Entitled “Washington and Friends after a Days Hunt,” a colored lithograph done by artist Charles P. Tholey, 1868. (CREDIT: Museum of National History, Smithsonian Institute, Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection.)


In the eighteenth century, those aspiring to become a wingshot did not lack opportunities. There was ample supply of game and waterfowl on the eastern seaboard. With the wetlands and ceiling filled with waterfowl, the tentacles of unwise drainage had not hitched upon onrushing agriculture. Rivers, lakes, and bayous ran clear. Overflows deposited silt where it would do the best and habitats withheld their richness of life producing cover and food. The scales of nature were still in balance.

Feathered game, other than turkeys, actually held it own against the settlers for 130 years. So plentiful was it that it was little affected by the growth of large towns in its domain. As an example of this, a New York newspaper in 1772 advertised for sale at auction a tract of more than a hundred acres situated near what is now 125th Street in that city, stating that it abounded with wildfowl, including “ducks, geese, pigeons, quail, etc.”

Even in the earliest of days, there was a striking contrast between the North and South. The North was represented by small landholdings, while the latter was comprised of great estates. Tracts of thousands of acres were not at all uncommon in colonial Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. These great estates had a strong shaping influence on the life of early Southerners. Separating their owners by wide intervals, these manors or plantations prevented that association of interests and feelings that was strong in the towns of northern colonies. The man who lived in the center of a tract of 10,000 acres had to depend largely upon his own resources for amusement, culture, and, for the most part, food. Most of the life of these Southern colonists in the latter half of the seventeenth and the whole of the eighteenth century was country life. Moreover, it was a country life that presented many analogies to the country life of Englishmen during the same period.

The manorial system had been used for a like purpose in the old country, so the southerners adopted it. Once taken up, the manorial system became general, so that English manors were scattered all over Maryland and Virginia.

In various ways on these estates, the traditional sports of the mother country were kept up. Fox hunting was a pursuit in which Marylanders and Virginians delighted. The large plantations, with their groups of storehouses, assumed the aspect and discharged the functions of little towns, and the plantation owners needed slaves to farm and harvest tobacco and wheat, construct housing and outbuildings, cook for the owners, and fish and hunt to supply the master’s dinner table.

Indeed, the father of our country, George Washington, was a diehard fox hunter. He had his own pack of hounds by the age of 20 (1752). He made it a practice, while living at Mount Vernon, to ride to hounds in pursuit of the fox at least three times a week. From fox hunting, the gentry of Virginia ventured to the Chesapeake Bay, James River, and Potomac River for waterfowling.

So, from Washington to Cleveland, all the presidents came from great Southern plantations, lonely Western farms, rural towns, or villages scattered up and down the Republic.

Our first president was born to fortune and high social position and married a wealthy lady. Nevertheless, George’s behavior was marked with a dignified reserve that was inseparable from his nature. To those of modest estate, he was the gentlest and most considerate of men.

George’s infant eyes opened amid scenes of rare natural beauty. The home of his parents was on the banks of the Potomac River. From its lawn could be seen a wide expanse of the majestic river, ten miles broad at that point, and, on the opposite shore the forest-crowned hills and plains of Maryland.

During that time, it was not considered unusual to see so important a gentleman as George Washington going fox hunting with a party of young men at five o’clock of a frosty morning, or fishing his weirs before daybreak, or shooting ducks on a bleak point by himself as he loved to duck hunt by himself. He was emphatically an outdoors man.

Being six feet two inches tall, and slender rather than heavily made, he was well fitted for the sports of the outdoors. He learned fencing at an early age and was a splendid horseman never losing his seat in the saddle and was the owner and breeder of fine racehorses and dogs.

Like his father, he was a man of extraordinary strength. His father’s long fowling piece was of such enormous weight that not one man in fifty could fire it without a rest. And yet throughout that country it was said that he made nothing of holding it at arms-length and blazing away at the swans on the Potomac; of which he had been known to kill seven or eight at a shot.

George was born in 1732 when his parents lived in Westmoreland County in Virginia at Ferry Farm, just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Here, his older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, went hunting for ducks and geese along the Potomac River as did George when he got older.  The population of Virginia in 1732 was 114,000.

When he was a young boy, at age 11 in 1743, his father died at Mount Vernon. Lawrence came back from England where he had received his education to live at Little Hunting Creek Plantation, which later became Mount Vernon, 40 miles from the Ferry Farm, after being willed the land by his father.

After their father’s death, Lawrence was like a father to George and often had George stay with him at Mount Vernon. At Ferry Farm, the two older brothers from his father’s first marriage hunted, fished, and trapped, while George, from his father’s second marriage, as he grew older, hunted, fished, and trapped with them and went on to hunt for some 23 years in all.

The Washingtons weren’t only dining on typical domestic livestock like cows and pigs, they ate a variety of wild game and in much higher amounts than expected. Results from other studies show that typical 18th century Virginia households consumed a little under 4% wild game on average. Another study of planter households in Maryland and Virginia showed faunal remains only ranging from 4-15% wild game. The percentage of wild game recovered from the Washington house root cellar was a whopping 25%.

Game remains recovered from the Washington family root cellar include rabbits, coons, white-tailed deer, fox and grey squirrels.  Birds that were prepared and eaten included turkey, Canada geese, mallards, canvasbacks, and other ducks, bobwhite, and the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

As a young boy, he stayed with his half-brother Augustine at Pope’s Creek on many occasions, with the creek and the bordering Potomac swarming with ducks and geese. Here, he tagged along with his half-brother, when he went duck hunting on the Potomac and nearby swamps, sitting in a brushed blind at the dawning of day, while Augustine shot ducks, geese, and swans, which flew in great flocks over the remote Popes Creek, a small estuary off the Potomac River and the home place of George’s father and an important stopping place and wintering ground for waterfowl, among them whistling swans, geese, and ducks. He also stayed with Lawrence on many occasions.

George, like other aristocrats of that time, much preferred chasing the fox with hounds, and very few of his planter friends and neighbors were mounted better than he was. He usually rode a large, passionate animal of great endurance, called “Blueskin,” with most of his hunting paraphernalia being imported from England.

However, fowling was another favorite amusement of the first president. As he got older, his own estate and the country around him swarmed with waterfowl. Tradition has it that he was a good shot. That he was so, one must remembers that his ancestors migrated to America from Sulgrave, in Northhamtonshire, one of the most sporting counties in England.

He knew the favorite feeding places of the finest flocks, and he could sneak up on them as secretly as he had done to surprise the fortified camp lines of the British redcoats during the American Revolution, when he was the general of all the forces of the United Colonies.

Mount Vernon, in the olden days, was celebrated for the luxuries of the table, as fields, forest, and the Potomac, each in their respective seasons, furnished the most abundant resources for good eating and good living. At Mount Vernon’s riverfront, the wild celery grew in the greatest profusion and here canvasbacks, sometimes referred to as whitebacks, congregated, and across the river from Mount Vernon was one of the most famous ducking blinds on the Potomac.

A visitor to Mount Vernon, when Washington was president, said, “The situation is a heavenly one, upon one of the finest rivers in the world. I suppose I saw thousands of ducks upon it, all within gunshot. There are also plenty of wild geese and turkies.”

In Washington’s day, a boy, at the age of 10, was furnished with a rifle and shot pouch for hunting squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, and deer. As he grew from boyhood to manhood, Washington progressed to the birding fowler for hunting quail, ruffed grouse, and wild pigeons. The birding fowling piece had a shorter barrel and smaller bore and weighed less than the long fowler, or long fowling piece, which was used for duck and goose hunting. The birding piece’s barrel was no longer than 3 ½ feet, while the long fowling piece’s barrel ranged from four feet to six or seven feet.

This at a time when shooting “off hand,” as it was termed, was not much in vogue, which meant the rifle or musket was shot from a rest, while the fowling pieces, although also beneficial in war, made shooting flying possible. It is not known how good Washington was with a long fowler. It certainly appears that he did wing shooting as he hunted ducks, quail, and ruffed grouse, or “pheasant” as he termed the ruffed grouse.

Long fowlers were primarily used for hunting waterfowl during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We know from historical records and museum specimens that these types of firearms also saw much action during the French and Indian War and during the American Revolution.

As for the long fowler for war time usage, Charles Wilson Peale’s famous rendition of Washington, at age 40, shows him in his military uniform with a long fowling piece strapped across his back. Washington had such a high respect for the long fowler that he wanted to be portrayed with it in Peale’s painting.

Painting done by Charles Wilson Peale of George Washington, age 40, colonel of Virginia Militia with a long fowling piece

By far, his favorite diversion was fox hunting, and he had an excellent kennel of foxhounds. He was not just the father of this country. He was also the father of a new breed of dog—the American Foxhound. Other breeds which he had were Newfoundlands, pointers, and spaniels for hunting waterfowl, quail, and ruffed grouse. Some of his slaves were also permitted to own dogs.

Bird hunting was something that Washington thoroughly enjoyed, and he wanted the best firearms for himself and his family members. On July 20, 1767, he ordered a birding fowling piece for his stepson, John Parke Custis, who was 14 years old at the time. It was ordered October 1767 from London gunsmith John Brazier:    quoting from Washington’s diary “Handsome fowling Piece 3 feet 2 inches in the Barrel 3/4 inch bore, fine silver Mounting, with Water pan Lock, Walnut Stock, barrel blewed with a Silver Sight, a false breech and sliding bolts.”

On July 25,1769, he bought from his London agent, Robert Cary and Company a birding fowling piece with a 3 and ½ feet barrel. He said, “as handsome a fowling piece, as can be bought for 3 Guinea.”

It was also known that Washington owned a fine long fowling piece made by the New England gunsmith Thomas Earl of Leicester, Massachusetts. In Washburn’s History of Leicester it was recorded: “Mr. Earle resided in Cherry Valley, Leicester. He was distinguished for his mechanical skill and ingenuity. He manufactured a gun of exquisite workmanship for Col. William Henshaw, in 1773; and when Col. Henshaw marched to Cambridge, in 1775 he took it into the military service. Here it fell under the observation of Gen. Washington, who admired it so much that he ordered one of the same patterns.”

In 1752, George’s older brother Lawrence died, and George inherited Mount Vernon after Lawrence’s widow died in 1761. After Lawrence’s death, George, in the run up to the Revolution, became a more avid waterfowler. When at home, he took his flintlock long fowling piece and went “a-ducking,” as he termed it. He spent hours in his boat, sneaking cautiously on the birds, or watching their flight from his place of concealment. He knew the favorite feeding places of the finest waterfowl, and during the season he was out with his long fowling piece early in the morning. George’s favorite meal was canvasback and hominy, and the shooting of them was one of Washington’s favorite recreations.

Occasionally, he recorded fair bags of “mallards, teal, bald faces & blew wings,” with bald faces being widgeons and blew wing, blue wing teal. On October 4, 1768, he recorded that he “Went into the Neck—& up the Creek after Blew Wings.” His best outing was February 24, 1768, when he, quoting “went a Ducking up a creek between breakfast and dinner & Killd 2 Mallards & 5 bald faces.” On January 16, 1769, he duck hunted in the afternoon, one of the few times he hunted in the afternoon. That same year, he “went a Ducking with Col. Lewis,” for three days in a row. On the fifth of October, he,  now quoting, “Went after Blew Wings with Humphrey Peale. Killd 3.” On January 9, 1770, he “Went a ducking but got nothing with the Creeks and Rivers being frozen.”

A few other entries in his diary offer further insight into his duck hunting as on February 28, 1768, he noted that he “Went to the Creek but not across it. Killd 2 ducks, a Teal, and a sprig tail (which is a pintail). Rid out with my gun but killd nothing.” He wrote several times in his diary of taking his “water dog” Pilot” “a ducking” with him.

(Many writer have expressed the opinion that Pilot was a poodle but there is no proof of that and no notation in his diary points in that direction, which he began recording to beginning in 1760 and his diary-keeping was erratic up until 1768. I might interject here that there was a colored lithograph done in 1868 by Charles Tholey. Depicted at the beginning of this story, it depicts five hunters along with Washington resting on the banks of the Potomac after a day’s hunt. Washington is depicted with his short birding fowling piece with the five friends and various game—a deer, rabbit, ruffed grouse, and ducks—and various dog breeds—a deer hound, spaniel, pointer, and Newfoundland. In the background are three Washington slaves docked at the river’s edge with one on the bank and the other two still in the boat. One of the slaves is handing the one on the bank a rabbit and several geese that looked to be Canada geese. More than likely Pilot was a Newfoundland as the painting depicts all of the game that Washington hunted other than the fox and depicts the type of hunting dogs he used.)

After he returned to Mount Vernon after the Revolution, he only hunted foxes on a few occasions until his death, and he hunted none for waterfowl.

A Virginia statute of 1785 barred slaves from having and keeping guns unless they were either traveling with their master or had written permission from their master to have a gun. Washington clearly knew about it and sanctioned the keeping of guns by a very few of his slaves. For the others, they captured their game by snares, traps, and deadfall and were not fond of ducks but were fond of coons, possums, squirrels and rabbits.

Two of his slaves, which he had a great deal of respect for that were allowed to have firearms, were Tom Davis and “Sambo” Anderson.  Both were important characters in furnishing Washington’s household with game and wildfowl, especially waterfowl, and both were skilled hunters, who regularly shortened the life span of many a canvasback, which was the preferred meal that was served at Mount Vernon. He even provided Sambo with a boat, shot, gun flint, and gun powder.

It must be remembered that Mount Vernon was celebrated in the olden times for the luxuries of the table and Tom and Sambo played their part in supplying the table. Three canvasbacks were usually served for each guest, and the table during the hunting season was crowded with guests.

Davis had a “great Newfoundland dog” named “Gunner,” named after “Gunner” another of Washington’s slaves, that retrieved many canvasbacks and mallards. Washington had two spaniels, Tipsy and Old Harry, that were probably used for waterfowl retrieving, but more probably they were used for quail and grouse.

Another slave that was allowed to hunt sometimes was Hercules, the head chef for the family. An entry from the store book shows where Hercules got gun powder from the storehouse at Martha Washington’s request, to hunt waterfowl for the dining table.

In the fall of 1792, Davis and Sambo Anderson sold Washington 132 ducks for an upcoming party that was to be held at Mount Vernon. Ducks were extremely plentiful along the Potomac in the eighteenth century, and one shot from Davis’ “old British musket” generally brought down “as many of those delicious birds as would supply the larder for a week,” said George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. In October 1792, Washington purchased 60 canvasbacks from Sambo, paying six shillings and three pence.

After Sambo’s freedom was granted in 1800 under the terms of Washington’s will, Sambo supported himself by market hunting ducks and geese, which he sold to hotels and to “the most respectable families” in Alexandria, according to an 1876 correspondent to the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser. One story recalled how Washington used to borrow Sambo’s skiff, the one Washington had given him, to go a ducking.

Alexander Hunter was a Virginia aristocrat of the antebellum generation, who wrote of a rural and charmed life in his book, The Huntsman of the South, written in 1909. He wrote that in the mid-1850s that only one big punt gun operated on the Potomac around the Washington area. Some 20 years later, three big guns were in use on the Potomac. Another writer told of how the Potomac’s creeks and marshes swarmed with ducks in 1876 until the big punt gunners killed and scared away the game. Dr. Harry Walsh’s 1971 The Outlaw Gunner book mentioned an early “big gun,” or punt gun as it was so often referred to, being owned by a black Potomac River waterman. Could that big gunner have been a descendant of Sambo Anderson?

Sambo made enough money from his market hunting to purchase and emancipate two members of his family. The waterfowl taken by Sambo’s flintlock long fowler which Washington had given him to replace the musket and a gun that Sambo said he loved; that he had killed with and sold ducks and other game with.

That Washington allowed some of his trusted slaves to keep firearms and hunt is proved by both physical and documentary evidence. Archeologists working in the cellar of a slave dwelling came across both gun flints and lead shot in a variety of sizes. In addition, remains of rabbits, squirrels, possums and coons and a variety of wild birds (ducks, geese, coots, ruffed grouse, quail, plover, and passenger pigeons) were found. This was most likely Sambo’s or Davis’s homeplace at Mount Vernon.

Washington got his lead shot, gun flint, and gun powder by the consignment system dealing with a factor in England, with the goods making their way across the Atlantic. The midden sites on his plantation revealed that bird shot ranged from the snipe No. 5 shot (.12 diameter in size) to plover No. 4, to pigeon No. 3’s and 2’s, to duck and “white goose” No. 1 (.16 diameter in size), and the much larger Canada goose T.T. shot (.20) and swan shot (.28).

At that time, shot was made the old fashion way by pouring molten lead through a sieve-like gadget that looks like one of your wife’s frying pans and dropping it down a long shaft to give it time to cool with further cooling taking place at the bottom when the drops landed in the water which also made the shot round, and the size of the holes in the sieve varied in size depending upon what size shot one desired.

In Washington’s old-fashioned times, there were many strict and severe laws for the protection of game, which made poaching no less a crime than theft, because a poacher was a great nuisance to the planters on its banks. So, Washington gave strict orders that others were not to hunt ducks on his property without.

And giving permission occurred on a very limited basis, for, in 1787, a man asked for permission to shoot at Mount Vernon, and Washington refused it because as he said, “my fixed determination is, that no person whatever shall hunt upon my grounds or waters. To grant permission to one and refuse another would not only be drawing a line of discrimination which would be offensive but would subject one to great inconvenience—for my strict orders to all my people are if they hear a gun fired upon my Land to go immediately in pursuit of it. Besides, as I have not lost my relish for this sport when I find time to indulge myself in it, and Gentlemen who come to the House are wont to try it, it is my wish not to have ducks within my jurisdiction disturbed.”

Regarding poaching on his property, there was a certain idle, worthless fellow, notorious for his desperate character, as being the most daring poacher in seven counties, who was known to be much in the habit of trespassing in the creeks and inlets on Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. This had been forbidden to him by Washington, who had warned him of the consequences if he did not cease, having shot hundreds of canvasbacks while poaching upon Washington’s premises.

Nevertheless, as Washington rode about his estate one morning, his eye caught the flutter of wings above one of the coves. Suddenly, he heard the report of a shotgun sounding through the bushes, and a duck fell from the sky. Suspecting who had fired it, he whirled his horse around and headed at full speed toward the cove. When Washington, with anger in his eye, became visible, the poacher in a canoe, with a menacing look, raised his long fowling piece and took deliberate aim. The poacher shouted, “Stop or I will shoot!” he commanded as Washington rode into the water.

Washington didn’t reveal the slightest sign of alarm or timidity as he swiftly lunged for the gun and wrested the flintlock from the astonished trespasser’s hands and tossed it aside. Then he caught the frightened poacher by the nape of his neck, pulled him out of the boat, and inflicted upon him a severe rebuke, beating him until he promised never to set foot on his property again. This beating cured him of all inclinations to trespass ever again.

To say that Washington enjoyed a meal of canvasbacks would be an understatement as the following helps illustrate. Native peoples and colonists had long enjoyed this tasty bounty, and one of the first references to fowling in the State of Maryland appears in the tales told of Commodore John Rodgers, who as a young boy growing up at Rodgers Tavern was known to “brave the cold waters of the Susquehanna and break the ice to swim after the ducks which he shot and killed from the banks of the Susquehanna.”

When Rodgers, born in 1773, bought a tavern, which stood on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, built in the early eighteenth century, it became a stopping-point on the old Philadelphia-Baltimore post-road, and was frequented by Washington, Madison, and many other southern statesmen. Here Washington brought officers and troops through the Lower Ferry Crossing on his way to his victorious campaign against Cornwallis at Yorktown, always stopping for a meal of canvasback, hominy and a drink of Madeira wine.

Following the American Revolution, Rodgers Tavern continued as a well-frequented establishment known for excellent food and entertainment. Several contemporary accounts mention the hundreds of canvasbacks on Chesapeake Bay, which graced his tables. Washington noted several times in his diary about dining at Rodgers Tavern on his travels from Virginia to Philadelphia.

Not only Washington but his entire family and friends enjoyed eating canvasbacks. Following his retirement from the presidency, General Washington met some friends in nearby Alexandria for dinner at the City Hotel in 1798. The proprietor, John Gadsby, mentioned that he had a good supply of canvasback ducks in the larder, which led Washington to reply, “Very good, sir, give us some of them, with a chafing-dish, some hominy, and a bottle of good Madeira, and we shall not complain.”

During his presidency, from 1783 to 1789 at his Mount Vernon residence, he fox hunted 23 times and killed fewer than 10. His final fox hunt at Mount Vernon took place on February 15, 1788, a week before his 56th birthday. During this time, he did no waterfowling and never went a ducking again. He retired from the presidency in 1797, having served two terms.

If Washington had a wish of how he wanted to die, it would be exactly like he did die. His routine when at Mount Vernon was to eat breakfast and then ride around his estate at Mount Vernon on horseback for some 12 to 15 miles. It was after he had ridden around his estate for five hours during a heavy storm of rain, hail, snow, and cold wind that he became ill and died in 1799. Four days before his death, he recorded “Time is of more importance than is generally imagined.”

At his death, he owned 19 pistols, three rifles, four muskets, and nine fowlers. The only authenticated fowling piece owned by Washington at the time of his death was made by Richard Wilson of London. Overall, the long fowling piece was 64 ½ inches with a 48 ½ inch, .81 caliber barrel.

In closing, now when I visualize a duck blind on the Potomac in Old Virginia, I imagine Washington donning an old coat and slouch hat and taking his flintlock long fowling piece and his retriever Pilot to shoot canvasbacks for dinner—the way Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison did a century later when the Potomac River was filled with such vast numbers of waterfowl which to our modern eyes would seem incredible.

When one views the diary notes of Washington regarding his trips “a ducking,” one will note that he never killed many ducks, because he only ventured out to kill enough for the dinner table and never more. When he needed more for guests or a dinner function, he gave that request to Davis or Sambo and on occasions to his chief chef Hercules.

One could take from this that he is probably our first conservationists, as he did his best to conserve wildlife on his estates, having run off every poacher he could that was killing waterfowl to excess. He also established a deer park at Mount Vernon.


EPISODE 4 WILL BE “SHOOTING FLYING AND THE LONG FOWLING PIECE” from the matchlock to flintlock, from the muzzleloader to the breechloader.