The Puritans were never known for their lighthearted play, and the Puritan leadership viewed colonial New England games with disgust.
In the early 1600s, colonial New England games that developed skills, such as shooting competitions, were viewed more favorably than those that were merely diversions.
The worst of all colonial New England games, at least to the Puritan mind: those that involved luck.
Games and sports caused controversy back in England, where the first kings James and Charles encouraged their subjects to enjoy themselves on Sunday afternoon. Anyone who didn’t want to play games could leave the country, they said. So that’s exactly what many Puritans did.
Here is a sampler of seven games popular among the early colonists.
Colonial New England Games
Stoolball. Stool ball resembles cricket. A pitcher throws a ball at a target, usually a stool, though a tree or other object could be substituted. A second man tries 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.
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.
Gov. William Bradford of the Plymouth colony reported dismay to find men playing stool ball on Christmas Day in 1621. Some men did not want to work on Christmas, and Bradford relented. He hoped, however, 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.
Banned in Boston
Ninepins. Another sport that flourished in America was ninepins, a form of outdoor bowling. New England’s Puritan leaders frowned on ninepins, but it did exist as 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: 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 helped 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 of the colonial New England games that people had to play on the sly. This was a miniature shuffleboard type of game, also called shovelboard. Players used a board, often the top of a bar. They slid pennies along the length of the board, trying to get them to stop inside a defined target area to score points.
A Loathsome Game
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, something of a Puritan scold, pointed out the dangers of football in his pamphlet, The Anatomie of Abuses. In it, he 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. The Puritans recorded complaints about young men playing the game in the streets of Boston.
Coasting. Coasting was what 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 Massachusetts government 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. This story about colonial New England games was updated in 2020. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about the birth of modern football here.