- Historic Sites
Fox Hunting In America
Riding to hounds has been as much of a sport among well-to-do Americans as among the British gentry
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The fox-hunting costume is designed to be practical as well as handsome. The leaders of the hunt, that is, the MFH and the huntsman, wear scarlet coats so that they will be easily visible at all times, even in the midst of a deep forest. These scarlet coats are called pinks, not because of their hue, but because the original hunting coat was designed long ago by an English tailor named Pink. Sometimes an exceptionally good rider who has demonstrated skill, loyalty, and experience will be allowed to wear the scarlet coat, thus making it an object of prestige. Women (although this may soon change) are not allowed to wear scarlet coats unless they happen to be Masters of Foxhounds. They, as well as the rest of the field, customarily wear black, gray, or tweed jackets and tan breeches flared at the thigh and very tight at the calf, so as to be easily tucked into the high black or brown boots. The outfit is set off by a white stock, a sort of ascot that can be pressed into service as a bandage or sling in case of emergency; it is held in place by a simple gold stock pin placed horizontally, never vertically, to avoid injury to the chin. Hard headgear, either a derby or a black velvet hat, is always worn and is constructed to protect the wearer from low tree branches or a nasty tumble on the head; the crown is lined with cork or some other durable material. Finally, leather gloves are worn to save the hands from chafing reins, or string gloves in rainy weather.
The exact origins of fox hunting, both here and abroad, are clouded by incomplete and often contradictory facts and by fictions as well. But as Dixon Wecter points out in his Saga oj American Society, “Society has always adored both horses and dogs.” Thus it was only logical that when the fox—an animal who proved to be much cleverer than the stag or hare- turned out to be catchable by use of the combination, fox hunting became firmly entrenched in the aristocratic way of life. Hounds have always been kept for hunting purposes in Europe; for many centuries the stag, boar, and hare were pursued in one fashion or another, as witness the countless tapestries and paintings with this theme. And it appears that hounds were first used to hunt various and sundry pests, such as opossums, wolves, raccoons, and foxes, in the Colonies sometime in the second half of the seventeenth century.
The history of American fox hunting seems to fall quite naturally into several distinct time periods. The first encompasses the colonial days up until the Revolution. The sport at first consisted of the colonials and their untrained dogs chasing a fox now and then “in between Indian vigils.” By 1775 fox hunting was firmly entrenched as a somewhat organized sport. The next period ranges from 1781 to 1861, when foxes were hunted quite regularly by wealthy landowners in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. A pack of hounds became as integral a part of a gentleman’s assets as his “horses, slaves and guns.”
From 1865 to 1906 many organized hunts sprang up, with seventy-six known in North America as of 1904, and the sport spread into the North and westward toward the Mississippi. With the establishment of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America in 1907, fox hunting became increasingly regulated. Since then the sport has grown steadily in popularity.
On record, the first gentleman to have a pack of hunting dogs in the Colonies was a well-to-do Londoner named Robert Brooke, who arrived in Prince Georges County, Maryland, on June 3o, 1650, the recipient of a two-thousand-acre plot from Lord Baltimore to be developed into a successful plantation. Brooke settled in with wife, ten children, twenty-eight servants, and hounds. It is unlikely that the dogs were brought over for the express purpose of chasing foxes. Back in England they had probably served as harriers or all-purpose hunting dogs. In fact the first known packs of foxhounds were not recorded in England until 1666; they belonged to a Viscount Lowther. Others were reported belonging to Lord Arundell of Wardour in 1690 and to Thomas Boothby of Leicestershire in 1698. However, at this stage fox hunting was no more formalized a sport than was the shooting of squirrels. To understand this, we should take a look at Reynard himself.
The fox has always been the farmer’s enemy, and in those early days he was despised as vermin in the class of the rat or weasel, a thief of the worst sort whose wiles made it well-nigh impossible to keep him out of any chicken coop. The fox populations in both England and America were overrunning the countryside, so hunting was less a sport than a necessity.