It was said Sir Walter Raleigh was a well-esteemed cocker (one who fights gamecocks). And Andrew Jackson was described by a contemporary resident of Salisbury as: The most roaring, rollicking, game cocking, cardplaying, mischievous fellow that ever lived in Salisbury (Roberts 311). So it is no surprise that the most popular amusement in North Carolina during the 18th and 19th century was cockfighting.
The cockfighting season was from Thanksgiving day to July 4th and North Carolina was a hot spot for some of the most sought after strains (breeds) of gamecocks. These belligerent roosters went by the names of Red Cubans (Concord), Norwood War Horses (Hillsboro), Carolina Blues and Mountain Eagles (both of Boone) and what was considered the finest strain in North Carolina, the Stonefences of Nash County, bred by Nick Arrington.
Nick Arrington was not only one of the most successful breeders of gamecocks, he was also one of the greatest cockers in North America. I came across a letter that the venerable historian of Wilson and the surrounding counties, Hugh Johnston, wrote to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer that was published on 16 July 1986 in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek defense of cockfighting. Here is a part of the letter:
Few People remember when cockfighting was a popular sport enjoyed by both the poor and the rich. For example about December of 1833 Nicholas William Arrington of Nash County defeated General Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna in a “main of cocks” at Paso Del Norte in Mexico, and in June of 1857 he won $12,500 in a “main” at Memphis. However, in June of 1858 a gang of greedy ruffians would have robbed him at Richmond after another successful “main” held at Richmond held there if his loyal young servant had not snatched up his pocketbook and managed to escape with it.
And supposedly that wasn’t the only “main” between Santa Anna (president of Mexico 1835-1855 and conqueror of the Alamo) and Arrington. They met a second time in ships in the Gulf of Mexico where Arrington came out the victor once again.
However, cock-fighting is a brutal and cruel sport that is presently outlawed in North Carolina. And in the preceding 250 years there were some half-measures to curb it, such as the 1753 law that outlawed gambling above forty shillings. Later on, laws would be put in place to ban cockfighting but then be quickly repealed because of their unpopularity. In 1815, the advertising of cock mains in publications were banned. The church also preached against cockfighting but it didn’t have much of an effect as it became more popular than ever in the last half of the nineteenth century. And even though laws are in place now, it still is practiced. When I worked out in the hinterlands of South Carolina in the early 2000’s as a land surveyor, I routinely came across farms or backyards that were raising gamecocks. The handsome birds would be secured by a leash on their leg to a triangular shelter perched at the apex of the triangle crowing continuously. The local authorities must have turned a blind eye, but that was South Carolina, the present day gamecock country.
Johnston, Hugh. Letter to the editor. The News and Observer [Raleigh, NC] 16 July 16, 1986.
Roberts, B. W. C. “Cockfighting: An Early Entertainment in North Carolina.” The North Carolina Historical
Review 43.1 (1965): 306-314. Electronic.