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Gambling in America


Gambling in America:

Gambling is as American as apple pie. From the very beginning when Columbus  in 1492, gambled the Earth was not flat and that by sailing into the Atlantic he could find a western route to the Orient, eventually landing in what is now The Bahamas.

Remember, Columbus first purposed this voyage to  John II, King of Portugal back in 1485 and was repeatedly turned down.  The King and Columbus both were taking a  gamble!!!

When the first settlers landed at Plymouth Colony, Separatists and Anglicans, later known as Pilgrims, they were gambling on the “New World” with their vary lives.

Let’s not forget the Native American’s and their documented history of gambling.

Yes, “It’s in our blood” though many try to deny it.

Here we will explore the history of gambling in America and the equipment used.

A brief History of Gambling in America

While it is believed that the first playing cards made in America didn’t happen until after 1776  you can bet men were  gambling long before that.

The “Lottery” was used in the mid 1700′s to fund of all things Church’s and College’s plus infrastructure such as roads, canals and bridges.  Those hallowed halls of Harvard, Columbia, Williams, Dartmouth and Yale were all built from gambling funds.

Boston Tea Party

Remember the Tea Party, it wasn’t just about tea being taxed by the British Government.  King George also put his tax stamp on playing cards and dice.  Now to people who’s few pleasures in life included drinking and gambling it’s understandable why the Colonists rose up against the Government.

Louisiana Purchase

The French Crown Colony of 1731 settled in what is now Louisiana but by 1762 Louisiana was ceded to Spain but the French keep coming and along with them they brought the games of  Faro, Poque (Poker), Brag and Vingt-et-Un (today known as Blackjack or 21).

After the purchase America experienced its greatest growth in gambling.  The game of Policy, a close relative of Lottery, became all the rage and held its own against Faro, Poker, Craps, Roulette, Monte and the Thimble-Riggers.  It was in New Orleans, the capital of gambling, that many if not most of the know professional gamblers tended to congregate.  Then, as the Ohio and Mississippi rivers became accessible for boat travel many of these gamblers set up shop on riverboats.

Washington DC

While back east in our nation’s capital the upper class were enjoying the games of Faro, Brag, Ecart’e,All-Fours and Poker.

The Professional Gamblers

While all this gambling was taking place there existed an undercurrent of disapproval of gambling throughout the country.  The problem was created by the gamblers themselves, the professional gamblers or should we say the professional cheaters.  Known as Sharper, the cheaters were not content with allowing the law of averages or lady luck to determine the outcome. No, they had to  control the outcome and remove any element of luck or chance.  To accomplish this they employed any and all available means from marked cards to loaded dice to gaffed dealing boxes and a host of other methods.

The backlash became so bad that at one point citizens formed vigilante groups and eventually drove the gamblers from their towns. The gamblers that choose to stand and fight were captured and hung or killed outright.  New Orleans  vigilantes in the 1830′s drove all gamblers from their borders as did Vicksburg and Natchez-under-the-Hill.

The region remained quiet for awhile but eventually the sharpers began to return, first to the riverboats.  Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War it has been written that no less than two thousand professional (sharpers) gamblers were active on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Gold is Discovered!!!

With the discovery of gold in California in 1848 by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill on the south fork of the American River hordes of gamblers made tracks for the west coast.  San Francisco became the new headquarters for the Sharpers and they wasted little time in mining the pockets of all those prospectors.

A call to Arms…

With the outbreak of the Civil War what remaining gamblers on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were driven away as boat travel came to a halt.  While the Sharpers were away many men (boys) on both sides that had taken up arms were for the first time away from home and exposed to gambling.  Poker became a popular pastime among the soldiers as did the carving of dice from bone.  At the wars end and as these men returned to their homes in the North they took with them the gambling bug. Many of the Confederate soldiers, with no homes to return to headed west and with them they also took the “bug”.

Western Frontier

After the War, riverboat gambling never returned to its previous luster since most of the gamblers moved to the western frontier along with the railroads.

The railhead towns and later the cowtowns of the old west now took center stage for the gamblers. A gambling circuit of sorts developed as professional gamblers became itinerant, moving from town to town, never staying in one place very long for fear of being found out.  As people continued moving west discoveries of Gold and Silver just added to the gamblers vast circuit.

For the most part the railhead towns were never meant to be permanent so as the rails moved west so did the towns as did the gamblers.  During this period gambling, drinking and whoring were all accepted activities since the vast majority of the population was of the male gender.  It was not until women (of the lady type) began to populate the old west in numbers did these activities take on a different light.

The Carrie Nation’s of the World

Thanks to the gamblers and saloon owners many churches and schools were built in the old west but that did not matter to those hell-bent on eradicating man’s social activities of;  drinking, gambling, fighting and running with the soiled doves.

Women banded together then went after the support of churches and town officials.  Where towns had matured and no longer needed the support of gamblers and saloon owners the Carrie Nation’s of the world had their greatest impact.  It wasn’t long before laws were drafted making it illegal to openly gamble. Some gamblers stayed and fought the laws while many just picked up and headed to greener pastures.  Remember, the country was in the midst of a growing spurt and new towns were popping up  all over the place and they needed the support of generous gamblers and saloon owners.

It was during this period in American history that the Old West period existed (1865-1899) and the great dens of hell flourished.

Honest Gamblers

Were all professional gamblers “sharpers”? The short answer is no but it’s never that simple. Gamblers like Luke Short, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and many others were considered honest gamblers but they all knew how to work magic with the cards. They had to know all the tricks in order to counter the cheats they came across.

James Bowie, yes that Jim Bowie of Bowie knife fame and the Alamo, was well schooled in the art of card playing and as the story goes he came to the aid of a young man on a riverboat after the youngster was trimmed at a fixed card game.  Bowie managed to get a seat in the game and at a critical point in the game forced a sharper to reveal his hand which consisted of six cards in a five card game of poker. Bowie pulled his famous knife and claimed the pot, no one objected.

Many times during his life, Doc Holliday was arrested for gambling but he was never arrested for cheating or run out of town for cheating. Wyatt Earp and Luke Short both  saloons owners and never had anyone file charges against them for running crooked games.  Bat Masterson’s history states that he rode the gambling circuit for many years but was never once accused of cheating.  Each of these men spent most of their adult lives gambling yet managed to live a pretty good life without cheating others.

At the turn of the Century

By the  late 1890′s most gambling in America had been outlawed. It still took place behind closed doors but it no longer was visible to the public -at-large.  Once gambling had been eliminated alcohol was next and as many of you know  Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933. Like gambling, drinking still took place it just wasn’t visible to the public.  Eventually laws prohibiting gambling and drinking were relaxed and  once again enjoyed by many Americans.

The New Frontier

Today many States host Lotteries, churches have “Casino Nights”, Native Americans have actual casinos as do a few selected States.  And then there is online gambling, the “New Frontier” in gambling.