Ring tournaments occupied the South's upper class during the mid-19th century and provided a connection to earlier times and culture. These joust-like tournaments flourished in the South from 1840 to about 1890. At least seven of these tournaments took place in Tallahassee during the 1850s. The Civil War pretty well ended these elaborate affairs, and the last one held in postwar Tallahassee was in 1870,
In a Joust, two mounted knights ride at each other with lances and attempt to dispatch one another. "Thrusting at thee quintain" was an old Roman sport in which a rider tried to score a direct hit on a fairly long piece of wood. Over the centuries, this was replaced by a small ring suspended from an overhead support. It really became a test of skill and precision. This exercise trained the eye-hand-arm coordination of the knights of old.
The "tilting ground" of Tallahassee's ring tournaments was located on the east side of Thomasville Road. A newspaper ad announcing the 1870 event placed it not far from the entrance to today's Los Robles neighborhood. Earlier writers described the location as a natural amphitheater, or a valley, because it had sloping sides. The riding course was 200 yards long, and ran north. It is thought that the course paralleled portions of present day Colonial Drive. This current street extends from Sixth Avenue to Thomasville Road, stretching across the valley of which the earlier writers indicated. And, it traverses the very course over which the knights of the tournament rode.
The contestants began their bouts from the bottom of this slope, and spectators in their carriages entered the area from Thomasville Road, They would observe the activity from the west side of the course.
On the north end of the playing field, a small, ivory-colored ring was suspended from a tall archway. The ring was easily removed since it hung on a small hook hanging in mid-air. The knight would attempt to ride the length of the field at full speed and carry off the ring on the point of his lance. When this was accomplished, the knight rode toward the viewing area to name his "queen". These games were usually followed by a fancy ball that evening.
Ring tournaments were really dressy, majestic affairs, with lots of so-called pomp and circumstance. The officals were usually military men and/or judges. They delivered speeches, then would introduce the "knights", and would encourage them to conduct themselves honorably.
The contestants usually took the name of a real or fictitious knight. The names assumed by the contestands showed they were well versed in the poetic literature of that time. Sometimes the participants would name themselves after local geograpical features, celebrities or even sponsors. As an example, at the very first tournament in 1851, there was the Knight of the Desert, Knight of the Lake, Knight of the Black Plum, and Knight of Ocklockonee, among others.
Some riders wore ordinary riding garb, with only a colored sash and matching hat plume. But others went above and beyond the ordinary. Imagination, carefull sewing, and money created gorgeous costumes. During the 1852 joust , the winner of the tournament was the Knight of Miccausukie, who came from the settlement east of Tallahassee. He dressed like a Creek Indian, according to the newspaper. There was also an Unknown Knight, who concealed his face with a black mask.
Each event featured three bouts, allowing each "knight" three chances for success. The tournaments were notable for their spectacular accidents. Stirrups could fail in mid-gallop, andf the horses sometimes became quite rambunctious.
Once a knight was victorious, he crowned his "queen" on the playing field, while the runners-up selected maids of honor who would accompany her in an open carriage to the city for the closing festivities. A fancy dress ball rounded out the evening, and gave the ladies a chance to assume their own whimsical identity. Names such as Diana, Cupid, Folly, the Maid of the Mist. All in all, it was a fun time for all the participants, and was a social outlet for many of the plantation owners and their families.