How Beer Led to Thanksgiving

Mayflower at Sea, by Mike Haywood

Mayflower at Sea, by Mike Haywood

It’s Thanksgiving in the United States, a day when we give thanks by eating and drinking way too much. But back when the pilgrims landed in North America in 1620, they didn’t have much to keep them going, other than beer.

When the Puritans left England, they left in two ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But, shortly into the voyage the Speedwell started taking on water, so they had to return to port and cram every person from the Speedwell onto the Mayflower.

They left port again on September 6, arriving in Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. When they went ashore they discovered they had not in fact landed in Virginia Colony as they’d planned. But, supplies on the Mayflower were running low, most notably beer.

Beer was a vital component of life everywhere at the time, as water was usually unsafe to drink; there was no knowledge of bacteria and microorganisms at the time. The captain of the Mayflower needed to preserve enough beer for the sailors to make the return trip to England, so he encouraged the settlers to stay there, rather than trying to find Virginia Colony.

The First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leone Gerome Ferris (1899)

Of course, the Pilgrims were none too happy about this, with future Plymouth colony governor William Bradford complaining  that they "were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer."

Once on shore, the settlers were understandably suspicious of the local water, as earlier colonies had been wiped out by sickness from dirty water. Plus, drinking water was not in fashion. As colonist William Wood said, “I dare not prefere it before good beere.”

Bradford tried to negotiate with the Mayflower captain for more beer, but he was refused. But, on Christmas Day, the captain relented somewhat and gave the Pilgrims some of his beer. Nonetheless, half of the 102 settlers died over the course of that winter due to starvation, disease, and exposure to the harsh elements.

When the spring of 1621 arrived, the remaining settlers were busy building their colony, when they met the Native American Samoset. The Native Americans were suspicious of the colonists, as Europeans had been selling their people into slavery for years. But the Algonquin Samoset was curious, and he had already learned English from other colonists in Maine. So, he walked into their camp, saluted and welcomed them, and then asked for a beer. Unfortunately for him they didn’t have any beer, but they did have liquor and food.

It was Samoset who introduced them to the famous Squanto, the only surviving member of the Patuxet tribe. Squanto taught the Pilgrims to grow corn and catch eels and he served as an interpreter with other tribes, which led the colony to flourish. This led to a three day harvest festival in October of 1621, along with a famous dinner with Native Americans.

Thus, for the cause of a beer, we have Thanksgiving.

Sources: Fermentarium, Serious Eats, Wellsprings: a Natural History of Bottled Waters