It’s time for a break from our John Fitch series. File this under strange facts….
The Mayflower wasn’t heading for Plymouth Rock back in 1620. It was heading for Jamestown, Virginia.
It might never have landed at Plymouth at all if they hadn’t been running short on beer.
With a dozen more barrels of beer on board, the thirsty pilgrims could have made it down to Jamestown, where breweries were in full brew mode and the colonial party was in full swing.
As it was, the Mayflower’s daily ration of a gallon of beer per man, woman, and child seriously dented the ship’s supply, and Captain Jones was worried he’d have a dry and dangerous voyage home with his crew.
Thus the pilgrims suffered the indignity not just of landing far from bullseye, but of being unceremoniously dropped off on a rock with no beer at all too.
I don’t know if the Mayflower was 620 miles off course because they’d been wantonly indulging on more than their fair share of beer.
But that gallon a day ration could account for why they sidled up to a rock at Plymouth that morning, instead of coming ashore a safe distance from objects that could put holes in wooden hulls. But I’m just guessing now.
Captain Jones fairly pushed the Pilgrims off board, roughly enough so William Bradford complained that they “were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer.”
Bradford sounds a bit snippy to me, and I can see why he and his fellow shipmate, my capitalist seventh great-grandfather Isaac Allerton, didn’t remain friends. Allerton gets the sticky end of the wicket in history books, just short of being called a capitalist pig, but I say that’s because he didn’t commit every personal slight of Bradford’s to paper and posterity, as ole’ bossy breeches Bradford did.
But that’s a different story, for a different time. Right now we’re talking beer. It’s America’s Beverage, and it was right from the get-go.
Plenty of words have been traded on whether or not dry beer barrels really and truly led to the Mayflower pulling over at Plymouth and throwing our Pilgrim ancestors to the curb.
But let me ask you, is there a different way to interpret Bradford’s quote?
Or this one, that, “we could not now take time for further search, our victuals being pretty much spent, especially our beer.”
Putting the controversy to bed right now, I’ll say this:
The best that the naysayers can naysay is that the Pilgrims were not pushed to set up shop at Plymouth only because the ship was low on beer.
That’s good enough for me, and I won’t say anything more about it. Except that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Colonial America was consumed by beer.
- The Roanoke colonists of Virginia wasted no time building a brewery, and less than two years after pounding the settlement’s first stake, they were passing around the corn ale. The only problem was that it tasted horrible, so they advertised in London for a real brewmeister who could make tolerably good beer.
- About the same time, the Dutch settled an island the Natives called Manhattan, changing its name to New Amsterdam. They too set about right away to build a brewery. Things went so rollickingly well there that in 1614 the first baby of New Amsterdam’s was born at the brewery.
- And it could only get better. By 1660 New Amsterdam had a population of around 3,000, and 26 breweries and taverns. That’s a pretty significant per capita presence, at 115 population per imbibery. You can see a very cool interactive digital map of New Amsterdam, including the locations of all 20 of its taverns, at http://www.ekamper.net/gr-misc.htm.
- Jan Steen, a Dutch artist, lived in New Amsterdam. That is his painting at right, titled, “Ordinary Life in New Amsterdam.” Need I say more?
- We don’t have the supply logs for the Mayflower, but we do have them for the Arabella, the ship that brought Governor Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For its trip over, the Arabella carried 42 tons of beer and 14 tons of water. Four times as much beer as water. That’s a mighty bit of imbibing.
But before you jump to the conclusion that our fair nation was conceived on a bender, it’s prudent to understand the state of water in England.
Simply put, it was wretched. It tasted of every rotten scrap and unmentionable that was thrown or poured into the nation-island’s waterways.
And worse, it harbored every disease that could be borne by those lethal liquids.
England in the 17th and 18th centuries was a petri dish of plague, influenza, typhus, cholera, malaria, smallpox, syphilis, diphtheria, hepatitis, dysentery, and who knows what else.
Other than boiling water to purify it, which is inconvenient on, say, a wooden ship or a day hike, purification by alcoholification was the 18th century’s only common alternative.
To quench thirst, beer or strong cider was consumed at every meal, and even given to babies.
Colonial workers were known to strike for beer and wine too.
Workmen demanded a quotient of liquor every day on top of their wages, or they refused to work. Such daily rations were especially the thing of New Amsterdam.
A Dutch visitor to Connecticut in 1639 wrote that, “These English live soberly, drinking but three times at a meal, and when a man drinks to drunkenness, they tie him to a post and whip him as they do thieves in Holland.”
During the Revolutionary War both the British soldiers and our Continental Army were guaranteed a healthy daily ration of beer, which makes it a wonder anyone knew whose side they were on or what they were fighting over.
Even the war’s major strategies were calculated over a pint or four.
Thankfully, their British counterparts were just as likely to do the same.
But since beer-making grains were in short supply during the war, soldiers were probably not getting a daily ration of beer.
It was more likely a daily ration of some inebriating liquid of somewhere around a six percent alcohol content. That would generally mean spruce beer or hard cider. Even sassafras and pumpkin were used in a pinch.
It was probably only the officers and politicians who could get their mugs filled with real barley-hops beer.
George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Sam Adams in particular were well known for their love of spirits and beer.
My seventh great-grandfather, Isaac Allerton the Mayflower passenger, didn’t live to see the American colonies freed from British rule. But he did build a reasonable fortune with his small fleet of ships, trading goods between England and its colonies in America and the Caribbean. Including beer, of course.
Perhaps we’re not the only nation whose very founding was fueled by beer. But I kind of think we might be. Because as it turns out, beer is as American as…beer.
Here’s to you!