Oct. 2.  This day was kept at Wanborough, as last year, instead of Catherine Hill fair; but as some of the young men were gone to a county court at Palmyra, there was no cricket-match, as was intended, only a game of trap-ball. There have been several cricket-matches this summer, both at Wanborough and Birk Prairie; the Americans seem much pleased at the sight of the game, as it is new to them.
-Two Years' Residence in the Settlement on the English Prairie, in the Illinois Country, United States; pp 295-296
Do you remember yesterday, when I was talking about a poorly sourced reference to cricket being played in Kentucky in 1818? Here we have a rather well sourced reference to cricket being played in 1819 in Edwards County, Illinois, which is located just north of the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers and not that far from Kentucky. Make of that what you will but I think it lends some support to the idea that cricket could have been played in Kentucky at that time.
But I don't want to talk about cricket, as interesting as that is. What I want to talk about is trap-ball, although I should mention the English Prairie settlement first.
Over in the left sidebar, there is a piece I wrote about ten years ago, entitled Baseball in the Illinois Country. I encourage you to take a look at that if you're interested in early ball-playing in Illinois and it covers all the stuff I'm talking about today in a little more detail. In that piece, I wrote the following about English Prairie:
Interestingly, these references come from a colony of Englishmen who had settled near the Wabash after the War of 1812...
The English Prairie settlement was centered around Albion, Illinois in Edwards County. There were some settlers already in Edwards County when the English showed up, mostly Kentuckians, and, understandably, they were not too pleased with their new neighbors.
While looking into the history of the English Prairie colony, I found this:
When I first arrived at Albion, a more disorganized, demoralized state of society never existed: the experiment has been made, the abandonment of Christian institutes and Christian Sabbaths, and living without God in the world has been fairly tried. If those theologians in England who despise the Sabbath and laugh at congregational worship, had been sent to the English settlement in Illinois at the time I arrived, they would, or they ought to have hid their faces for shame. Some of the English played at cricket, the backwoodsmen shot at marks, their favourite sport, and the Sunday revels ended in riot and savage fighting: this was too much even for infidel nerves.
-Letters from the Illinois, 1820-1821
So the earliest references to ball-playing in the Illinois Country, excepting the Gratiot source and references to Native American games, was to cricket and trap-ball, played by Englishmen, between 1818 and 1820.
If you're interested in reading more about the English Prairie settlement, I recommend The English Settlement in Illinois, 1815-1825.
While the history of English Prairie is fascinating, we're interested in the fact that these English immigrants brought their ball-playing culture with them to Illinois and that it's pretty well documented. There were, obviously, Americans and Creole living in Southern Illinois prior to 1818 but it's around that time that you begin to see a large influx of people moving into the area. This is mostly due to the fact that Illinois became a state in 1818 and, with statehood, you had a legal system in place that protected property rights. But while there were Americans, Creole, and various Europeans in the Illinois Country prior to 1818, I haven't been able to find any sources talking about ball-playing among those people, other than the Gratiot reference. I've taken a close look at the sources we have regarding the Creole at Kaskaskia and Ste. Genevieve but came up empty. Extrapolating upon the Gratiot reference, you have to assume that there were forms of ball-playing in the Creole communities in the 18th century and I also have to assume that there was ball-playing among the American settlers of Southern Illinois prior to 1818. Again, I don't have evidence for that and it's nothing but an educated guess. The English Prairie reference is the first source we have documenting ball-playing in Illinois and it's a good one.
I'm going to set aside the cricket stuff, except simply to note that cricket was played in Illinois in 1819. Cricket really doesn't have much to do with the development and evolution of American baseball. I think it's significant in that it was part of the general ball-playing culture - you see it played in St. Louis beginning in the 1840s and it was still being played there into the 1880s. Anything that helped to create a culture in which American baseball could develop is significant. The idea that it was acceptable for grown men to play a bat and ball game, that there were clubs that developed around the playing of that game, that there were bats and balls and grounds were the game was played is important. The playing of cricket in the United States in the early 19th century, I believe, helped to create an environment in which American baseball could evolve and flourish. I know that there are some who disagree with me on that and I respect that but, to me, it seems kind of self-evident.
What really excites me about this source is the reference to trap-ball. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, I will quote David Block from Baseball Before We Knew It (p 124 for those scoring at home):
Largely unknown today, the age-old game of trap-ball, also called trap, bat, and ball, enjoyed wide popularity over a period of centuries. References to its play hark back to the 1400s and possibly earlier. As late as the nineteenth century it was still a common recreation throughout Great Britain, but in recent years it has survived in the backyards of but a few scattered pubs.
Trap-ball play is fairly simple. A ball is placed on the ground in a "trap," which is a device for elevating the ball into the air. After activating the trap, the batter swings at the served ball and drives it as far as possible. From that point the game can be pursued in one of several ways. Strutt described one variety in which the striker, employing a flat-faced bat, gained one point for each successful hit. The batter's turn ended if any of three events occurred: (1) he hit the ball out of bounds, (2) the ball was caught on the fly, or (3) a fielder retrieved the ball and when throwing it back either hit the trap or succeeded in getting the ball to rest within a bat's length of it.
A second method of play is the Essex variety, which Strutt also described. In this version a round bat very similar to a modern baseball was used. Batters using this instrument, in Strutt's words, "frequently drive [the ball] to an astonishing distance."
Trap-ball was not American baseball. It lacked several important components that are part of the American baseball tradition, such as pitching and base-running. However, it also includes several of those components. You have the striking of a ball with a bat. You have defensive fielders. You have outs being made when a fielder catches the ball on the fly. And, most extraordinarily, you have foul territory. You can find numerous sources that praise the uniqueness of the 1845 Knickerbocker rule set and these sources will often point to rule ten, codifying the use of foul territory in American baseball, as an example of that uniqueness. While the Knickerbocker Club should be credited with introducing the idea of foul territory into American baseball, there are numerous sources that shows that foul territory was a component of trap ball play in the 18th century. If you're interested in that, I would recommend you take a look at a piece I wrote on the 1845 Knickerbocker rule set where I document the antecedents to the 1845 rule set.
The important point here is that there was a documented ball-playing culture in Southern Illinois in 1819 and bat and ball games that were played within that culture had a direct influence on the development of American baseball. Cricket, I believe, influenced that development simply by existing and being played. Trap-ball play contained elements that would find its way into not only American baseball generally but, specifically, into the 1845 rule set. I'm not saying that trap-ball games in Illinois in 1819 influenced the creation of the New York game but I would argue that trap-ball play, generally in the United States, did. Also, I would argue that early trap-ball play in Illinois influenced the evolution of local American baseball variants in the region.
So what I've showed you over the last few days and what we're going to continue to look at into next week is the introduction of ball-playing cultures and the beginning of the development and evolution of American baseball in the Trans-Appalachian West. Due to gaps in our knowledge, it's not a perfect pattern but I think you can kind of see bat and ball games spreading west from the Atlantic states into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 18th century and through the central parts of those states into Southern Illinois a generation later. As the people moved, their culture moved with them and ball-playing was a part of that.
The next thing I want to talk about is an early reference to ball-playing in Missouri, which just happens to be one of my favorite sources. I don't think I'm going to have time to get that up tomorrow but I think I'll have it up by Sunday. Also, I want to point out that the very cool picture at the top of the post comes from South Coast Vintage Base Ball, where they have a couple of pieces up about trap-ball. Really cool stuff.