Saddle leather creaks as riders test stirrups and cinches on snorting, stamping horses, their nostrils streaming out white breath in the frosty morning. Foxhounds mill anxiously near the Master of Fox Hounds (MFH), who surveys the scene from the back of his Thoroughbred. The Genesee Valley Hunt is about to begin and nerves tingle with anticipation. The blare of the Huntsman’s horn and baying foxhounds are usually associated with the English countryside. However, mounted hunting is also a tradition in the United States, and one of the earliest organized hunts originated in Geneseo, New York.
The Genesee Valley Hunt has a long and distinguished history, with some bragging rights. Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed the Hunt before he was president, along with other politicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries; the daughter of a New York governor rode with the hounds, and even some European royalty were thrown in for good measure. Major William Austin Wadsworth, a Genesee Valley aristocrat and farmer whose ancestors came to the Genesee Valley in 1790, organized the Livingston County Hunt in the summer of 1876. The name was changed to Genesee Valley Hunt in 1881.
The first year was a bit rough as the Major owned no hounds of his own. Friends invited to hunt brought their dogs, and chaos ensued since the hounds listened to no voice but their masters. W. A. Wadsworth was the Master of Fox Hounds, and the Huntsman was his good friend, C. C. Fitzhugh. There were several attempts to train the separate packs to work together for a few years, but all training failed. Frustrated with the situation, the Major started his own kennel of foxhounds in 1880 with Jim, Joe, Stubby, Speckle, and Colonel. He writes in his hunt diary that Colonel turned out to be useless, and another was put down for “sheep murder.” He added Crafty and Graceful, along with Sport and Echo, which had varying degrees of usefulness to the pack. The dogs and bitches were kenneled at the Homestead and had the company of two kennel horses. The hounds were trained with drags, scented with “anise and assafoetida,” writes the Major.
After the death of Fitzhugh in 1878, W. A. Wadsworth assumed both MFH and Huntsman positions. The Master of Fox Hounds (MFH) was responsible overall for the Hunt. He decided if the weather was good enough, directed the field of the Hunt, obtained permissions from farmers to hunt their land, kept a tally of any damages such as broken fences, gates left open, or livestock killed, and maintained the pack. The MFH needed to be a person with tact, administrative ability, and a large personality, all of which came easily to the Major.
The Huntsman blows the horn to cue the hounds, and is responsible for the hounds while in the field. The Whippers-in keep to the outer edges of the field, watching for straying hounds and generally helping the Huntsman to manage them. No one else should interfere with their work, unless asked by the Huntsman. Once a fox is sighted, the Huntsman blows the horn, allowing the fox an opportunity to make a run for it. This happens with horses flying over fences, gullies, and riders navigating obstacles, some visible and sometimes there are unhappy surprises.
Both men and women rode in the Hunt and were from all different backgrounds. One didn’t have to be the “right sort” to ride with the hounds and the Major. While we think of scarlet hunting jackets, the dress code was blue jackets with buff breeches since Wadsworth wouldn’t tolerate Tory red. He wanted no similarities with British Army colors, preferring the colors of the Continental Army. The hunts continued over several weeks, usually beginning in the fall, until bad weather halted them.
Geneseo saw a large influx of visitors during the hunts. The colorful Cary family from Buffalo carried the day for grand entrances into the village every fall. They transported horses, carriages, tack, clothing, and all manner of goods on the train and then by carriage to Geneseo for their lengthy stays.
“Every autumn the Carys rented a big house for the hunting season. Though they were a large family, there were far more horses than people and their annual arrival in the Genesee resembled a migration of Mongols. First came the coach-and-four packed inside and out with household goods and the matriarch. It was escorted by a cavalcade of Carys of both sexes and all ages, spilling off the road and into the fields, larking over fences, and generally raising hob with the farms en route. The rear was brought up by a column of mounted grooms leading extra horses.” (The Wadsworths of the Genesee, Alden Hatch)
Brothers Charles, Seward, and Tom Cary were crack polo players in Buffalo, and were well known for their daring and often reckless horsemanship. While the Hunt boosted the local economy, there was also lots of partying during the hunt season and some unauthorized horse racing and steeple chases, which didn’t always endear the visitors to Geneseo residents. However, the Hunt was popular, and crowds gathered at roadsides to watch horses and riders gallop across the fields.
The Hunt prospered under W. A. Wadsworth’s leadership, and community support grew as the Hunt added competitions open to all riders each July. In 1885, the Club provided prizes for a variety of events. Picking up the hat, Riding for scarves, Turks Heads and Ring, Tent Pegging, Riding at Ring, and High Jump were competitive events that year. Prizes were spurs, riding bridles, a whip, riding crop, and silk scarves. In addition, a steeple chase and other races were included in the calendar, which proved popular with riders.
The Hunting Diaries of W. Austin Wadsworth were published in 1984 and give excellent insight into the actual hunt, including the real dangers of mounted hunting. Here is an entry from October 1, 1881:
October 1st The Homestead
Started in Cow Pasture woods and went south on to Crossett and then W in to woods where Mary W. got scraped off by the limb of a tree but was rescued alive. Then South and then over the Home Farm M.F. H. did some fine somersault tumbling through the mare stepping in a hole thence to J. W. W. and passing below Bleak House and round grove lot to gully near R. R. thence up gully crossing Avon Road to Big Bottom, N. and back again crossing road by Wheelers brick house and killing small wood near old graveyard. Good day. Good field good run.
Riders that day were the Major, Miss Wadsworth, Miss North, and Dr. Lauderdale.
Entry from October 1887 with 18 riders:
October 29th Hartford Farm. 2 P.M.
Overcast and chilly, fourteen hounds out, big crowd at meet including all the boys in the county. This was the run of the season. Horses were sent on ahead and the S stage left the Big Tree Inn at 11:30 loaded down with fox hunters. A slight shower and a cold wind made them a damp, miserable crowd as they landed at Capt. Martin’s but magnums of Bass and Batavia club cocktails so revived them, that horses, hounds, and fox thought nothing of the most supreme efforts. After getting away from the crowd of men and boys at the meet, we tried up the gully and striking a trail went off to the North over several very uncompromising fences, then swinging round over a holy terror on to Barber’s and thence over a beautiful country with nothing troublesome but two enormous walls which the Duke and Major took in style and the rest dodged …
The Hunt Diaries and The Wadsworths of the Genesee are excellent resources for further research of the storied history of the GVH and its participants.
While the Hunt had its ups and downs through the early part of the 20th century under different MFHs, it struggled through World War I, and was even discontinued for a couple of years. It regained its stride in 1922 and was incorporated in 1925. The Genesee Valley Hunt is now a complex organization with many events throughout the year. The Cavalry Games started in 1885 and are still held each July. Horse trials, training, The Whiskey Race, which is a relay, terrier races, family events, farmers market, and a host of other activities are all part of the continuing tradition of the GVH. The GVH’s website offers lots of information for riders and spectators alike. The Wadsworth family continues to lead the Genesee Valley Hunt and its work, and Geneseo is the place to be when the colorful entourage of horses, riders, and hounds parade down Main Street as the Genesee Valley Hunt season begins each fall.
Resources: The Hunting Diaries of W. Austin Wadsworth, M.F.H.
Genesee Valley Events, Irene A. Beale
The Wadsworths of the Genesee, Alden Hatch
Milne Library Special Collections, SUNY Geneseo
Buffalo Morning Express, November 20, 1892
Buffalo Courier, 1902