Pioneer Sports and Recreation


Though much of daily life in the early Midwest necessarily focused on survival, sports and recreation were important aspects of pioneer culture as settlers sought respite from their toils. Some recreational activities took place in conjunction with social or work gatherings while others were extensions of protective or survival skills. Some were means to educate the young in necessary skills, others purely for enjoyment. Recreation occurred year round, but was most often occurred during the agricultural year’s slack times of late fall and early winter or on days set aside for enjoyment.
Most pioneer recreation fit Adelman’s definition of pre-modern sports as competitions held only local significance and offered little clear distinction of participant’s roles or between competitors and spectators. Additionally, the contests’ organization was non-existent or informal and they were played by unwritten rules highly variable by location.
A major study has shown that though the pioneer generation was preceded by and had contact with Native American and European cultures there was little direct cultural transference between the groups with regard to sports. Recreation was simply another piece of the cultural baggage settlers brought with them to the Midwest. They normally adapted activities they had known back home, although some who migrated from more settled areas may have taken part in survival-related recreation for the first time after moving into the frontier. It does not appear that any new sports were specifically “created” after the pioneer’s arrival in the Midwest.
Physical strength and dexterity played important roles in pioneer sports, many of which were connected with defense or survival skills. Sport thus became a pleasurable pastime and a method to measure one’s worth. Events like shooting matches, fighting, and horse and foot races were all examples of such contests that could also train the young or hone the survival skills of their elders.
Shooting matches were extremely popular and occurred throughout the year. Typically a target was attached to a tree or post and shooters took three shots from varying distances. Prizes for winners included cash, whiskey, or beef (an early Indiana settler recalled beef shoots in which marksmen shot for shares of a butchered cow). Equally important to most marksmen (and they were almost always men) was the pride inherent in being the “crack shot” in the area.
Though modern prizefighting was unknown in the pioneer Midwest, there were fights and wrestling matches. “Bully” fights in which a local tough picked a fight joined “friendlier” matches meant to settle who was the “best man.” Both drew crowds of spectators backing (and occasionally betting on) their man. Other than prohibiting weapons, there were few rules and custom allowed kicking, gouging, biting and “stomping upon a fallen victim.” Much the same was true for wrestling matches, although they could also be friendlier affairs at social gatherings. Ideally the battles did not result in lasting grudges and combatants and spectators alike adjourned as friends, as in the famous case of a young Abraham Lincoln’s match with “bully” Jack Armstrong in frontier Illinois.
Speed of foot, both human and horse, was an obvious source of competition. Many gatherings featured foot races to determine the swiftest. Allied with these were other games analogous to modern track and field events, such as Jumping the Bar which was akin to modern high jumping and early versions of pole vaulting.
Horse racing was perhaps the most popular sport in the Midwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. Races ranged from informal contests for bragging rights to organized “meets” complete with prize money. The sport’s popularity grew from its long practice in America combined with an intense sense of competition and pride in one’s livestock.
Informal match races usually took place along dirt roads or across farm fields and were held on the spur of the moment or at gatherings like militia musters or July 4th celebrations. The steeds were usually “saddle nags or plow ponies” ridden bareback by proud owners along distances from a few hundred yards to a quarter mile or longer. Most were “match races” between two horses, but occasionally a larger field competed. The spectacle seldom failed to thrill the crowd.
More formalized race meets were held on designated racecourses, often ovals, and offered purses. The first recorded race in the Midwest may have been the 1801 event in Cincinnati that lasted two days and earned the winner a $50.00 prize. The meet quickly grew to a three day fair with a sweepstakes prize of $500.00. By 1840 many other Midwestern towns featured racetracks. The horses that ran on these tracks were many cuts above the nags of earlier times. Horse breeding, long a southern tradition, swiftly made inroads in the Midwest as blooded stock became available in most areas. Indianapolis newspapers, for example, carried ads for a number of stud horses in the 1830s, including one whose lineage was traced back to the famous Godolphin Arabian. Harness racing, later to be wildly popular in the Midwest, made few appearances during the pioneer period.
Early settlers eagerly sought escape from their isolation by combining work and social functions into events such as husking bees or house raisings. At such gatherings work skills, like survival skills, morphed into recreation with a purpose. Log-rollings were popular “work sports” that combined strength and speed. After trees were felled and stripped, two teams armed with hand spikes were chosen. Logs were rolled to a specified spot where they were lifted to erect a cabin. Rollings to clear land continued beyond the log cabin era. Teams rolled unwanted logs to a spot and lifted them onto a pile. The first team to hoist their final log was the winner and the logs were set afire. Related skills were shown in woodchopping contests in which individuals or teams competed in felling and trimming trees.
The highly developed American sense of competition turned even mundane activities into sport. Cornhuskings were good-natured coed, intergenerational contests that took place in a party atmosphere. Teams of men and women, adults and children, competed to remove the husk from the ears of corn. Though there were seldom prizes for the winners, there were rewards. Finding a rare red ear of corn sometimes meant the finder received a kiss from the opposite sex or perhaps was the prelude to the passing around of a bottle of whiskey for the men.
Though hunting and fishing were primarily food gathering activities, they were sometimes recreational as well. Small groups gathered for wolf, squirrel, or coon hunts, as much for sport than meat or fur procurement. Sugar Creek farmers were still organizing township-wide fox and wolf hunts as late as the 1890s.  This time it was to eradicate them from preying on chickens and other livestock.Hunts were also important avenues for educating the young in necessary survival skills.
Not all sporting activities were directly related to work or defense. Some, like pitching quoits, were meant for amusement, sport for sport’s sake. Two versions of quoits appeared in the Midwest. One mirrored the eastern game of tossing an iron ring toward a stake. In the other, quoit pitchers hefted a boulder or flat stone onto their shoulders and threw it to a designated spot. This version of the game, described as being played on the Indiana frontier, more closely resembles the Native American practice and may be one of the few examples of cultural transference. Similar was the game of Long Bullets (not to be confused with the Native American gambling game of Moccasin and Bullet), which was played with an iron ball. Hard evidence about the game is sparse, but it appears to have been played by two teams who tried to prevent their opponents from throwing or rolling the “bullet” across their goal line. How widely the game was played is unknown.
Such “ball” games did not play a significant role in pioneer culture, at least among adults. This was in sharp contrast to Native Americans, who participated in games (often accompanied by gambling) similar to modern soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey. A 1796 account described a game of “football” in Ohio in which a male team competed against a female one, a rarity. The idea was to drive the ball (probably a deer hide stuffed with hair) between the opponents goal. Men were restricted to using their feet to touch the ball, while women were allowed to also use their hands. Lacrosse, the most widely known Native American sport still practiced, was played throughout the Great Lakes area with one contemporary account claiming nearly 2,000 Miami gathered to take part in a game.
The Midwestern frontier was also a scene of blood sports such as cockfighting and gander-pulling. Typically in cockfighting a ring was cleared and the agitated birds battled each other until one died or managed to flee. Even crueler was gander-pulling. With feathers plucked and neck greased, a gander was suspended by its feet from a tree limb. A succession of riders took turns attempting to pull off the bird’s head to win a prize. Shooting matches sometimes featured live geese or turkeys as targets. How prevalent were these “sports” is open to debate, but they existed to such extent that laws were passed in attempts to control them. An 1807 Indiana territorial law levied fines for any person who “shall cause to fight any cock or cocks, for money… , or shall encourage any match, or matches of cockfighting.”
A trait shared by many pioneer pastimes was gambling, which one historian noted was “in the blood of the time.” Gambling was widespread as wagers, friendly and otherwise, were placed on horse races, footraces, billiards, and cockfights. Nearly every sort of contest was a potential venue for betting. Though it appears most wagering was as much for its entertainment value as profit, a strident anti-gambling movement formed in reaction as religious groups and reformers sought to outlaw it. Indeed, most laws concerning horse racing or cockfighting seem meant more to inhibit gambling than prohibit the sport.
One of the few direct recreational transfers from Native Americans to pioneers was a form of gambling called Moccasin and Bullet. Later simply called Bullet, it was an early version of a shell game practiced by many Midwestern tribes and eagerly taken up by settlers. In the game, a dexterous “tout” would gather the players around and show them a large bullet and four to six moccasins. The bullet was skillfully (and deceptively) place under one of the moccasins as “players” bet on under which one it nestled. The game was very popular among wagering pioneers, as were various card game and billiards. Billiard tables, usually found in an inn or tavern, were a presence in the Midwest by the first decade of the 19th century. Contemporary descriptions of the games are rare, but it likely resembled modern pocket billiards.
As always, children found time to play. In addition to typical childhood games they were more likely than adults to take part in ball games. Versions of games similar to baseball were played throughout the Midwest, among them Rounders, Town Ball and One Old Cat. Children emulated adults by competing in foot races or wrestling matches. Boys were indoctrinated into their grown up roles as providers through shooting matches, hunting and fishing. There were also seasonal activities like swimming or iceskating that likely led to competition.
Though some of these childhood activities were coed there was usually a clear separation of genders as females were expected to attempt less strenuous activities thought more in keeping with their delicate natures. Much the same held true for adults. Though women occasionally took part in sporting activities, their usual role was as spectator or food provider, not participant
Pioneer sports may have been limited by time and circumstance, but they did lay the groundwork for the future. The American love of competition, exaltation of physical prowess, and eagerness for recreation exhibited during the era set the stage for the sporting boom, both participatory and spectator, that began in the late nineteenth century.

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