Gambling and Independence in 1776

Today we highlight the website at Colonial Williamsburg and the article written by Ed Crews. It looks into gambling of early Colonial times through Independence Day, 1776. So let’s go back approximately almost 250 years ago for a look into Gambling and Independence in 1776.

Introduction by Dr. David Schwartz

Dr. Schwartz has written seven and edited or co-edited four books in his area of specialty, gaming history, and serves on several state and local groups, including the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee and the advisory boards of the Museum of Gambling History and the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (Mob Museum). His research interests include the histories of gambling, gaming, and games (including video games), Las Vegas and Nevada history, tourism, and conflict resolution. He has been referenced repeatedly at NETimeGambling.

According to “Dr. Dave,” gambling is as American as apple pie and much older than the Mayflower, and it isn’t going away. It is profound in the nation’s bones and reflected not only in games of chance but also in the stock market and entrepreneurship. There is, he said, a straight line—a legacy—from the early settlers and the plantation grandees to today’s visitors to the Las Vegas Strip. So naturally, none of these people mind taking a chance.

“Americans are more prone to take risks,” he said in an interview. “This nation was founded by people who left what was home and came over here. They took a risk to get here.”

Before Independence Day

In 1660, Charles II restored the English monarchy to the throne bringing with him a strong love of life that included horses, women, and, above all else, gambling. At his court, games of chance became a focus of life. It became an intense obsession throughout England and landed across the Atlantic in the American Colonies. Like their cousins in Europe, Colonists began betting on anything and everything.

Gambling and Independence in 1776
At his court, games of chance became a focus of life for Charles II

However, Native Americans were gambling before colonists arrived, and early arrivals were surprised to find native peoples risking all they owned on games of chance.

  • One English report compared it to stick and straw games to cards. “They will play at this for their bows and arrows, their copper beads, hatchets, and their leather coats,” an observer wrote.
  • Another report said Native Americans would bet on the outcome of athletic events.
  • Native Americans also played a game that used peach pits as dice, and some eastern Indians had six-sided dice made from animal bones and painted black and yellow.
Gambling and Independence in 1776
Native Americans played games with sticks and balls.

Though important within their own cultures, Native American practices had little influence on Englishmen. Instead, Europeans played games brought from home, games shaped by tradition, urban and rural life, and western attitudes. By the 1670s, gambling was a well-established feature of New England life to the horror of Captain John Smith, Cotton Mather, and the many Pilgrim Puritans. Merry old Charles II would be proud today of what he unleashed upon the English-speaking world in 1660!

Another Enduring Legacy From England

One of the enduring legacies of the period was the creation of London’s gaming houses, which evolved because of crackdowns that drove gambling from public places, like coffeehouses, to private clubs.

In the club called White’s, John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, allegedly invented the food item that bears his name.

Visiting Americans frequently played in these private clubs or casinos. English games, attitudes, and practices crossed the Atlantic. But colonial gaming gained a character all its own. Gaming clubs (casinos) never caught on in America because there weren’t enough people to support them. And settlers did not typically carry large sums of money for wagering. Besides, betting large sums was considered reckless in the colonies. In other words, American gambling was a pastime but not the vice of their English cousins.

Related Post – Why Is It Called a Casino

Culture Leading Up to July 4

While extra money for gambling was not prevalent, it still was a centerpiece of colonial life. Everybody did it. They wagered on card games, like whist, piquet, cribbage, loo, put, and all-fours. Dice was a common pastime, and betting on combative activities—bear baiting, cock fights, dog fights, target shooting, and wrestling matches—was widespread.

But, horse races were the most popular venue for gaming. As early as 1665, a permanent oval track stood at Hempstead Plain on Long Island, New York, considered the birthplace of the horse racing industry. During the 1700s, well-known tracks operated in Alexandria, Annapolis, Fredericksburg, and Williamsburg. George Washington was a member of the Alexandria Jockey Club and a club in Annapolis.

And the onset of the Revolutionary War did nothing to slow down gambling in Colonial times. Instead, the Continental and British armies tossed dice and cards into the knapsacks and marched off to fight.

For commanders on both sides, gambling was a constant problem. Washington’s headquarters repeatedly issued orders to stop the wagering, but with little success.

Gambling and Independence in 1776
George Washington and troops at Valley Forge

Starving soldiers at Valley Forge rolled dice to win acorns to eat.

Summary

When British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army surrendered to General George Washington’s American force and its French allies at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, it was more than just a military win. It marked the conclusion of the American Revolution.

After Yorktown, United States citizens kept gambling, but attitudes began to change in the 1820s and 1830s. According to Dr. David Schwartz, author of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, Americans began to rethink their love of games of chance.

Today, we all can agree that gambling is thriving in the United States on the 4th of July.

Ed Crews, a Richmond-based writer, contributed to the spring 2008 journal “The Truth About Betsy Ross.”

NETimeGambling wishes you a fabulous and safe Independence Day.

Bin, Bert, and Miguel