Circus in America TimeLine

1801 - 1824

America experienced a lack of shows, between Ricketts’ last performance in 1800 and the arrival of Breschard and Pepin in 1807. Most of the performers during this dry period were either street performers or affiliated with the theatre. No one had the talent and ability of Ricketts and Lailson, but there were a few traveling companies worth noting. John Durang and Lewis DeGraff opened a structure in Philadelphia on July 28, 1800. That same year William Langley and Company opened a temporary structure in Charleston, South Carolina, on September 9, later moving to south to Savannah and Augusta, Georgia.

Thayer records no circus performances at all in the United States in 1804. The only notable circus-related event of the year was the June arrival of America’s second elephant, which eventually became the property of Hackaliah Baily of Somers, New York. The following year, 1805, John Durang and Lewis DeGraff presented an exhibition in Baltimore on July 1.

In 1807, French native Jean Baptiste Casmiere Breschard and Victor Pepin of Albany, New York, came into prominence giving life to the circus after the departure of Ricketts. Pepin and Breschard petitioned the Boston Town Council in 1807 to construct an arena but were turned down because the local clergy considered a circus “too frivolous for these sober times.” The “sober times” were the result of the sudden enforcement of the British Orders in Council of 1806 and 1807 as well as Napoleon’s edicts in connection with the Continental System which had a grave effect on neutral shipping (Thayer, op.cit., 19). Trade with Europe was restricted and dangerous, and both Britain and France seized hundreds of neutral American ships.

Pepin and Breschard left Boston and constructed an amphitheatre with no roof in Charlestown located northwest of Boston where they performed until May 1808. They then performed in New York City through January 1809. After leaving Charlestown, for the next three years Pepin and Breschard performed in New York, where Cayetano Mariotini joined the company, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Richmond, VA., Tauton, MA., Baltimore, and Lancaster, PA.

By November of 1812 there were two American circuses, both performing in Charleston, South Carolina, at the same time in two different buildings. Cayetano Mariotini, billing himself as “Mr. Cayetano,” opened the Charleston Circus and Pepin and Breschard opened the Amphitheatre. By December of 1812, they decided that the competition was not doing either company any good. On December 22 they combined their forces to present one circus and used each building on alternate weeks.. (Thayer, op.cit., 29)

1814 marked a major turning point not only in the growth and development of the United States, but also for the American circus. In that year, the circus moved beyond the Appalachian Mountains and the circus began to move west. Pepin, Breschard, and “Mr. Cayetano” were instrumental in the overall westward movement of the American circus. On April 1, 1814 the Pittsburgh Gazette announced that Pepin, Breschard and Cayetano were constructing a circus building. In June they went down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati for a June 13 opening. Cayetano remained in the “West” while Pepin and Breschard traveled back East and performed in Charleston. Cayetano traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky, and performed there in April of 1815. He then went back up north and performed in Chillicothe, Ohio, the then-capitol of Ohio.

However, Cayetano was not always warmly welcomed. Much of the new country operated under a strict moral code. The Chillicothe Weekly Recorder wrote an editorial attacking not only the circus but also all types of entertainment.

The circus business is an unlawful calling, one that cannot be defended on scriptural ground. The performances are calculated to amuse the giddy and thoughtless and to excite the laughter of fools. There is no tendency to administer useful instruction, to regulate affections or restrain the inordinate passions of this audience. In addition, it does not yield a rational amusement to men of understanding and reflection. Our country,…is infested with dishonest, unprincipled men of various descriptions such as swindlers, counterfeiters, stage players and showmen. He [the editor] urges the friends of Christian morality to remember that they were bound by sacred ties to discourage every species of amusement calculated to corrupt the principles of the rising generation. (Weekly Recorder, June 26, 1815, quoted in Thayer, op.cit., 35)

Fortunately this editor had little effect on the general public. The circuses and the theatres grew in popularity in the nineteenth century. “The public was only interested in the content. The cause of the eventual blemishing of the circus-public relationship was the conduct of showmen in breaking rules more important to the public—those of stealing and deceit. These were not problems…no connection between professional thieves and showmen. For the time being, such cries as this one raised in Chillicothe were background noise in the business of selling circus tickets.” (Thayer, op cit., 35)

The circuses were still dependent upon cities of a population of a 1,000 or more to support the construction of a performing space, so they followed the main transportation and migration routes. The rivers that pierced the new areas of the country were logical waterways to transport circuses to many of the major cites in the West. The Ohio River begins at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers near Pittsburgh, then runs southwest through Cincinnati and Louisville and ends at the Mississippi River. A circus could then go down the Mississippi to New Orleans and Natchez. Cayetano moved his company downriver and performed in Natchez, Mississippi, from October, 1815, to February, 1816. On April 6, 1816, Cayetano’s company gave New Orleans its first circus performance in a wooden arena that he had built. As new states were admitted to the Union and new cities and towns appeared, the circuses followed.

The events listed below show the popularity of the circus and it’s connection to the westward expansion of the country.


1801 Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as 3rd President of United States
1802 First Zoo opens in Philadelphia
1803 Ohio 17th state admitted to the Union
1803 United States purchases the Louisiana territory
1804 Old Bet’ an Indian elephant from Calcutta (?) by way of Capetown
1804 Lewis and Clark launch the Lewis and Clark expedition
1805 Thomas Jefferson sworn in as President for 2th term
1806 First Tigers arrive in United States from Surat, India
1807 Robert Fulton’s Steamboat
1808 James Madison sworn in as 4th President of the United States
1808 Right Hackaliah Bailey displays the elephant Betsy, "Old Bet."
1810 P.T. Barnum born July 5
1811 General William Harrison defeats Chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe
1812 United States declares war on Britain
1812 Louisiana 18th state admitted to the Union
1813 The first traveling menagerie appears in Putnam and Westchester county NY
1813 James Madison sworn in as President for 2nd term
1814 British set fire to Washington, D.C.
1814 The Star-Spangled Banner; becomes the official national anthem
1816 Indiana 19th state admitted to the Union
1817 Mississippi 20th state admitted to the Union
1817 James Monroe sworn in as 5th President of the United States
1818 Illinois 21st state admitted to the Union
1819 The United States annexes Florida
1819 Alabama 22nd state admitted to the Union
1820 Largest cities in the US were New York, 152,056; Philadelphia, 63,802; Baltimore, 62,738; Boston, 43,298; New Orleans, LA, 27,176; Washington, D.C, 13,247; Albany, NY, 12,630; Richmond VA, 12,067, Providence, R.I. 11,767 and Cincinnati, Ohio 9,642.
1821 Missouri 24th state admitted to the Union
1821 Michael Faraday invents the electric motor
1822 Victor Pepin uses the steamboat to transport his show. Constructs arenas each place the boat stopped
1823 President Monroe issues the Monroe Doctrine
1823 Right Dan Rice born
1824 J.W. Bancker's was the first American to use the word "circus" in the title of his troupe, J.W.Bancker's New York Circus
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