This Was Then: Release the hounds

Outfoxed on the Katama Plains

Intersection of Main, South Main, and Beach Streets, Vineyard Haven. The building in the background is today La Choza.

Unlike cats, horses, or alpacas, domesticated dogs have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for many thousands of years — even, quite possibly, since before the rising ocean made us an island.

Canis familiaris, the domestic dog, has been native to North America for at least 10,000 years. Their remains have been unearthed from Wampanoag kitchen middens on the Vineyard, dated by archeologists to at least 2,000 years ago, suggesting that not only did the native Islanders employ dogs as pets and hunting partners, they also regularly put them on the menu. In 1602, John Brereton, explorer Bartholomew Gosnold’s chronicler, described seeing “Dogs like Foxes, blacke and sharpe nosed” on the Vineyard. These were later known as “Indian Dogs.” (Red and gray foxes were also once native to the Island before their extirpation at the turn of the 19th century.) It’s possible that some of our Island mutts have vestiges of native DNA, but the breed Brereton described is, sadly, long gone.

In 1737, a law was passed by the Massachusetts General Court in Boston titled, “An Act to Prevent Mischief Being Done by Unruly Dogs and the Keeping of Any Dogs, on the Islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.” The official text goes on to read, “Much damage has been done by dogs in worrying, wounding, and killing of neat cattle, sheep, and lambs within this province, to the hurt and impoverishing many persons, the owners of such creatures.” The new law specified modest new statewide rules, but much of it was directed specifically at the Island’s Wampanoag dogs. “There are considerable number of Indians … who keep unruly and mischievous dogs … whereby great spoil and damage have been done.” The act therefore “wholly disallowed” dogs on either island. “It shall and may be lawful for any person within the counties of Nantucket and Dukes County to kill any dog or bitch, whatsoever.” No dogs allowed, period.

But the European settlers soon brought their own canines, and a dog tax appears in Tisbury records as early as 1799.

In August 1881, a couple of Cottage City bigwigs planned an exciting new event to coincide with Grand Illumination: a two-day fox hunt on the plains of Katama. A prize of $100 was offered to the owner of the first hound to catch the fox. One Kansas newspaper even reported that “as an additional attraction a large wolf will, it is said, be let loose on this occasion to test the mettle of the hounds.” (Fortunately, that last idea was evidently scratched from the agenda.)

“FOX HUNT” posters and Boston newspaper ads drew wide attention, and 28 hounds were registered from across New England. It also drew the attention of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (the second-oldest humane society in the country). The MSPCA sent an agent, Captain Currier, to the Island a few days before the hunt to remind local officials that there was a law in Massachusetts forbidding the “torturing or tormenting of animals,” arguing that letting a fox be torn to pieces by dogs for the purpose of public entertainment would qualify. Currier was assured the law would not be violated.

On the day of the hunt, an estimated 1,000 (or by some estimates, 4,000 to 5,000) spectators convened on the two-mile hunting course in Katama. Among them was MSPCA agent Joseph Baker, who had brought along Boston Police Chief Rufus Wade and members of the state detective force. Under the watchful eye of the law, the “fox hunt” was quickly renamed a “drag hunt,” and instead of the live fox chase they had been advertising, the body of a dead fox, soaked in anise-seed oil, was dragged from a wagon along the roughly circular course.

The hounds were released. An hour later, all but two had lost the fox’s sweetened scent; others wandered off and found a flock of local sheep, three of whom were promptly attacked and killed. (The organizing committee eventually paid the damages for the lost sheep.)

Later that night, at least one live fox escaped from its cage. It was widely reported that this was an accident, but the MSPCA claimed that some of the riders had conspired to secretly hold a live fox hunt. The New York Evening Telegram reported, “Late last evening one of the foxes got loose in Cottage City, the hounds were put on his track and for two hours Cottage City was alive with excitement.” One fox jumped into Katama Bay, but was eventually fished out unharmed. None of the hounds caught their prey.

The Boston Globe declared the hunt a qualified success, “so far as was possible under the galling restrictions existing.” The Philadelphia Times scoffed, sarcastically, “High-toned ‘sport’ they have at Martha’s Vineyard this year, [the] crowd was being entertained by the spectacle of a pack of dogs and men chasing a dead fox.” The New York Evening Post declared the hunt “a decided failure.” The St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger derided the organizers as “young swells who are trying to ape the alleged sport of the English gentry,” adding, “The best way to put a stop to this sickly imitation hunting is to send out a few carriage loads of sensible people to laugh at it.”

Allen Keith provides an interesting coda about foxes in his 1969 article, “The Mammals of Martha’s Vineyard.” Keith writes, “In 1877, in the belief that the Red Fox would be an addition to the game animals of the Island, a group of sportsmen imported and released about a dozen one morning and then held a daylong hunt which failed to recapture a single one … Over the next 20 years, the foxes multiplied rapidly and became a serious nuisance. A bounty was then declared on them, and the last known one was trapped about 1905 by Harry J. Horton.”


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.