- 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 were other fox hunters, however, who lacked the time or wherewithal to own a pack of dogs and so settled on the next best solution: the organized hunting club. The first such club, by all accounts, was established near Philadelphia on October 29, 1766: the Gloucester Foxhunting Club. Its initial meet was held on December 13 of that year, all twentyseven members gathering at the Philadelphia Coffee House on the corner of Front and Market streets. From then on, hunts were held regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays. The elite of Philadelphia hastened to join: Benjamin Chew, one-time chief justice of the Pennsylvania supreme court; James Wharton and John Cadwallader, scions of distinguished Philadelphia families; Thomas Mifflin, later a Revolutionary general and member of the First Continental Congress; and Robert Morris, financier and later United States senator from Pennsylvania, among others. Articles were drawn up including a call for dues of five pounds “current money” to be paid for the upkeep of the pack. When a fox was killed, the members took up a collection in a hat to give to the huntsman. In 1774 the members decided to add an air of elegance to their sport, adopting a uniform that consisted of a dark-brown coat with “lapelled dragoon pockets, white buttons and frock sleeves, buff waistcoat and breeches, and a black velvet cap.”
After 1780 dues rose to a rather steep thirty pounds annually. Although interrupted temporarily by the Revolution (during which twentytwo members formed the First Troop of the Philadelphia City Cavalry), the members continued to hunt thereafter for nearly a half century, and the present-day Rose Tree Foxhunting Club claims to be a direct descendant.
The opening of the hunt season in Washington, D.C., in 1828 prompted this poetic stanza in the American Farmer:
And waken the woods as we thunder along,
While echo on echo redoubles the song;
We waken the woods as we thunder along,
While echo on echo redoubles the song.
On Long Island fox hunting was introduced shortly after the Gloucester Hunt began when an Englishman named John Evers began to hunt his own hounds near Hempstead in 1768. He imported dogs, horses, and huntsmen from the British Isles. The descendants of his hounds were used in the nineteenth century to form the Meadow Brook Hounds, one of whose chief backers was August Belmont, the New York banker and diplomat.
Hunting was enjoyed in Brooklyn as early as 1781, although no formally organized hunt existed there until 1856. A notice appeared in the Royal Gazette on November 14, 1781, reading: “Hounds will throw off at Denyse’s Ferry, on the estate of Denyse Denyse, Esq., at the Narrows [now Fort Hamilton] at 9 o’clock, Thursday morning, and a guinea will be given for a good, strong, bag fox.” (A bag fox is one brought to the hunt in a sack and turned loose. This practice is thought by many to be unsportsmanlike.)
In 1783 a subscription hunt (one where the members subscribe by paying dues), the St. George, was formed on Long Island. It listed such prestigious active members as Henry Astor, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Charles Lee, and George Washington. Most of the other older fox-hunting clubs were established in the 1800’s.
Fox hunting was slower to catch on in Puritan New England, although certainly individuals had maintained hounds for hunting on foot since the founding of the Massachusetts colony. (One resident, a Concord man, wasn’t so enthusiastic about the sport; he is quoted as saying that he considered hunting “a godless custom” and that he regretted the “bringing back of the red coats, which were driven out of Concord in 1775.”) The first organized hunt club in New England did not appear until 1866; it is the Millwood Hunt in Framingham, Massachusetts. A little later (1879) the Myopia Hunt Club grew out of Winchester, Massachusetts, and is now more famous, perhaps, for its polo matches. Tradition has it that its peculiar sobriquet was derived from the fact that nearly all the original members were nearsighted and bespectacled.
Even New York City, on the island of Manhattan, produced a hunting club, the Belvidere, shortly after the War of 1812. Edward Prime was the founder, and he called the meets in front of Cato’s Inn, situated at what is now Sixty-seventh Street and Third Avenue. Cato’s took its name from the owner, Cato Alexander, a popular black man who catered to the foxhunter trade.
The first American military hunting club originated far from the East—in Oklahoma, at Fort Gibson, in 1835. A number of ex-cavalrymen there found fox hunting an excellent diversion from daily routine. They did not, apparently, chase only foxes but pursued any animal that could run.