For most of us, tailgating is just something that’s always been around, probably as long as the sport we’re watching. But has it? Yep. And tailgating has been around even longer, it seems.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the tailgating ritual. Some cultural anthropologists link it back to ancient times when people would gather together to celebrate the end of summer and a bountiful harvest (and the last of the good weather).
But other historians claim tailgating actually began in the Civil War, namely at the First Battle of Bull Run in Prince William County, Virginia, 1861, which was the first major clash of the war.
Hold on. Pull the car over. So tailgating began at a battle, in war? With people killing other people while crowds cheered and ate chicken? How does that work?
Turns out, that battle was the first documented case of people—hundreds, actually–gathering, with food, to cheer on and support their “team” in a “competition.” Sure, it was a competition involving bloodshed and the future of our country instead of just a national championship, but the core was the same: two teams battling it out.
Five years after that battle, a man named Charles Goodnight, a Texas cattle rancher, transformed a durable army-surplus wagon into a mobile kitchen to help cowboys driving cattle from Texas to sell in New Mexico during the post-war cattle boom. Goodnight served hearty meals to the men out of the back of this truck, which was called a “chuckwagon.” Some say it was named after the cuts of beef (“chuck”) served, but other historians say that since no meat was actually served to these cowboys on the trail (unless a cow was injured on the journey and had to be put down), the “chuck” in the name comes from the slang term for food. Most say it was not an homage to Charles by using a common nickname.
But it wasn’t until the 1869 inaugural football game between Princeton and Rutgers when we see evidence of the type of celebrating we associate with tailgating today. Fans gathered together, brought some food and cheered Rutgers on to victory. From there we’ve seen tailgating expand into its own national pastime. For some, the tailgate is more important than the game.
And the rest, they say, is tailgating history.