A chilly start for sports

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

With the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics, millions of proud Americans were probably sitting at home, cheering for our Team USA athletes as they entered the stadium in Pyeong Chang, Korea.

What an honor for them to be representing the USA in the epitome of international sporting competition.

Americans have always been hard-working people, and we like to play hard, too.

We are a nation in love with our sports.

But, as hard as it is to imagine now, there was a time, in the America of the 17th and 18th centuries, when sports weren’t quite so universally revered. 

In the original American colonies, where Puritan ethics reigned supreme, sports were, well, “discouraged” would be a nice way of putting it.

The high-minded Puritans considered sports, or games of any sort, highly suspect. 

In the early 1600s, games that developed one’s hunting skills – such as shooting competitions – were usually the only sporting entertainment exempt from censure.

The “worst” games or sports were those that involved luck or encouraged betting – and those were usually expressly forbidden. 

In New England, because of the preponderance of Puritans there, most games and sports – betting or no betting – were met with disgust, and sometimes, punishment.

But that didn’t prevent some people from indulging in sports anyway. 

They often did so at their peril, and not just because of the elements or the inherent danger of sports. 

It may seem outrageous today, but there were American communities where, in the 1600s, playing a game of football could land a lad in jail – or the stocks.

Even so, football was a popular game, although back then, football was actually more like soccer combined with rugby.

Boys or young men would run down the field, kicking the ball to and away from each other in a kind of “keep away” that could sometimes turn violent.

Englishman Philippe Stubbs, was a well-known Puritan author. 

His strict interpretation of acceptable, public life did not include such shenanigans as football.

In his pamphlet titled, “The Anatomie of Abuses,” he railed against football among other sports and games. 

He wrote:

“Now, who is so grosly blinde that seeth not that these aforesaid exercises not only withdraw us from godliness and virtue, but also haile and allure us to wickednesse and sin? For as concerning football playing I protest unto you that it may rather be called a friendlie kinde of fyghte than a play or recreation- a bloody and murthering practice- than a felowly sport or pastime.”

Football, at least the way our professionals play it today, could be called a bloody and murthering practice!
But bloody or not, football continued to besmirch the pious communities of New England.

There are hundreds of historical records of complaints about young men playing the game in the streets of Boston and many other colonial towns.

Yet, there seemed to be no stopping the playing of football – it continued to be played, no matter how foul the weather.
And, some would say, it would become our nation’s favorite winter sport. 

Why, just a scant fortnight ago, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles were “murthering” each other upon the wintry field of combat to the delight of millions.

The Puritans would have been horrified to know that there may even have been some betting on the game.

Coasting downhill on sleds was another favorite winter sport, especially for children.

It was called coasting in the colonies- what we would call sledding today. 

Wooden sleds were fitted with waxed wooden runners and used to slide down any icy hill with enough incline to provide a thrilling sense of danger.

While perhaps not as abhorrent as football, coasting still had its share of detractors.

Somehow, this seemingly innocent winter pastime managed to become illegal in some colonial towns. 

Many mothers were frightened for their childrens’ spiritual and physical wellbeing. 

And some of the good citizens of New England were just outraged at the idea that one might suppose they had nothing better to do than slide down a snowy hill.

Town constables were empowered to seize the “small or great slees (sleds) in which boys and girls ryde down the hills, and break them into pieces.”

Occasionally, if boys were caught coasting on the Sabbath, they not only lost their sleds, but even had to forfeit their hats! 

The colonial government in Massachusetts finally officially outlawed coasting altogether. 

They passed a law in 1633 against “common coasters, unprofitable fowlers and tobacco-takers…”

Coasting was used to describe laggards seen loafing by the shore, idling in general, or even children sliding down a hill for fun. 


Colonists from the northern climes, like the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany had no such proscriptions against sports.

They brought with them their many methods of recreation. 

The long winters of their homelands had taught them to find many ways of enjoying the outdoors, even in “bad” weather.

Communities in New York and the middle colonies, which were settled by the Dutch, Germans, and Swedes, reveled in their winter sports.

Icy frozen lakes and rivers were favorite places for sleigh or sled races. 

Teams of horses shod with hobnail horseshoes would be driven by hardy men who, apparently, enjoyed tempting fate on the ice.

In 1663, an Albany, New York colonist, Jeremias van Rensselaer, wrote to his brother in the Netherlands, saying that the mighty Hudson River had been frozen solid for fourteen days straight.

The river was frozen “so hard as within the memory of Christians as it has ever done, so that with the sleigh one could use the river everywhere, without danger for the races, in which we now indulge a good deal.” 

When a river was not available, the indefatigable sportsmen used ice-glazed roads or ice-covered fields for their sleigh races.

And for folks without a horse-drawn sleigh to race, there was ice skating, a sport that had, back in the old country, been popular for centuries.

Of course, there were no ice skates as we know them today.

But humans being ingeniously clever at devising ways to have fun, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Homemade skates could be made of horn, wood, or metal, attached to wooden fittings and then lashed with leather thongs onto shoes or boots. 

In the Dutch colony of New Netherland – the name for New York before the English took over the colony – skating was the favorite winter sport.

It didn’t matter if you were very old, very young, or somewhere in between – everyone skated. 

Even in the evenings, if there was an icy pond, a river or a creek, there would be skaters. 

After dark, skaters carried lanterns to avoid colliding with each other.

Ice skating had been a venerable traditional winter pastime for courting couples in the Netherlands, so, of course, it was employed in the New World, as well.

Imagine how romantic it must have been, holding onto one another in the frosty cold air, swirling around on the ice by lamplight.

There were “High Dutch” figure skaters, and there were, of course, speed skaters, too.

The long, dark, winter months featured demonstrations of figure skating and speed skating races, lit up with torches and bonfires, for the community to enjoy.

Charles Wolley, an English military chaplain who lived in New York at the end of the 17th century, was a great proponent of the athleticism of the sport and wrote about its healthfulness – for men.

He was, however, taken aback to see the Dutch ladies on the ice, since, in his experience, proper Englishwomen did not skate. 

As English customs eventually replaced the Dutch practices in the colony, unfortunately, most women of “polite society” finally left the ice – for a time – but men of all classes continued to pursue the sport. 

So, whether you are a spectator or a participant, now’s the time to shake off the winter doldrums with a little sport.
Go Team USA!

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