Cockfighting is a blood sport that has existed in South Carolina from colonial times up to the present, despite the fact that it was banned by the General Assembly in 1887 and carries a felony charge for participants and less severe penalties for spectators. Cockfighting remains popular in the state, and the oldest continuously published magazine for cockers (as cockfighters style themselves), Grit and Steel, emanates from Gaffney. The University of South Carolina uses the gamecock as its mascot.
In a typical cockfight, long steel spikes are attached to the legs of the cocks. The carefully bred birds are then brought into the pit, where they fight, almost always to the death. Some contests last less than a minute, while others can stretch for hours. Though animal rights activists insist that the sport is sadistic and cruel, cockers view themselves as the custodians of an ancient tradition of courage, competition, and masculine aggression, citing various prominent Americans who engaged in the practice, such as Andrew Jackson and George Washington.
Cockfighting was an import from the British Isles during the colonial period. It coexisted with horseracing, cards, and dice as legitimate arenas for gambling among colonial gentlemen. As such, the practice of cockfighting was closely related to the notion of honor that pervaded South Carolina’s gentry class. Men of property could compete openly through their wagers, acting out rituals of power by staking large sums of money. In antebellum South Carolina cockfighting cut across a broader swath of society, and poorer whites and some slaves participated in cockfights. Cockfighting reached the height of its popularity before the Civil War. Twenty-first-century cockfights are, for the most part, more clandestine affairs that occur in rural areas of the state.
Herzog, Harold A., Jr. “Cockfighting.” In Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.