Seven Games in Colonial New England

The Puritans were never known for their lighthearted play, but there were games in colonial New England - often to the disgust of its puritan leadership.

In the early 1600s in New England, games that developed skills, such as shooting competitions, were viewed more favorably than those that were merely diversions. Worst of all were games that involved luck. Here are seven of the more popular games in colonial New England:

Stoolball. Stool ball resembles cricket in the way it is played. A pitcher throws a ball at a target, usually a stool though a tree or other object could be substituted. A second man tried to swat the ball away, either with his hand or a paddle, so that it doesn't strike the stool. Points are scored for each ball successfully swatted away.

games in colonial new england

Stoolball illustration from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, John Newbery

The game eventually evolved to include fielding and running. To score runs, a batter who hit a ball would run between two stools while the fielders would recover the hit ball, very similar to cricket.

Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth colony reported being dismayed to find men playing stool ball on Christmas day in 1621. Some men did not want to work on Christmas, and Bradford relented, but hoped that they would eventually learn that Christmas was not a day for celebration and join him in his labors. When he returned from his work he found the men playing stoolball. He stopped them by confiscating their gear.

Ninepins. Another sport that flourished in America was ninepins, which was a form of outdoor bowling. It was frowned upon in New England, but did exist as there is evidence that the government banned it. The participants used stones rolled across the ground to knock down pins.

While played on the sly in New England, New York created a public bowling green.

Pitching the Bar. Another of the games that shocked William Bradford in 1621 was called pitching the bar. It involved throwing a bar or log as far as possible. He put a stop to this, too.

Foot Races. Of course, Native Americans had pastimes of their own. Many of the games were designed to develop the skills needed for survival as adults. Throwing balls, a ring-toss game and foot races that could cover many miles were among the common pursuits.

Slide Groat. Slide groat was another game that had to be played on the sly, but was engaged in by early colonists. This was a miniature shuffleboard type of game, also called shovelboard. It was played on a board, often the top of a bar. Pennies were slid the length of the board and had to stop inside a defined target area to score points.

Football. Football of the 1600s wasn't like football of today. It more resembled soccer or European football mixed with rugby, with boys kicking the ball to each other in a form of keep-away that could turn quite violent.

The Puritans loathed football. Englishman Philippe Stubbs, who was something of a Puritan scold, pointed out the dangers of football in his pamphlet, The Anatomie of Abuses, which attacked a wide range of games, pastimes and other supposed vices. He wrote:

Now who is so grosly blinde that seeth not that these aforesaid exercises not only withdraw us from godliness and virtue, but also haile and allure us to wickednesse and sin? For as concerning football playing I protest unto you that it may rather be called a friendlie kinde of fyghte than a play or recreation—a bloody and murthering practice than a felowly sport or pastime.

Nevertheless, football invaded the pious streets of New England towns and there are records of complaints about young men playing the game in the streets of Boston.

Coasting. Coasting was we would call sledding today. Children fashioned sleds with two runners and hopped on them to slide down any hill with a slope great enough to provide adequate gravitational inducement. Not surprisingly, the government in Massachusetts did not like coasting and outlawed it. In New York state, the officials went so far as to punish anyone caught coasting by impounding not just their sled, but their hat as well.

Thanks to A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, John Newbery; Child Life in Colonial Days, Alice Morse Earle



  1. nancy lamontagne

    January 23, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    These Pilgrims would be rolling over their graves, if they knew what goes on today.

  2. April

    January 24, 2018 at 1:13 am

    Taking their sled 🛷 is one thing, but taking their hat 🎩 too? Outrageous!

  3. Cynthia Grace Walker

    January 25, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I truly enjoy these tales of New England. You can take a girl out of New England but you can’t take New England out of the girl!

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