Part One – Foxhunting Life by Norman Fine
Hunting in the American Colonies (1600s to 1775)
If you were a second son to a family of landed gentry living in your English countryside during the seventeenth or eighteenth century, you would have found your prospects there considerably dimmer than those of your elder brother. Precluded from inheriting your father’s estate, you might have been tempted by land grants offered by the Colonial governors of Maryland or Virginia to emigrate, settle in the New World, and make your fortune here.
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If you had an adventurous soul, you might have packed up your family, children, furniture, and, of course, a few of your foxhounds, and embarked on the voyage. Along with those tangible items, you would have brought your rural culture and a hunting heritage to these Provinces. By carrying on your habitual pursuits, you would make Maryland and Virginia the cradle of North American foxhunting.
In 1650, Lord Baltimore appointed Robert Brooke to the “Privy of the State within our Province of Maryland.” Brooke arrived from England with his wife, eight sons, two daughters, twenty-eight servants, and his hounds. This is the earliest recorded importation of any quantity of hounds to the Colonies. Brooke’s hounds no doubt hunted other game as well as fox, since packs of hounds for hunting the fox exclusively had hardly appeared in England at that early time. The Brooke hound bloodlines were carried on by his sons and their descendants and provided basic stock for American strains fielded today.
From these earliest times, hunting with hounds was carried out in various forms depending on individual circumstances—mounted on horseback, astride mules, and on foot. Family dogs and hounds were taken out at night to hunt ‘vermin’—racoons, opossums, and foxes.
The cultivation of tobacco in Virginia and Maryland ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity in the 1700s, and the planters, who surely loved their horses, built great plantation houses, imported race horses, and rode to hounds in the formal fashion. They cleared land for cultivation and hunted wolves from horseback with hounds to rid their plantations of predators. As the wolves were driven out, it was only natural to continue their exhilarating sport by hunting the native gray fox.
One day in 1730, according to several accounts, a group of tobacco planters on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ chasing red foxes in their mother country. Sadly, hunting the less inspiring native gray foxes in Maryland did not match up, so the men resolved to improve their sport. The captain of the tobacco schooner, Monocacy, which was owned by one of the planters, was instructed to bring back from Liverpool eight brace of red foxes on his next trip. The foxes arrived in due course and were liberated along Maryland’s Eastern Shore with much fanfare, merriment, race meets, and a hunt ball! Some fifty years later, descendants of those imported red foxes would initiate a revolution in hound breeding resulting in what we know today as the American Foxhound.
Another of the earliest private packs in the Colonies was that of Thomas, sixth lord Fairfax, who had inherited more than five million acres of land in Virginia, between the Potomac and the RappahannockRivers. Before moving to Virginia permanently to take control of his inheritance, Fairfax sent hounds to his cousin, George William Fairfax, who was already settled at ‘Belvoir.’
Arriving in 1746, Lord Fairfax spent some time at Belvoir managing his farms and plantations and amusing himself by hunting. In 1748, shortly before establishing his permanent residence at Greenway Court, west of the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, Fairfax hired a sixteen year old family friend named George Washington to help survey his holdings. Under Fairfax’s tutelage, Washington, who eventually gained a reputation as one of the finest horsemen in Virginia, became an avid foxhunter. He wrote, “Lord Fairfax was at this time fifty-nine years old. Although a heavy man, he was an excellent horseman, and, as I was never tired of the saddle, we were much engaged in the hunting of wild foxes.”
As Washington makes clear in his diaries, after leaving Greenway Court and eventually establishing his own pack of hounds at Mount Vernon, he devoted all his spare time to foxhunting up until the eve of Independence. Speaking of Independence, it can be asserted that a foxhunter’s horseflies helped to launch the nation.
Jacob Hiltzheimer was an ardent foxhunter who owned a livery stable very near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson himself enjoyed telling how the horseflies from a nearby livery stable annoyed the members of the Continental Congress as they reviewed his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Wearing short breeches and silk stockings, they were so much engaged in lashing at the buzzing horde with their handkerchiefs, that they were induced to promptly affix their signatures to his document.
Washington wasn’t the only Founding Father to follow hounds. James Parton, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson in the late nineteenth century, tells us that Jefferson was “as eager after a fox as Washington himself.” And Alexander Hamilton’s name was listed among the members of the St. George Hunt Club in 1783.
The first subscription pack of record in North America was the Gloucester Foxhunting Club. It was founded by a group of Philadelphia sportsmen in 1766. For those who believe that foxhunting was never a competitive sport, consider Article XIII of the Club Rules:
“The Sportsman who first touches the fox after the dogs have caught him, or who first touches the tree on which the fox may have taken shelter [our native gray foxes climb trees like a cat!], if he does not make his escape therefrom, shall be entitled to the brush, for which distinguished honor he shall present one dollar to the huntsman. The person taking the brush shall take his seat at dinner on the right hand of the presiding officer of the day.”
Hunting in the United States (1776 to 1900)
The winter of 1779/1780 was climactically historic. Chesapeake Bay froze in the bitter temperatures, and red foxes made their first appearance in Virginia. It is believed that they crossed the ice from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, descendants of the eight braces of English reds imported by the tobacco planters in the 1730s. The extent to which the red foxes that populate the eastern states today are descendants of those original English foxes, or are descended from the red foxes believed to have been indigenous to Canada and the northern climes, or are a combination of both is still a matter for theorizing.
From modest beginnings in Maryland, then to Virginia, the population and range of the red fox increased slowly and steadily. The English hounds that had been imported to the Colonies in earlier times were mostly of the type referred to as the old Southern Hound—slow, deliberate, trailing hounds—probably descendants of the French-Norman hounds brought to southern England after the Norman invasion. They were well suited to hunting the native gray foxes in the Colonies, but were too often at a loss trying to pressure and account for the red foxes. New outcrosses were needed, and most breeders looked to England for bloodlines to increase the speed and drive of their hounds.
Fleet hounds from the Quorn and from other fast running packs in the Shires were tried, but found wanting. Lower scenting hounds with bigger voices were needed in North America, and many sportsmen feared that the appearance of the red fox bespoke the end of foxhunting here.
In 1814, Bolton Jackson, an Irish immigrant to Baltimore, brought two Irish foxhounds—Mountain and Muse, a dog and a bitch—to Maryland, which he presented to Charles Sterrett Ridgley of Oakland Manor near Ellicott City. The two Irish hounds killed foxes with ease, but they were happy to kill anything else that crossed their paths as well, including dogs. Sentenced to death by Mr. Ridgely, they were saved by Benjamin Ogle, Jr. of Belair, who pleaded that they be spared and given into his charge. This was a fortunate rescue, for these two hounds provided essential bloodlines for most of the American hound breeds we know today: Trigg, July, and Walker.
Said the American Turf Register of Mountain and Muse, “They were remarkable, as are their descendants, according to the degree of their original blood, for great speed and perseverance, extreme ardor, and for casting ahead at a loss; and in this, and their shrill chopping unmusical notes, they were distinguished from the old stock of that day; which when they came to a loss, would go back, and, dwelling, take it along, inch by inch, until they got it fairly off again, whilst these Irish hounds would cast widely, and by making their hit ahead, would keep their game at the top of his speed, and break him down in the first hour.”
The bloodlines of Mountain and Muse are widely dispersed across North America today (indeed in England as well) by virtue of the great popularity of the Hardaway Crossbred, the essential and original ingredient of which is the July foxhound. Ben Hardaway, MFH of the Midland Fox Hounds in Georgia, devoted fifty years of study, experimentation, travel, trial and error in developing his ideal foxhound. The American Turf Register’s description of the hunting style of Mountain and Muse is a nineteenth century version of Hardaway’s hunting philosophy which he attributes to his July bloodlines: “short, sharp and decisive.”
The period following the Civil War saw a number of Englishmen emigrating to Virginia. Although there were probably as many reasons as Englishmen who came, one can draw some obvious conclusions. A substantial part of an entire generation of young Virginia men did not return home from that bloody conflict, and large properties in that beautiful countryside were, and would continue to be inherited by women. There must have been a vacuum for men, and it would certainly not be filled at that time by American men from the North.
Many of the Englishmen who came were foxhunters in their native England and were no doubt anxious to organize the sport here along traditional lines. Three of the principal organizers of the Warrenton Hunt (1887) were English emigrés, as were two of the organizers of the Deep Run Hunt (1887). Another Englishman helped form the Blue Ridge Hunt in 1888.
Thus we arrive at the eve of the twentieth century when the northerners—descendants of the Puritans with no sporting history but with wealth and organizational abilities (to be discussed in the next installment)—come together with the southerners—with their hunting heritage, emerging hunt clubs, and magnificent hunting landscape—to establish organized foxhunting as we practice it today in North America.
Norman Fine is the publisher of Foxhunting Life, an e-magazine and website for foxhunters. This article, adapted from material in the author’s first chapter in A Centennial View (MFHA of North America, 2007 and, was prepared for James Barclay’s For the Love of Hunting England’s website.