The Immortal Foxhunter

Although it’s rather long, this post from the 1938 edition, “Foxhunting is Different” is a good read. The author gives an interesting account of Colonel Washington, the Foxhunter. And who doesn’t enjoy the artwork of the infamous Paul Brown?

THE IMMORTAL FOXHUNTER by Samuel J. Henry

On a caressing May morning Billy Lee, negro huntsman, stands bareheaded at the door of his master’s library.

“Good mornin’, Kunnel, suh,” Billy ventures, erect and dignified. “I got good news for yuh.”

“What’s that?” inquires Colonel Washington, looking up from his desk.

“Truelove whelped a fine litter last night, suh.”

“How many are there?”

“Seven, suh, an’ all of ’em doin’ fine.”

“Well, Billy, that is great news indeed.”

“Yas, suh, do you think you can come down an’ look at ’em, Kunnel? Dey is by Lord Fairfax’s Rockwood.”

“Yes, I remember,” answers the Colonel, rising from his chair. “I am anxious to see the youngsters.”

Down the gravel driveway to kennels proceed Master and huntsman, passing coach house, stables, and Magnolia’s paddock. The great stallion, his silky coat glistening in the sun, snorts and romps about his enclosure.

In a pen by herself, Truelove, her benign eyes mellow as an after-supper toddy, is suckling her tiny babes. Picking up a pair of pups, the Colonel, examining them closely, is obviously pleased.

“These are good ones, Billy, and nicely marked,” he says. “With Truelove’s nose and Rockwood’s speed they should show great sport in a year or so. Take the best of care with them and Truelove, too.”

“Yas, suh, Kunnel. Will yuh let me know de names?”

“Tomorrow,” tersely replies the Colonel, and returns to the mansion, a happy look on his face.

That night before retiring by candlelight the inveterate foxhunter takes pen in hand and after a moment’s pause enters in his diary the big event of the day:

“Truelove brought seven puppies—5 bitches and 2 dogs, to which I have assigned names; To bitches, Maiden, Sweetlips, Chanter, Duchess, Musick. To dogs. Ranger and Harwood”

The self-contained man at Mount Vernon had three passions: farming, foxhunting and American independence. He also enjoyed cards, horse racing and a main of cocks, but the chase was his first and last love among outdoor pastimes. Yet he was not oblivious to the joys of an angler, and on the Maryland side of the lordly Potomac—a river which ever fascinated him— you will find a roadside marker. Preserving a diary extract, it states, simply, “Fished this day at Lower Cedar Point for sheep’s head and catch’d none.” Goethe said, wisely, “Talent is built in solitude, character in the stream of the world.”

The country adjacent to Mount Vernon, barring good roads, is largely as it was in the eighteenth century. Now as then the majestic Potomac pursues its tortuous journey to the far-off Chesapeake and the gently rolling terrain is little disturbed by the hand of man. Here to the melodious notes of Truelove and Ranger, Sweetlips and Singer, the Master rode to hounds in company with his neighbor from Belvoir, Lord Fairfax, and other friends.

Lusty men, these barons of the Potomac, going in for pastimes demanding skill, nerve and stomach. Hunting field, racing oval, bloody pit were sources from which the colonial gentlemen sought relaxation and refreshment for body and spirit; the will to conquer so generously exemplified in mettled horse, staunch hound and gamecock found appreciation and emulation.

George Washington, many-sided man, attended a cockfight and a vestry meeting on the same day. He would go to church and enter in his diary the pious duty as performed. But he said not who the preacher was nor subject of sermon. Foxes, hounds and hunting were matters that loomed large in his philosophy and there is detail after detail. You cannot help loving Washington when you read these diaries, an unstudied record of day-to-day happenings. The man stands forth alive with sense, feeling and factual awareness.

Immortals in every age have been wooed by horse, hound and wilderness quarry, and history records no exception with respect to George Washington. While one may complain of the incompleteness of many diary entries, a lover of the chase finds no paucity of information concerning foxhunting, a traditional concomitant of good living in colonial days.

Despite the catechism treatment lie has received at the hands of thin-blooded historians, who have made of him an aloof and detached god, to a fellow lover of sport the Virginian seems a departed friend, a human and responsive character with whom he has spent many happy hours afield, for foxhunters, enjoying a sport unchanging through the centuries, speak the same language and respond to similar instincts.

Origins are significant; they explain and justify action and feeling. It is a far cry from foxhound and thoroughbred horse to ferocious wolf-dog and runty pony. Yet when primitive man, his feeble imagination beginning to assert itself, utilized these semi-domesticated animals to run down their wild brothers, he set up an imperishable sporting trinity.

In his devotion to the chase—a prelude to his future greatness—Washington, probably unconsciously, followed Xenophon’s advice; by hunting he formed himself for sanguinary conflict, as did the heroes of antiquity who were carefully taught the art as being serviceable in contests with warlike adversaries of strength and cunning.

“George Washington’s time was spent chiefly in action, reading little and that mostly in English history and agriculture,” says Thomas Jefferson. “His person was fine, his manner easy, erect and noble, the best horseman of his age and a magnificent figure mounted.”

Constructive in every task he undertook, the Virginian bred hounds, and, judging by results, he bred successfully. His diaries, which teem with news of field and kennel, cause a foxhunter to turn away sadly, such days being no more. If sport with kills be the criterion, his foxhounds were simply tops. Before the Revolution he owned a crack pack. One is astonished at the number of foxes accounted for. In seven weeks six of them were killed, two of them in one day. There are gruelling and endless hunts in which many of the dogs were unable to continue; Reynard did not always come off loser.

In the carefree years of 1768, ’69 and ’70, the Virginian planted and reaped, bred horses, experimented with the soil, ingeniously sought to devise a better plow. His slaves hauled the seine, gathering hordes of herring from the reaches of the teeming Potomac. His mill ground out grain from his own and his neighbors’ fields. He raced his horses, relished a cocking main and a day’s fishing. He attended the sport of kings in Virginia and Maryland, betting and losing—even as you or I. There were balls and parties at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg and in the home town of Alexandria. Company, as always, swarmed into the hospitable home; his step-children. Patsy and Jacky Custis, and their friends engaged in dancing lessons; the Virginia colonel had his first portrait painted. Life was even and sweet.

With meticulous detail he tells about each hunt, how long it lasted, whether the quarry was lost, denned or killed, of hounds switching from fox to deer, and says they once got after a bear. He writes of hound breeding and assigning lilting and sometimes sentimental names to blue-blooded offspring.

Of course, as a breeder, he had his troubles. Mange afflicted his dogs and he applied hogs’ lard and brimstone—the latter now known as sulphur, and a good remedy to this day. Speaking of hogs, one day’s diary entry stands thus: “Dec 13—Kill’d hogs.” Curs got among his prized bitches; he ordered the bar-sinister puppies destroyed. Evidently he was unwilling to lose during periodic seasons the services of good performers, for he notes that on June 27, 1769, “James Cleveland spaeded the Three Hound Bitches, Musick, Tipsey and Maiden,” while on July 28 “the young Hound Bitch Chanter was bred to Lord Fairfax’s Rockwood (which appeared to have the mange).”

Some hunting experiences are unique. On one occasion hounds treed their quarry and as the horsemen approached, the fox—a vixen—dropped from the tree, dead, “after being there several minutes and apparently well.” On another run hounds killed after a seven-hour chase in which most of the dogs were worsted. This fox had clipped ears and bobbed tail—probably a pet which, escaping, reverted to its wild state.

Washington never refers to Reynard as a red or a grey. It is doubted if the red had appeared in Virginia in his time. The grey is indigenous to the South.

Here are some random diary entries:

January 23, 1768: “Rid to Muddy Hole and directed paths be cut for Fox hunting.”

January 26: “Went out with the Hounds but started no Fox. Some of the Hounds run off upon a Deer.”

February 12 : Fox hunting with Colo. Fairfax . . .catchd two foxes.”

September 23: “Went a fox hunting and catched a Bitch Fox after about 2 hours chase.”

September 26; “Went fox hunting in the Neck, started and run a fox or foxes 3 hours and then lost.”

October 1: “The hound Bitch Mopsey was shut up with Old Harry.”

October 13: “Went a fox hunting and catched a Bitch Fox after 2 hours chase.”

October 15: “Went a fox hunting with Capt. Posey and Lund Washington. Catched a Bitch Fox after a chase of 1 hour and 10 minutes.”

On October 22 Colonel Washington hunted and catched 2 foxes with Lord Fairfax and Col. Fairfax; on the 23rd he started a fox and catched nothing; on the 25th he hunted and catched a fox with Lord Fairfax and several neighbors, his lordship and Lady Fairfax dining at Mount Vernon.

(A hunting man can imagine these flawless October days in Virginia, perfect scenting conditions, the vast country, plenty of game, crack hounds, rugged mounts, no wire, leisure and time for everything.)

George Washington was out again on the 26th and also on the 29th when he again catched a fox.

December 23: “Went a pheasant hunting; carried hounds and they started and followed Deer.”

The year 1768 passed sportingly. On December 31he noted: “Went a hunting and catched a Bitch Fox.” Messrs. Dalton, Piper, Riddell and Magowan accompanied him.

Turning to 1769 we find more entries of sport.

February 3; “Went a hunting with Doctor Rumsey. Started a fox or rather two or three, and catched none. Dogs mostly got after deer and never joined.”

March 27: “Started and killed a Dog Fox, after having had him on foot 3 hours, and hard running an hour and a quarter.”

March 30: “The Bitch Musick brought 5 puppies, one of which being not thought true, was drowned immediately—the others being somewhat like the dog (Lockwood of Mr. Fairfax) which got them, were saved.”

M;t, 29; “Mopsey had 5 puppies and Truelove 7 puppies.”

September 22: “Went a hunting and killed a bitch fox in about an hour. Returned home with the ague upon me.”

On the 23d he hunted again—ague or no ague.

He says on this occasion:

“Supposed we killed a fox but could not find it. Returned with my ague again.”

On September 30 he “went a hunting and catched a Rakoon but never found the fox.”

On October 9 while after fox the dogs found a deer and ran it to the water.

On October 14 his hounds killed a dog fox and on the 18th another dog fox.

January 8, 1770, a third dog fox was killed after 3 hours’ chase.

Young Jacky Custis went a hunting with his stepfather on the 20th, on which occasion hounds accounted for a bitch fox which was “founded on Ye creek by J. Seal’s” place.

February 1 the dogs chased for 5 hours and killed, neighbors Manley, Peake and Triplett being along. On the 24th hounds found nothing, while on March 7 they ran for 6 hours and then lost. On March 21 he “joined some dogs that were self-hunting and from thence to the Mill.”

April 9: “Hound Bitch Singer was bred to Jowler.” (This fellow appears to have been a favorite stallion hound.)

September 4: “The Hound Bitch Stately brought 7 puppies viz 2 dogs and 5 Bitches, 1 of the former dead, remaining, 1 dog and 5 Bitches.”

And so the foxhunter and farmer unwittingly prepared for the Revolution during which his adversary frequently referred to him as the old fox and often thought he had him “bagged.”

At the battle of Princeton we find General Washington riding at the head of his troops as they pursue the flying British, and exclaiming, “It’s a fine fox chase, boys.” Memories of happy days in Virginia were always with him.

During a dull moment of the war, the Commander-in-Chief is known to have indulged in his favorite sport, a soldier writing home saying that he saw the General on such an occasion.

Where one finds hounds and hunting, one also finds horses. At Mount Vernon stood the noted stallion Magnolia. “My English horse covered the Great Bay Mare,” reads the diary. Bred to mares sent in from the surrounding country. Magnolia once broke out of his paddock and selected his own consorts.

Light Horse Harry Lee coveted Magnolia and finally Washington and Lee indulged in a trade, the latter acquiring the valuable animal for five thousand acres of Kentucky land. (The gallant Lee declared Washington was the only man who could get the better of him in horse trading.)

The King of Spain hearing of his interest in mule breeding, presented him a jackass, shipping the animal to Mount Vernon in care of a stud groom. According to a humorous, yet dignified, letter written by Washington, the royally sponsored sire turned up his nose at the Virginia mares and refused to perform his duties.

General Lafayette worshipped his chief and presented him a French hunting horn which hangs in the hallway at Mount Vernon, its near neighbor the key of the Bastille. He also sent hounds, the latter being entrusted in their long journey to no less a personage than John Quincy Adams, then leaving France for America. When the dogs reached Virginia they were in bad shape, and Washington, disgusted at their condition, was caustic in his comment. One of the hounds, old Vulcan, achieved notoriety. He entered the kitchen and ran off with a baked ham ready to be served. This episode greatly amused her husband, but “Patsy” Washington’s sense of humor, needless to say, did not go that far.

Washington loved animals, and one of the rare instances of his mighty wrath concerned the brutal rider of a young horse. Travelling in his chariot, the General was much annoyed by a horseman dashing past him enroute to the next stop and delaying his departure until after Washington had left. Then the discourteous equestrian would again gallop by the General’s carriage in a cloud of dust, the hard-ridden colt in a lather. The heat was oppressive, and after futile warnings the usually restrained Washington, livid with rage, got out of his coach and threatened to cane the offender, whereupon he
desisted.

Washington’s demands of a horse were simple—he only asked that he go.

This writer wishes to believe that Houdon in the original bust at Mount Vernon has more accurately caught his subject than any other artist. Looked at from any angle, the face reveals strength with refinement, and there is about the eyes, which occupy exceptionally large sockets, a quality seen in but few portraits—a live nobility, not a concealed personality.

‘Tis said the sculptor waited for days to catch a spirited expression which would satisfy his critical Latin standard. One day a horse dealer arrived with a drove of animals. General Washington, then fifty-three years of age, bargained and bickered, Houdon on the sidelines watching his chance, when his subject, indignant at terms, thrust back his head with great animation—and the famous bust was completed.

In his modest tomb on the banks of the Potomac which lie loved so well, sleeps the noble Washington, and while the kennels which housed Sweetlips and Tipster, Duchess and Old Harry and the rest of his pack are no more, the green-shuttered white mansion with high-pinnacled gilded bird—crest of the family coat-of- arms—is as he left it, and if the master returned to earth he would find his premier sport also as he left it- immaculate in pristine charm. Can you not see him mount his horse, surrounded by Billy and his hounds? Over his shoulder hangs a steer horn bound in brass wire (especially ordered from London with a velvet cap with silver buckle). Mark his reserve force and stamina, suggesting his capacity to carry on when many men are to fall by the way—an immortal who in the realm of sport, wherein action is the touchstone, lived a full life.

Now in the twentieth century the racing thoroughbred continues to compete with his peers; hounds cry the fox; cocks clash; dogs point; quail rise; the guns roar.

In a world mad with the phobias of conflicting philosophies, the love of sport remains—the universal urge and open sesame among spirited men everywhere.

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