Wednesday, July 03, 2013

America's Founding Terrier


George Washington fox hunting in Virginia
A repost from this blog, circa 2004.


The case can be made that America might not exist today were it not for "our Founding Terrier."

Robert Brooke of Maryland introduced foxhunting to the United States in 1650 and imported the first pack of foxhounds from Great Britain.

Dr. Thomas Walker of Virginia (who discovered the Cumberland Gap and for whom the Walker Coon Hound is supposedly named) imported another pack to Virginia in 1742. The first fox hunting pack maintained for the benefit of a group of fox hunters rather than for a single owner, was instituted by Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, in 1747 in northern Virginia.

Walker and Washington were good friends and business partners, and were co-owners (along with Washington's brother-in-law) of the "Dismal Swamp Land Company" (1763) which was to develop land near present-day Norfolk, Virginia. Walker was probably the person that got Washington started in fox hunting.

Washington moved to Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River just below Washington, D.C., after marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. It was at Mount Vernon, while still in his 20s, that George Washington first began fox hunting in earnest, setting up a rather lavish set of kennels and carefully breeding a new line of American foxhounds that were faster, lighter and less pack-centered than their English brethren.

In 1768, Washington was appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and managed to fill his need for fox hunting at the Gloucester Hunting Club across the River from Philadelphia in New Jersey near present-day Haddonfield.

It was largely because of social and political connections made while fox hunting that Washington's social prominence rose, and in 1775 George Washington was Congress's unanimous choice as commander of the new Continental Army that was to lead the American forces against the British.

In truth, Washington did not have the forces and equipment to wage a successful fight and hold ground, and his chief battle-field opponent, General William Howe of Great Britain, was a master tactician.

Howe defeated Washington time and time again. In August of 1776 Howe landed on Long Island, captured New York City and defeated Washington at White Plains.

In 1777 Howe defeated Washington again, this time at the Battle of Brandywine (near present-day Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) and took Philadelphia.

In October of 1777, the Battle of Germantown was waged. This battle took place near Philadelphia, and it too was a defeat for American forces, but it was a turning point in the war.

The turning point occurred when a small fox terrier was found wandering between the battle lines. The little dog was scooped up by American soldiers and the dog's collar identified it as belonging to none other than General Howe.

The dog was brought to Washington as a war prize -- a taunt to use against the British -- but Washington was having none of it.

A true dog-man, who missed his own fox hounds and terriers at Mount Vernon, Washington personally wiped the little terrier clean and brushed its coat. He then dictated a short note to his aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, and secretly tucked a private note of his own tight under the collar of the dog. The dog, and both notes, were then returned to General Howe under a flag of truce.

Washington's private note has not survived, but Howe was extremely pleased by it. The public note, a copy of which has survived (see picture below), reads: "General Washington's compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe."

After his terrier's return Howe praised Washington's actions as an "honorable act" and historians note that although he continued to win his battles, he never pursued Washington with quite the same vigor.

In fact, when ordered to fight harder and show the rebels no compassion, Howe resigned in protest.

Howe was replaced by General Henry Clinton, who was a poor tactician, and General Charles Cornwallis, who was a poor field commander.

In the end, the United States won the war and Washington returned to his beloved Mount Vernon where he continued breeding fox hounds and chasing foxes at least once a week.

Shortly after returning to Mount Vernon, Washington imported massive hounds from France with the help of his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. American hounds were crossed with these new French imports, and some of the progeny were sent to the Gloucester Foxhunting Club, outside of Philadelphia, where they proved extremely popular due to their speed.

In 1787 Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and again his friends at the Gloucester Foxhunting Club lobbied for his election as the first President of the new country.

After the Constitution was ratified, Washington was unanimously elected President and in time the new Capitol was constructed just down river from his Mount Vernon estate.

My house is about 20 minutes away from Mount Vernon and sits on what would once have been Lord Fairfax's estate. Family legend (via Annie Walker Burns, founder of the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival), is that Dr. Thomas Walker is a relation of ours. It might be true too -- in Kentucky, anything is possible.



Draft of note from George Washington to Howe, in the handwriting of aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton.

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3 comments:

jan said...

Great story. Without dogs I think we would not only not have a country to be proud of, but we would probably still be in the Stone Age.

houndblogger said...

Delighted to see this post, PB! To think you might be related to Thomas Walker--my goodness! Hound blood through and through.

seeker said...

Ah, a great story of a time when men were men and had honor as their guidepost. Now, not so much.

Debi and the TX JRTs.