Race week in Williamsburg was the major sports event in the New World and the biggest social event in Virginia. With an influx of 4,000 guests from all over the colony, the population of the town tripled. Thoroughbred horse ownership was almost too commonplace to be commented on by visiting Englishmen. Colonel George Washington owned and raced horses. He also contributed each year to the subscription purses at Williamsburg, Alexandria and Annapolis and was a steward of the Alexandria course, accepting entries and settling disputes. The leading owner, however, was John Baylor, who kept nearly 100 horses, many of them imported, at his plantation, which he called Newmarket after the English course.
Baylor made his reputation in 1764 when he bought a big, powerful grandson of the Godolphin Arabian named Fearnaught. The total cost to import him, including shipping, was �289, 5 shillings, 6 pence. Until Diomed was imported after the Revolution, Fearnaught was perhaps the most important sire in the colonies. Baylor's chief rival was Colonel John Tayloe II, an intimate friend of George Washington (though Tayloe disapproved of the Declaration of Independence), whose estate, Mt. Airy on the Rappahannock, had a private racecourse. There Tayloe trained his mare Jenny Cameron, which he bought in England, and homebreds Traveller and Yorick, two of the best-known horses in America.
Washington made small bets all his life, carefully recording wins and losses in his diary. By contrast, in England, Robert Pigott thought nothing of betting �5,000 on a single race. Pigott was famous for having bet the son of Sir William Codrington that Pigott's father would outlive the elder Codrington, a wager that excited much interest, since Pigott's father was already dead, a fact of which the son was unaware. (The courts ruled that it was a valid bet, and Pigott had to turn over 500 guineas.) Being accustomed to this sort of traditional silly English behavior, travelers were somewhat condescending about the staid behavior of American horsemen. True, a physician named John Ferdinand Dalziel Smyth, well dressed and of superior bearing, informed the locals that they need not be ashamed of their sport. "Very capital horses are started here," he wrote in a two-volume book on his travels in America, "such as would make no despicable figure at Newmarket." Unfortunately, Smyth was really an indentured servant in disguise.
The boom in thoroughbred racing in the settled regions along the coast drove quarterhorse racing into the back-lands. In the late 18th century fashionable people ridiculed this distinctively American sport, which originated in the first settlement at Jamestown. The road between the settlement and the governor's plantation had a quarter-mile straightaway, and on Sundays following church people raced their horses there. After a century of breeding for these sprints, the Virginia horses developed what an English observer called "astonishing velocity."
The best contemporary account of a quarterhorse race was written by Thomas Anburey, who happened upon one near Charlottesville, Va. These were always match races, often followed by a prizefight and attended by tough backwoodsmen. A convenient stretch of level road no longer sufficed; instead, two parallel paths, about 20 feet apart, formed the track. At a quarter of a mile no English horse could beat the American-bred animals. They were trained for an instantaneous start, while English horses required "some time before they are able to get into full speed.... It is the most ridiculous amusement imaginable," Anburey concluded, "for if you happen to be looking another way, the race is terminated before you can turn your head."
Lord Adam Gordon, easily pleased as he was ("Their Cyder far exceeds any Cyder I ever tasted at home") was particularly impressed with Virginia. "Upon the whole, was [it] the case to live in America, this Province, in point of Company and Climate, would be my choice in preference to any, I have yet seen." He forgot he had said much the same thing about the country around St. Augustine, Fla. only 12 pages before. "The Women make excellent Wives..." he went on about Virginia, "and what is remarkable in a Stay I have made of near a Month in the Province—I have not heard of one unhappy couple." He may not have looked very hard. Nor did Lord Adam look very long at lower-class life.
Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress and an authority on Colonial society, has written, "No historian has yet discovered a satisfactory record of the lives, thoughts, and feelings of the lower classes in colonial Virginia." One reason was the violence that surged through life at this level, which offended English travelers. In their prizefights "the lower classes display such barbarity as fully marks their innate ferocious disposition," was a typical expression of the visitors' disdain. "An English boxing match, though a disgrace to a polished nation, is humanity itself, compared to the Virginian mode of fighting."
There were three categories of prizefighting in the colonies. In the first, biting was permitted in addition to the normal fisticuffs, kicks and wrestling. In the second, both biting and eye-gouging were allowed. In the third, biting and eye-gouging were supplemented by an activity that Anburey could hardly bring himself to mention, since the objective was to castrate one's opponent—"(if I may so term it) Abelarding each other." When the rules had been set and the contestants had agreed on how far they would go in maiming each other, "they instantly fall to, and after some little struggling, seize upon their adversaries with their teeth."
No English visitor actually provided an eyewitness account of such a match. There were references to one-eyed giants around backwoods taverns, the survivors of these battles, and of fights between slaves. (In a later generation Tom Molineaux was given his freedom for having beaten a slave from another plantation who was a dangerous bully. Molineaux went to England, where in 1810 he fought Tom Cribb for the championship of England before a crowd of 25,000—a winning fight for Molineaux until trickery by Cribb's seconds undid him.) The fights welled out of travelers' reports as sudden discordant revelations of the violence underlying a peaceful world. They were inexplicable and monstrous, crippling, even terminal, evoking terror partly because of their contrast with the pleasant existence around them. When the Revolution began, it evoked much the same response from English observers, who seemed to be totally unaware that the actions of their own government might have been a precipitating cause. They saw the Revolution as a perverse eruption of hatred in a natural paradise. "Pity these infatuated people cannot be content to enjoy such a country in peace," wrote Lord Harris, who led British troops at Bunker Hill.
The country grew more peaceful as the traveler left Virginia and approached Philadelphia. An Englishman extolled the Potomac as "one of the finest rivers in the world. I suppose I saw thousands of wild ducks upon it." Another traveler was taken with the Susquehanna in Maryland, where "we saw an amazing number of wild ducks and canvas-backs on it. I'm told there's delightful shooting here." One March day in 1775 a young physician named Robert Honyman, riding from Maryland to Philadelphia, crossed a mill run near the village of Rock Hall. Honyman wrote, "I must mention a thing which will be looked upon as exaggerated or altogether fabulous, yet it is a most certain truth." Looking down as his horse stepped into the water, "I observed the fish to flounce & Jump among my horse's feet & several threw themselves ashore & could scarce get off again; I rid up & down the Run & still found them in the same abundance, though the run was so shallow, they were obliged in many places to swim slanting on their sides...."