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Reflections with Sammy Way: Happy Birthday, Thomas Sumter

Posted 8/11/19

This week, Reflections looks at the athletic exploits of our city and county namesake in honor of his birthday. Thomas Sumter was born Aug. 14, 1734, and has long been recognized for his fighting ability, business acumen and willingness to serve his …

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Reflections with Sammy Way: Happy Birthday, Thomas Sumter


This week, Reflections looks at the athletic exploits of our city and county namesake in honor of his birthday. Thomas Sumter was born Aug. 14, 1734, and has long been recognized for his fighting ability, business acumen and willingness to serve his community and nation. However, little time has been spent researching his athletic achievements. Few men could match his athletic prowess and willingness to accept challenges, which created hesitation in most men.

Sumter was an avid participant in sports and many contests involving skill and endurance. He lived almost a century and remained active during this time. Jack Lunan writes in his article that research notes Thomas Sumter was "a true sportsman - a champion on and off the field."

In this era of sports achievement creating mega-stars out of many athletes, Thomas Sumter would certainly have garnered much attention. Information used in preparing this article was obtained from Sumter Item archives and the writings of Dr. Anne King Gregorie, Jack Lunan and Cassie Nicholes.

Most historians noted that "perhaps Sumter was pound for pound the best fighting man of his day. He was a born leader of men, gifted in the art of war strategy and knew how to spit in the enemies' eye successfully. In other words, Thomas Sumter was a man's man and was liked by the fairer sex, too." However, a part of his personality often overlooked by historians was his love for the outdoors and all forms of recreation. "He was a keen competitor on the playing field as he was on the battle ground - and few men of his day could match his athleticism."

By the 1770s, Sumter had acquired a new title, and "Squire Sumter also owned a stable of beautiful, successful race horses. One of his mares won the Charleston Plate in 1773, one of the most "coveted turf prizes in the province." Sumterville became a winter training ground for prospective race horses long before Columbia, Aiken or Camden held such acclaim. Gregorie notes in her text "Thomas Sumter" that Sumter was "equally famous as a horseman, having spent the greater part of his active life in the saddle; the general even in old age mounted by springing from the ground without the aid of stirrups." (Records note that he was observed doing this when he was over the age of 70.) It was also noted that the "best advertisement of the town of Stateburg in 1786 was probably Gen. Sumter's young race horse Stateburg, who had begun his career the preceding season on the village race track."

According to historians, it is reasonable to assume that Gen. Sumter had more than a passing interest in "cockfighting" and "it is also possible that he bred many a bird behind the barn at his home. Of course, we have no way of knowing which breed he fancied - he may have had Irish Gilders, Irish Grays and Shawinecks, Gordon's or Eslin Red-quills or a mixture of them all."

Sumter dearly loved to play "Longue Paume," the forerunner of handball and the modern-day tennis which was played as early as the 13th century. The term Longue Paume may have originated from the French Jen de Paume, meaning five fingers or five points. "Today, the game of fives, or handball, is played on a court, with most matches either singles or doubles. Not so in 1821, when anywhere from five to 20 players took part in a game." This sport was very popular in Sumter and attracted competitors from all over the state. Frequently, large sums of money were waged on the outcome of certain games. Edwin J. Scott describes the 'fives court' here as being 'a battery with a smooth wooden wall, perhaps 40 feet long by 30 feet in height, with the alley of corresponding length and breadth, carefully leveled, tightly packed and swept clean.'"

Sumter was a frequent player on the local court, and history notes that at the age of 86, he played an entire game "running after the ball with as much activity as the younger men. It was noted that as a young man, he was seldom exceeded in his ability to run, jump and swim, except for his Cherokee rival, "Saucy Jack," reputed to be the Jim Thorpe of his era. Sumter was an outstanding horseman and enjoyed riding to the hounds (fox hunting long a favorite sport in the High Hills where he enjoyed living). He was skilled in his use of the bow and arrow, a skill he likely acquired from the Cherokee as well as their language, which he spoke fluently.

Cassie Nicholes notes in her text, "Historical Sketches of Sumter County Volume I," that "athletic sports including footraces and Shinny, a game played with balls and sticks cut with a knob at the end, similar to golf sticks. Gen. Sumter had the reputation of being a champion in this game also. Mr. Burwell Moody said that, as a boy of 18, he played Gen. Sumter, who, after the game, mounted his horse and rode the 12 miles to his home. He was at the time in his 98th year." Gregorie states that the day before he died, he rode 11 miles on horseback with his grandson Thomas, "visiting his farms and mills," and the young man promised to ride with him the next day. However, on "June 1, 1832, the long life ended as he would have chosen, with his boots on, active to the last."