Gander-pulling was a blood sport that stressed manly virtues during the colonial and antebellum periods of South Carolina’s history. Unlike its more genteel counterparts, such as horse racing, cards, and cockfighting, gander-pulling appears to have been beneath lowcountry men of property, and was likely more popular in frontier areas.
During a typical gander-pull, a live gander was tied upside down by its feet to a tree branch. Farmers then greased the gander’s neck, and riders on horseback would pass the tree at a full gallop, attempting to decapitate the bird and thereby win the game. Obviously the gander did not survive the contest, but the riders did not always come away unscathed. Some were unseated in the process, while others lost fingers during the sometimes lengthy and always gruesome spectacle of stretching the neck and finally tearing the gander’s head from its body.
Gander-pulls were social gatherings—community festivals of sorts—and in Virginia they often took place on the Monday following Easter. They drew large crowds of spectators, who placed bets on which rider they thought would take the prize. William Gilmore Simms, the famed Charleston novelist and poet, described a gander-pull in his 1852 work As Good as a Comedy. Simms’s fictional gander-pull (seemingly based on a tournament he had witnessed) takes place in Tennessee, but similar scenes undoubtedly took place in upcountry South Carolina. Simms emphasized the brutal aspects of the sport, as well as its difficulty: “it is only a medium by which his better qualities are employed as agents for his worser nature.” Simms also castigates the crowd, whose screams “form no bad echoes to the cries of the goose.” There is almost no evidence as to when gander-pulling stopped in South Carolina, but it seems likely that as colonial and antebellum society matured, it moved west with the frontiers of white settlement.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Simms, William Gilmore. As Good as a Comedy: Or, the Tennessean’s Story. 1852. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.