Colonial Americans Were Among Many Swimmers in History

Have you ever wondered about the types of activities that Colonial Americans could participate in? Do you think they swam?

From the earliest times, people have escaped hot weather by swimming. Even without structures pools, people swam in rivers, streams, ponds, or the ocean.

Swimming surfaces in literature as early as the Bible and in Homer’s Odyssey. It is recognized as a practical method of self-preservation and lifesaving and its exercise value has been valued for its health benefits for a long time.

Colonial Notables Endorse Swimming

John Locke, who, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (published in 1693) said every child should be taught to swim when old enough to learn and had someone to teach him.

He wrote:

’Tis that saves many a man’s life: and the Romans thought it so necessary that they ranked it with letters, and was the common phrase to mark one ill-educated and good for nothing that he had neither learned to read nor to swim. . . . But besides the gaining a skill which may serve him at need, the advantages to health, by often bathing in cold water during the heat of summer, are so many that I think nothing need to be said to encourage it, provided this one caution be used that he never go into the water when exercise has at all warmed him or left any emotion in his blood or pulse.

Benjamin Franklin, in like-mindedness with Locke, thought every youth should learn to swim. In an undated letter written before 1769, Franklin said he believed:

They would on many occurrences, be the safer for having that skill, and on many the happier, as freer from painful apprehensions of danger, to say nothing of the enjoyment in so delightful and wholesome an exercise. Soldiers particularly should, methinks, all be taught to swim; it might be of frequent use either in surprising an enemy, or saving themselves. And if I had now boys to educate, I should prefer those schools (other things being equal) where an opportunity was afforded for acquiring so advantageous an art, which once learnt is never forgotten.

The Romans Were Swimmers

The Romans swam for recreation and for warfighting. Julius Caesar was noted for his swimming. Nicholas Orme wrote in Early British Swimming, 55 b.c.-a.d. 1719:

Swimming had high status as a healthy, manly and useful activity; it was thought of as essentially and traditionally Roman, and was traced back to the legendary hero Horatius Cocles who had swum the Tiber memorably after defending the bridge against the Etruscans.

Biblical Reference to Swimming

In the Bible, the author of the Book of Isaiah, speaking of the downfall of Moab, writes:

And he shall spread forth his hands in the midst of them, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim: and he shall bring down their pride together with the spoils of their hands.

Swimming Was A Necessity

Here is examples that evidence swimming throughout history:

The 1726 British classic Gulliver’s Travels shows the hero considered himself a good swimmer and recites occasions when Gulliver found it convenient to swim.

Most of the early literary references have to do with people swimming to save their lives or with military engagements. But people swam for pleasure too, especially boys.

In 1741 a swimming pool was advertised in a London newspaper. It was near the London Infirmary and offered a “swimming bath which is convenient for swimming or for gentlemen to learn to swim in.” Instructors were available to teach gentlemen to swim.

References to people swimming in colonial Virginia usually instance occasions of necessity, not pleasure.

Nicholas Cresswell, for example, said that during a trip on the Ohio in 1775 one of the canoes drifted across the river and “one of the Company swam across the River and brought her over.” But the year before, when he was in Barbados, Cresswell wrote, “Early this morning Bathed in the Sea, which is very refreshing in this hot Climate.”
We know that someone pranked nineteen-year-old George Washington by stealing his clothes while he was swimming in the Rappahannock River.

William Byrd II several times in his diaries mentioned swimming in the James River, and he occasionally coaxed visitors to join him. On June 15, 1711, he wrote, “I took a walk about the plantation and then swam in the river to wash and refresh myself.”

Some Native Americans were adept, which drew comment from settlers in North and South America. The stroke the Indians employed as described by Byrd seems to be a crawl or perhaps a dog paddle. Byrd was evidently unfamiliar with that style, having practiced what appears to be a breaststroke. Of course, a crawl is faster than a breaststroke.

Swimming for recreation was becoming more popular by the late seventeenth century. During the sixteenth century, Everard Digby wrote the first English treatise on swimming, De Arte Natandi, but it was in Latin and circulated narrowly. Digby thought it was appropriate for everyone to master the skill if for no other reason than personal safety.

When Strokes Began Getting Names
The terminology of swimming strokes did not become fixed until the nineteenth century, but Thévenot described some strokes commonly used today. He also called attention to what is still the safe way to enter the water: know the bottom. He described treading water, which he thought a useful skill. “It may also be very advantageous,” he wrote, “in case a man is obliged to save himself from some enemy pursuing, by leaping into the water in a dark night; for in that case, one may wait, without making any noise, till he is passed by, and then go again on shore.”

Much of Thévenot’s book is devoted to such movements as swimming with both feet out of the water, or “The shew out of the Water four Parts of the Body,” and to turns. But he described swimming strokes we might recognize and explained something like what we would call the sidestroke, which Middleton said was “a laborious” way of swimming but “swifter than any of the rest.”

Footnotes:
Harold Gill, the journal’s consulting editor, contributed to the autumn 2001 magazine “Williamsburg and the Demimonde: Disorderly Houses, the Blue Bell, and Certain Hints of Harlotry.”
Resource: www.history.org

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