Beer & The Pilgrims
One of the interesting things I've learned while donning the cloak of an author is my
love of research. Unfortunately, falling under the spell of a good side story or three that
has the remotest connection to your main topic can lead to a manuscript that most
publishers will take a scalpel to. The economics of getting published in today's market
often means writing a lean story, just enough to keep the reader interested, but not so
many pages as to bring down an entire forest for an 800-page opus.
While working on Beer & Food: An American History, I found so many interesting and
often odd ball stories to tell, ones that might have peaked the interests of beer geeks,
foodies, and even the weekend historian. But publishing, dear readers, is a business, so
many stories never made it through the aftermath of the editorial cut.
Since the release of my seventh book, I've posted a few of these cutting room floor
stories that have rubbed against the grain of some popular bits of American beer
folklore. Not surprising, I've been chastised by a number of critics who just know I was
wrong when I explained that Ben Franklin never had an infatuation with beer as he did
with wine. I guess living in France for so many years can do that to people, even old Ben.
"I doubt the veracity of Bob's research," said one poster on another beer blog, even while
admitting that he had no evidence to contradict my story of Franklin's love of wine, not
beer. Even corroborating evidence supported by a computer word search by the
Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary organization that proved that Ben was writing to his
friend, Andre Morellet about wine ("Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon
our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof
that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.") and NOT beer, was challenged.
"He's pushing a new book, so what do you expect?" chimed another armchair historian.
Expect? How about historical accuracy?
I went a few rounds with fellow bloggers and the Brewers Association in April, 2007
about the true date of National Prohibition being December 5, 1933. Despite the fact
that 36 states had to vote on the repeal of the 18th Amendment---the first time that U.S
voters ever had a hand in the institution of a new amendment to the Constitution,
voting for the 21st which nullified the congressionally-originated 18th Amendment, too
many weekend historians insisted that April 7, 1933 was the true end of Prohibition.
April 7 allowed those states that wanted to, to ignore the Volstead Act and bring back
"light wines" and beers with an alcohol by volume of no more than 3.2%. It did not
bring back hard spirits, full-bodied wines, or even bock beers, but to this day, there are
some who insist that April 7, 1933 was the end of Prohibition. Of course, if that was so,
what was the whole purpose of the 21st Amendment?
It's a bitch when facts get in the way of a good argument, especially concerning beer and
all its folklore.
So I was a bit hesitant to write about another popular bit of U.S. beer folklore, beginning
with the silly notion that the "Pilgrims" chose to land at Plymouth Rock simply because
they had run out of beer. But after reading another blog that noted with solemn pride
that the first structure the Pilgrims built when they arrived in the New World was a
brewery, the glove of historical accuracy was thrown down. Even Cecil Adams, aka, The
Straight Dope, makes a mention of this "fact" and then displays his beer ignorance by
adding that the beer in question "was 'ship's beer,' a not-very-alcoholic concoction..."
Sorry Cecil, but "Ship's Beer" was a high-octane beer, made so in order to keep it
viable during a prolonged sea passage.
Beer writers Greg Kitsock and Steve Beaumont make mention of the Mayflower's log
referencing the ship's dire straights of running low on beer and as a result, pulling into
Plymouth Rock. Just as a quick rebuttal, let me point out that there is/was no ship's log,
either because Captain Christopher Jones never kept one or because any possible
records have been lost. In either event, to reference the Mayflower's log as a primary
source is simply wrong, and it's this kind of sloppy attribution that helps to hide the true
story of what led the settlers to land at Plymouth Rock.
Even the Washington, D.C.-base Beer Institute has gotten into this beer blarney by
noting on their site that "An entry in the diary of a Mayflower passenger explains the
unplanned landing at Plymouth Rock: 'We could not now take time for further search...our
victuals being much spent, especially our beer...'"
And finally, this little bit of nonsense from the blog, Home Brew Beer; "When the
pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, landed at Plymouth rock, the first permanent building
put up was the brewery.” — Jim West.
Now the only Jim West I know is the character portrayed by actor Robert Conrad in the
old CBS television series (sorry, Will Smith and that horrendous movie remake of The
Wild, Wild West just doesn't count in my world), but whoever this might be, his
statement is ludicrous. The Pilgrims put to shore at Plymouth on December 19, 1620. It
was winter, their supplies were low, they were dying and in need of shelter.
Who in their right mind would believe that the first building the Pilgrims put up would
be a brewery? People were already beginning to die because of cold weather, disease and
poor nutrition. By the time spring arrived, more than half of the 102 settlers would
perish...and we're to believe that a new brewery had top priority on the Pilgrims'
"Things To Do Today" list?
William Bradford's numerous chronicles and nice collection of letter's from other
settlers from the Mayflower titled "Mourt's Relation" are the most referenced
PRIMARY sources for what happened to the self-exiled "Separatists" (who actually
referred to themselves as "Saints") as they made their way from Holland to
Southampton, England and met up with a second group of "Strangers" in Plymouth,
England. The "Strangers" were loyal to the Church of England and were simply an
adventurous group that had signed on with the Virginia Investment Company to make a
go of it in the huge Virginia Colony in the New World.
When the Separatists arrived in England, there was some further negotiating between a
representative from the investment company and the group from Holland and they were
forced to sell off some of their goods in order to pay off a debt that finally secured them
passage to New England. On August 5, 1620, and with one delay behind them, the
smaller ship, the Speedwell, and the larger Mayflower headed to what was supposed to
be the Virginia Colony. Almost immediately, the Speedwell began taking on water and
both ships headed to Plymouth, England, cramming 102 passengers, about 20 to 30 crew
members, and as much provisions as they could get on to the Mayflower. On September
6, they set sail again. Delay number two.
Land was sighted on November 9, but they didn't attempt to set out a landing party until
days later, when they also realized they were no where near the Virginia Colony but
instead were off Cape Cod. In a small boat, a landing party made it to shore on the 15th
and in short time "relieved ourselves with wood and water" while other settlers waited for
a larger scout boat that was supposed to hold about 16, called a "shallop" to be prepared
by carpenters to "put [the shallop] in order" in their eventual search for suitable
habitation. The shallop had been cut down in size prior to leaving England in order to fit
it inside the Mayflower and as a result, needed to be put back together and made ready
for use. As you see from the writings in Mourt's Relation above, finding fresh water was
not a problem. Bradford's collaberative writing of finding fresh water described it "as
pleasant as wine or beer had been before."
The party also ran across a few Indians who ran away, discovered some corn that had
been buried by Indians, possibly for planting in the spring since the Indians were
nomadic, moving with the seasons wherever planted food, fish or fowl could be found. In
other words, they ripped off the Indians spring seed supply.
With the shallop finally ready, Captain Jones and 30 eager men crammed themselves
into the shallop and did a bigger sweep of the area. This time they found more stored
corn and beans. In the next few weeks, other expeditions came ashore and enjoyed
among other things, "three fat geese and six ducks for supper," but by December 4, they
knew they had to quit being picky about where they were and settle down. Cold weather
and disease were starting to take their toll, but Mourt's Relation notes that the group
still had "...some beer, butter, flesh and other such victuals left," but they also realized
that once the supplies ran too low, the crew of the Mayflower would probably lift anchor
and try to make way back to England before the weather prevented them in returning
and/or there wouldn't be enough provisions left for the crew. Sailing in the North
Atlantic in the dead of winter was something to be avoided, even if it meant sitting in a
harbor until the spring. In either case, it was time for the settlers to do what settlers
typically do---settle down, and let the sailors do what sailors typically do---sail back to
their home port after dumping off their passengers.
After an armed run in with some more Indians, the Mayflower headed south and
another expedition found "running brooks," cornfields, and after sounding the depth of
the harbor, realized this was about as good as it could get in the middle of December and
the dead of winter. They also found "...an abundance of mussels, the greatest and best that
ever we saw; crabs and lobsters...four or five small running brooks...cherry trees, plum trees...
many kinds of herbs...leeks and onions...and the best water that ever we drank, and the
books now begin to be full of fish."
Despite what looked like prime territory, they took yet another look around, finally
resolving that it was time to make a decision, pick a spot and start a settlement. After
all, as noted in Mourt's Relation, "...we returned again a-shipboard, with resolution the next
morning to settle on some of those places; so in the morning, after we called on God for
direction, we came to this resolution: to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view
of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for now we could not take time for
further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it
now being the 19th of December." Between December 19th and through the beginning of
the new year, they started to literally settle down. Remember, they had arrived on
November 11 and had spent 5 weeks exploring.
So what we have here, my friends, is NOT a party of starving Pilgrims who simply pulled
up to Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer, had no water and no "victuals" on
hand. No, what has been described instead was a group of naive individuals who called a
little bit too much on God for direction, failed to heed the philosophy that "God helps
those who help themselves," took too long to pick a spot to settle down, even if it was to
only to be for the winter, and as a result of indecision, watched as more than half of
them died through the winter.
NEXT: The Aftermath