Pilgrims and Beer: The Real Story

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.

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 brooks 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 throughout the winter.

You give no source for this.

You give no refutation for this.

But you give no actual refutation for it.

All this is very interesting, but has little or nothing to do with your initial statements about beer.

I would point out, however, that, inasmuch as the United Kingdom did not change its calendar to New Style until 1752, all the above dates should be put forward ten days for imagining weather conditions. In addition, by some reckonings, the Little Ice Age had begun. So the situation was actually somewhat worse than you make it.

Link to Cecil’s column

Perhaps he’s conflating the Pilgrim’s “Ship’s beer” with India Pale Ale?

I was struck by the mention of mussels (an abundance of mussels, the greatest and best that ever we saw; ). Obviously, the mussels were an important food item. but, the blue mussel is NOT native to North america-the fact that they were abundant in 1620-does that not prove that the Vikinks got to cape Cod ca. 1000AD?
I understand that the larval form of mussels attached itself to boat hulls-is that the reason why the Pilgrims found them in Cape Cod waters?:slight_smile:

The whole first paragraph* (of the OP) is copied from here.

*: and much more, too.

Blue mussels are native to North America. Are you sure you’re not thinking of Zebra mussels, a freshwater invasive species?