Washington, always superbly mounted, in true sporting costume of blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, velvet cap, and whip with long thong, look the field at day's dawn, with his huntsman Will Lee, his friends and neighbors.... He rode, as he did everything, with ease, elegance and with power...and ridiculed the idea of its being even possible that he should be unhorsed, providing that the animal kept on his legs.... The General usually rode, in the chase, a horse called Blueskin, of a dark, iron grey color....
Thus wrote Washington's stepgrandson, George W. Parke Custis, of the Father of our Country—an ardent and superb horseman and the first of a long line of U.S. Presidents who have been avid sportsmen. Washington's interest in sports started many years before he distinguished himself in the Revolution. In 1759, at the age of 26, he married Martha Custis, a wealthy young widow, and settled on his Mount Vernon plantation to enjoy the leisurely life of a Tidewater sportsman-planter. Mount Vernon before and after the Revolution was the most popular rendezvous of the aristocratic fox-hunting set of Virginia and Maryland. During the season (November to March) the great house on the banks of the Potomac was crowded with guests, and Washington spent whatever time he could spare riding to hounds.
It was the custom to hunt three times a week. The guests were roused from their beds before daylight by Negro servants, and breakfast was served by candlelight (corncakes and milk for Washington because of his bad teeth). The hunt began at dawn and lasted for hours, sometimes until 3 o'clock when dinner was served at the main house.
Describing the hunt, Custis reported: "There were roads cut through the woods in various directions, by which the aged or timid hunters, and ladies, could enjoy the exhilarating cry, without risk of life or limb, but Washington rode gaily up to his hounds, through all the difficulties and dangers of the grounds on which he hunted...always in at the death, and yielding to no man the honor of the brush...."
July 1, 1956
Many of Washington's hunts were also impromptu affairs. Often he would ride out alone on an inspection tour of his lands in company with his hounds (Sweetlips, Juno, Trueman, Musick, Duchess were the names of some of them) and take up the chase if a fox was scented. On these solitary hunts, more often than not, the fox would escape.
Washington was the most enthusiastic fox hunter of his day and devoted more time to the sport than any President who succeeded him. His journals show that in his most active year (1768) he took the field 48 times and killed 18 foxes, once hunting five days at a stretch and once 18 times in two months. From his first recorded hunt on January 1, 1768 until the Revolution called him in 1775, he followed the hounds 173 times and was in at more than 65 kills.
It was the tree-climbing gray fox of the South that Washington hunted, not the more wily and longer-running red fox. A run—and there might be two or three in one day—would last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, and would often end with the fox taking to the branches. Thus (from his journals): "Went a Huntg...and killed a Dog Fox, after treeing him in 35 mins.... 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 treeing her twice, the last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree...." (Washington, as these excerpts indicate, was a more trustworthy sportsman than speller.)
Like most Tidewater gentlemen, Washington also bred and raised race horses and bet on them. He often attended the races at Annapolis, where on one trip he dropped ¬£15 at the track (he failed to recoup his losses at cards in the evening).
In 1775 the General went off to war and did not return to live at Mount Vernon again for eight years. His kennels and stables fell off badly during the Revolution, but he rebuilt them (aided by Lafayette who gave him a pack of French stag hounds), and in 1785 once more took up the chase. He was then in his 50s and weighed about 200 pounds, but he never succumbed to paunchiness or lost the erect carriage of his youth. He was still, as he had been in one of the earliest descriptions of him, "straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, wide shouldered and neat-waisted." Thomas Jefferson, himself an accomplished horseman, said of Washington: "He is the best horseman of the age and the most graceful."
During this period of his Mount Vernon residence (1783-89) he hunted only 23 times and killed fewer than 10 foxes. His final hunt at Mount Vernon took place on February 15, 1788, a week before his 56th birthday: "Let out a Fox (which had been taken alive some days ago) and after chasing it an hour lost it."
Although Washington's passion was horses, he found time to fish the Potomac many times (with both line and net for sturgeon, sheepshead and shad), and he often went gunning on it for wildfowl. His journals are spotted with entries like this:
"Went a ducking between breakfast and dinner and killd a Mallard and 5 bald faces." "Fishing for sturgeon but catchd none." "In the afternoon went up the Ck. after Blew Wings. Killd 7 or 8."
Washington also liked to camp and hunt game in the wilderness. As a boy he had grown up with the western frontier at his door, and at 16 he rode off across the Blue Ridge into the Wild West of that time. He slept on the ground in his clothes, cooked his meat on forked sticks and watched Indian war dances. This was the first of many trips he made into the wilds before he married Martha.
He went far enough west to encounter buffalo in the fall of 1770 on a trip into the Ohio country to select land granted to veterans of the French and Indian War. The journals he kept during the trip note: "We proceeded up the River [The Kanawha, a tributary of the Ohio in what is now West Virginia] with the Canoe about 4 miles more, and then encamped and went a Hunting, killd 5 Buffaloes and wounded some others, three deer, etca. This country abounds in Buffalo and Wild game of all kinds as also in all kinds of wild fowl...."
Upon his retirement from the presidency in 1797, Washington came home to spend the remaining two years of his life. As before he rode daily to inspect his lands, but never again did he go out with the hounds. He was then (as Custis saw him): "...an old gentleman riding alone, in plain dark clothes, a broad-brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, an umbrella with a long staff which is attached to his saddle-bow." So he rode until December 12, 1799, two days before he died.