I’ll admit that I love the ride. I love the scenery, I love the smell and feel of a cool autumn morning, the excitement in my friends’ eyes, the nervous energy my horse, Smuggler, and I share before and during the hunt, and the lively camaraderie of the hunters afterward, when we feel as though we’ve survived something important together.
I’ll also admit that keeping and raising hound puppies has brought me closer to the sport. Knowing a hound, her habits or his voice, makes me cheer him or her on, makes me wish for their success. It’s a battle of wits, between a pack of hounds and a fox, and like any good game, it’s exciting to follow the progress, maybe root for the underdog—usually the hound.
The Father of Our Country was a fox-hunting fiend. Lt. Colonel George Washington took up fox-hunting sometime around 1768, being introduced to the sport by his friend and employer Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, who had inherited a land grant encompassing the entire Potomac watershed—some five million acres in the Colony of Virginia.
Washington sat a horse like the king some thought he should become. His favorite was “a dark iron grey named Blueskin,” according to his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis (father of Mrs. Robert E. Lee), who kept a diary and wrote about hunting with his grandfather. Custis continues, “He rode, as he did everything, with ease, elegance and with power.” Alexander Mackay Smith, author of The American Foxhound 1747-1967 , writes that, though Washington was a fine horseman, “he was a hound man through and through…in point of fact, the Father of his Country rode only to hunt, to be close to his hounds and the progress of the chase.”
George Washington bred his own pack of hounds to hunt the countryside around Mt. Vernon and north toward Belvoir. Mr. Custis called Washington’s hounds “slow and mouthy,” but that’s the way George liked them. He acquired his first hounds, two bitches named Countess and Chaunter, when his neighbor, Captain John Posey, ran into financial trouble. Countess and Chaunter were bred and, along with eight pups from a bitch named Moppsy that he borrowed from a friend in Abington, Virginia, Washington’s early litters were whelped between the years 1768 and 1770. He also had a stallion hound named Taster and another named Vulcan. He sent his hounds across Virginia and Maryland for “outside blood” and ended up with a “very numerous and select pack” according to Mr. Custis, who writes that the kennels at Mount Vernon “afforded comfortable quarters for the hounds, with a large enclosure paled in, having, in the midst, a spring of running water,”
Washington began hunting in earnest after the French and Indian War. His hunting schedule was presumably interrupted by the Revolution, but in between and afterward he liked to invite friends to Mt. Vernon for a week or more of good hunting. The day began at dawn and lasted until dark. He and his friends must have thanked the Earl of Sandwich for his good idea: meat between two slices of bread, stuffed into a saddlebag. Washington bred his hounds to “follow a cold line for hours,” according to Custis, who continues: “the plan of campaign was to hunt early enough so that hounds could follow a night line, perhaps two or three hours old, to where the fox lay and then to burst him from his kennel.” For four, five and even seven hours at a stretch, they hunted the native grey fox.
Vulcan, a French stag-hound sent to him by his friend La Fayette, was Washington’s favorite hound. Evidently Vulcan had the run of the place: dinner was served after a long day of hunting, the company was seated, everything was perfect (was Martha Washington the Martha Stewart of her times?) The only thing missing was the ham! Mr. Custis tells the story of Vulcan, the ham thief: “Frank the Butler . . . observed, that a ham, yes, a very find ham, had been prepared, nay dished agreeably to Madam’s orders . . . was smoking in the dish, but old Vulcan, the hound, and without more ado fastened his fangs into it, and although they, of the kitchen, had stood bravely to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, yet Vulcan had finally triumphed , and bore off the prize, aye, ‘cleanly under the keeper’s nose.” Mr. Custis reported that Colonel Washington “laughed heartily” with his guests “at the exploit of the stag hound.”
I’ll bet Martha wasn’t so pleased.