Fishermen and Foxhunters: Washington’s “Gentlemen of Fortune”


December 7, 2016
by Gary Shattuck Also by this Author


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Before Lexington and Concord, before there was any need for an army, and before men found themselves beholden to the dictates of military service there were the many trade, social, and sporting organizations offering them opportunities to associate together.  In Philadelphia, where before the war there were no less than seventeen private fire companies engaged in heavy socializing when not attending to fire prevention concerns, there are perhaps no better examples than the Schuylkill Fishing Company and Gloucester Foxhunting Club.[1]

The rosters of each of these organizations share many of the same names, with members coming from both the city and immediately across the Delaware River in New Jersey’s Gloucester County.  These mens’ close bonds and leadership abilities were so evident that in November 1774 they formed the nucleus of one of the colonies’ first all-volunteer organizations enforcing the First Continental Congress’s non-importation dictates, the Light-Horse of the City of Philadelphia.[2]  They used an important flag displaying, reportedly for the first time on any banner, the distinctive thirteen stripes symbolizing the number of colonies.[3]

Sport and the comradery it allowed was the common factor drawing these men together in the decades preceding the Revolution.  Until then, the area around Philadelphia was populated with an abundance of fish and wildlife, drawing many to tramp its thick forests and wade in its streams.  Early settlers marked important moments in their childhood development as young boys, spending their formative years fishing until reaching the age of fifteen when allowed to enter into the woods in pursuit of game.  As the area became more populated and people sought out opportunities to socialize, those of lesser means participated in shooting, fishing, and sailing parties while the well-to-do turned to “glutton clubs, fishing-house and country parties,” reportedly allowing “great sociability” among them all.[4]

Fishing was a great diversion for many as evidenced by period newspaper advertisements by merchants hawking an abundance of fishing-related gear in the form of rods, hooks and nets while real estate notices touted the location of favored pieces of land located on or near popular fishing locales.[5]  So many white perch populated the area’s waters that it was not unusual for a single fisherman to pull out between “five and twenty dozen fish” by himself using a rod measuring some twenty-five feet in length and casting a line bearing three to six small hooks.[6]  Clustered together along the river banks, working and coordinating their efforts as they did in their militia musters, the men could haul in as much as “one hundred dozen” fish in a single day.  However, the sport had gained such popularity that by 1767 authorities began introducing laws prohibiting some of those practices that caused a noticeable drop in the fish population.[7]

It is not surprising to see the creation of organizations including the Schuylkill Fishing Company, reportedly the longest operating social club in the English-speaking world.  Originally founded on May 1, 1732, and called “The Colony in Schuylkill,” its first members included some of the original settlers accompanying William Penn to the New World.  A close association then developed between them and the resident Lenni Lanape people who tradition provides first allowed them “the right and privilege to hunt in the woods and to fish in the waters of the Schuylkill.”[8]

To attend its operations, members of the Colony facetiously adopted the trappings of an independent government, creating yearly elected posts bearing the honorifics of governor, assembly (with five members), sheriff, coroner, and secretary-treasurer.[9]  While purportedly only a social club, it wielded such authority that it commanded the attention of local authorities leading some to call it “Imperim in Imperio, a republic of Andorra in the heart of Penn’s Kingdom.”[10]

While many of the Club’s members came from the peaceful Quaker party, there was also a decidedly pragmatic, militaristic side to their operations. In 1747 they donated a thirty-two pounder cannon to the local Association Battery guarding the city, itself counting several individuals from the fishing Colony serving in commanding positions.  Manufactured in either England or New Jersey, the ten foot long weapon weighed between two and three tons and bore an inscription in the Indian language “Kawania che keeteru,” meaning “This is my right and I will defend it,” demonstrating an unwavering intention to preserve their way of life.  Continuing in that vein, the translation was later adopted by the Philadelphia Committee of Safety in 1775 for its own motto when it created the seal it used during the war.[11]  In 1762 the Colony expanded its “military” capabilities by assessing its members fifteen shillings in order to replace their deteriorating “navy,” composed of the two “frigates” Shirk and Fly “condemned as totally unfit for service,” with the building of two new vessels of modest dimension, being twelve and fifteen feet in length.[12]

Members also erected a building on the banks of the Schuylkill called The Castle to which they walked and rode for their gatherings.  As they did so, they traveled through the thick forest separating it from the city carrying their fowling pieces and accompanied by faithful canines as they unhesitatingly fired upon the abundant animal population.   As “Governor” Thomas Stretch described the amount of game at hand in writing to this fellow “Schuylkillians” in 1744:

WHEREAS great quantities of rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, partridges, and others of the game kind have presumed to infest the coasts and territories of Schuylkill, in a wild, bold and ungovernable manner;

THESE are therefore to authorize and require you, or any of you, to make diligent search for the said rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, partridges and others of the game kind, in all suspected places where they may be found, and bring the respective bodies of so many as you shall find … to be proceeded against.[13]

By 1762 the ranks of the popular Colony in Schuylkill had reached seventy-five, many of them “renowned as active and successful sportsmen,” and while “some preferred to range with a gun … the major part sought their luck on the water.”[14]  Extant records of their many proceedings, including those of other fishing clubs, reveal much revelry as they consumed large amounts of food and drink demonstrating a convivial, jocular, back-slapping crowd.  However, as tensions mounted with Britain, 1769 marked their last documented meeting until later in the war. It was revived in October 1782, changing its name to the “State in Schuylkill” to reflect the new political realities, followed by the “Schuylkill Fishing Company” in 1844 and continuing into the twenty-first century.

By 1766, pressure on fish notwithstanding, the overall effects of hunting in the immediate Philadelphia area was becoming more noticeable with the decline in population of various land bound species.  This, in turn, forced the sporting community to look to other areas for sport, settling on nearby Gloucester County on the other side of the Delaware River in New Jersey.[15]  In addition to horse-racing, chasing vermin was the most adventurous and robust activity engaged in by the local elite in their “occasional, unregulated private hunts.” [16]  Accordingly, on October 29 many of them, including their fishermen brethren, decided to organize themselves and assembled at the Philadelphia Coffee House, creating the important Gloucester Foxhunting Club; remaining in existence until 1818 when it was disbanded.

While hunting with hounds dates to the ancients, the first organized fox hunt took place in Charlton, England in 1675 with the Charlton Hunt.  It became immediately popular with royalty and the elite who then took steps to create highly bred packs capable of sustained effort in the field, finally achieving that result in the 1760s and 1770s.[17]  Those efforts required large amounts of money to build kennels and employ personnel to watch over them; this later resulted in the North American experience of subscription hunts requiring members to pay a certain sum yearly for that purpose.  There, the heavily wooded landscape was markedly different from England’s cleared spaces, which had an effect on the conduct of the hunt itself, with more attention paid towards watching hounds at work in the thick underbrush before picking up a scent and beginning the chase.  Over the course of the eighteenth century, forests were cleared and wetlands drained opening up hunting grounds. American hounds then underwent a breeding process allowing the development of needed strength and stamina to run for long periods of time.[18]

Just maintaining the necessary horse to participate in the sport required significant money.  As Colony in Schuylkill fishing member (number 46 enrolled in 1748) and later Loyalist James Galloway noted in 1759, it cost no less than seven shillings a day in order to “live meanly and keep a horse” in Philadelphia.[19]  With general laborers and ships’ carpenters in the city and New York making around that amount between 1758 and 1774 it is clear that many possessed too little to allow them to participate in hunting to the hounds even if they had the time to do so.  For those able to afford it, hunting provided important opportunities to meet others and further their relationships.  As one foxhunter noted in 1792:

When the pleasures of the chase can be made the means of calling the gentlemen of the country together, they become really useful and beneficial to society.  They give opportunities of shynesses, dispelling temporary differences, forming new friendships and cementing old, and drawing the gentlemen of the country together in one closer bond of society.[20]

            Budding comradery notwithstanding, in the years before the war colonists persisted in pleading to London their widespread poverty making it impossible for them to contribute to the empire’s upkeep.  As one London observer wrote in 1767, “Cock-fighting, fox-hunting, horse-racing, and every other expensive diversion, are in great vogue in the Colonies, yet the Colonists pretend they are not able to pay towards the support of their Governments.”[21]  However, one New Yorker took strong exception to such a characterization, contending that “Cock-fighting is held in such disgrace among us, as that the few who practice it are almost ashamed to be known.”[22]  While also dismissing their attraction for horse-racing, he further noted that “Fox-hunting we know nothing of as a diversion, but only to keep them from our poultry and the benefit of the skin.”  Then, in telling disdain for those in the neighboring colony, he pointed out that “How far the Philadelphians are chargeable with these or the like extravagancies, they know best, and are able to answer for themselves.”

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia in 1766 thirty-two year old local merchant Samuel Morris, Jr. did indeed ride to the hounds and knew a lot about it; he was described as “an excellent horseman, and a keen sportsman, delighting in the chase, and all health-giving out-door sports.”[23]   Being a man of “independent circumstances” Morris could engage in his sport at will, rising early and eating breakfast with his brethren before the sun rose and then dashing out to the countryside where in 1765 they reportedly killed three foxes within just a few hours’ time.[24]  At age fourteen in 1748 his name first appears on the rolls of the Colony in Schuylkill (member number 52) as a budding fisherman and in 1765 he was elected its governor, serving in that capacity for the next forty-six years until his death in 1812.  Further, upon the formation of the Gloucester Foxhunting Club in 1766 he was then chosen as its first president, similarly continuing in that role until his passing.

Joining Morris in foxhunting twice a week on Thursdays and Fridays for the season lasting between April and October, along with twenty-six other men of note, and members of the fishing Colony, were his brother, Anthony Morris, Jr. (number 97), later killed during the Battle of Princeton in 1777, and Samuel Nicholas (number 102) who went on to become the First Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1775.[25]  Whether their unique hunting attire inspired that of the Marine Corps is not definitively known, but in 1774 the Club mandated its members wear “a dark brown coatee, with lapelled dragoon pockets, white buttons and frock sleeves, buff waistcoat and breeches, and a black velvet cap” during their outings.[26]

The common interest that these fishermen and hunters shared in the field is further demonstrated by the May Day celebrations that continued to take place during the Revolution.  In 1776 the play The Fall of British Tyranney; or, American Liberty Triumphant was staged with actors singing a song to the tune of “The Hounds are all out.”[27]  It could not have been by mistake that they did so, relying on their audience’s familiarity with its verses:

The Hounds are all out, and the Morning does peep,
Why how now you sluggardly Sot?
How can you, how can you lie snoring asleep,
While we all on Horseback have got?
Brave Boys, while we all on Horseback, &c.

I cannot get up, for the over-night’s Cup
So terribly lies in my Head;
Besides, my Wife cries, my Dear do not rise,
But cuddle me longer a-bed,
Dear Boy, but cuddle, &c.

Come, on with your Boots, and saddle your Mare,
Nor tire us with longer Delay;
The Cry of the Hounds, and the Sight of the Hare,
Will chase all our Vapours away,
Brave Boys, will chase, &c.[28]

Their comradery continued to sustain them and with war’s storm clouds on the horizon they sought out yet further instances to demonstrate their close bonds.

That opportunity arose on November 17, 1774 when the Philadelphia Committee of Correspondence met in the statehouse to decide how to implement the Continental Congress’s recent directives aimed at prohibiting the importation of British goods.  As a result, twenty-eight men, “well representing the respectability and wealth of the city,” decided to form themselves into a cavalry company called the “Light-horse of the City of Philadelphia.”  Of that number, no less than twenty-two of them came from the Gloucester Foxhunting Club, electing Morris, later becoming known as “Fighting Sam,” as their second lieutenant.[29]  As the history of the Light Horse relates, of the several social organizations making up its membership, those coming from the foxhunting Club “appear to have had the most influence” in forming the Troop.[30]  Further, by war’s end some fifty-two names of those from the fishing Colony in Schuylkill, some also Club members, are listed in the Light-Horse rolls.[31]

This was a well-heeled, self-financed company made up of “men of substantial means, who had something at stake in the fate of their country, and who needed not pay to keep them in the field.  Some of them were representatives of the elite, and others afterwards attained such prominence in public affairs as shed lustre on the organization.”[32]  It is not known which preceded the other in 1774, but the fashionable uniform they chose to wear closely resembled the Club’s, described as “a dark brown short coat, faced and lined with white, white vest and breeches, high-top boots, round black hat, a buck’s tail; housings brown, edged with white, and the letters L. H. marked upon them.” [33]  For arms, they bore “a carbine, a pair of pistols, and holsters, with flounce of brown cloth trimmed with white, a horseman’s sword, and white belts for the sword and carbine.”  In their ostentatious display, historian David Hackett Fischer opines that “this silk-stocking outfit must have been jeered by ragged infantrymen.”[34]

There are no descriptions of its actual presentation, but at some point shortly after its formation the Light-Horse received its important standard, courtesy of their captain Abraham Markoe, thankful at being elected their commander.[35]  Markoe was a citizen of Denmark and and was forced shortly after his gift to resign his commission because his king, Christian VIII, forbid his subjects to participate in the war against Britain. Morris was unanimously elected in his place.

The flag is reportedly “the earliest known instance of the thirteen stripes being used upon an American banner,” making it an article of particular interest.[36]  According to September 1775 invoices recording the flag’s creation months earlier, Philadelphia artist James Claypool painted, gilded and silvered the flag which had been drawn and designed by an obscure individual named John Folwell.[37]  It still survives, measuring forty inches long and thirty-four inches broad, and bears in its center an emblem, topped by a horsehead, with the words beneath “For these we strive,” an apparent reference to fame and liberty.[38]  In its canton, or rectangular portion, in the upper left are the noticeable stripes described as “Barry [stripes] of thirteen azure and argent. The azure being deep ultramarine, the argent silver leaf.”  It was under this flag, attached to a three-part staff of “dark wood,” that Washington, accompanied by Generals Lee and Schuyler, was escorted out of Philadelphia to the New York border by members of the Light Horse on June 21, 1775 on his way to Cambridge to assume command of the army.

Washington certainly felt particular comfort in the care of these men, himself an avid foxhunter.  Years before the Revolution at age sixteen in 1748 he was employed by Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, on his massive Virginia estate as a surveyor and frequently joined him in the many foxhunting opportunities he offered.[39]  Taking up the sport even more aggressively when means allowed it following his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759 and up to 1774, apparently uninterested in either shooting or fishing, Washington pursued foxes with a vengeance.  Until the war disrupted the peace, he entertained guests at Mount Vernon for weeks at a time, guiding the assembly as they ranged over the countryside chasing foxes and hounds.

Washington always superbly mounted, in true sporting costume, of blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots, velvet cap, and whip with long thong, took the field at daybreak with his huntsman Will Lee, his friends and neighbors; and none rode more gallantly in the chase, nor with voice more cheerily awakened echo in the woodland than he ….[40]

To the north of Washington, the year 1775 marked “the hey-day” of the Gloucester Foxhunting Club as they rode to the baying cries of an impressive sixteen couple (pairs) of hounds.[41]  However, with the war and ensuing presence of a large British army taking up occupancy in Philadelphia operations were suspended as their members assumed important military and civil positions.  But no sooner had the British departed than the Club was up and running, assembling once again on the banks of the Delaware River.  Though with a lesser number, they continued as they had in the past, running behind a pack of “twenty-two excellent dogs” bearing the wonderful names of Mingo, Piper, Drummer, Rover, Countess, Dido, Slouch, Ringwood, Tippler, Driver, Tuneall, Bumper, Sweetlips, Juno, Duchess, Venus, Singwell, Doxy, Droner, Toper, Bowler and Bellman.[42]

Those fishing and hunting members of the Colony in Schuylkill and Gloucester Foxhunting Club working together in the Philadelphia Light Horse made contributions that proved of great value to the patriot cause.  While their efforts never exceeded two months of service at any one time, or barely six months in the war’s totality, they participated in some of its most momentous events.[43]  Through many trials the men performed admirably at Trenton (December 26, 1776), Princeton (January 3, 1777), Brandywine (September 11, 1777), Germantown (October 4, 1777), and at Valley Forge allowing them the honored position of being the first troops to reenter Philadelphia when the British left in 1778.  Expressing his approval of their efforts following Trenton and Princeton, on January 23, 1777 Washington temporarily discharged the company, making certain to acknowledge their worthy achievements:

I take this opportunity of returning my most sincere thanks to the Captain [Morris] and to the Gentlemen who compose the Troop, for the many essential services which they have rendered to their Country, and to me personally, during the course of this severe campaign.  Tho’ composed of Gentlemen of Fortune, they have shown a noble Example of discipline and subordination, and in several actions have shown a Spirit of Bravery which will ever do Honor to them and will ever be gratefully remembered by me.[44]

In the following years, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry as it became known was called upon many times to perform tasks on the behalf of both the colony and Washington.  Its members also went on to advanced ranks and held important positions in service to the new nation.

Sport, as exemplified by the fishermen and foxhunters of the time, bound these men together when there was no war forcing them to associate.  Their records demonstrate the raw fun and emotion that their pursuits allowed them and, together with the abundant natural resources at their disposal, one can only look on with envy at all they experienced in their time together.  In comparison, it was a deceptively innocent time, but none the less one that any avid outdoorsman would have loved to participate in as their companion.


[1] Other fishing clubs in the area before the Revolution included the Society of Fort St. David’s (founded 1753) and the Mount Regale Fishing Company (date uncertain), the latter composed of many members coming from the proprietary party countering those of the Quaker party belonging to the Schuylkill club.  James H. Hutson, “An Investigation of the Inarticulate: Philadelphia’s White Oaks,” William and Mary Quarterly 28, no. 1 (January 1971): 5.

[2] History of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. 1774. November, 17, 1874 (Princeton, 1875), 1.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1830), 166.

[5] See, e.g., Pennsylvania Gazette, December 11, 1766, April 16, 1767; Pennsylvania Journal, September 9, 1772.

[6] By a Member, An Authentic Historic Memoir of the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill (Philadelphia: Judah Dobson, 1830), 113.

[7] Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), April 16, 1767.

[8] H. H. Brogden, “Restoration of the Schuylkill Gun to ‘The State in Schuylkill,’ April 23, 1884,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 8, no. 2 (June 1884): 200.

[9] William Milnor, A History of the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill, 1732-1888 (Philadelphia: Published by the Members, 1889), 20.

[10]  Robert C. Moon, The Morris Family of Philadelphia, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Robert C. Moon, 1898), 322.

[11]  George Henry Preble, History of the Flag of the United States of America, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 254.

[12]  Milnor, A History, 34-35.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Watson, Annals, 237-238.

[16] Milnor, A History, 4.

[17] Eric Eliason, “Foxhunting Folkways under Fire and the Crisis of Traditional Moral Knowledge,” Western Folklore 63, no. 1/2 (Winter-Spring 2004): 129.

[18] James Howe, “Fox Hunting as Ritual,” American Ethnologist 8, no. 2 (May 1981): 289.

[19] Hutson, “An Investigation,” 7-8.

[20] Howe, “Fox Hunting,” 286.

[21] Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), August 1, 1767.

[22] New York Gazette, August 20, 1767.

[23] Moon, Morris Family, 321.

[24] Ibid., 322.  Morris’ name, along with many of his friends, appears on several rolls of subscribers providing many thousands of pounds to the city’s coffers in order to sustain the war effort.

[25] Gerald R. Gems, Linda J. Borish, and Gertrud Pfister, Sports in American History from Colonization to Globalization (Chelsea, MI: Sheridan Books, 2008), 59.

[26] Milnor, A History, 7.

[27] Martin W. Walsh, “May Games and Noble Savages: The Native American in Early Celebrations of Tammany Society,” Folklore 108 (1997): 87.

[28] The Lark containing a Collection of Four Hundred and Seventy Four celebrated English and Scotch Songs (London: 1742), 353-354.

[29] Milnor, Memoirs, 3; Encyclopædia of Contemporary Biography of Pennsylvania, vol. 3 (New York: Atlantic Publishing and Engraving Company, 1898), 54.

[30] History of the First Troop, viii.  Other organizations joining included “The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick,” “St. Andrews Society at Philadelphia,” and “The Society of the Sons of St. George, for the advice and assistance of Englishmen in distress.” Ibid., x.

[31] Milnor, A History, 404.

[32] The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 10 (Philadelphia: 1886), 362.

[33] Moon, Morris Family, 323. “Housings” are pistol holsters.

[34] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 279.

[35] History of the First Troop, 119.

[36] Preble, History of the Flag, 251.  The presence of the stripes on this flag preceded their appearance several months later at the time of the raising of the union flag in Cambridge.

[37] Ibid., 257.

[38] Ibid., 254.

[39] Alexander Mackay-Smith, Foxhunting in North America (Millwood, VA: Good Printers, 1985), 217-218.

[40] George Washington Park Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 385.

[41] Milnor, Memoirs, 7.

[42] Ibid., 10-11.

[43] John B. Linn and Wm. Hegle, eds., Pennsylvania in the War of the Revolution, vol. II (Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, 1880), 733.

[44] History of the First Troop, 11.

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