It Happened Here
by Larry S. Chowning
In the July 1949 issue of “The American Neptune” an article written by Arthur Pierce Middleton titled “Yachting in Chesapeake Bay, 1676-1783” described boats in colonial times for the use of “sporting.”
According to Middleton, some of the first mention of pleasure or sporting boats in America was found in early writings on the Northern Neck. As his source, Middleton used the work of Philip Vickers Fithian, who in 1773-74 was a tutor for the Robert Carter III family at Nomini Hall plantation. During Fithian’s stay in Virginia, he kept a journal that today serves as one of our most valuable sources on early Virginia life.
Fithian wrote that a Mr. Atwell of Machodoc Creek owned a boat “built for the purpose of carrying the young ladies and others of the family to Nomini Church. It was a light, neat Batoe (bateau) elegantly painted and rowed with four oars.”
Robert Carter also had a boat built for this purpose, wrote Fithian. One Sunday, while on his way to church in Carter’s boat, Fithian noticed that Nomini Bay was “alive with boats,” some going to church, some fishing, and some “sporting.”
In the fall of 1774, a group of girls at Nomini Hall “entered a boat, and for exercise and amusement, rowed down the river.” On another occasion, Fithian, while visiting Mr. Campbell, borrowed his barge before dinner and with several other guests “diverted ourselves in the river.” The barge described as “an overgrown canoe,” and the boating event as “sport.”
Although there was nothing in colonial days that can be described as a yacht race, there were occasional boat races for pleasure. George Washington attended one on May 7, 1774, in the company of Mr. and Mrs. John Parke Custis, Miss Calvert and Mr. Matthew Tilghman, at Johnson’s Ferry on the Potomac River.
Late in July and early in August of 1774, boat races were held in the Rappahannock River off Hobbs’ Hole, now Tappahannock. Captain Dobby of the ship Beaufort invited 60 gentlemen and 45 ladies aboard his ship to watch the races.
Fithian described the races, “The boats were to start, to use the language of jockeys, immediately after dinner; a boat was anchored down the river at a mile distance (marking the end of the race)-Captain Dobby and Captain Benson steer’d the boats in the race-Captain Benson had five oarsmen; Captain Dobby had six-It was ebb tide. The bets were small and chiefly given to the Negros who rowed-Captain Benson won the first race-Captain Purchace offered to bet ten dollars that with the same boat and same hands, only having liberty to put a small weight in the stern, he would beat Captain Benson-He was taken up and came out best only half the boat’s length.”
It happened Right Here in Rivah Country!