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Samuel Woodworth and “The Hunters of Kentucky”


Samuel Woodworth (January 13, 1784 – December 9, 1842) was an American author, literary journalist, playwright, librettist, song writer, and poet.  Woodworth was born on January 13, 1784, in Scituate, Massachusetts, to Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Woodworth and his wife Abigail Bryant. He was apprenticed to Benjamin Russell, editor of the Columbian Sentinel. He then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he briefly published the Belles-Lettres Repository, a weekly. He next moved to New York City, but recalled New Haven in his A Poem: New Haven.  Woodworth married Lydia Reeder in New York City on September 23, 1810. They had ten children between 1811 and 1829. Woodworth remained in New York for the rest of his life.

Around 1815, Woodworth wrote a song, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” also called “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Half Horse and Half Alligator,” to commemorate Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans.  The song was originally published ca. 1821 in Boston and celebrated the courage of the Kentuckians who fought in the Battle of New Orleans. One-fourth of Jackson’s men at the Battle of New Orleans were from Kentucky.   It was sung the way Irish singers told stories in narrative form, and performed to the tune of “Ally Croker and The Unfortunate Miss Bailey” or “Miss Bailey’s Ghost” which Woodworth adapted to his poem.

“Hunters of Kentucky” was first sung in New Orleans in 1822 by Noah M. Ludlow. When Ludlow first performed the song, the audience was filled with boatmen who had floated down the Mississippi River from Kentucky; they refused to let him leave the stage until he sang it two more times.  The “half horse and half alligator” description was a common expression for boatmen like Mike Fink and other backwoodsmen of the period. In both 1824 and 1828 Jackson used the song as his campaign song during his presidential campaigns.  Throughout the terms of Andrew Jackson, “Hunters of Kentucky” proved to be a popular song. This is ironic as Jackson’s “fieriest rival”, Henry Clay, was the one from Kentucky; Jackson was actually from Tennessee, near Nashville.

“Hunters of Kentucky” propagated various beliefs about the war. One of them was calling the Pennsylvania Rifle the Kentucky Rifle. Another was crediting the riflemen with the victory of the Battle of New Orleans, when it could be said it was Jackson’s artillery that was actually responsible for the win. Finally, one stanza said that the British planned to ransack New Orleans, which was unlikely to happen.  Due to a copy of the song being depicted on the front cover of Davy Crockett’s Almanack of Wild Sports in the West, it is thought that “Hunters of Kentucky” might have been sung during the Texas War of Independence (1836), but this is speculation as no other evidence supports the song being sung during that conflict. However, Americans who entered Canada in 1837 and 1838 did sing the song.

Woodworth is best known for the poem “The Old Oaken Bucket.”  He died in New York City, NY, on December 9, 1842, at the age of 56.  Woodworth’s son, Selim E. Woodworth, was a U.S. Navy officer who took part in the rescue of the snowbound Donner Party in California. The USS Woodworth (DD-460) was named for him.

My collection includes the following work by Samuel Woodworth:

The Hunters of Kentucky (1815).

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