A Colonial Choctaw: Skating In The New World

"Though many non-Native Americans have learned very little about us, over time we have had to learn everything about them. We watch their films, read their literature, worship in their churches, and attend their schools. Every third-grade student in the United States is presented with the concept of Europeans discovering America as a 'New World' with fertile soil, abundant gifts of nature, and glorious mountains and rivers. Only the most enlightened teachers will explain that this world certainly wasn't new to the millions of indigenous people who already lived here when Columbus arrived." - Wilma Mankiller, Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women

Travelling across the Atlantic Ocean carried by the churning waves of the divide that is the Atlantic Ocean, settlers of 'The New World' embarked on the ultimate adventure of a lifetime when they crossed the troubled water and ventured into the unknown to forge new lives in a foreign and at times unforgiving new land. In the decades following the historic landing of the Mayflower in Plymouth in 1620, tens of thousands of settlers from Britain, Holland, France and even Sweden colonized North America and they wasted no time breaking out their skates and venturing out into the ice to break the monotony of the long winters; at least the Dutch didn't.

In Holland, skating was not only hugely popular but an activity considered culturally acceptable for people of all classes. Early colonists of North America from Holland brought with them their skates and were the first to pioneer skating in what is now the United States. In 1678, English clergyman Charles Wooley wrote: "And upon the Ice its admirable to see Men and Women as it were flying upon their Skates from place to place, with Markets upon their Heads and Backs." This account evidences that skating was not only used for pleasure but as a means of transportation and moving goods from place to place. While the Dutch were carrying on the tradition of the patron saint of ice skating Saint Lidwina in a whole new setting, it would be the French settlers who were first credited with bringing skating to settlements in New France in the early 1600's, right here in Nova Scotia.

Interestingly, if you look at the early history of skating in New France and Canada, you see that the Iroquois people used bone skates to transport themselves across frozen ponds, lakes and rivers long before the French settlers at the Acadian settlement of Port Royal would have. Barbara Schrodt of Canadian Encyclopedia confirms this: "according to legends, the Iroquois used to skate, tying animal shinbones to their footwear with leather thongs." There were several tribes in the area at the same time of New York's colonization including the Mohawks, Lenapi tribe and... the Iroquois. Based on the fact that we already know that the Iroquois people used bone skates for transportation in what is now Canada, it is probable that they did just the same in what is now the United States as well. In fact, many bone and shoe combinations unearthed by archaeologists suggest that the Iroquois people had been skating for some time.

Skating continued to gain in popularity not only as a form of transportation but as a recreational activity in Colonial America over the coming century. In 1811, Pennsylvania born lawyer and Revolutionary Army Captain Alexander Graydon wrote in his memoirs "With respect to skating, though the Philadelphians have never reduced it to rules like the Londoners, nor connected it with their business like Dutchmen, I will yet hazard the opinion, that they were the best and most elegant skaters in the world. I have seen New England skaters, Old England skaters, & Holland skaters, but the best of them could but make 'the judicious grieve.' I was once slightly acquainted with a worthy gentleman, the quondam member of a skating club in London, and it must be admitted, that he performed very well for an Englishman. His High Dutch, or, as he better termed it, his outer edge skating, might, for aught I know, have been exactly conformable to the statutes of this institution: To these he would often appeal; and I recollect the principal one was, that each stroke should describe an exact semicircle. Nevertheless, his style was what we should deem a very bad one. An utter stranger to the beauty of bringing forward the suspended foot towards the middle of the stroke, and boldly advancing it before the other, at the conclusion of it, thus to preserve, throughout his course, a continuity of movement, to rise like an ascending wave to its acme, then, gracefully like a descending one, to glide into the succeeding stroke without effort, either real or apparent—every change of foot with this gentleman seemed a beginning of motion, & required a most unseemingly jerk of the body; an unequivocal evidence of the want of that power, which depends upon a just balance, & should never be lost—which carries the skater forward with energy without exertion; and is as essential to his swift and graceful career, as is a good head of water to the velocity of a mill wheel. Those who have seen good skating will comprehend what I mean, still better those who are adepts themselves; but excellence in the art can never be gained by geometrical rules. The two reputed best skaters of my day were General Cadwallader, and Massey the biscuitbaker; but I could name many others, both of the academy and Quaker school, who were in no degree inferior to them; whose action and attitudes were equally graceful."

In the decades to come, the first skating club in America, the Philadelphia Skating Club, would be formed in 1849. In 1861, it would become the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. As all of the skating would be done outdoors, members were required to carry wooden reels attached to their left wrist containing a length of strong rope and were instructed on how to resuscitate a drowning victim. Two years after the Philadelphia Skating Club became the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, the Skating Club Of New York would be established. Although their would be no unifying or governing body of skating in the U.S. until 1886, races and skating competitions would be held under the rules of the clubs playing host to these events. One such event would be the Championships Of America which were first held in Troy, New York in 1863 and won the first two years by the legendary Jackson Haines. Other winners of these Championships Of America would include W.H. Bishop, E.T. Goodrich and Callie Curtis (who won the event a record ten consecutive times from 1870 to 1879). More on Callie Curtis later!

Looking back though and reflecting on the quote by Wilma Mankiller I shared at the beginning of this blog, it's so compelling to me to think that skating's roots in Colonial America traced not only to the Dutch but to the Iroquois people. Considering how little we truly know about the history of North America prior to colonization, one has to wonder just how many centuries the people whose homeland many American's ancestors decided to make themselves right at home in had been skating for. As patrons of the art of skating in North America, we truly do owe our gratitude to the first people who skated on our land.

A big thanks to reference librarian Jeanna with Halifax Public Libraries for her help in locating research material for this blog! If you enjoyed reading, give this blog a like on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard or give me a follow on the Twitter at https://twitter.com/ohh_N. If you enjoy hearing about skating, you've come to the right place.