Like most young men, the members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery were a sporting and competitive lot. This band of tough frontiersmen, almost all under the age of 35, liked to test their mettle against the people they met along the way. This included shooting, hunting, horsemanship, and footraces. It also includes games that have been all but forgotten.
In June 1806, the Corps was camped near the Chopunnish or Nez Perce Indians, waiting for the snows to melt enough to recross the Rocky Mountain, when a lively round of games took place. On June 8, 1806, Lewis wrote in his journal:
several foot rarces were run this evening between the indians and our men. the indians are very active; one of them proved as fleet as 〈our best runner〉 Drewer and R. Fields, our swiftest runners. when the racing was over the men divided themselves into two parties and played prison base, by way of exercise which we wish the men to take previously to entering the mountain; in short those who are not hunters have had so little to do that they are geting reather lazy and slouthfull.— after dark we had the violin played and danced for the amusement of ourselves and the indians.—
Prison base (or prisoner’s base, as it is more commonly called) is an old game in which two teams are divided by a line drawn in the dirt between the two teams. About 20 or 30 feet in back of each team a large square (prison) is drawn on the ground. Each team picks one person to be the prisoner of the other team (usually the fastest runner). Then each team tries to free their prisoner by sending a team member to the prison through the opposing team to bring the prisoner back without getting captured by a member of the opposing team. If the person attempting to rescue their own prisoner makes it to the prison through the opposing team without being caught, he is safe while in the prison and can pick his own time to run with the prisoner back to their own side of the line. If the team member is caught by the opposing team, they also became a prisoner needing rescue. So each team is busy both trying to rescue their own prisoners and prevent the prisoners from the opposite side from getting rescued. At the end of the game, the team with the most prisoners wins. Unfortunately, Lewis and Clark did not record whether the Corps of Discovery or the Nez Perce won the day.
The next day, June 9, Clark reported, “more our party exolted with the idea of once more proceeding on towards their friends and Country are elert in all their movements and amuse themselves by pitching quates, Prisoners bast running races &c—.”
According to the U. S. Quoit Association, the game of pitching quoits (or “quates”) has existed in one form or another for so many centuries that a compilation of the complete history of the sport is not possible. The quoit is a heavy, flat ring made of stone or metal, something like a horseshoe, that was originally used as a weapon of war by the early Romans. A quoit was used in the early discus competitions in the ancient Olympic games, two centuries before Christ. A few centuries A.D., the sport evolved to include a wooden stake or metal pin driven into the ground, which provided a target to throw at, changing the object of the competition from distance to accuracy.
As the Romans traveled throughout Europe on their conquests, the games spread to other cultures, and invading armies eventually brought the games to Britain around 1000 A.D. It is here that Quoits developed into the form having two pins set into clay pits, which can still be found today in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
In England, Quoits became so popular that in 1361, King Edward III became worried that his subjects were using too much of their time to throw quoits rather than to practice shooting or using a bow to keep their skills of war honed. He issued a decree that outlawed quoits and other “useless and time-wasting” games, but quoits continued to be played discreetly and never died out. By the following century, quoits had again become legal and quite popular, enough so that it became a well-organized sport in the Taverns and Pubs in Britain. Horseshoes was also played, but was considered a child’s game, while quoits was for men.
The English brought both the games of quoits and horseshoes with them when they settled in America in the 1600’s. Quoit pitching was mainly centered in the New York area, and spread north into New England and south as far as Washington D.C., while horseshoes was more commonly played in the Midwest. As the Corps’ only New Englander, one wonders if Sergeant Ordway was the ringleader of the quoits games played by the Corps of Discovery.
Quoits remained a popular pastime in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. The complete eclipsing of quoits by horseshoes in the U.S. can be traced to a single incident. In 1920, an Akron, Ohio, fireman named George May entered the World Tournament for Horseshoe Pitchers in St. Petersburg, Florida. May had, through endless practice, acquired the skill of ringing the stake with startling frequency. An absolute unknown at the competition, May put on an astonishing horseshoes exhibition , tossing 430 ringers during the competition and winning 24 straight games, as well as the championship. The allure and satisfaction of ringer-throwing, much easier with open horseshoes than with quoits, instantly elevated horseshoes to the preferred sport. May’s knack for ringing the stake proved to be the death knell of quoits as a popular competitive sport in America.