Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving, beer(e), and the Pilgrims.

There's a famous passage from a 17th century collection of recollections by Pilgrim leader William Bradford that's often quoted in reference to Thanksgiving:

... 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

But what usually is omitted is the very next line:
and it now being the 19th of December [1620].

That debunks the timing for a Thanksgiving landing. And the story about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock because they had run out of beer? Not so fast, says beer historian Bob Skilnik. That's not exactly what transpired.
Land was sighted on November 9 [1620] but [the Pilgrims] 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. <...> 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 <...> 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. <...> 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 [as quoted above]. <...>

The Pilgrims had arrived in the 'New World' on the 11th of November, but didn't decide to set up a permanent camp until 5 weeks later. That was some serious dithering.
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.

Beer & The Pilgrims
Beer (and more) in Food
by Bob Skilnik

On the other hand, the ship's crew —hired hands— had not run out of their beer, hoarding their stash for their return trip to England after the winter storms had abated.

Water was not always a healthy drink in those days; sanitation was not pristine. Beer could be a potable substitute. On shipboard, however, that beer would not be low-alcohol or 'small' beer, as has often been reported. It was strong 'Ship's Beer' (what we would call extreme beer). Again, Skilnik:
'Ship's Beer' was a high-octane beer, made so in order to keep it viable during a prolonged sea passage.

It wouldn't be until 1621 that the Pilgrims would first unofficially observe a Thanksgiving celebration. And it wouldn't be until a few centuries later that the official date for the holiday —in the US, on the fourth Thursday of November— would be set.

Be safe in your travels this Thanksgiving ... and enjoy your beer.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative post. Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the cask at Evening Star. I need to make it out to one of these events and enjoy some cask brew freshly tapped.


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