Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 115 / Number 3
Well Calculated for the Farmer: Thoroughbreds in the Early National Chesapeake, 1790–1850
- By Kenneth Cohen, pp. 370–411
This article explores the evolving organization and motives behind thoroughbred racing in the Chesapeake from the colonial to the antebellum eras. While most of the research on horseracing in this period has relied on newspapers and diaries to describe how races were constructed to establish social distinction and win deference, this piece presents an array of previously overlooked evidence in account books and private correspondence to emphasize the process by which horseracing developed into a lucrative sporting event that divided wealthy horse owners at least as much as it united them. Risk, competition, and negotiation both within and between social groups emerge as the thoroughbred market first widens and blossoms during the Revolution and then becomes swollen with participants by the 1820s and 1830s. Viewing the races as marketplaces, in accord with the economic evidence, yields an interpretation decidedly more loaded with confrontation and confusion than entrenched social hierarchy and class unity. Such an interpretation raises larger possibilities for reframing the way we think about the function of sport in early America and the importance of sport in understanding early American history.