The history of cockfighting goes back to classical times. It was practiced by Greeks before battle in order to stimulate the warriors to brave and valorous deeds. The pitting of cocks against each other was brought to Greece by the Persians, although most experts agree that it originated in Southeast Asia. The pastime spread in Europe during the Middle Ages and was widely known in England during the early colonial period. An activity enjoyed by both noble and commoner, with a profound element of gambling involved, it migrated with English settlers to the New World colonies, and it found fertile ground. Spanish settlers introduced a variant form in the Southwest even earlier. Historically, Latino cockfighting was quite distinct and separate from that practiced by Anglos throughout the U.S. but in the twentieth century began diffusing along the migration pathways used by immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Cockfighting was widely practiced on the American frontier and was especially noted in the South. Southerners migrating into Oklahoma brought this pastime with them. Rural Midwesterners were not strangers to the sport and also made contributions to its diffusion throughout the state. However, parts of the state in which cockfighting is especially noted generally have high concentrations of southerners in the population. It is also noteworthy that cockpits are concentrated in counties adjoining those southern states (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas) with more restrictive laws and that these cockpits have drawn large audiences across state lines into Oklahoma.
Cockfights have historically taken place in cockpits, which are round arenas bounded by wood, plexiglass, or chicken wire. Stadium seating might be offered at more posh facilities, but at "brush pits" the audience might stand or sit on primitive benches or old car seats. Betting would commence before the fight and continue throughout. Gambling has been central to the pastime, despite the common position by apologists to the contrary. Cockfights would usually be arranged in sets called derbies, in which the owner whose birds won the most fights of the day won the derby.
The owners or trainers tightly hold the birds and allow them to peck at each other; this is termed 'billing." Then the birds would be turned loose from lines drawn in the sand and allowed to peck or lash out with their spurs. When they became too entangled to continue, the fight would be stopped and the cocks carefully separated. Then the fight would recommence from lines drawn in the sand. If the action became desultory, the fight might be moved from the central arena to the "drag pits" on the side, the place at which the fight ultimately culminated. The natural spur of the chicken was heeled with artificial metal gaffs, which were slightly curved and sharp like ice picks. Latino cockfighters typically used a "slasher," which looked more like a sharp blade. They also handled a lighter and more mobile bird. Consequently, these fights were quicker, bloodier, and more action packed.
A cockfight would usually be a bloody affair and almost always ended in the death of one of the chickens. The events occurred as noisy happenings in which betting, shouting and all sorts of ancillary activity developed on the sidelines. Fights have been predominately male situations, with women usually holding the roles of supporters. Sometimes, but rarely, special cockfights allowed women to be handlers in "powder puff derbies."
The cockfight continued into the twenty-first century as a spectacle. However, it would be a mistake to assume that it acts as simply an excuse to bet and engage in coarse, vulgar, lower-class bonhomie. Cockfighting has been a very meaningful activity to its practitioners, who spend untold hours caring for hundreds of birds, studying breeding lines, and engaging in complex networks of trade and reciprocity. Many have held quasi-spiritual beliefs about cockfighting, viewing the cockfight in metaphorical, quasi-Darwinistic terms. It is fair to say that cockfight enthusiasts have been vitalistic, paternalistic, authoritarian, and energetic. Most would qualify as "characters" with extremely singular and memorable personalities.
At the turn of the twenty-first century cockfighting remained legal in Oklahoma despite intense, emotionally charged wrangling to change its status. In 2000 and 2001 attempts to proscribe the activity, both sides engaged in devious and complex parliamentary stratagems in the state legislature and in the courts of public opinion. In this context it was evident that the cockfighters, through their organizations and spokespersons, clearly outmaneuvered their opponents and temporarily won the day. But theirs was a short respite, as they continued to fight this battle against the forces of modernity, "progress," and evolutionary meliorism. In 2002 Oklahomans approved State Question 687, which made cockfighting a felony. In 2004 the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the ban.
See also: RECREATION AND ENTERTAINMENT
Frederick Hawley, "Cockfight in the Cotton: A Moral Crusade in Microcosm," Contemporary Crises 13 (1989).
Frederick Hawley, "Cockfighting in the Piney Woods: Gameness in the New South" in Baseball, Barns, and Bluegrass: A Geography of American Folklife, ed. George O. Carney (Boulder, Colo.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998).
Frederick Hawley, "The Moral and Conceptual Universe of Cockfighters: Symbolism and Rationalization," Society and Animals: Social Scientific Studies of the Human Experience of Other Animals 1 (1993).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Frederick Hawley, “Cockfighting,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CO012.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.