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Robert Cantwell
December 22, 1975
So wrote one of the British travelers who toured the colonies before the Revolution, enchanted by the natural grandeur, the wealth of sporting life
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December 22, 1975

'america Is Formed For Happiness'

So wrote one of the British travelers who toured the colonies before the Revolution, enchanted by the natural grandeur, the wealth of sporting life

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In Charleston or New York they felt at home. In Philadelphia they never knew what to expect. If they went to Boston, they tried to get away as soon as possible. One of the travelers' tales was that in Boston a thoroughbred dealer had to sneak his prize stallion out of the city—"Otherwise they would have Kill'd him for Horsing a mare on the Lord's Day." This jest must have been good for many a guffaw in London clubs, for it was repeated in one travel book after another. A diary by an unknown visitor, dating from 1747, related the hardships encountered in trying to find something to do in Boston. One Sunday evening about six o'clock he walked to the harbor to look at a ship that had fallen from its cradle as it was being launched. It was the only thing he could find in the way of entertainment. But even this was too high-spirited for Boston: the traveler was threatened with jail for such frivolous behavior on the Sabbath and "I was Escorted to my Lodgings by 3 Constables at my Arse."

The first recorded ball game in Colonial America was reported to have taken place on Christmas Day, 1621. Governor Bradford had given some young newcomers to Plymouth a day off from their labors because of the holiday. Returning from his own work at noon he found them—"lusty yonge men, and many of them wilde enough"—playing stoolball. This was a forerunner of cricket, with an upturned three-legged stool serving as the wicket. Bradford sent the ballplayers back to work.

Edward Taylor, a New England preacher, included innumerable references to games in 217 devotional poems he wrote during his years as a preacher in West-field, Mass., one of which includes the line: "...mine Head's a Bowling Alley. Sins play nine-hole here." Nine-hole was a game like croquet, except that the balls were rolled rather than knocked, and dropped into holes rather than passed through wickets. Taylor also referred to kit-cat, nine-men's morris, noddy, one-and-thirty, fox and geese, put, prisoner's base and other pastimes so obscure no one today knows how they were played. One popular game in New England was known as Last Couple in Hell, which began with a man and woman standing on a base. They were in Hell. From there they tried to trap and capture others and put them in Hell, too. It was a game with moral, not to speak of Freudian, overtones. Everybody ended up in Hell. The most fleet-footed protector of his virtue could only congratulate himself that he had not gone to Hell quite as soon as the other sinners.

Stoolball was played in New England on the eve of the Revolution, as was rounders, a predecessor of baseball in which a runner was out when he was hit between bases by a thrown ball. Cricket was established as a popular sport in England after 1744, when Kent beat All-England, 111 to 110, in the first match for which a complete scorecard is preserved. British officers built a cricket grounds in Boston, for their private amusement. The British had little use for the local populace. Their diaries are full of references to morose, long-faced, unsmiling people, sanctimonious, hypocritical, deluded, self-righteous, disloyal and possessed by a love of money that led them into smuggling and evasion of taxes. They ridiculed the many New England laws governing conduct, alleging that a sea captain might return home after a long voyage and be clapped in the stocks because he kissed his wife on the street on Sunday when she ran to meet him. In relating such strictures they forgot there were then some 200 offenses for which a man could be hanged in England, including consorting with gypsies. Yet it was true, as Jane Mesick wrote in The English Traveller in America , that visitors reported never seeing schoolboys playing games or enjoying the hunting and fishing that travelers reported in the South; it would not be an exaggeration to say that the silence of New England made them uneasy.

New York was always more hospitable than Boston. When the British took New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, one of the first acts of the governor, Richard Nicolls, was to establish a racecourse outside the city, the first in America, not far from where Aqueduct was built 230 years later. One of the earliest English travel books on America was Daniel Denton's A Brief Description of New York formerly Called New Netherlands , published soon after the British moved in. It was also the first account in English of New York State. Denton was enthusiastic about the abundance of fruit found on Long Island. Wild strawberries were so plentiful that in June, when they ripened, the fields suddenly turned red. "Which the Country-people perceiving, instantly arm themselves with bottles of Wine, Cream, and Sugar...and every one takes a Female upon his Horse behind him, and so rushing violently into the fields."

New Yorkers and Englishmen might have been even more friendly had it not been for some of the royal governors appointed to the colony. According to some reports, Governor Sloughter died suffering from delirium tremens, Governor Fletcher was notable only for his friendliness to pirates, Lord Cornbury dressed in women's clothing and caroused in New York dives. "Of all the fatuous rascals who tried to rule the American colonies," wrote Louis Wright in The Colonial Civilization of North America , "Cornbury was one of the least attractive and most avaricious." Royal governors were better behaved in the pre-Revolutionary period, but New York was known as a wide-open town even to Englishmen familiar with Soho.

There were a number of racecourses in the city—one in Greenwich Village, one on a farm in the area that became Times Square, one in Harlem and the most celebrated, the Bowery Lane course, was the stud farm, stable and private track of James De Lancey, the most glittering figure in Colonial American racing history. A street on the city's Lower East Side bears his family's name.

De Lancey was born in 1732 in the New York mansion that later became famous as Fraunces Tavern, where Washington bade farewell to his officers, and last January was damaged by a bomb planted by Puerto Rican separatists. He was educated in England and grew up as a typical English sportsman of the upper class, except that his estate was 3,000 miles from London clubs. He was an enthusiast of cockfighting, producing a breed which he believed could defeat any other in the world. Inheriting enormous wealth, he added to his fortune when he married a daughter of William Allen, a rich Philadelphia sportsman. His sister married Ralph Izard, a leading Charleston horseman. A cousin, Susanna, married Sir William Draper when he finally arrived in New York after his tour of the colonies.

At his private track De Lancey raced against the horses of a number of exalted sportsmen, including William Alexander, who was known as Lord Stirling. The House of Lords rejected Alexander's claim to the title, and threatened to arrest him and force him to march around the Houses of Parliament with the word IMPOSTOR on his back. But Americans accepted the title. De Lancey also raced his best imported horses, Lath and Wildair, in Maryland and Pennsylvania. In New York his principal rival was Lewis Morris Jr., a political as well as a racing opponent. For generations the De Lancey family had pitted itself against the Livingstons for the political dominance of New York, and Morris was allied with the Livingstons. He was also an American patriot who became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while the De Lancey family became the most aggressive of the loyalists. In the heat of their struggle Morris changed the pattern of American racing. He probably was the first owner to employ a professional trainer and jockey. De Lancey replied by spending fortunes importing better mares, including the Cub mare, known as "the grandmother of the American turf," superior even to Kitty Fisher or Selima and, in the words of the American Stud Book, "one of the most valuable mares ever imported into this country."

So racing in New York had a political cast from the start—even the names of the horses. One of the most famous of all Colonial races was a match between True Briton and Old England. A. W. Waters, a resident of Long Island and owner of True Briton, a Maryland-bred horse, issued a challenge to "any horse in America." It was accepted by John Leary, the trainer of Morris' horses, running his own recently imported Old England. Leary was offended by the boastfulness of the challenge and its "illiterate, unsportsmanlike terms." The match itself was anticlimactic: True Briton won easily, distancing Old England in the first heat. Equally anticlimactic was the ending of the De Lancey-Morris rivalry. On the eve of the Revolution, De Lancey sold most of his horses at auction and sailed for England, taking Wildair with him. The American government seized his property, which was sold to 275 separate owners. Morris' stables were burned by loyalists.

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