Monday, July 4, 2011

Equipping Horses

Although you can ride a horse bareback, it’s not a very practical way to travel, particularly if you need to carry anything with you. By the time Anne Arundel residents were traveling by horseback, equipping a horse entailed the services of an array of specialized craftsmen to produce the leather and metal articles that made for a comfortable trip.

A variety of sources are available to tell us about the equipment needed for a horse more than two hundred years ago. Philip Vickers Fithian’s account [p.16] of his trip from New Jersey to Virginia in October 1773 provides a list of the minimum purchases required for a long-distance trip on a horse. Store accounts and inventories of both store goods and decedents’ horse-related possessions provide other documentation. Visual images – paintings, lithographs, etc. – offer another look at the well-dressed horse.

More Mondays ago than I care to remember, I explored a different avenue for studying equipment when I visited Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to spend some time with Sara Rivers-Cofield, Curator of Federal Collections. Sara and I discovered a mutual interest in colonial horses last fall when we both attended a one-day symposium at Belair Mansion (which shall figure more importantly in later posts). We decided then that we should get together to share information as soon as we found a mutually convenient date.

Mostly Sara provided information and I took pictures and notes. Because the MAC lab is a repository for collections from around the state, Sara is in the enviable position of having enough pieces of stirrup iron, bosses from bridles, nails from saddles, and other fragments to begin to put together a picture of what horses were wearing over time. One or two tacks or bosses don’t tell a researcher much, but when you have twenty or thirty, you can begin to compare and draw conclusions.

That’s not what I’m going to do here, though. Instead, I’ll start with Fithian’s account and try to provide some visual accompaniments for his notations of what he bought for his journey. Fithian started with a horse, of course, and that may be the hardest purchase to illustrate correctly. No need to include a Stubbs painting as Fithian certainly didn’t buy a Thoroughbred. But he did pay £25 for the animal, so he probably bought a relatively young horse bred for stamina rather than speed, the kind of “genuine country horse” described by Ruffian’s owner in his 1793 advertisement.

Two days before he bought the horse, Fithian set about acquiring the leather goods needed for his trip. He noted first the purchase of a “Saddle, Bridle, Spurrs, etc.,” and the “etc.” must have also included reins. The same day he also bought a “Pr of Sadle-Bags.” The day after buying his uncle’s horse, Fithian “Had my Boots altered & mended – Was measured for a Surtout-Coat.” Travelers covering long distances had to be sure they too were well-equipped; sturdy boots and a warm, heavy overcoat were necessities in October.

Fithian’s last step was to have shoes put on the horse. In New Jersey, where he lived, it is possible that a farrier did this work, if there were enough local customers to support such a specialized trade. A farrier not only made horseshoes and then shoed horses but also trimmed and balanced hooves. In Anne Arundel and the rest of the Chesapeake region, these tasks were carried out by blacksmiths as part of a broad array of services. Even at the end of the colonial period, there was not enough density of settlement to cause any smith to limit his trade to farrier’s work. [A google search today, however, of ‘farrier maryland’ will turn up 74,000 hits.]

When the Reverend Hugh Jones described traveling on horseback in the late seventeenth century, he wrote that “Our soil is generally sandy, free from stone, which makes itt verry convenient for travelling. And we have noe occasion for shoeing our horses except in frosty weather.” This apparently was true, at least on the lower western shore, into the eighteenth century, for excavations at a 1715 stable, on the plantation of Richard Smith, Jr., found no horseshoes, despite the presence of other horse equipage artifacts. But Fithian was making a trip from New Jersey through Maryland to Virginia and his horse needed shoes. Judging from the assemblage of horseshoe fragments at the MAC lab, Fithian’s horse was not the only one, and of course the few surviving blacksmith’s accounts from the colonial period include shoeing horses among the charges found in customer’s records.

Thus equipped and prepared, Fithian was ready to begin his journey on 20 October 1773.
[The stable was located on the Smith St. Leonard Site, 18CV91. Members of the public can volunteer and help dig the site through the Park's public archaeology program.]