- 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
There has always been some argument as to which kind of fox was hunted here and, in fact, was even native to the North American continent. Although some experts have it that only the gray fox was found here by the colonists and that red foxes were imported from England in the eighteenth century, this is contradicted by evidence supplied by naturalists at the Smithsonian Institution. They insist that the red fox is indeed indigenous to North America and can be found everywhere today except in the south Atlantic coastal region and Florida, the Pacific coast, the desert areas, and the midwestern plains. Although some English red foxes were imported, they were soon incorporated into our larger-sized strain. In any case the red fox, reputed to be more clever and more speedy than his gray relative, has always predominated in the mid-Atlantic and northern regions, whereas the gray prefers the warmer climes of the South. The gray fox is a better treeclimber than runner; thus he is a less desirable quarry because he doesn’t give his pursuers much of a chase.
Prior to the eighteenth century fox hunting was probably conducted on foot for the most part. At this time many families kept three or four dogs to destroy such marauders as wolves and foxes. The wolf was the first of these animals hunted with hounds and horses in Virginia and Maryland, probably because it was easier for a person on horseback to keep up with the hounds. When the wolf population became depleted in the eighteenth century, the fox was a natural replacement. One fox-hunting authority, J. Blan Van Urk, notes that a bounty on the red fox was recorded “as early as 1714 in New Jersey and 1723 in New York.” In the i73o’s a rising prosperity in Virginia and Maryland led many of the well-to-do to breed fine racehorses as well as hunting horses for sportive riding to hounds. People also began breeding hounds specifically for fox hunting; thus they became foxhounds. Hounds originally fell into four categories, all English strains: the staghound, the southern hound or bloodhound, the fox beagle, and the harrier. As these breeds were crossed and mixed, a good foxhound was eventually developed.
One of the early private hunting packs of pre-Revolutionary days employed strictly for hunting foxes belonged to Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County, Virginia, later a member of the House of Burgesses. He founded the Castle Hill Hounds in 1742, having imported his dogs from England. Othei prominent colonials who maintained foxhound packs included Maryland’s Charles Carroll and George Calvert and Virginia’s Charles Lee and George Washington. Washington, not even excepting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, must be the best-known fox hunter of all time, and his diaries indicate a great enthusiasm for the sport. He was first introduced to it while in his teens by Lord Thomas Fairfax, who settled in Virginia in 1746. Fairfax was a devoted fox hunter who brought his horses and hounds with him from England. Between 1759 and 1774 Washington spent a great deal of time and effort breeding his own hounds, giving them such romantic names as Musick, Countess, and Truelove. He inspected his kennels twice daily and hunted the dogs several days a week from September until May. Often he would hunt with his neighbors’ packs as well. Mount Vernon was frequently aswarm with guests from near and far—mostly Maryland and Virginia- who rode with him to the hounds. They would take the field at dawn after a candlelight breakfast of corncakes and milk. A typical Washington diary entry of the time is one of January i, 1768: “Fox Hunting in my own Neck with Mr. Robt. Alexander and Mr. Colvill. Catched nothing.” And February 12 of the same year: “Went fox-hunting with Colonel Fair-fax, Capn. McCarty, Mr. Chichester, Posey, Ellzey and Manley, who dined here with Mrs. Fairfax and Miss Nicholas—catched two foxes.”
Washington cut a dashing figure in the field astride his favorite hunter, Blueskin. He possessed a wardrobe, as described by social historian Foster R. Dulles, of “riding frocks, waistcoats of superfine scarlet cloth and gold lace … elegant buckskin breeches … all specially made in England.” Martha, when she occasionally joined him, also wore scarlet.
Washington gave up the sport at the onset of the Revolution, of course. Afterward he tried to pick it up again; Lafayette even sent him a pack of French staghounds in 1785, although these proved unsatisfactory for fox hunting. But more urgent matters forced him to break up his kennels and give away all his dogs in 1787.
There were, however, other prominent Virginians who hunted foxes. Charles Lee was reputed to be so fond of his pack that he allowed the hounds to follow him everywhere, even to his host’s dining table when visiting (just as to his own). Little is recorded about Thomas Jefferson’s taste for the sport, although Van Urk says that while in his teens (1757), “attending the Reverend Mr. Maury’s School in Virginia,” Jefferson fox-hunted on foot with his classmates. “A little later, however, he rode to hounds and was both enthusiastic and capable.” But being more scholarly and serious than Washington, Jefferson did not become a lifelong devotee.