Way Back When: Joseph B. Thomas’s Huntland kennels

Joseph B. Thomas's Huntland kennel, photographed circa 1914. Author Alexander MacKay-Smith once referred to them as "the most perfectly appointed foxhound kennels and hunt stables in America." Photo courtesy of the Karen Myers collection.

VIRGINIA photographer Karen Myers has unearthed a real gem: a small collection of historical photos from Virginia foxhunting a century ago. To see the collection online, click here.

The houndbloggers were especially pleased to see an array of photos of the Huntland kennel, which housed the Piedmont hounds. Huntland’s owner and the then Master of the Piedmont was Joseph B. Thomas, who–according to MacKay-Smith–at one time kept 105 couple of entered hounds and 48 couple of unentered hounds there for three days of hunting a week.

An American hound at the Huntland kennels. Photo courtesy of the Karen Myers collection.

In his 1914 book American Adventures, published around the time these photographs were taken, author Julian Street described Huntland this way:

In a well-kept park near Mr. Thomas’s house stand extensive English-looking buildings of brick and stucco, which, viewed from a distance, suggest a beautiful country house, and which, visited, teach one that certain favored hounds and horses in this world live much better than certain human beings. One building is given over to the kennels, the other the stables; each has a large sunlit court, and each is as beautiful and as clean as a fine house–a house full of trophies, hunting equipment, and the pleasant smell of well-cared-for saddlery.

Thomas was drawn to Middleburg by the Great Hound Match of 1905, which inspired him to build this veritable temple to foxhounds. The “dashing, handsome bachelor and expert horseman,” as a 2008 Middleburg Life article put it, succeeded to the Piedmont mastership in 1915.

Huntland owner and Piedmont Master of Fox Hounds Joseph B. Thomas. Photo courtesy of the Karen Myers collection.

The Piedmont’s American hounds were a source of great pride to Thomas, who gradually came to favor what he called “the Old Virginia foxhound” that he felt was, in its ideal form, was “similar to the great British hounds of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,” and he pointed to a Sartorius painting of Peter Beckford’s pack as evidence. In his 1928 book Hounds and Hunting Through the Ages (a houndblogger favorite), Thomas said this about the Old Virginia hounds:

After many years of experience, the author has become convinced that the most efficient pack hound in the world to hunt a fox is this Old Virginia foxhound. …

Such hounds may be considered deficient if they cannot regularly hunt hard at least three days a week, or more than this if required. They must have sufficient determination and stamina never to stop trying as long as their fox remains above ground or their is a vestige of aline left. A pack of such hounds must be able to account for foxes in the roughest woodland and hill country in July heat (as my pack is required to do), sound of foot, and sufficiently agile to negotiate the steepest of rocky cliffs in the North, as well as have enough nose and drive to kill red foxes in sandy Carolina. This pack must hunt with dash and style, carrying great head, negotiating burnt-over tracts, and pressing tirelessly for hours, if necessary, through briers, cane, half-frozen swamp water, as if there were nothing to stop them, and, gallantly killing their fox, come home with their sterns up, a pack in fact as well as in name. In grass country, these hounds must be able to outpace, under good conditions, the best of Thoroughbred horses.”

Photo courtesy of the Karen Myers collection.

… and a Hound Blog Hunch Bet Update!

Speaking of the best of Thoroughbred horses, it’s almost Kentucky Derby week! The race is on Saturday, May 7, at Churchill Downs, and, as regular readers of the hound blog know, our very own Tobermory Box is attempting to become the first beagle to win it.

The Hound Blog Hunch Bet has now grown to an exacta, because Irish invader Master of Hounds remains in the lineup as of this writing, giving the houndbloggers the delicious prospect of a Toby’s Corner-Master of Hounds finish in the 137th Run for the Roses.

And here’s another reason to root for Toby’s Corner: his breeders and owners, Dianne and Julian Cotter, are foxhunters. Both hunt with the Misty Morning Hounds, a drag hunt near Gainesville, Fla. Dianne is the honorary hunt secretary, and Julian is one of the field masters. They also host the hunt’s opening meet every year at their Snooty Fox Farm in Alachua, Florida.

Toby's got a reason to smile: he likes Toby's Corner's chances!

To read more about the Cotters–and about how Toby’s Corner’s mother and paternal grandmother almost became three-day event horses instead of the dams of two Derby starters–click here.

There’s one other Hound Blog Hunch if you’re the kind of player who likes to bet trifectas: Shackleford, because there is a well-known place in the Iroquois Hunt country called Shackleford Hill, not far from the hunt’s headquarters at the old Grimes Mill.

And if you’re looking for a horse to bet that has nothing whatever to do with the hound blog, as far as we know, the Beagle House hounds have made their picks. Except for Bingo, a teetotaler who also doesn’t gamble. We respectfully suggest $2 across the board on Midnight Interlude (Eider’s pick) or Stay Thirsty (Harry’s choice).

On a more worrying note …

Could Eider, Beagle House’s newest resident, be part vampire? Evidence below.

Got garlic?

The Great Hound Match of 1905-Part 2

Many thanks to the National Sporting Library for access to its archives and for use of the photos. Among the original documents there are hunting diaries kept by both Henry Higginson and Harry Worcester Smith.

THE competing hounds, the Middlesex Hunt’s English hounds and the Grafton Hunt’s American hounds, took a break on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1905. The “score” was essentially even, with no clear winner in the book yet. But word was out: the Great Hound Match of 1905 was providing some of the best sport American foxhunting had ever seen. On the Sunday that the two packs rested, intrepid hunters from nearby Warrenton and Clark County, Virginia, arrived en masse with plans to join the fun when the Middlesex hounds resumed the competition on Monday in what was now becoming known as “the Market Harborough of America,” according to one reporter, a reference to the heart of England’s famed Leicestershire hunting country.

“The farmers and landowners have received the hunting contingent royally,” the same paper noted. “Not only have they willingly offered their fields for hunting, but have done all in their power to further good sport. The Piedmont Hunt has done all in its power to protect the farmers, repair the damage done to wire by cutting and keeping an actual record of all injuries received by the farmers on account of riding over their lands. … In this way a fine hunting feeling is spreading through Piedmont valley, and there can be no doubt that very shortly this country will be the Mecca to which all fox hunters will turn for sport.”

Participants in the Great Hound Match meets were provided with invitations and badges for each meet

Monday dawned overcast with scenting judged good for the meet at MIddleburg. MFH Henry Higginson’s Middlesex pack, hunted by the hunt’s English professional huntsman Robert Cotesworth jumped a fox in their very first covert just 10 minutes into the hunt, “And hounds were in full cry at 7:35,” the judges’ report informs.

There were two checks in the run, one for three minutes among cattle at 7:50 and a second for two minutes at 8:15, before the pack ran the fox to ground–the first time in the match that a fox was accounted for. Judge H. L. Movius called it “a fine run” and considered that “the hounds ran very well, although they did not show very much speed.”

The other two judges, Dr. Charles McEachran and James K. Maddux, were more effusive. McEachran said: “Today’s hunting was in my opinion the best shown to-date. From the time the fox was found with exception of two checks, one of three minutes, the other of two minutes, they held to th eline splendidly. They ran their fox to ground, and every hound in the pack hunted, was up at the earth. From the time the fox was found until he was run to ground, the field had 57 minutes of as good a run as anyone could wish.”

“The work of the Middlesex hounds far surpassed what I had expected to see English hounds do here,” Maddux reported. But he ended with a speculative note of doubt, adding, “But while they hunted admirably and gave splendid sport, I do not think they ran fast enough to kill in this country.”

Accounts of the Middlesex run were printed in the London Daily News, New York Herald, and Boston Herald–an indication of how widely the Great Hound Match was, by this point, being followed.

On Tuesday, day 7, MFH Harry Worcester Smith’s Grafton hounds took the field again. Smith hunted his hounds himself, as was his custom, and he did it with a broken foot. In fact, both competing Masters were riding with cracked bones: Higginson had broken two ribs early in the match.

Following the English hounds’ high standard the previous day, Smith now had his work cut out for him, as the Boston Herald pointed out.

“When the Grafton pack started this morning it was up to do something to even up yesterday’s splendid performance of the Middlesex hounds,” the paper reported.

Smith’s morning started off badly. Early morning winds, a frostless night, and only a light dew didn’t bode especially well for scenting, and for a while Smith’s American hounds trailed down Goose Creek “and did nothing,” the Herald said. “Up to nine o’clock it looked very much as if the Grafton pack was to draw another blank. This difficult situation persisted for another hour and a half, and the Grafton supporters’ hearts sank. Then suddenly: a fox.

Two hounds discovered Reynard, who bolted up a hill as the rest of the pack harked to the two that found him. He ran about 200 yards ahead of the pack, which appeared, some said, to be running him almost on sight.

“The first part of the day when hounds galloped away without drawing or running a fox was a sorry exhibition, but after the fox was jumped hounds ran remarkably fast,” Movius, a judge, said.

MFH Harry Worcester Smith hunted the Grafton's match pack, six couple of American hounds

The fox carried them across a road, around a two-mile loop, then back across the road. “By this time,” our Herald reporter continued, “the fox had gained enough distance to allow him a minute in which to lay a Chinese cryptogram for the pack on a dry field just north of the pike.”

This resulted in a check, and another judge, Maddux, took matters into his own hands. Movius, summarizing the first part of the run, said, “I was kept out of the first part of the run by the creek, but found hounds at the first check at 10:10, here hounds were helped by Mr. Maddux (having viewed the fox), who, as one of the judges, should not have handled them. From here hounds worked on a cold trail for 50 minutes (about one mile) when the fox was again viewed and hound were put on the hot trail by Mr. Smith.”

That was the last the field saw of them.

In the end, the hounds lost their fox, though, the judges having been distanced, no one could say for certain exactly when or where. McEachran described the straggling end to the day as hounds, recovered by Smith after  a disappearance of an hour and a half, were continuing to try to find their fox.

“When I picked up the pack again there was nothing doing but running stale lines,” McEachran wrote.

The Middlesex returned to battle for day 7 but were quickly hampered by high winds that, in the opinion of the judges, completely undid scent after about 45 minutes. Hounds found their fox 12 minutes into the hunt, and “we had several good bursts, and hounds showed splendid work and manners,” McEachran reported. They pursued the fox to a ruined house, where landowners told Middlesex huntsman Cotesworth that foxes often went to ground.

The Middlesex hounds convinced some skeptics that English hounds are fast enough to account for the speedy American red fox

“Hounds spoke until within fifty yards of the old house,” McEachran wrote. “To-day’s sport I consider first class. All hounds up at finish.”

Even Maddux, the judge originally nominated by Smith and one who earlier in the week had been skeptical that the Middlesex hounds were fast enough to catch a red fox in Virginia, had changed his mind based on their latest performance. “The Middlesex hounds to-day ran their fox brilliantly for twenty minutes, the pace was very hot, quite good enough to enable them to kill,” he wrote in his report. “Up to this time I did not believe English hounds capable of running fast enough to kill in this country. However, I now think if they can keep on going as fast as the first twenty minutes, they have as good a chance to kill as the American pack.”

On day 8, high winds came with the sunrise, and Grafton suffered a calamitous lack of scent.

“The best that Grafton hounds could do after trailing an hour and a half was to furnish a nine-minute burst that filled the field with the hope that in spite of adverse circumstances a kill would be recorded,” the Boston Herald said.

The windy weather wasn’t the only unlucky circumstance to trip up the American hounds, as the Herald reported: “When the American pack had the fox up and going they were crossed by the Orange County Hunt of New York, which is wintering at The Plains, some 14 miles distant from Upperville. Mr. John R. Townsend and Mr. Robert Gerry of New York, who were with the Orange County hounds, called off hounds and coupled them, but after the interruption Mr. Smith’s hounds were unable to find again in that locality.”

The American hounds, like this Walker hound shown with Iroquois Hunt founder Col. Roger D. Williams, had a racy build that served their fantastic speed in pursuit of fox. But early on even their supporters worried that the hounds might be too independent for classic pack work.

Smith was allowed to hunt “from sunrise to sunset” under the rules, and he pretty well did that on day 8 in search of better luck, leading the field across an estimated total of 60 miles. The field included Smith’s old friend Burrell Frank Bywaters, who followed the action–what there was of it–in his buggy on the roads. To add insult to injury, after Smith’s trying afternoon, Bywaters fell in with a local pack of hunters on his way back to his lodgings–and those hunters saw their hounds run a fox to ground.

Smith’s pack finally found a fox at 4:07 p.m. Led by his standout hound Sinner, a Bywater dog, Smith’s American hounds ran for 18 minutes and put the fox to ground.

But it was a lackluster day, as Movius described: “Hounds showed good speed in the last burst. Hounds worked indifferently at times.” Still, a new judge, Hunter Dulany, scored them as working “remarkably well.”

On day 9, the English Middlesex hounds returned to the field in frosty conditions that had put a fragile layer of ice on smaller streams. Scenting nonetheless was judged “fair” to “poor” by the judges, and hounds drew seven coverts without success. But then they went away “giving good music”,” according to a press report, burst into full cry while closely pursuing a fox. The fox went to ground in an open field, and “the pack swarmed around the entrance within a minute,” the report said.

This time, it was Higginson’s pack who got the dreaded review of “worked indifferently at times” from Movius; the failure to find at early coverts had counted against them.

When the Middlesex hounds returned to their kennels approaching sunset, they had run foxes during their outings for a total of four hours and 58 minutes; the Grafton’s American pack had run foxes for six hours and 32 minutes. With only three days left in the match, the judges were facing the very real possibility that neither pack actually would catch a fox to win. If they didn’t, then it would be up to the judges to award the cup (and the $2,000 stake) to the pack showing the greatest ability to manage a kill–even if they hadn’t.

The Middlesex Hunt's English hounds were a heavier type than the American hounds and had substantial bone. Hound match judges were surprised by their speed and good cry.

In the meantime, Middlesex Master Henry Higginson was grounded by a bizarre incident in which a landowner, Amson Payne, had arrested Higginson for trespassing on his land. Payne threatened, in fact, to arrest the entire hunt in an incident that the Piedmont Mastership understandably found embarrassing. But until the issued could be settled, Higginson stayed out of the saddle in order to make his appointment with the local magistrate. Payne, at the hearing, admitted his land hadn’t been damaged when Higginson accidentally crossed it but said he would sue all of the riders behind Higginson in the field, a process that would have tied them up in court for some days, unless the  Middlesex Master agreed to pay him $100. Higginson made a compromise and paid the man $50.

While Higginson was detained at the magistrate’s, Smith was enjoying a run with his hounds. They got up one fox, but soon afterwards two more sprang up, briefly distracting hounds before they followed one toward Leesburg. “All of a sudden, the hounds ceased giving tongue and the field, which had a generous run across country, was left in doubt as to what had happened,” one newspaper reported. “The hounds either lost or denned the fox in this vicinity and an investigation was being made this afternoon.”

Henry Higginson

Smith himself lost his hounds, but the judges generally remained impressed with the pack’s speed and initiative.

The Middlesex hounds’ final day in competition proved a sad and frustrating one. Just minutes after the moved off from the meet, “as the hounds turned off the road into the open field on the way to the covert, a red fox that trotted out of the Bald Hill woods was headed directly towards the hungry-mouthed pack,” the Richmond Transcript reported. “The hounds did not scent or see him at first. Cotesworth saw him before the hounds, and hied on the pack full cry and running on sight from the very first.”

The fox paused for a critical moment, then made a fast dash, but the hounds were already too close.

The hunters, including Higginson, were deeply unhappy with the circumstances of the match’s first kill and strongly suspected that someone had dropped a “bagged” fox in the covert. The hunt continued after this dispiriting start, and Higginson’s English hounds ran another fox to ground. Higginson called for an immediate investigation of the killed fox, and the judges, on taking testimony, unraveled a sad tale. A man named Hall had bought a fox for $4.50 the day before and then, Hall said, the fox had escaped from him in the vicinity of the covert. The kill, regretted by everyone, was disallowed as any evidence of anything other than terrible circumstance.

The Grafton met on the final day, with good scenting in their favor. The pack quickly got up one fox, then another, and split, with two couple running the first and four couple running the second. “I went as fast as I could gallop to Steptoe Hill, when I got there I found the entire pack giving beautiful music. Three foxes broke away in different directions. the pack took up one line, stuck to it. … The run was fast and notwithstanding the cold weather, the hounds held to the line and threw their tongue each.”

Joseph B. Thomas, who became an authority on foxhunting, was among those who was inspired to set up kennels in the Middleburg area after the Great Hound Match of 1905

Movius differed with McEachran in assessing the scent, calling it “poor” to McEachran’s “good,” but he, too, was impressed by the American pack. “Hounds followed line very well considering the unfavorable conditions,” he said.

The match concluded at about 10:15 a.m. when Harry Worcester Smith’s hounds lost their fox.

Does it sound like a draw to you? It does to me. Which is why I was surprised to read the judge’s one-sentence decision: “We award the Match and the stake together with the Townsend Cup to the Grafton Hounds, they, in our opinion, having done the best work with the object of killing the fox in view.”

Harry Worcester Smith took the win as a complete vindication of his view that the American hound was the best animal for hunting the red fox in America. But even the editors of The Rider and Driver, where the whole match challenge had started almost a year earlier, were more tempered in their view: “As may be noted by the account elsewhere the English hounds were no doubt working under some serious handicaps. There was no little native fervor exhibited on behalf of the American hound, at least that seems to be indicated by the fact that on two occasions the American hounds were lifted by judges and laid on the line of scent. These incidents, however, were not permitted to weigh with the judges in reaching their decisions.”

It should be noted that the English hounds faced quite a few obstacles. Higginson did not prepare them as strenuously for the match as Smith did his hounds, for one thing. And, unlike the Grafton pack, the Middlesex hounds had arrived not too long before from England and had no experience of hunting in Virginia, which Smith had afforded his hounds in their time hunting with Bywaters.

Higginson wrote that he was “perfectly satisfied with the work of my hounds,” adding “Messrs. Movius, Maddux and McEachran gave the decision to the Grafton, and it would be most discourteous to them for me to make any statements as to how their decision agreed with anything I may or may not think.”

A reward for a job well done, by all the hounds!

Needless to say, the debate over English versus American hounds continued long after the Great Hound Match of 1905. It still continues, even as fox-catching has given way to fox-chasing as a goal of the hunt, and as development and the coyote’s new predominance as game in many territories have prompted packs to reassess their hound programs.

So what, if anything, did the Great Hound Match of 1905 accomplish? Several things. It raised Virginia’s profile as the nation’s most fashionable place to hunt and helped the sport to grow here; among the people drawn to the Middleburg area by the hound match was Joseph B. Thomas, who built a state-of-the-art kennel at Huntland here and went on to write the wonderful book Hounds and Hunting through the Ages.

More importantly, from working foxhounds’ point of view, the match showcased the talents of both types. The match proved that English hounds could, in fact, provide brilliant sport and beautiful music, and that they were fast enough to press and catch foxes in America as they had for centuries in English grasslands and woodlands. The match also proved that American hounds’ independence could be managed through thoughtful training and that their sizzling speed, even though it outpaced a field of followers, was indeed more than enough to account for American red foxes. In short, the match proved the worthy qualities of both hounds.

Today, the emphasis on catching red foxes has faded in America. Unlike in England, where sheep farming is still common, foxes are rarely a problem to farmers here. But hound lovers and foxhunters undoubtedly will continue to argue, as they always have, the merits of one kind of hound against another for providing good sport.

NSL Dispatches: Kid, meet candy store!

The National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia, is a haven for lovers of sporting books, art, and ... weathervanes! The bright, golden grasshopper to the lower left of the oil painting of George Ohrstrom Sr. above is one example from the late Paul Mellon's collection, which is on display throughout the library.

TODAY was my first chance to step inside the National Sporting Library. Remember your first day at school? The bag full of notecards and paper, the yellow pencils, books everywhere? But imagine a school where you can read what you want to read, where you can while away six or seven hours a day poring over books and unique original documents about your favorite subjects. That’s what the National Sporting Library is like if you are passionate about horses, hounds, hunting, angling, sporting art, polo, and countless other delights. And it is open to the public, so pay them a visit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

The bronze War Horse by Tessa Pullan memorializes the 1.5 million horses and mules who died of injuries or disease or were wounded in both the Confederate and Union Armies during the Civil War.

Guided around by the library’s Liz Tobey and Lisa Campbell–both hound followers and researchers–I quickly found that the NSL has a lot more to offer than its treasure-trove of rare sporting books and personal papers. It has a first-rate art collection, including pieces by Munnings, Franklin Voss, Michael Lyne, and Lionel Edwards, among countless others. It has sculpture, including a small Herbert Haseltine bronze depicting his idea of the perfect Thoroughbred. It houses the late Paul Mellon’s collection of weathervanes, which range from the beautiful to the whimsical. It houses a complete collection of The Chronicle of the Horse, whose office is right next door, numerous bound volumes of the old sporting magazines that proliferated in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and shelves, almost as far as the eye can see, occupied by years’ worth of the red-bound annual Baily’s hunting directory. And there are audio and video materials, including videotapes and DVDs of foxhunting in England, Ireland, and the U.S.

Theodore Roosevelt's handwritten manuscript for "Riding to Hounds on Long Island," published in The Century magazine in July 1886.

Want video of the Scarteen in full cry across Ireland? They’ve got it. Need some insight into the development of bits and stirrups? It’s there. Photos of Walker or July hounds in the late 1800s? Check. Looking for biographical details of the four people who compiled the records that became the American Stud Book for the Thoroughbred? Right there on the bookshelf. Joseph B. Thomas’s hunt diaries? In the archive boxes downstairs.

You get the idea. (And, by the way, there’s a print of Iroquois just off the entrance foyer!)

In addition, the library hosts seminars, lectures, readings, art exhibitions, and film screenings.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my two-week stint here will only allow me a glimpse of the works worth studying in depth, so I think another trip will be required!

From the stacks

My task is to find interesting history about hounds and how huntsmen through the ages have bred and trained them, developing a mutual language between huntsman and hound that allows them to work together in the hunt field. As I come across interesting pieces over the next two weeks, I’ll excerpt them here on the hound blog.

Today, I spent a lot of time poring over two old texts. The first is George Tubervile’s The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting, published in 1611. I’ve only just waded into his advice to huntsmen, but already I’m struck by what hasn’t changed in hound training over the centuries:

“A Good keeper of hounds should be gracious, curteous, and gentle, loving his dogs of a naturell dispostion, and hee ought to bee both well footed and well winded, as well to fill his horne as his bottell: the first thing which he ought to do when he riseth, is to go see his hounds, to make their lodging cleane, and to dresse them as the care shall require.

“… The keeper must fill two great bagges or pockets with small bones, and other good morsels, as … horse feet fryed, fatte roast meats, and such like, that he shall breake all into small gobbets into his bagges, and hang one bagge about his own necke, and give another unto one of his companions. …

“Afterwards every man shall take a fayre wand in his hand, and let one go before to call the hounds unto him, another shall come behind which shall jerk them forwards, and if there be two others, they shall go on ech side, and so all foure together shall go lead the hounds through the greene Corne fields and through the meadows, as well to feed them as for to teach them to know their voice, making them to passe through the heards of sheep and other such like beasts to accustom them, and to make them know them.”

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason wearing the biscuit bag, still a standard feature of working pack kennels everywhere.

The modern bagge of "dogges delicates"after a morning's hound walk

Turbervile describes an early exercise to teach the hounds to hark to a huntsman’s holloa: the huntsman walks some way away (Turbervile suggests “a crossbow shot’s length”) while his whippers-in hold the young hounds. Then the huntsman should turn, blow his horn, and call to his hounds. The whippers-in should let them go then, and when the hounds rush to their huntsman, he will give them their reward:

” … When they are come to hallow, the huntsman must take his bagge of victuales and cast unto them all the delicates, crying and comforting them as the Art requireth: then when hee shall see that they have almost done eating of their reward, hee shall give sign or token to his companions that they beginne to hallow, the which (having not stirred from the place where they uncoupled their dogs and having another budget or pocket of delicates and dogs dainties) shall begin to hallow on their side, and to blow their hornes to make the dogs come unto them.”

It’s interesting that, in this early style of hunting in England (presumably based on the French style, because hunting with hounds was imported from France by the Normans) the huntsman isn’t the only one carrying a horn and holloa-ing to the hounds. That eventually changed in England, but I’ll have to find out more about how they still do things stag-hunting in France. Still multiple horns? If so, how are they used now?

Hounds are everywhere at the library.

From another ancient source, a vivid description of the fox. The book is a heavy tome called The History of Four-Footed Beasts, by Edward Topsell, published in 1607. Now, far be it from me to be skeptical of descriptions painstakingly collected by the “chaplaine in the Church of Saint Buttolphe Aldergate,” but, well, I do have my doubts about some of his animals! The gorgon that graces an early page, for example, is shaped like a horse, has scales like a lizard, has the coiled tail of a snake, cloven hooves like a cow, and a mane like a lion. Just saying.

Of foxes, Topsell had this scary observation:

“If the urine of a Foxe fall upon the grasse or other Herbs it drieth and killeth them, and the earth remaineth barren ever afterward.”

But some of his descriptions are more reliable: “He stinketh from Nose and taile.” I’ll buy that.

Topsell's version of a fox in his History of Four-Footed Beasts

And Topsell gave plenty of time to dogges, especially houndes, in his book. Intriguingly, he described night-hunting hounds whose activities sound very like the kind of hunting still done from Texas to Ohio, where hunters let their hounds out at sunset and sit around the campfire while the animals hunt until dawn. The point in their case is to hear the hounds’ voices carrying through the woods or up and down the valleys. But in Topsell’s account, the hounds called night curs or Canis furax ran silent while hunting “conies,” small hares, by scent:

“… At the mandate and bidding of his master fleereth and leereth abroad in the night, hunting Conies by the aire. … During all which space of his hunting, he will not barke, lest he should be prejudicial to his own advantage. And thus watcheth and snatcheth up as many Conies as his master will suffer him, and beareth them to his masters standing.”

The History of Four-Footed Beasts was probably my favorite read of the day both for the fantastical nature of its information and for its terrific drawings.

Topsell's rather malevolent-looking hunting hound.

The hapless cony in The History of Four-Footed Beasts, or what our beagle Harry would call "a fat, slow, juicy rabbit."

From more recent texts, we have two great American presidents, both avid foxhunters. George Washington appears, from the sporting notes he made in his diaries before the Revolutionary War, to have hunted every chance he could get. And we know that some of his hounds were French, because on Aug. 24, 1785, he noted a gift he received from a Revolutionary ally: “Received Seven hounds sent me from France by the Marquis de la Fayette, by way of New York, viz. 3 dogs and 4 Bitches,” Washington wrote.

Washington had about 12,600 acres to hunt over during this period. He kept his own kennels, and there are hints of the frustrations many Masters and huntsmen have experienced through the ages. There are worries over rabies–at one time Washington feared his entire pack had become subject to “madness,” and he was obliged to shoot a seemingly rabid dog that happened into some of his hunting hounds one afternoon. The breeding program at Washington’s kennels also was at times haphazard, resulting in some head-exploding (and sad) moments for the Master:

June 22, 1768: Musick was also in heat and served promiscuously by all the Dogs, intending to drown her Puppys.

March 24, 1769: Returned home from my journey to Frederick, etca., and found that the Hound Bitch Maiden had taken Dog promiscuously; That the Bitch Lady was in Heat and had also been promiscuously lind, and therefore I did not shut her up; That Dutchess was shut up, and had been lind twice by Drunkard, but was out one Night in her heat, and supposd to be lind by other Dogs; That Truelove was also in the House, as was Mopsy likewise (who had been seen lind to Pilot before she was shut up).

March 26, 1770: Countess a hound Bitch after being confined sometime got loose and was lind before it was discovered by my Water dog once, and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.

On the other hand, a remarkable day’s hunting could set everything right again.

Jan. 23, 1770: Went a hunting after breakfast and found a Fox at Muddy hole and killed her (it being a Bitch) after a chace of better than two hours, and after treeing her twice the last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree after being therein several minutes apparently well.”

His hounds, presumably, thought this was manna from heaven.

Theodore Roosevelt's bound original manuscript for an article about foxhunting on Long Island

Theodore Roosevelt, writing in 1886, called Yankee foxhunting “certainly the most exciting and perhaps also the manliest kind of amusement to be found east of the Mississippi River.” He broke his arm while out on a blistering run with the Meadowbrook Hunt. By Roosevelt’s estimate, the field that day covered 10 miles, jumped “somewhat more than 60 fences” (the highest in the country being five feet and a half inch), and had only two checks.

The physical challenge of such rigorous riding in the hunt field had practical effects, Roosevelt argued. “If in 1860 riding to hounds had been at the North, as it was at the South, a national pastime, it would not have taken us until well on towards the middle of the war before we were able to develop a cavalry capable of withstanding the shock of the Southern horsemen,” he opined.

The proliferation of drag-hunting in the Eastern U.S. at that time perplexed the English, who saw no point in it. But Roosevelt, perhaps with a touch of defensiveness, explained it as an unsurprising, even necessary product of the new robber-barons and entrepreneurial class:

“Once or twice a week they can get off for an afternoon’s ride across country, and they then wish to be absolutely certain of having their run, and of having it at the appointed time; and the only way to ensure this is to have a drag hunt. It is not a lack of foxes that has made the sport on this side of the water take the form of drag-hunting so much as the fact that the majority of those who keep it up are hard-working business men who wish to make the most out of every moment of the little time they can spare from their regular occupations.”

The researcher's tools at the National Sporting Library.

Time on the hunt field, drag or otherwise, is always welcome. But I confess I found Roosevelt’s explanation disheartening, revealing a sort of industrialization of even the great natural art of hounds and hunt: hunting like clockwork, on a fixed and speedy schedule. But isn’t part of the joy of watching hounds work found in leaving the workday’s assembly-line pressures behind, of getting back to the fields and woods and streams, enjoying the hounds as they perform the way that we know, from Turbervile and Topsell, they have performed for centuries, on their own instinct and training and without an artificial schedule pressed on them?

More from the National Sporting Library stacks as research continues!