Survival, The First "Thanksgiving," And The All-Important Question... Did The Pilgrims Have Beer With Their Butterball Turkeys?
The erection of the first building for common use began on December 25. The Separatists did not celebrate Christmas, just one of the many things that rubbed the Church of England the wrong way with these religious zealots. They also chose John Carver as their first governor, but Carver died next April and William Bradford was chosen as their next governor.
During January and February, the group was losing 2 to 3 people day. While earlier proclamations raved about the availability of fresh water, there was a belief that beer would help combat disease, especially scurvy. By this time, however, they had exhausted their beer supply, but not the crew aboard the Mayflower. After trying to accommodate the settlers while they went back and forth with deciding where to settle down, Captain Jones realized that trying to make way back to England would be foolhardy, so the crew stayed on board, the ship anchored in the harbor. They still had beer on board for their return voyage and were approached by the settlers for a small supply for some of the sick on shore. They were sent back with no beer, the sailors remarking that "...if it were their own father, he should have none."
Shortly after, however, disease started to take its toll on the crew too, and seeing the suffering of his own crew, Captain Jones relented and told the governor "that he could send for beer for those that had need of it, even should he have to drink water on the homeward voyage."
In March, 1621, the settlers were approached by 2 Indians, Samoset and Squanto, and to quickly brush pass this period, suffice it to say that these Indians helped the settlers understand the Indian way of planting, especially corn. By mid-March, seed was spread in hopes of a later and sufficient harvest along with the hope that additional ships might soon arrive, loaded with goods and more settlers.
In a letter to friends in England, an unidentified writer described what was sowed in the spring in anticipation of the fall harvest. "We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and pease (sic), and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings, or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our pease not worth gathering, for we feared that they were too late sown."
So there was some barley available, but described by the writer as "indifferent," and with no subsequent information provided by any primary sources showing that the barley would be malted, one can't simply proclaimed that the crop was subsequently brewed as beer.
With the harvest in, Governor Bradford decided a celebration was in order and sent four men "on fowling," in other words, to bring back a nice bounty of wild fowl, although no specific mention is made of them returning with fresh Butterball turkeys. When the local Indians found out that the settlers were in a party mode, about 90 of them unexpectedly decided to drop in, including their chief Massasoit. Now imagine throwing a party and 90 unexpected guests drop in! The Indians took care of this embarrassing situation by sending out some of the young bucks to kill five deer and when they returned with the carcasses, presented them to Bradford. Thank God they didn't return with fruitcake.
And once again, while the harvest is ably described in their writings and the menu of the first "Thanksgiving" festival somewhat elaborated upon, there's nothing in any of the primary sources available to researchers today that can lead one to truly say that beer was part of the Pilgrims first harvest festival.
The problem of New Englanders either having sufficient beer on hand, or simply having beer---period, even years later, is elaborated on in my book, Beer & Food: An American History.
"When the senior John Winthrop led [another group of] Puritans to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he sailed on the Arbella, provisioned with a seemingly ample '42 Tonnes of Beers [Author’s note: About 10,000 gallons].' The colonists of this third English settlement in America weren’t taking any chances this time on not having enough beer to tide them over while they settled in. They were also, apparently, quick studies in the art of adaptability and survival in the New World. But 10,000 gallons of English ale only went so far in the new Massachusetts colony, and by 1633, Winthrop, Sr.’s letters began mentioning the importation of English malt to Massachusetts, indicative of a small but developing brewing trend, most likely in the form of homebrewed beer."
From this observation, particularly on how quickly 10,000 gallons of beer could last in the New World, and the recommendation of importing good quality English malt to New England, it's hard to imagine that the settlers at Plymouth Rock could have raised the quantity of barley needed to brew anything remotely near 1,000 gallons, let alone 10,000 gallons of suds. And as described in the book, there was a Catch-22 involved in any large scale growing of barley. Without being able to entice investors to build malt houses because of a lack of interest on the part of early colonial farmers in growing barley, the farmers saw no reason to grow barley for beer if no malt houses were built in the immediate area. When cider caught on as the household drink of choice around the third-quarter of the 17th century, barley was pushed back even further as being worth growing. Until the encouragement of the U.S. government in the very late 1700s to develop a brewing industry, few colonists grew barley as a cash crop.
Going back to the Plymouth Plantation, as it came to be known, there is ample evidence of supplies of household beer, hogheads and barrels to store it, and even malt in family inventories in later years, but nothing to match this sort of detailed accounting of household in the first few years after the Separatists arrived in 1620. Once again, realize the weighing of developing inventories of grain to eat, feed livestock and squirrel away enough for the next spring planting. Until Plymouth Plantation could reach a level of self-sufficiency, it's unlikely that large scale quantities of beer were being brewed. With ships starting to make regular runs from England to New England, beer and malt supplies most likely came over as part of a ship's provisions. The small amounts of malt necessitated the need to add whatever indigenous fermentables could be found in order to stretch out the imported malt. *****************
So where did the fable of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer, or the notion that the first Thanksgiving was a cheery, beery good time come from? Once again, a look at Beer & Food: An American History gives strong clues.
In the early years after Repeal, the U.S. brewing industry was running scared. What if the feds reenacted Prohibition? Since saloons were frowned upon (including even the use of the word, "saloon") and replaced by taverns, and draft beer was on its way to being replaced by containerized beer coming into homes in bottles and finally cans in 1935, beer also had to shed its image as either an insidious instrument of the old German Kaiser (a popular bit of lingering Prohibitionists' nonsense) and the more contemporary negative image as a dirty money maker of bootlegging/mobster groups. In other words, beer had to be "gussied up" and made respectable.
The United Brewers Industrial Foundation stepped in to make beer "friendly," once again touting it as the "drink of moderation." The U.B.I.F. was funded by the United States Brewers Association after the U.S.B.A. had conducted a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward beer and the brewing industry. The survey’s disheartening conclusions focused the ultimate goal of the U.B.I.F. on the paramount need to establish an extensive public relations campaign on beer’s benefits. As part of their national PR effort, the organization began to publish a series of informative booklets and run extensive ads in popular magazines on beer and its positive aspects. Part of the U.B.I.F's effort was evident in the blossoming of recipes that made use of beer as an ingredient, as explained in Beer & Food.
Another approach was a series of informative cartoons that were offered to media outlets for free that demonstrated how beer was so interwoven with the history of the U.S.A. In Part III, we'll take a look at some of these cartoons and point out some of the biggest white lies that the U.S.B.A. and its propaganda arm, the U.B.I.F. could muster that helped bridge the connection between beer and the history of our nation, the portrayal of the country's most influential forefathers as lusty beer drinkers, and the organizations' claims as to how important the brewing industry was to the tax revenues of our country. At the time, the word "propaganda" was not as pejorative in meaning as it is today, and was widely used by both trade organizations in expressing what the mission of both organizations was--- selling beer.
After almost 14 years of Prohibition, can you really blame the brewing industry for sowing the seeds of today's beer folklore? I say their efforts worked, considering the fact that most of you readers probably have a beer or two in your refrigerator right now.
Don Russell, aka., Joe Sixpack, at the Philadelphia Daily News, and I have been discussing most of this in a few e- mails during the week, and he sent me an interesting copy of a page from the Washington Post, dated January 8, 1908 that indicates that the story of the Pilgrims as hearty drinkers of beer was bantered about, even before Prohibition. Looking at the headlines of all of the columns, however, you realize that this is actually one of the earliest examples of a newspaper infomercial, the product being promoted, of course, Budweiser Beer. The fable of the settlers landing at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer, however, appears to be contrived in the mid- 1930s.
Mourt's Relation Originally printed in 1622, this is the first published account of the coming of the Pilgrims to the New World to settle Plymouth Plantation. There are at least 5 different letter writers involved in this effort, but while much of what's in this book echoes the observation of William Bradford, there's a little bit to much enthusiasm in it, some attributing this cheery theme to Edward Winslow who also wrote...
Good Newes from New England in 1624. This was one more effort by Winslow to paint the bright side of living in New England and served as an enticement to others to come on over the fun of living in New England, just a few years after half of the original settlers had died off. Historically, however, it's a primary source on everyday living in the New World.
Of Plymouth Plantation One of a number of books from William Bradford, who led the original settlers after the death of their first governor, John Carver, in April 1621. A more clinical look at life in early Plymouth than Winslow's optimistic writings. Bradford also penned more recollections during his later years, including...
Governor William Bradford's Letter Book Gathered during Plymouth Colony's crucial first decade, Bradford's Letter Book served as a sourcebook for the Governor's well-known history, "Of Plymouth Plantation." This intriguing set of letters and documents offers us valuable first-hand acquaintance with the leadership of New England's first plantation. From this collection, we can better appreciate the complex reality that lies behind our idealized image of "the Pilgrim Fathers." Here we can see the conflicting motives and internal struggles, the misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and the practical considerations which combined to shape the lives of the early Plymouth colonists.
REMEMBER; these are PRIMARY sources, not some interpretations written 200 years later. If you want to argue that what I've written here is wrong because
* "I heard different."
* " I know you're wrong but I just can't prove it yet."
* "I read a different version at the Brewers Association website Beer Institute Beer Advocate Magazine A 1982 issue of Playboy
well, then, try instead and pick up at least 2 of the books mentioned above, and while you're at it, my latest book, Beer & Food: An American History and then we can talk.