Gentlemen Afield

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A strange word suddenly appeared in the American vernacular after the Civil War. The word was “sportsman.” It served to define a certain kind of gentleman who took his leisure with rod and gun. And that was the curiosity of it, for the pursuit of fish and game on this continent had seldom before been associated with leisure. One hunted or fished in order to eat. The rod and the gun rested next to the ploughshare. Men who went afield for amusement were regarded as scalawags undoubtedly cursed with addiction to liquor, cards, and cockfights as well. But the war, and the onrushing force of the industrial revolution, had somehow rolled part of the Puritan ethic aside. Now, rod and gun could be perceived not only as tools of subsistence but as accouterments of a new aristocracy. Now, more often than not, the fellow with burrs on his cuffs would be hailed as a pillar of the community.

By most hindsight accounts, the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade or two of the twentieth fall within a period that might fairly be called the gilded age of field sports. In the cities of the East, thousands of well-to-do gentlemen turned toward the out-of-doors with a passion and a purpose that would have shocked the sensibilities of their pragmatic forefathers. Bankers and lawyers, doctors and professors, merchants and ministers donned their heavy tweeds and streamed into the countryside in quest of woodcock and quail and mallard and deer and trout. From Baltimore they sallied forth to Chesapeake Bay, from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to the Poconos, from New York to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, from Boston to the wildwood of Maine. Some ventured even into the sylvan reaches of Canada, while in the South elaborate expeditions sought game birds of various kinds. And always the sportsmen went in the company of their peers, for the common workingman had neither the time nor the means to participate. To be properly afield in the gilded age, one necessarily had to be affluent, and preferably to the manner born.

There was a measure of incongruity about this new American sporting breed. It seemed to be influenced by something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Old was its admiration for the crisp, efficient style of British aristocrats who had been dropping grouse on the tamed Scottish moors, or dredging trout from the chalk streams of Devon, for more than a century. New was the Americans’ fascination with wilderness; Britons had not experienced that on native ground for one thousand years. Borrowed was the Old World’s proper code of sporting conduct, which would soon crimp the style of stateside poachers and market hunters. And blue was the blood of the gentry; or possibly, in later years, the melancholy understanding that one might well outlive the end of the game.

Inevitably, the growing popularity of the field sports inspired a number of specialized journals. The first with a continentwide circulation was American Sportsman , appearing in 1871. Two years later, Forest and Stream made its debut, followed by Field and Stream (1874) and American Angler (1881). Each more or less subscribed to the philosophy advanced by American Sportsman in an early issue. Sportsmanship, an editorial asserted, was not “in the killing of numbers,” but rather in “the vigor, science, and manhood displayed—in the difficulties to be overcome … and lastly in the true spirit, the style, the dash, the handsome way of doing what is to be done, and above all, in the unalterable love of fair play.…”

The most influential of these journals was Forest and Stream , a weekly devoted to “Field and Aquatic Sports, Practical Natural History, Fish Culture, The Protection of Game, Preservation of Forests, and the Inculcation in Men and Women of a Healthy Interest in Outdoor Recreation and Study.” Charles Hallock of New York was its first editor, and he quickly defined the weekly’s constituency. Forest and Stream , he promised, was not for “the fish hog, the night hunter, the pseudo-sportsman”; it would “pander to no depraved tastes, nor pervert the legitimate sports of land and water to those base uses which always tend to make them unpopular with the virtuous and good.”

In addition to editing the journal, Hallock traveled extensively afield. In 1878 he shared his knowledge of the out-of-doors in a remarkable volume entitled The Sportsman’s Gazetteer and General Guide . It soon became the sportsman’s bible, for it was packed with detailed information on the natural history of fish and game species, the care and training of sporting dogs, the proper selection of rifles and shotguns, the uses of decoys and blinds, and the dressing of artificial trout flies. The Gazetteer also provided basic training in the art of “woodcraft.”