When American schoolchildren learn about the Thanksgiving holiday, their teachers tell them the Pilgrims traded with the Native people for corn. Though it doesn’t appear that the members of the Wampanoag tribe who supposedly supped with the immigrants produced alcohol of their own, so-called Indian corn provided the starchy base for many a stateside beer for the next two centuries or so. And despite conventional wisdom, indigenous North Americans have made and consumed alcohol for more than 1,000 years.
For example, according to historian Tiah Edmunson-Morton, Apache
She writes on an Oregon State University library webpage, “This included four days of prayer, fasting, the consumption of ritual food and drink, and runs dedicated to the White Painted Lady, an Apache deity.”
While the media reports descendents of the 17th century Wampanoag people deeply lamenting their ancestors’ hospitality 400 years ago, descendents of the European invaders will be celebrating their ancestors’ conquest this Thanksgiving around tables groaning with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pie … and booze.
What role did alcohol play in the daily lives of settlers to what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony and beyond? For a brief overview, I’ve excerpted from my new book, A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs.
Beer lovers argue over whether the Mayflower actually docked in Plymouth—not their intended destination—because they ran out of beer. The story is basically true, according to Plymouth Plantation governor William Bradford, who wrote in his account of the Pilgrims that he and around one hundred passengers “were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the
seamen might have the more beere” for their return voyage.
Beer and cider, writes Sarah Hand Meacham in Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, were the two beverages colonists literally couldn’t live without. She writes, “In a place where the water was unsafe, milk was generally unavailable, tea and coffee were too expensive for all but the very wealthy, and soda and non-alcoholic fruit juice were not yet invented, alcoholic beverages were all that colonists could drink safely.”
Whether or not the Pilgrims mistakenly believed that the pristine waters of
the unspoiled land would harm them just like it might have back home (food his‐
torian Marc Meltonville contradicts conventional wisdom here by arguing
Early Modern Europe enjoyed perfectly potable water, and recent scholarship insists PIlgrims drank clean water that first Thanksgiving feast), they immediately built houses outfitted with kitchen breweries for the women to make beer—as soon as possible, yes, please, and thank you. Then they built taverns, often called ordinaries. Then they built breweries.
At first, Boston led the colonies in for-profit brewing. Settlers established the first licensed tavern there in 1633, and the first commercial brewery in 1637. New York and Philadelphia followed. The Chesapeake Bay region, consumed with tobacco farming, trailed far behind.
Local ordinances determined who could run taverns, with seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans, for example, limiting licenses to well-off men whom they believed would best keep order. After 1720, the Anglicans who took over the colony favored poor women for tavern ownership to keep them off the dole. Widows, especially those of tavern owners, could support themselves with this type of income just about everywhere.
Despite claiming the title of America’s first non-Indigenous brewing hot spot, brewing didn’t continue to catch on in Boston as it did in New York then later in Philadelphia. In 1810, the nation’s first brewing census enumerated 132 licensed brewhouses: 48 in Pennsylvania, 42 in New York, and 13 in Ohio.
Producers and ingredient suppliers couldn’t keep up as drinkers insistently demanded more ale, more beer, more cider, more wine, and more whiskey, rum, and brandy. Some taverns could sell all of the above while others could only sell beer and cider.
Gregg Smith writes in Beer in America: The Early Years—1587-1840: Beer’s Role in the Settling of America and the Birth of a Nation, “Vigorous economic growth encouraged [town and city
dwellers] to indulge in the luxury of buying commercially brewed beer. Greater turnover of currency placed more luxuries, including relief from household work, within reach of the growing populace.”
Intoxicating beverages showed up everywhere, even at church services, in court proceedings, as part of political procedures, and on the job. By 1770, says Meacham, Americans drank a “startling” amount of alcohol: the equivalent of seven daily shots of rum for the average White man and almost two pints of hard cider per day for the average White woman.
It didn’t take much time at all for municipal leaders to worry about overconsumption and other ill effects. From the earliest days of the colonies, they regulated alcohol as they did back home in England and still do today.
According to Lauren Clark, author of Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day, Concord, Massachusetts’s town fathers decreed as early as 1635 that no one could run a tavern without a license, and in 1651 they limited brewing to those they deemed to have “sufficient skill and knowledge in the art or mastery of a brewer.” In 1637 Puritans in the Bay Colony restricted the number of tavern licenses for fear of allowing too many to operate.
The same year they ordered tavern keepers to stop brewing their own beer and buy exclusively from a licensed brewer. There was just one problem in that last law: the colony had only licensed one brewer.