In the 1770s, as America pressed toward revolution, there was still time for leisure – for the wealthy, at least. And the Rhode Island shore was as likely a place as any for the leisure classes to congregate to enjoy food, sun and the Newport Circus.
Visitors could be treated to turtle bakes on Goat Island, small excursion boats would carry visitors exploring the coves of Newport and everything from tea to oysters was available to fill the stomachs of the guests and locals alike.
Meanwhile, for the sporting set, there were horse races on the beach that featured the Narragansett pacers. And for exhibitions, there were displays of horsemanship.
Jacob Bates was an English equestrian who took continental Europe by storm with his feats of riding. He could ride four horses at once, dancing on their backs; slide under their stomachs and wow the crowds by firing guns from horseback.
Bates arrived in America in 1773 with a stop in New York and travelled New England cities putting on displays. Probably inspired by Bates, Newport developed its own home-grown riding phenom: Christopher Gardner, dubbed the “The Original American Rider.”
Gardner, the son of tavern owner Henry Gardner, advertised his act in the Newport Mercury in June of 1774 and noted that he would repeat “nearly all the parts that were exhibited here by the celebrated Mr. Bates.”
Gardner performed his act at a manege (French for riding academy) that he had constructed in North Newport. It was this Manege that gives Newport its claim to have established the first circus in America.
By 1774, however, the coming war would soon put riding manege’s to the side. Americans were in the middle of creating the Continental Association, a system of boycotting Great Britain. Under the rules of the association, colonists would stop drinking imported British tea and buying all other British goods.
In this precursor to the Revolution, the colonists also pledged cooperation to brace for the pending economic hardship the trade war would bring about, and they agreed to “encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation.”
The association went into effect in December of 1774, and it would curtail theater, musical performances, gambling and other entertainments throughout the war. Perhaps anticipating the change, Gardner advertised in August of 1774 in the Newport Mercury:
“ONCE MORE, For the Last Time, in this Place, On Tuesday next, If the Weather be good, if not the next suitable Day, Will be Performed HORSEMANSHIP, In the highest Perfection ever exhibited in this Country by Christopher H. Gardner, At his Manage at the North Part of Newport; After which the Manage is to be taken down. The Doors will be opened at half past 3 O’clock, P.M. and he will mount at half after 4. Tickets, at a Quarter of a Dollar each, may be had of Messrs. Ichabod Potter, Henry Gardner, Robert Lillibridge, jun., William Davis, and at the Printing Office. N.B.”
The circus would not return to America until long after the Revolution. In Europe, meanwhile, the circus continued to evolve under showmen like Philip Astley, operator of Astley’s Amphitheatre in London.