Friday, June 22, 2012

An 1809 Illinois Anti-Gaming Law

An Act to prevent unlawful gaming.  Adopted from the Virginia Code. 

Be it enacted by the Governor and Judges of the Illinois Territory, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same: 
Sec. 1.  That all promises, agreements, notes, bills, bonds, or other contracts, judgments, mortages, or other securities or conveyances whatsoever, made, given, granted, drawn or entered into or executed by any person or persons whatsoever, after passing this act, where the whole, or any part, of the consideration of such promise, agreement, conveyances or securities shall be for money or other valuable thing whatsoever, won, laid or betted at cards, dice, tables, tennis, bowles or any other game or games whatsoever, or at any horse race, cock fighting, or any other sport or pastime, or on any wager whatsoever, or for the reimbursing or repaying any money, knowingly lent or advanced at the time and place of such play, horse racing, cock fighting, or other sport or pastime, to any person or persons so gaming, betting, or waging, or that shall at such time and place, so play, bet or wager, shall be utterly void and of none effect, to all intents and purposes whatsoever; any law, custom or usage to the contrary thereof in anywise notwithstanding.
-Illinois in the Eighteenth Century: A Report on the Documents in Belleville, Ill., Illustrating the early history of the State

The above comes from a report by Clarence Alvord and appears in the Bulletin of the Illinois State Historical Library, Volume 1, Number 1, and raises a lot of questions.

The earliest reference to ball-playing in Illinois, if memory serves, is an 1818 reference to trap-ball and cricket that was being played in the English Prairie area.  While we've yet to find any references early then that, my thinking has always been that ball-playing came to the region with the first French or Anglo-American settlers.  We know that there was ball-playing going on in St. Louis in the late 18th century and I tend to think that the same was going on in Kaskaskia and the other French communities on the east bank of the Mississippi.  We also know that as new communities were springing up in central Illinois, the people who settled that area were playing what they referred to as town ball.  So it seems logical to me that the Anglo-Americans who settled southern Illinois in the first two decades of the 19th century, between the establishments of the French towns in southwestern Illinois and the Anglo-American towns in central Illinois, would also have been playing ball, in some form.

I think that this law, established in 1809, supports that idea to a certain extent.  Now it has been well established that the favorite pastime of the settlers of the area during the 18th and early 19th century was card-playing and horse racing and this law was most likely intended to curb gambling on those activities.  But we do have an interesting reference from 1795 that described ball-playing, south of the Ohio river, as being a "common diversion."  And the folks that settled southern Illinois in the first two decades of the 19th century came from Kentucky, Tennessee and western Virginia, which is most likely the area the source was describing.  Therefore, I'm thinking that the portion of the law that mentioned "any other sport or pastime" could very well pertain to bat and ball games.

While it should be noted that it's possible that the law was adopted, verbatim, from a previous Virginia law, the references to tennis and bowles are very interesting.  Given the influence of French culture in the area, it is quite likely that they did play a form of boules, a game which had been played in France since, at least, the 16th century.  It's entirely possible that jeu de boules could have been introduced into the Pays des Illinois at the beginning of the 18th century and was one of first ball-games played in the area.  Also, I would guess that tennis could be a reference to variants of jeu de paume, although I find it difficult to imagine 18th century settlers playing court tennis.  But if we assume that the French and Anglo-American settlers were playing variants of boules and tennis in Illinois in 1809 then this law would be the earliest reference to ball-playing in Illinois and the St. Louis region that we have and, therefore, is extremely significant.

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