Thursday, April 17, 2014

Horse Culture in th 18th Century

Though we know that horses were a part of life in Colonial Virginia, we might not realize how integral they were to the daily fabric of life for people living in the 18th Century.  People across the entire spectrum of society throughout Colonial Virginia would have had close interaction with horses on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. 

Lord Portmore Watching Racehorses Exercise by John Wooton. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.
The livelihood of most colonial Virginians was directly dependent on horses.  It was a completely agrarian society, made up mostly of small independent farms.  Both the small, self-sufficient
farms and the more grand plantations used horses for all manner of farm chores such as plowing, hauling and harvesting.  The average Virginia farmer did not own a horse of a particular breed.  Horses listed in wills and inventories would instead be described by gender, color, size and where and how they would be used, ie: the gray plow mare.  When George Washington mentions his “draft” horses, he, in fact is discussing their job: they are the horses used as draft or draught horses, to haul loads.  He is not referring to a draft breed, such as Percheron or Clydesdale.  Those breeds were not found in Colonial Virginia.   

Aside from farms and mills, there is another livelihood particular to the 18th Century that was dependent on horses.  In the absence of an urban network, wagoners did a lively business selling goods from their traveling wagons between the farms and plantations of the rural colony.  The wagoners would travel from town to farm to plantation and, of course, between the court houses when they were in session.  They could supply all manner of specialty and mundane items to a population that could not, for the most part, get to a large metropolitan center.  Of course, the one thing keeping any wagoner in business, whether he was a savory character or not, or whether the weather was cooperating or the roads passable, was his trusty horse or team of horses.   

Horses were also used for personal transportation.  To get anywhere in Colonial Virginia, one would need a horse, either to pull a carriage or to ride, unless that person wanted to walk or use the river system.  Journals of the time mention how a horse, or lack thereof, affected a person’s ability to travel any distance.  John Harrower tells us on several occasions how he was not able to attend an event or a church service due to the lack of a horse to use.  Nicholas Creswell mentions his ability to travel to Leesburg from Alexandria because of the generosity of a friend in loaning him the use of a horse. 

Also, pleasure riding was a common activity among the upper classes in Colonial Virginia, and George Mason and his colonial neighbors often had favorite horses for personal use. The Lexington Plantation of George Mason’s eldest son includes in its inventory two saddle horses. Note how they are listed: as saddle horses as opposed to d a specific breed.   George Washington also loved to ride for pleasure, and was an excellent horseman by all accounts.  At the time of his death he had 21 horses in his inventory.  It would be remiss to not mention Nelson, his favorite mount throughout the Revolution.  Nelson was so respected by Washington, that after the war, he brought Nelson home to Mount Vernon, were he was kept in retirement until his death. 

 In the 18th Century, a thriving racehorse culture was enjoyed by many affluent plantation owners.  George Mason kept at least one racehorse of which he was extremely proud, named Vulcan.  John Harrower describes his day at the horse races where he was joined by “a number of genteel (sic) company.”  That particular day, a bay mare won.  Unlike in most of Virginia, where horses were not delineated by breed, the large plantation owners did have some particular breeds which they used for both racing and fox hunting.  The known breeds among the plantation owners at the time include Naragansett, Andaulsian, Thoroughbred and Arabian.  George Washington’s famous racehorse, Magnolia, was a pedigreed Arabian.

It bears mentioning the pride that these race horse owners had in their horses.  John Mason remembers Vulcan being pastured in the field on the land side of the mansion.  From that pasture he could be admired by guests as they arrived at the house.  Mount Vernon was visited by many in the race horse community for the sole purpose of seeing Magnolia. 

It should not be surprising that punishment for horse theft was severe.  John Harrower describes the punishment of one slave who was accused of and confessed to the theft of a breeding mare. Though the mare was returned to her owner, the slave was whipped to the maximum of the law, 39 lashes. 

We have evidence that the slave population as well had a close interaction with and dependence on horses.  Aside from the work horses which they may have used for field labor, there are a few specific times where slaves are mentioned in relation to horse culture.  George Mason had a slave named Nace who, we must assume was a competent horseman.  He was paid by a neighbor of Mason’s to break a horse to ride.  Also, John Harrower mentions several slave jockeys at the horse races.  


Karen Smith, supervisor of stable operations for Colonial Williamsburg's coach and livestock department, Interviewed by Ed Crews, Winter 2007,

Richard Nicoll, director of the coach and livestock department in Colonial Williamsburg, Interviewed by Ed Crews, Winter 2007,

James Hodges, Phd, Leadership by George Washington, December 31, 2009,

Charles Framer, In The Absence Of Towns, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, August 5, 1993

Journal of John Harrower, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1963, pages 40, 92

Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Kennikat Press, Inc, 1968

John Mason, Recollections,Board of Regents, Gunston Hall, 2012

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