Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Town Ball In Pocahontas, Illinois

Football and baseball, as played today, were unknown games.  What was known as townball, however, was a popular sport.  This was played with a yarn ball covered with leather, or a hollow, inflated rubber ball, both of which were soft and yielding and not likely to inflict injury as is so common today in baseball.  Townball was much played in the schoolhouse yard during recess and at the noon hour.
-Illinois in the Fifties, or, A decade of Development, 1851-1860

References to town ball, like the one above, are fairly common.  They come from a variety of histories that were written in the last quarter of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century and are based on the recollections of people who were children during the settlement period of the Trans-Appalachian frontier.  So many of these references revolve around the subject's school days that it's fairly well established that town ball was one of the most popular games played by school children during the first half of the 19th century.  Sadly, most of the historical references to town ball come from these secondary sources and primary source references to the game, outside of Philadelphia, are rare.

I've collected a lot of these town ball references from secondary source material but this one stands out for one reason.  The writer, Charles Beneulyn Johnson, was writing about his childhood in Pocahontas, Illinois, which is maybe fifty miles east of St. Louis, and this is the first reference to town ball that I've seen from the area.  While there are not many primary source references to bat and ball games in St. Louis prior to 1859, I have found several references to games within a fifty to a hundred mile radius during the 1820-1850 period and I think that's significant.  If these games were being played in the general region, I would argue that this is evidence that they were being played in St. Louis.  It's not the conclusive evidence I'm looking for but it helps.

Also, I like Pocahontas.  It's a nice little town.  If you're ever there, stop at the Powhaten and get something to eat.  They have great food.           

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