Tom Weil: My Favorite Object from my Collection

23 July 2020

By Tom Weil

Early in July, HTBS contributors – regulars and irregulars – gathered around their screens for a zoom meeting for a ‘show-and-tell’ to show some of their favourite rowing memorabilia. Second out in this mini-series is Tom Weil and his silver pitcher.

This federal coin silver pitcher by silversmith Frederick Marquand of New York, engraved “Awarded to the Erie Boat Club by the Judges of the Regatta Given by Cap,’t PP Wendell For their superior skill in rowing the Race Distance 5 miles Oarsmen Garritt W. Fountain George E Hoyt Richard Morris Alex,’r McDougal Jo,’s W. Long Allen McDougal, Jr. Cockswain Charles McDougal June 19, 1837”, is my favorite object for a number of reasons.

It appears to be the oldest extant U.S. team trophy for any sport, as well as the oldest rowing trophy in the U.S., and, possibly, except for Doggett’s prizes, the oldest in the world. Any of those characteristics should endow this lovely silver piece with fame, if not fortune, in a culture obsessed with sport. Unfortunately, it seems indicative not only of the low interest in, and regard for, rowing in this country generally, but also of the low interest in, and regard for, rowing history, even among rowers, that, despite years of having been displayed and publicized, this singular item has received virtually no attention from any source. (For the avoidance of doubt, it is clear that amateur clubs, particularly in the New York city area, had already been racing for a few years before this was awarded, but I do not know whether team prizes were not given on those occasions, or simply have not survived.)

This prize comes from so early in the days of sport rowing in this country that the name “Erie Boat Club” does not appear in regatta records of the time. Such a club could have been located anywhere from Buffalo to Albany along the new Canal, or around Lake Erie, or, indeed, any place that liked the name “Erie Boat Club”. Interestingly, while at least one of the associations of the era utilizes the word “club” in its name, every reference to a particular crew prior to this date appears to refer to the name of the craft in which they rowed, such as Wave, Gull and Gazelle; this is the oldest reference to the use of the term “boat club” for a specific U.S. crew that I know of. Between the name, the occasion, and the identity of the crew members, more diligent research might uncover additional details surrounding this event.

This trophy reflects the then prevalent practice of racing over serious distances – not the “sprints” lengths of 2,000 meters or a “Henley” course, and not even the classic four miles of the Poughkeepsie and Yale-Harvard regattas, but a grinding five miles.

It is also evidence that rowing was in a developmental period when almost anything of some value or relevance could be chosen and given as a prize – this wasn’t a mug or a circular bit of stamped metal hanging on a ribbon, but an ornate and valuable … water pitcher (and I suspect that when I bought it at auction, none of my competition were rowing fans, but federal coin silver collectors instead).

Finally, several months after I purchased it, USA Today reported that the dealer from whom I had acquired this piece “will remain jailed while he appeals a 6-year prison sentence for his role in looting [New Orleans] city cemeteries.” Not, I hope, of rowing trophies.

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