The English Springer Spaniel on Fishers Island

In the spring of 1924, during a period when Springer Spaniels were just becoming popular in America, two brothers, Walton Ferguson, Jr. and Henry L. Ferguson, sons of one of the two primary owners of Fishers Island, joined with several other prominent sportsmen to establish a breed club named the “English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association” (ESSFTA). The club’s name reflected the founders’ desire to place great importance on field trials in the development of the breed and the promotion of standards for English Springer Spaniels. In 1926, the American Kennel Club recognized the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association as the parent club for the breed.

At the invitation of the Fergusons, ESSFTA staged the very first English Springer Spaniel Field trial held in the United States on Fishers Island in October 1924. The dogs were tested by sets of rigorous competitions over challenging landscape that determined winners in a range of categories. At the end of almost all of these trials, an overall field trial champion was announced. In the early years, “bench” or “conforming” competitions were also staged; however, after 1930, the focus remained exclusively on field competitions.

This exhibit celebrates the storied history of English Springer Spaniels and their field trials on Fishers Island.

A Short History of English Springer Spaniels

Histories hint that dogs of the spaniel type have populated the civilized world for many centuries. The Spaniel is thought to have originated in Spain and was perhaps introduced to ancient Britons by the Roman legions. The Spaniel was known in pre-Christian Britain, and is mentioned by name in an ancient law of Wales as early as 300 AD.

Prints and paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries show dogs of similar type to today’s English Springer Spaniel, some with docked tails. The dog was used to spring (flush) or start game, both feathered and fur bearing, for hawks, coursing hounds, and nets. The invention of the wheel lock firearm in the 17th century made “flying shooting” possible, and the Spaniel was highly successful at flushing game for this syle of hunting.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century in Britain, smaller dogs in the same litter would be used to hunt woodcock; they were called “cockers.” Larger littermates, used to flush (or “spring”) game, were called “Springers.” The Sporting Spaniel Society of Britain decided upon the name “Springer” in 1902.

The first English Springer Spaniel in North America of any traceable lineage was imported from England to Canada in 1913. In little more than a decade, the breed had risen from the ranks of the unknown to become numbered among the most popular of breeds eleigible for American Kennel Club registration…

Excerpted from A Short History of English Springer Spaniels by ESSFTA

English Springer Spaniel Field Trials, Fishers Island, N.Y. Date unknown. Museum Collection.

What is a field trial?

“It’s a sporting dog competition under actual or simulated hunting conditions, staged in a formal manner, with particular rules and standards governing the tests. Stated simply, it is a test of gun dogs in the field. Through this form of competition, sporting dog fanciers endeavor to seek out the best performers in the entire country.”

Quote from American Sporting Dogs, Eugene V. Connett, Editor, 1948.

Sportsmen and sportswomen found our east end’s varied landscape and fresh water ponds perfect for dog trials; game was no problem as birds had long been stocked for shooting purposes.

“It is beautiful country over which to run a trial. There are wide stretches of grass land as level as a prairie that encourage a dog to step out, bog lands and gorse-covered hillsides to test their courage and pools of water which enable the judges to determine the all-around capabilities of the dogs before them.”

Quote from The English Springer Spaniel Field Trial at Fishers Island “Forest and Stream” Dec. 1926

The singular event soon became an annual tradition with trials returning to Fishers Island every fall until 1948. (The only exceptions were the war years when security at Fort H.G. Wright forced a relocation to Saybrook, Conn.) After 1948, the Springer trials left Fishers Island partially because the vegetation had grown up to the point where the landscape was no longer favorable, but also because the Mansion House Hotel, home base for trial participants most years, had shuttered during World War II and never reopened. The Fishers Island Club’s “Big Club” was used for several years, but was not considered a practical substitute.

A Very Social Event

Followed by avid galleries and covered by major newspapers, Fishers Island’s field trials put the breed at the center of the sporting world for a short but glorious period each fall for more than two decades.

The Mansion House

The Mansion House Hotel functioned as the social center for the Field Trials for most of the years that the trials were held on Fishers Island. Many participants and spectators stayed there and almost all award ceremonies were staged there.

Fishers Island Champions


After the War

By the time the Springer trials returned in 1946 after a war-enforced exile in Saybrook, Conn., the cover on Fishers Island had grown considerably making it far more difficult for both animals and humans to cross the terrain. Almost all of the island’s farm animals had been shipped off by 1924 and the farms shut down to make room for the development of the east end as a residential colony.

There’s a hint of playing “Where’s Waldo” when searching for the Springer in two of these brush-covered landscapes.

By 1949, the year the Springer Trials left Fishers Island for good, the undergrowth had grown almost impenetrable in spots that had originally been kept cropped by herds of livestock and mowing by farmers.

Since leaving Fishers Island more than 70 years ago, the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association has remained active and has continued to stage trials at various locations across the United States. A sense of tradition prevails within the Association and its members still consider Fishers Island to be their club’s birthplace. They stage an annual “parent club” trial somewhere in New York State each year in honor of that legacy. This exhibition celebrates the storied history of English Springer Spaniels on Fishers Island and the central role that two Ferguson sportsmen played in the development of the breed in America.

Special Thanks

The Museum would like to thank the co-sponsors of the 2019 exhibition: Altus Partners, Inc., a risk management and insurance brokerage firm founded by Charlie Wilmerding in 1997, and the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. We also thank Frank Mackinson and other members of ESSFTA who graciously assisted in the research for this exhibition.

Master Charles B. Ferguson posing with Tedwyn’s Tailagan, October 1931, Fishers Island, N.Y. “Charlie” Ferguson won a Certificate of Merit for his handling of this dog at the 1931 trial.

The 2019 Exhibition was sponsored by:

The digitizing of this 2019 Special Exhibit for online viewing has been made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Jeanann Gray Dunlap Foundation.