notice that appeared May 16, 1768 :

" The Hundred Pounds purse at Upper Marlborough, has been won by Dr. Hamilton's English horse Figure, beating the, hitherto, terrific Salem. As many incidents occur in a four mile heat, and we have no particulars of the sport, it is but justice to the gallant American that the public should suspend its decisive opinion until the champions have met at Philadelphia, next October ; when the vanquished may recover, or the victor be confirmed in the triumphant post which, to the astonishment of thousands, he has so successfully contended for. Figure was got by a beautiful horse of that name, the property of the Duke of Hamilton; ran five times in England and won one plate; he also started two years ago against five horses at Annapolis and beat them in four fine heats. Salem, a grandson of Godolphin Arabian, and got by Governor Sharp's valiant Othello, has run about nine times, and till this event proved in every dispute unconquerable. The gentlemen of Philadelphia have raised a purse of £100 and two of 50 each, to be run for over their course in the Fall. The particulars adapted to the late increase of fine horses in the Northern Colonies will be advertised very soon."

Some of these events attracted great crowds. In June, 1750, we are told : " Last Friday a great horse race was run at Hempstead Plains for a considerable wager, which engaged the attention of so many of this city that upwards of seventy chairs and chaises were carried over the ferry from hence the day before, besides a far greater number of horses, and it was thought that the number of horses in the plains at the race far exceeded a thousand." The New York sporting men, however, were not content to go only to those places. Courses were often improvised on Manhattan Island, and even within the city itself. In 1736, it was announced :

"On Wed. Oct. 13, next, will be run for on the course at N. Y. a plate of £20 value, by any horse, mare or gelding, carrying 10 stone (saddle and bridle included) the best of three heats, two miles each heat. Horses intended to run for this plate are to be entered the day before the race with Francis Child, on Fresh Water Hill, paying a half pistole each, or at the post on the day of running, paying a pistole. And the next day will be run for on the same course, by all or any of the horses that started for the £20 plate (the winning horse excepted) ; the entrance money on the condition above. Proper judges will be named to determine any disputes that may arise. All persons on horseback or in chaises coming into the field (the subscribers and winning horses only excepted) are to pay 6d. each to the owner of the ground."

There was a beautiful race-course on the Lispenard meadows in Greenwich village, near the seats of Sir Peter Warren, Abraham Mortier, William Bayard and James Tauncey. Another private track belonging to the De Lanceys was on First and Second Streets fronting the Bowery. Here were held many trials of speed. Sometimes trials were held on the public roads. One of these is noticed on April 29, 1754: " Tuesday morning last a considerable sum was de-pending between a number of gentlemen in this city on a horse starting from one of the gates of the city to go to Kingsbridge and back again, being fourteen measured miles (each way) in two hours time ; which he performed with one rider in 1hr. and 46 min."

This horse belonged to Oliver De Lancey, who was one of the most enthusiastic patrons of the turf in that day. The De Lanceys and Morrises spent large sums on their studs and owned many famous horses. Other owners and breeders included General Monckton, Anthony Rutgers, Timothy Cornell, Roper Dawson, the Earl of Stirling, Captain Heard, Israel Waters, and the Cornelis of Long Island. Racing was not confined to those who could keep regular training stables. There were opportunities for small farmers and tradesmen to test many of their horses.

The sporting gentry of New York thronged not only to their own and the Long Island courses, but to Powles Hook, Perth Amboy, and Elizabethtown. In 1774, the Continental Congress suppressed this kind of sport when Article 8 agreed to " discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments."

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