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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Pastimes of Colonial Virginia

By Robert Beverly (1673–1716)

[From The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705.]

FOR their recreation, the plantations, orchards, and gardens constantly afford them fragrant and delightful walks. In their woods and fields, they have an unknown variety of vegetables, and other rarities of nature to discover and observe. They have hunting, fishing, and fowling, with which they entertain themselves an hundred ways. Here is the most good-nature and hospitality practised in the world, both toward friends and strangers; but the worst of it is, this generosity is attended now and then with a little too much intemperance. The neighborhood is at much the same distance as in the country in England; but with this advantage, that all the better sort of people have been abroad, and seen the world, by which means they are free from that stiffness and formality, which discover more civility than kindness. And besides, the goodness of the roads and the fairness of the weather bring people oftener together.

The Indians, as I have already observed, had in their hunting a way of concealing themselves, and coming up to the deer, under the blind of a stalking-head, in imitation of which many people have taught their horses to stalk it, that is, to walk gently by the huntsman’s side, to cover him from the sight of the deer. Others cut down trees for the deer to browse upon, and lie in wait behind them. Others again set stakes at a certain distance within their fences, where the deer have been used to leap over into a field of peas, which they love extremely; these stakes they so place, as to run into the body of the deer, when he pitches, by which means they impale him.

They hunt their hares (which are very numerous) a-foot, with mongrels or swift dogs, which either catch them quickly, or force them to hole in a hollow tree, whither all their hares generally tend, when they are closely pursued. As soon as they are thus holed, and have crawled up into the body of a tree, the business is to kindle a fire and smother them with smoke, till they let go their hold and fall to the bottom stifled; from whence they take them. If they have a mind to spare their lives, upon turning them loose they will be as fit as ever to hunt at another time: for the mischief done them by the smoke immediately wears off again.

They have another sort of hunting, which is very diverting, and that they call vermin-hunting; it is performed a-foot, with small dogs in the night, by the light of the moon or stars. Thus in summer time they find abundance of raccoons, opossums, and foxes in the corn-fields, and about their plantations; but at other times they must go into the woods for them. The method is to go out with three or four dogs, and, as soon as they come to the place, they bid the dogs seek out, and all the company follow immediately. Wherever a dog barks, you may depend upon finding the game; and this alarm draws both men and dogs that way. If this sport be in the woods, the game by that time you come near it is perhaps mounted to the top of an high tree, and then they detach a nimble fellow up after it, who must have a scuffle with the beast, before he can throw it down to the dogs; and then the sport increases, to see the vermin encounter those little curs. In this sort of hunting, they also carry their great dogs out with them, because wolves, bears, panthers, wild cats, and all other beasts of prey, are abroad in the night.

For wolves they make traps, and set guns baited in the woods, so that, when he offers to seize the bait, he pulls the trigger, and the gun discharges upon him. What Elian and Pliny write of the horses being benumbed in their legs, if they tread in the track of a wolf, does not hold good here; for I myself, and many others, have rid full speed after wolves in the woods, and have seen live ones taken out of a trap, and dragged at a horse’s tail; and yet those that followed on horse-back have not perceived any of their horses to falter in their pace….

There is yet another kind of sport, which the young people take great delight in, and that is, the hunting of wild horses; which they pursue sometimes with dogs, and sometimes without. You must know they have many horses foaled in the woods of the uplands, that never were in hand, and are as shy as any savage creature. These having no mark upon them belong to him that first takes them. However, the captor commonly purchases these horses very dear, by spoiling better in the pursuit; in which case he has little to make himself amends, besides the pleasure of the chase. And very often this is all he has for it, for the wild horses are so swift, that ’tis difficult to catch them; and when they are taken, ’tis odds but their grease is melted, or else, being old, they are so sullen that they can’t be tamed.

The inhabitants are very courteous to travellers, who need no other recommendation, but the being human creatures. A stranger has no more to do, but to inquire upon the road where any gentleman or good housekeeper lives, and there he may depend upon being received with hospitality. This good nature is so general among their people, that the gentry, when they go abroad, order their principal servant to entertain all visitors with everything the plantation affords. And the poor planters, who have but one bed, will very often sit up, or lie upon a form or couch all night, to make room for a weary traveller to repose himself after his journey.

If there happen to be a churl, that either out of covetousness, or ill-nature, would not comply with this generous custom, he has a mark of infamy set upon him, and is abhorred by all. But I must confess (and am heartily sorry for the occasion), that this good neighborhood has of late been much depraved by the present Governor, who practises the detestable politics of governing by parties; by which feuds and heart-burnings have been kindled in the minds of the people, and friendship, hospitality, and good-neighborhood have been extremely discouraged.