Food was very important to both the Wampanoag and English. Most of the work done by both cultures had to do with gathering, growing and preparing food. For both cultures, good or bad harvests could mean the difference between comfort and hardship.
Wampanoag planting customs have been passed down for generations. Each Wampanoag family generally provided for its members, but there was also a great deal of sharing of food. Sachems (leaders) supported widows and the poor, and families gave freely to the sick or elderly. Families planted on ground assigned to them, while hunting, fishing and gathering took place on commonly held lands. Since food came from local resources that were shared or assigned, the diet varied little between social levels. In general, everyone in the community ate equally well.
Planting began in the spring. With gratefulness for the gifts from Mother Earth, the Wampanoag caught fish called herring as they ran up the rivers and used them to help fertilize the planting lands. Corn seeds were put into soft earth mounds covering the herring. Around the time the corn plants were the height of a human hand, it was time to plant the beans and squashes (including pumpkins) around the base of the corn. As the corn grew, the beans climbed and wound around the corn stalks. Since the 1600s, we have discovered that beans add nitrogen, an important nutrient the corn uses up, to the soil. It is clear to Wampanoag people that their grandparents followed the Creator’s instructions for growing these plants together. Melons, smaller versions of modern watermelons, were part of the Wampanoag gardens and offered a sweet treat. As the squash and melon leaves grew large enough, they helped to keep the weeds down and the ground moist around the mounds during the warmest time of year.
For the most part, foods were eaten when they were available. Some foods, however, were preserved by drying or smoking. At harvest time, beans would be picked and eaten fresh, or dried and saved for winter food or for seeds. All corn would be dried on the cob. Some dried kernels would be removed to parch over a fire and then were pounded into nokehig, a fine corn flour used for a traveling food as well as thickening for soups. Seeds were saved from all the best plants for planting the following year. All squashes were sliced and dried for later use, although some would be cooked fresh as well. The melons could not be preserved, so they had to be eaten as soon as they were ripe.
Farmed foods such as corn and beans made up about 70% of the Wampanoag diet. Although the Wampanoag favored meat, meat made up less than 20% of their diet. Roots, berries and other gathered plant materials, as well as eggs, fish, and shellfish (both fresh and dried) made up the rest.
To the Wampanoag, Mother Earth always gave wonderful and nourishing foods from her garden. For many Wampanoag, it is the same today. Their appreciation for all plant life is given to the Creator, all through the year, as they are nourished again and again by these great gifts.
These days, it is difficult for us to understand how important planting and growing food was to the Pilgrims. Today, if we are hungry, we can go to the supermarket or a restaurant and get anything we want to eat. We do not have to grow it ourselves, and we don’t usually worry that we will starve if our harvest is poor. We do not have to work outside, in all kinds of weather, digging in the soil, planting, weeding and watering. Life was very different for the English colonists living in Plymouth in the 1600s.
The colonists at Plymouth called their town a “plantation,” a word that comes from the word “plant.” Farming was a major part of the Pilgrims’ lives. They grew crops in large open fields. Women planted and tended vegetables and herbs in small gardens behind their houses. Because many of them had come from cities or towns in England with markets, many of the colonists had never farmed or gardened before coming to Plymouth. They were learning to feed themselves.
In the minds of English people, the perfect diet was one of meat or fish, bread or grain-based porridges, and beer. Dairy products and vegetables were eaten but were not considered essential for health. In England, however, only wealthy people could afford to eat in this way. Poorer families ate meals of vegetables, dairy products and, when they could afford them, meat. Since hunting and trapping were the privileges of landowners, wildfowl (like turkeys) and game (like deer) were not a major part of the common person’s diet.
In Plymouth Colony, however, the colonists’ diet was more varied. In New England, supplies of fish and shellfish were plentiful. Without hunting restrictions, deer, wild fowl, rabbits and other small animals were available to anyone who wanted to hunt them. The Pilgrims also brought farm animals with them, including pigs, chickens, goats, and later, sheep and cows. These animals provided meat, eggs and dairy products for the colonists.
Families in Plymouth planted enough in their fields to feed themselves. Their main crop was a kind of corn they had never seen before. Because it was native to North America and grew better in America than English grains, the Pilgrims called it “Indian corn.” The Wampanoag taught the English colonists how to plant and care for this crop. First, they had to clear the land. They chopped down trees and pulled up grass and weeds. They dug holes in the ground and put two or three herring (a type of fish) in the hole and covered them with dirt. The herring fertilized the soil to make it good for growing corn. They planted 4-5 corn seeds in every mound. All of this work had to be done with hand tools – tractors and automatic machines hadn’t been invented yet.
Indian corn was different from the sweet yellow corn that we eat today. It had various colors – reds, blacks, yellows and whites – on the same ear, and was not eaten fresh from the cob. Instead, Indian corn was dried and then pounded into flour and cornmeal for cooking and baking. Indian corn was part of almost every meal in Plymouth Colony.
Along with Indian corn, the Pilgrims also grew some beans, pumpkins, wheat, barley, oats and peas in their fields. In the gardens near their houses, women grew many different kinds of herbs and vegetables, like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots and turnips. Some foods, like salt, sugar, oil and vinegar, had to be imported from England.
The combination of available meat and shellfish, Indian corn and other field crops and garden plants made the Pilgrims’ diet a rich and varied one through most seasons of the year. Like the Wampanoag, however, the colonists experienced seasonal variations. Not all foods were available at every season of the year. The Pilgrims tried to extend the life of their foods through preservation. Salting, the most common method of preservation, worked well for pork (meat from pigs) and fish. This method was sometimes combined with smoking for meats. Drying was also common. Vinegar pickles and sugar were also occasionally used to preserve foods.
As the years passed, the Pilgrims began to grow more food than they needed to eat. The colonists traded their extra Indian corn with Native People to get furs. The furs were then sent back to England to be sold. The money they made from selling furs was used to buy many of the goods they imported from England. Farming was not just a way to eat, then, but also a way to get goods that they could trade for sugar, spices, oil, vinegar, clothes, shoes, baskets and gunpowder.
Their lives depended on a good harvest.