Pittsfield 1791 and Beachville 1838

Beachville, Ontario

Beachville, Ontario

Not two hours ago, reader Brian Dawe posted this interesting comment about Adam Ford and the game he recalled playing in Beachville, Ontario on June 4, 1838.  The article he references may be viewed at: http://goo.gl/CRkhI. Be sure to read other reader comments, including one by my esteemed colleague David Block. I introduced the Beachville article thus, and repeat it here to supply a bit of context to Ford’s report, which may be read verbatim. “In a letter to Sporting Life, published  May 5, 1886, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recalled a ball game he had witnessed nearly fifty years earlier on June 4, 1838, in Beechville, Ontario, Canada, ‘which closely resembled our present national game.’ Recalling events that may or may not have transpired when the author was seven years old, Ford’s letter is eerily reminiscent of Abner Graves’ missive to the Mills Commission in 1905, in which he recalled witnessing Abner Doubleday inventing the game of baseball when the inventor was twenty and he was five. In a further coincidence, both Ford and Graves resided in Denver at the time they wrote their letters. Both endured disgrace in their lifetimes: Graves murdered his second wife and ended his days in an asylum; Ford was driven from Ontario by a murder inquest, a relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs which, in 1906, brought him to his end.” 

I will add that I played a role in rediscovering the 1791 Pittsfield Prohibition. At one time I believed that baseball may have arisen in North America from a “Housatonic Valley Triangle” whose points were Pittsfield, Cooperstown, and New York City. I now believe that baseball was played in North America as early as the 1730s, in south central Massachusetts.

And now from Brian Dawe:

The Burdick family referred to in Dr. Ford’s story came to the Beachville area in Canada in the late 1790s – James and Phoebe and their eight children, ranging in age from 10 years to 30 years. They were originally from Lanesborough, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Pittsfield in Berkshire County that is famous for the 1791 bylaw forbidding baseball games near the town meeting house, for fear its windows might be broken by flying balls. Amongst other things, James Burdick was a Baptist preacher and spoke out in favour of the British cause, which got him into trouble with the local Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and he was fined, disarmed and confined to his farm. By the time he brought his wife and family (four sons, four daughters) to Canada, the oldest children were married with families of their own, so there was quite a Lanesborough influx to the Beachville area in that period. The extended Burdick family included the Williams and Dolson families named in Dr. Ford’s story.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is such an early record of a baseball game in Beachville, because around the same time, these and a number of other Berkshire families had come to the same neighbourhood in Ontario, ninety miles west of Niagara, to what was then known as the Township of Oxford-on-the-Thames, a wilderness tract of 64,000 acres. Points of origin for the others included the towns of Great Barrington, New Marlborough and Mount Washington, also all in Berkshire County. They and the Burdick clan all had come under the leadership of Major Thomas Ingersoll of Great Barrington, who was authorized by the government of the province to assign lands in the township to those he considered suitable to form the new settlement. The Town of Ingersoll, Ontario is named after him. It is three miles down the Thames River from Beachville.

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

All the communities in that part of Ontario have always been very keen about baseball, and there’s no question it is a cradle for the growth of the game in Canada. The first Canadian Base Ball Championship was organized there in the 1860s, with teams competing to take possession of a Silver Ball trophy that was created by fans of the game in Woodstock, the county town five miles up the Thames River from Beachville. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is located a bit to the north of Beachville, in a town founded by two of Thomas Ingersoll’s sons, known as St. Marys, Ontario, on another branch of the Thames River.

A festival to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the game described by Dr. Ford is taking place over the next two weekends (May 24-25, and June 1-2) in a meadow that forms part of the grounds of the Beachville Museum. Details can be found on its website at http://www.beachvilledistrictmuseum.ca/. There will be vintage base ball matches for all ages in the course of the festival. Everyone welcome! Still a few game slots available if anyone wants to help form up additional teams. The Beachville Cornstalks have been organized to defend home turf, and already have matches on the program with the London Tecumsehs and the Woodstock Actives, two well-known vintage clubs that have been playing matches in vintage tournaments for decades.

It is a stimulating proposition that baseball may have reached Beachville via Lanesborough/Pittsfield. I invite interested readers to weigh in via the comment feature below. A story about baseball in New Marlborough, MA, mentioned above, may also be relevant reading. I will post that tomorrow.


The unknown author of the “X” letters (14 letters on various aspects of base ball printed in Porter’s Spirit of the Times between Oct. 1857 and Jan. 1858) was also of the opinion that the game had originated in New England.

Pingback: John Thorn’s Website – Our Game | beachvilledistrictmuseum

Truth be told, Canada’s baseball incubator in Ontario’s Upper Thames Valley, centred around Beachville, was given birth by New Englanders led by Major Thomas Ingersoll, who brought with them to Oxford-on-the-Thames the culture they knew from the Housatonic Valley in the 1790s, including baseball.

Lest my Canadian colleagues accuse me of treason in making such a statement, I invite them to remember colonial New England’s heritage as an extension of Merrie Olde England. What is baseball but an adult refinement of bat and ball games beloved since olden times in the Mother Country? Take comfort, my friends, that Housatonic Heritage, the website promoting tourism in that area of New England, includes a maple leaf as part of its logo. They even gave us our heroine Laura Secord – eldest daughter of Thomas Ingersoll. There were some differences that had to be sorted out in what we call the War of 1812, but she did her part to enable us to now be celebrating 200 years of peace with our friends across the border.

Plenty of ink has been spilled in Canada over the past thirty years about the significance of Dr. Ford’s letter, but let me try to recap. Doubters complain that writing in his mid-50s, he couldn’t possibly have recalled so many details about a game that took place when he was only 7 years old. They fail to notice, though, that his description contains details about the 1838 game as well as later games in the 1850s in which he himself was a player in his university days, while the local rules from 1838 were still being followed in Oxford. And he notes how the ‘old gray hairs’ pointed out the rules had been different in their day. Instead of playing a set number of innings, they said, the old way was to play up until the first team reached a minimum number of runs, either 18 or 21.

Prof. Nancy Bouchier of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and Prof. Robert Barney of Western University in London, Ontario, have collaborated for decades studying the finer details of Dr. Ford’s missive and the games growth in Canada. Their webnotes, theses, scholarly articles and books on the subject are easily found with a Google search. By tapping into the work of genealogists back in the 1980s, they showed that the players named by Dr. Ford were real people on the local scene at the time. What they found confirmed that most of the 1838 players named were then in the age range from their mid-teens to mid-20s. Ford was not entirely sure about all the players’ names, but says he “thinks” his older brother William was one of them. William would have been age 13 at the time.

Further sleuthing by genealogists since the 1980s now helps with more details, particularly the points of origin for the families named. The oldest of the players identified by Ford on the Zorra team was likely Reuben Martin. He was born in Oxford in 1802. His parents were married in Lanesborough, Massachusetts around 1780. This type of detail may provide the next level of refinement in understanding how the game spread with New England families making homes across central and western New York and up into Canada in those early years. An interesting example is the family name Bostwick that shows up in John Thorn’s piece about the “Bass Ball” challenge printed in 1825 in a newspaper called the Delhi Gazette. Delhi was the name given to the county seat for Delaware County, New York, a few miles south of Cooperstown, which began opening up to settlement at around the same time as the Berkshire families were making their move to Oxford in Canada. The Bostwick name was associated with them as well as with Delhi, through family ties back to New Milford, Connecticut, a Bostwick family hub which is on the southern edge of the Housatonic Heritage region.

As for Dr. Ford, a New England connection hasn’t been immediately obvious, because his parents were from Ireland, married in 1803 in County Fermanagh, Ulster Province. They emigrated to Pennsylvania, where their first six children were born between 1811 and 1821. The family moved to Canada in 1822 to Zorra, the newly opened township just to the north of Oxford-on-the-Thames. Six more children were born there in the course of the next decade, the last of them being our Dr. Ford. Although there were other families of Irish origin in the area, Zorra in those early years became heavily populated by Scottish families, most of whom came to Canada by economic necessity rather than choice, and most of whom spoke only Gaelic. The Ford youngsters thus found greater affinity with the families from New England who had settled twenty years earlier in Oxford-on-the-Thames, and were themselves spreading into Zorra. The Ford children in time married various members of those New England families, four of them from amongst the Burdicks of the Beachville neighbourhood.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine then, that the 1838 game stuck in Dr. Ford’s memory despite his young age at the time, not only because of these connections and later retellings at family gatherings, but also because it was likely the first time that he and his playmates saw their Scottish neighbours in full Highland regalia, marching together as to war.

There had been an economic depression in the province in the 1830s accompanied by political agitation for several years, culminating in a bit of unpleasantness known in Canada as the Rebellion of 1837. This included ‘rebels’ organizing amongst some of the old New England families in Oxford in December of that year. For months afterwards, there were rumours that another uprising was being planned for the summer of 1838, to be aided by invaders from the United States. One of the leading local agitators was Elisha Hall, born in Oxford in 1800 to parents who had come from New Marlborough, and when he fled the province for a while to avoid punishment, he spent time back in New Marlborough. In Oxford, the local militia was reorganized to deal with the unrest, and Zorra was called upon to supply a separate regiment, including Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlander companies. It must have been a fearsome sight to see these “Zorra Volunteers” marching through Beachville that day in June 1838, quite the contrast to the fun-loving ball-players. The militia companies remained posted throughout Oxford to keep the peace in the months that followed in 1838, each recruit receiving the meagre pay of one shilling four pence per day.

Only a few miles up the road, Woodstock was at that time an enclave of recently-arrived retired British military officers and their families, now appointed as commanding officers of the reorganized militia, who amused themselves with the game of cricket. Prof. Bouchier in her writings has shown how even there, cricket gave way to baseball in the years that followed. Dr. Ford writes about games he played when returning from his university studies in the early 1850s, and how the introduction of India rubber in the construction of new balls being used sent fielders running down hits as though on “an overland trip to the moon”. He graduated from university in 1855 and returned home to start a medical practice. In 1857 he married Jane Crittenden, daughter of a mill owner on the Thames River in St. Marys, on the northern edge of Zorra township. Her father had made his home first in Zorra, where he was school trustee, then Beachville postmaster, before moving to St. Marys. Crittenden’s father before him had served as a captain in the 164th Regiment of the New York Militia in the War of 1812.

By the time baseball fans in Woodstock had decided to establish the Silver Ball championship 150 years ago, the local teams had adopted the New York rules, and the form of the game described by Dr. Ford was relegated to history. Due to this, his letter reads something like a lament for the old ways.

The New York Clipper several times reported on baseball developments in the Woodstock-Beachville-Ingersoll area in that period, and for a time the Silver Ball championship trophy remained there, but eventually was carried away by new teams from a widening area extending over a sixty mile radius including London, Hamilton and Guelph – even Toronto began to take notice. The game took hold everywhere in the next generation, which saw dozens of Canadian players from across Ontario joining major league teams in the United States. None of them was more accomplished than James Edward “Tip” O’Neill (1858-1915), who went from Canadian fame with the Woodstock Actives in the 1870s, to international fame as triple-crown holder with the St Louis Browns in 1887. It remains a sore point with the people of Oxford that Cooperstown has failed to give recognition to the accomplishments of “the Woodstock Wonder”, even though the Tip O’Neill Award has for 30 years been the most prestigious baseball honour bestowed annually in Canada.

Anyhow, hope to see you at the upcoming 175th anniversary festival in Beachville. If not, how about a walk to the park for a friendly baseball match on June 22, to mark the Laura Secord Bicentennial?

These discussions of trying to trace connections between Pittsfield and Beachville baseball, or Philadelphia and Cincinnati town ball, or between some or other reported game one year and another some number of years later, make an implicit assumption that the game was rare. It imagines baseball to be like the Hebrews wandering forty years in the wilderness until it finally arrives in Hoboken, flowing with milk and honey.
I don’t believe this interpretation is supportable in light of the evidence accumulating (and gathered in the protoball chronology) for early baseball. This is especially true if one accepts the argument I have been making for some years now that “base ball” and “town ball” and “round ball” are properly understood as regional dialectal synonyms, denoting the same game (or, more precisely, the same family of closely related games). In this light, it turns out that baseball wasn’t rare at all. It was played throughout Anglophone North America as part of the common English cultural heritage.
So it is unremarkable to find baseball in Pittsfield in 1791, and thirty-seven years later in Beachville. This is no more (and no less) surprising than finding major league teams today in both Atlanta and Toronto. Might we, should we go looking, find cultural connections between Pittsfield and Beachville? I wouldn’t be surprised. All sorts of cultural connections turn up where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. Heck, you might even be able to find them between Atlanta and Toronto. But baseball is incidental to this (except during interleague play).

Just let me peek out again from under this big wet blanket. Any suggestion that there is no point in studying or celebrating things like Dr. Ford’s letter or the pioneer game he describes flattens the landscape far too much. Despite the recent strides in proto-ball research, it is not axiomatic that what we can call baseball was always found everywhere that English culture made a footprint. Old Oxford makes for a nice setting in which to study the game’s growth for the very reason that in the 1830s, very distinct Scottish, English and Irish communities were very quickly brought in contact with each other in the Upper Thames Valley, at the time an isolated area in Canada that had previously been almost exclusively the home of New Englanders led by Thomas Ingersoll from the Housatonic Valley.
What happened after that has been described best by Nancy Bouchier in her book “For the Love of the Game: Amateur Sport in Small-Town Ontario, 1838-1895”, now ten years old, which has been praised by many. Beachville’s 1838 baseball story is all the more remarkable for the fact that it takes place only a mile or so down the road from the elitist cricket field from which the very proper English excluded the locals. There was never any suggestion that baseball would be viewed a suitable alternative by Rear-Admiral Henry Vansittart of Her Majesty’s Navy, or Colonel Alexander Whalley Light of Her Majesty’s 25th Regiment of Foot, or any of the other Napoleonic War veterans now living around their new Woodstock homes in the Canadian backwoods. The New York Clipper probably delighted in reporting about Oxford for the very reason it was such a good example of how baseball eventually displaced the “hould Henglish” devotion to cricket. Bouchier provides many examples of the culture clashes in this one small part of North America which led to this result. The political and legal fallout along the way was often not at all pretty for those involved. In all of it though, there’s an inspiring story of how Beachville’s 1838 game was a milestone in a particular community, and a social group’s perseverance and success.

First weekend at the Beachville Festival a great delight for all who attended. The local daily newspaper is the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, and you can find a nice writeup on its website http://www.woodstocksentinelreview.com/

There are also photos and Youtube video links on the Beachville Museum website blog about the Festival – http://www.beachvilledistrictmuseum.ca/

The organizers have left space in the schedule for matches between pickup teams formed from amongst the people in attendance each day. I was there this past Sunday and was drafted. Having had the chance now to play a few innings by 1838 rules, I can understand what they mean when they say it was a game for hitters and runners back then, not for fancy pitching. Only thing that counted at the plate was a swing and a miss, otherwise the hurler had to keep lobbing until the knocker chose the right one to hit. From then on it’s a game of dodging the ball while trying to make it around the bases, because the old rules permitted tagging out by throwing the ball right at the runner. Instinct from playing by modern rules as a kid is to get to the next base in a straight line asap, but 1838 players obviously concentrated on avoiding being hit when the ball was thrown at them, so had to judge the best path of diversion rather than a straight line to the next base. Very good chance the ball will go wild and off into the weeds if you avoid being hit, then the path is likely clear to make it all the way home. So the fielders have to concentrate on keeping track of the ball, not guarding the bases.

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