George Washington’s Hounds

Some fox-hunters talk about those who hunt to ride versus those who ride to hunt, implying that the better is the latter.

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.

(Source: The American Foxhound 1747-1967, Alexander Mackay-Smith, The American Foxhound Club, 1968.) 

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About Martha Wolfe

MFA, Bennington College, June 2012 in creative non-fiction and fiction biologist equestrian, fox-hunter
This entry was posted in history of fox-hunting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to George Washington’s Hounds

  1. Sharon says:

    This city slicker squirmed a bit on the hunting talk, but I sure applauded Vulcan’s win. Lovely writing. Kept me reading to the very end–very descriptive and informative. Thanks.

  2. Trochilus says:

    I too love the story of Vulcan, as it remind me of a somewhat similar adventure of my own dear foxhound who, while still a pup, bolted our front door one day while I was reaching out the door to grab the mail. He set off on a frolic across the way. While I was putting on my shoes, I lost sight of him, and when I attempted to give chase, I didn’t realize at first that he had headed off in another direction.

    As I was scrambling up our hill, the foxhound had created what turned out to be a perfect diversion on the side patio of my neighbor’s house — i.e., stirring up a few of his guinea hens right at his side door, and then entering the house by nosing open the front door when the guy came running out the side door to see what all the commotion was. The crafty pup immediately went into the kitchen, and “lifted” a small pot roast that was cooling on my neighbor’s counter. But he decided to eat it right there, and didn’t make his “get away.”

    Caught! I heard all the noise and yelling, and quickly headed over there, only to be confronted by my angry neighbor, who had planned on a nice warm meal. And he stayed mad, though I immediately offered to buy him a new roast. He even called the police, and threatened to prosecute. A little intervention from my sweetie about an hour later seemed to calm things — she talked him down, and he dropped the plan to pursue the dispute in court. Over time he even came to realize how funny it was, and we now joke about the incident.

    • Martha Wolfe says:

      Great to hear about your foxhound, hilarious story. We had a lab pup who “found” a ham on the kitchen counter. Since he had only taken a small hunk out of it, I turned it over and put it back on the plate to serve to guests who arrived within minutes!

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