Starving Time

It’s been a hard winter here in New England. The city of Boston is still struggling to cope with record-breaking snow accumulations. In my corner of Vermont, we haven’t seen bare ground since early December. And the cold has been unrelenting. Last night the temperature fell to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

fox hunting groundIn the last few weeks, our yard has been increasingly filled with the tracks of wild animals, which has heightened my awareness that, as challenging as this winter has been for us humans, it’s nothing compared to the life-threatening hunger faced by animals.

When our water pipes froze last week and we were without running water for about 24 hours, it also prompted me to wonder what the Puritans did for water in the winter. A simple question maybe, but when I went looking I couldn’t find a ready answer. I know they dug wells and often lived close to rivers and streams, so probably one of their many daily chores was chopping ice to access water. It’s one of those time-consuming seasonal tasks that now hardly merits a mention in history books.

We know that the settlers of Plymouth Colony suffered terribly in the harsh winter of Untitled-11620. They called it the “starving time” and nearly half of them died. Possibly they all would have perished without the help of generous Native Americans. They learned a vital lesson: in New England, you have to prepare for winter.

In the 17th century, getting ready for winter meant stocking food. Nuts, seeds, root vegetables, grains, and legumes were harvested and stored. Domestic animals were slaughtered in the fall, since it wasn’t practical to feed them through the Untitled-2winter. Their flesh was preserved through salting and smoking. The daily winter menu was bread, cheese, beans, and meat boiled with whatever root vegetables were available.

As many pundits have commented, we 21st century Americans look kind of silly packing t grocery store to stock up on bread and milk whenever there’s news of a coming snowstorm. Very few of us are likely to be snowed in for more than a day. But instead of feeling embarrassed, maybe we should see it as a variation of a long and life-giving winter tradition: be prepared.

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2 thoughts on “Starving Time

  1. I wrote about the Pilgrim Fathers in my book One Small Candle. From my research the winter of 1620 does not appear to have been as bad as you are experiencing now. Yes, it came as a shock to them. With no houses or shelter ashore until they built the first communal hall, and having run out of provisions on the ship, they struggled. Worse, there was an outbreak of some kind of virus (pneumonia?) which killed half of them off. The weather then seems to have been changeable – bitterly cold sometimes, with snow, or sleet, or even rain. During that winter, the Wampanoag kept their distance, afraid of these newcomers. If the settlers had not discovered some stashes of corn and strawberries, they would have perished. They kept the Mayflower with them until the spring, so that they had some sort of shelter, even though fires were not allowed on board. How any of them survived at all is a miracle – God must have been with them! As for what they did for water, the record does not show, but you were probably right. They must have had to melt ice.

    • Thanks, Evelyn. I was a little surprised I couldn’t find anything specific about how they got water in the winter. When our pipes froze and we were without water for awhile, we melted snow (not to drink, though!) and it took forever. The water we’d stored in gallon jugs in the garage had frozen solid. Keeping hauled water from freezing was probably just something they did – one of the many labor-intensive tasks they rarely (if ever) commented on. The information must be out there somewhere – I just haven’t found it. Yet.

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