Cheryl St.John: Sporting Competition in the Old West

1866 Cycler
1866 Cycler

Is anyone else feeling at a bit of a loss this week after seventeen days of Olympic competition have ended? I confess I’m an Olympic junkie—summer or winter. I enjoy most everything, but especially ice skating, snowboarding, curling and gymnastics, and volleyball. I got to thinking about the origins of so many of the sports that originated in other countries and caught on globally. Of course athletic competitions go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but what about the years we read and write about? What about sports in the old west?

Well, there were plenty of them. Seems through the ages men—and later women—couldn’t get enough of racing and swinging and throwing and jumping, and they wanted to do it better than the next person. Like Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun.

1894 Golf
1894 Golf

The earliest ice skating was done in Finland and later Denmark, but our American ancestors did their share of ice skating as well. There were even special skirts for the ladies so the blades of their skates didn’t catch their hems.

Bare knuckle boxing began in ancient Greece, and was recorded taking place in England in the early 1700s. Remember Tom Cruise in Far and Away? Boxing was a popular sport among the American settlers and spread to the western regions. Susan Cahn in Coming on Strong, Gender and Equality in 20th Century Sport notes a match between Nell Saunders and Rose Harland in 1876 at Hills Theater in NYC. They supposedly fought for a silver butter dish. This was considered the first women’s match in the United States.

base ballThe earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of base-ball and a woodcut that shows a field somewhat similar to the modern game, though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. English lawyer William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey.

In the mid-1850s the baseball craze hit the New York metropolitan area. By 1856 local journals were referring to baseball as the national pastime. A year later sixteen area clubs formed the sport’s first governing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players. In 1869 the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed and went undefeated against a schedule of semipro and amateur teams. The first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, lasted from 1871 to 1875. Baseball teams formed all over the United States.

1891tennisThe oldest piece of paper to bear the word croquet with a description of the modern game is the set of rules registered in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London.

Croquet became popular as a social pastime for English ladies and gentleman during the 1860s. By 1867 there were 65,000 copies of the laws and regulations of the game in print. It quickly spread to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. No doubt one of the attractions was that the game could be played by both men and women.
Croquet was soon eclipsed by a new game. Tennis began in the UK in the1870s.

I included Independence Day activities in a book I’m currently finishing up, and my research turned up newspaper articles listing the events during actual Fourth of July events. Here are activities I discovered listed on the programs and in the newspaper accounts: Croquet, foot ball, base ball, skiffs (I’m guessing these are regatta-type races with dinghies), blindfold wheelbarrow races, climbing a greased pole for a $5 bill, sack races, foot races, horse races, fastest trotting mile race, slowest trotting mule race, and a fat man’s race.

1876 Ice Skating
1876 Ice Skating

I would add to these other competitions such as arm wrestling and driving a spike, eating and drinking contests and chasing greased pigs. We are a competitive species, aren’t we?

So are you missing the Olympics or glad it’s over so you can get to bed earlier at night?

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18 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Sporting Competition in the Old West”

  1. Hi Cher, I loved this blog. I miss the Olympics terribly. TV is suddenly very snoozer. Since I am such a klutz, athletics really impress me. I loved all of it and even found myself enjoying the curling. Seeing Shaun White on Leno rocked.

    Fun to read your research here! Great job. oxoxoxox

  2. My husband loved the Olympics,but I was glad it was over,not my cup of tea,I love sports but not so much over a short period of time

  3. Great post, Cheryl. I’m an Olympic junkie, too. Sports that usually don’t interest me at all, I’ll watch avidly during an olympiad. Bobsled, curling, biathalon, you name it, I’ll watch it. How exciting for our 4-man bobsledders to win gold after a 62 year drought. And our nordic combined guys won the first medals ever for the USA in their event. Exciting stuff!

    It’s fun to see how sports have evolved over the years. My current wip has a former bare-knuckle boxer as a hero, so I enjoyed the tidbits you included about that.

    Have a great week!

  4. slowest mule trotting race…i bet that was a tough one–keep the mule trotting but not too fast 🙂

    i never actually watched any
    not one event
    shame on me!
    in my defense–i hardly watch any tv–i have three young girls that i prefer to give my time to
    but i do feel a bit un-patriotic

    good post–interesting to think about “sports” and competition back in the day–i would think they were all too busy working to stay alive

  5. Hi Cheryl! I like the ice skating, and I’ll get caught up in particular stories with other sports. I like rooting for underdogs. My youngest son surprised me by becoming a big fan of women’s curling. He and his roommates now actually understand the rules. I still don’t get it, but I like the drama!

  6. Great post! I didn’t watch any of the Olympics, I just done a lot of reading. I am not into sports that much but I do enjoy the skating.

  7. The network’s coverage of the ice skating was frustrating. They generally only showed us the last 6 skaters, and then they trickled them out over a 4 hour evening to keep us watching stuff that might not have interested us. Back in the day we saw a lot more of the skaters, even those who didn’t make it into the running for the medals. I suppose they’ve added so many new events that they can’t cover it all – but HELLO they sure showed us entire hockey elimination rounds.

    Gee, Mary, I’m wondering where your eye was drawn….

  8. Cher,

    I always love to read your post. You offer so much knowledge on things. I loved the Olympics. I want to give a moment for the Luger who got killed this year. To lose a child is the most worst thing in the world.

    I liked all parts of it, sort of miss it now.

    Well thanks Cheryl,
    Walk in harmony,

  9. It is amazing what sports took place many years ago and are still going strong today.. I missed the Olympics the first couple of days, but then the weather turned nice the sun has shone for three, count them three days in a row and I want to be out and about instead of being in the house glued to the TV.

  10. Hi Cheryl!

    I watched some Olympics, being from Canada, we could not have asked for a betting ending (right out of a Hollywood movie) Than winning the gold in mens hockey in overtime, the country went nuts!
    And the goal was scored by Sidney Crosby who is from my hometown, wow. And he’s cute, LOL!
    Great post!

    Oh, we had Olympic coverage on three networks here in Canada so we could see just about everything, and live! I feel for you guys in the States, I switched to NBC now and then, and it wasn’t as thorough.

  11. Karyn, I love knowing that you had Olympic coverage on three channels. Wish I could have seen some of the events live. Nothing too cold, though. I’m a wimp. 🙂

    Regular TV is a let down, except that I was missing American Idol, which is just shocking for me. I missed the first night with the girls. They’re the best of the lot, btw. The guys are awful. What I can hardly comprehend is that out of all the thousands and thousands of tryouts the judges listened to, those were the BEST guys? I don’t think so.

  12. I am having withdrawal too. Can you imagine what athletes of yesteryear would have to say about today’s competing outfits!

    I am a big fan of greased pigs!

    Peace, Julie

  13. Cheryl, what a fun read. I enjoyed the Olympics. I love ice skating and spent a week last year at the world championships. I should have been a skater. I’m also a fan of snowboarding. Shaun White is my new favorite athlete. What a showman!

    After reading Mary’s comment about the guy on the bicycle I had to go back and look. Tee hee.

  14. Cheryl,
    What a fun post. I enjoyed the Olympics but would have enjoyed them more if we could have gotten Canadian TV. My Dad lives on the Canadian border in NY and has watched the last few Olympics on Canadian broadcasts. They have more complete and balanced coverage all day long. They show entire events and don’t skip around showing bits and pieces and have a lot less of the personal pieces.
    Wish I could say I was getting to bed easier, but no such luck.

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