Dog Fighting in England and Colonial America

So, I am reaching the end of my project, and I still sometimes feel that I am not much closer in reaching a conclusive interpretation for the dog burials.  I have, however, learnt much along the way about the possibilities that may have occurred.  One possibility is that these dogs may have been used for dog fighting.  Evidence that supports this claim is the presence of a large pit on the site and several whole rooster skeletons, which suggest cock fighting.  Evidence against this hypothesis is the lack of traumatic wounds on the skeletons.  I guess it is a good thing that I am continuing work on this project after the summer.  Anyways, since dog fighting is my main hypothesis right now, here is a brief rundown on the history and anthropology of dog fighting to the 18th century. I know this is a highly emotional topic, but I am going to try to approach this from an objective standpoint.

Many of the early forms of dog fighting involved baiting other animals.  The most popular forms of this were bull- and bear-baiting.  The first recorded bull-baiting was in 1209, and the sport lasted until the 19th century.  Bull-baiting was actually required by law in England during the 17th century because it was thought to tenderize the meat.  Other animals were baited as well, including cats, rats, lions, apes, ducks, etc.  The major spectators of dog fighting were the aristocracy; dog and cock fighting were considered gentlemen’s sports.  Queen Elizabeth I greatly enjoyed animal baiting, even going as far as to establish a law to prevent plays on Thursdays as that was when fighting was usually held.  King James also enjoyed the sport, retiring several mastiffs from fighting after they had beaten a lion because any other opponent would be beneath them.  Dog-dog fighting began in earnest in the mid 17th century and continued through the first half of the 1800s.  Although some owners were gentlemen, it was also a favorite among the working class, especially during the industrial revolution.  Laws against dog fighting were not established until the mid-1800s in both England and the U.S.

Today most people revile dog fighting, so what made people tolerant of and even embrace it back then?  A lot of it has to do with people’s mindset, which was greatly influenced by religious thought.  During the creation story in the Bible, God gave dominion over animals to man.  People took this as meaning that every animal had a use that is beneficial to man.  For example, one belief would be that God created fighting cocks for the purpose of fighting.  In addition, there was a prevalent philosophical belief promoted by Descartes that  animals were a sort of “automaton.”  In this sense, they functioned much as a machine, but were incapable of reason, speech, or even physical sensations.  This philosophy provided an excuse for causing harm to animals and was often used as a justification for vivisection.

The dog owners often display a dominionistic attitude, even in modern dog fighting.   This paradigm views animals as opportunities to express mastery and prowess.  Perhaps the most famous example one would think of is a matador.  Fighting dogs are bred for “gameness,” or perseverance through pain, not backing down in a fight, aggression towards other dogs, and strength.  The characteristics of a dog often reflect back on its owner.  Dogs backing dog from a fight or submitting (like normal dogs do during a confrontation) make its owner look weak.  In fact, if a dog does not make the last move, even if the other one has died, it can still lose the fight.  The dogs that succeed import on their owners a sort of “gameness,” traits which are often associated with masculinity in this Western, male-dominated sport.    In this way, owners are still expressing the dominionistic attitude, just indirectly through their dogs.

Opposition to dog fighting, however, has been present throughout history.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans opposed dog fighting, although not for the usual reasons.  They were mostly against the pleasure it brought to the spectators rather than the pain it caused to the animal.  In the 18th century, interpretation of religious texts and new philosophical ideas changed the prevailing paradigm.  “Dominion” came to be viewed as stewardship over animals and caring for them rather than subduing them for human use.  The first laws banning dog fighting and animal baiting were established in the mid-1800s in both the U.S. and England.  When bull baiting was banned, however, dog fighting became more popular until it was made illegal as well.

In Colonial Virginia, there is little written evidence that dog-on-dog fighting occurred.  We do know, however, that many of the colonists emulated British traditions, such as bear baiting.  The colonists of Virginia led the way in keeping the gaming traditions of the British. Cock fights are advertised for in the Virginia Gazette in several instances.  Although dog fighting is not expressly mentioned in the documentary record, it may not be too much of a leap to extend these fighting and gambling attitudes to dog fighting as well.