Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.

These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.

Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military img_0936defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.

The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:

Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.

Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.

Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”

Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.

Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.

Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.


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.

Pilgrims and Puritans

PilgrimsIt’s easy to get them confused. From our 21st century vantage point the Puritans and Pilgrims look much the same. They were both from England, braving the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the new world in pursuit of religious freedom. Both had issues with the Church of England and were looking for a place where they could worship according to their beliefs and principles. They both settled in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans in Salem nine years later. Both were part of the Protestant Reformation and they both wanted change.

But they weren’t the same. Puritans and Pilgrims were distinct groups with fundamentally different approaches to the religious issues of their day.

In England, the Church of England was the only legal church. Everyone who lived in England was a member of the church parish in their community whether they wanted to be or not. The worship services were read and there was little or no preaching. Parish priests were assigned to communities and individual priests were often their “living” as a political favor to a family. Church members had no voice in this.

It’s not surprising that there were calls for change. The difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims was their approach. Puritans wanted to reform, or “purify” the Church of England from within, while the Pilgrims were “separatists” who had given up on the possibility of reform and wanted to establish their own separate church.

In Plymouth Colony, the separatists favored a congregational approach to church government, which came to be known as the Congregational Way. Instead of including everyone who lived in a community, no matter their belief or personal character, the Pilgrims believed that only committed Christians should belong to a “gathered” church. These believers were bound together by a covenant with God. Instead of a church hierarchy and appointed priests, each congregation had the power to choose and ordain its own minister, and to accept or dismiss individual members.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, the Church of England was still the official church and everyone was under the jurisdiction of the parish. But since there were no bishops or other hierarchy in the colony to support the Church of England bureaucracy, they became, in a sense, de facto separatists.

Eventually, both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies embraced the Congregational Way. Despite their differences, their faith and their physical distance from England drew them together in a new land.

A Dwelling Place

Late Summer 068When the Puritans came to New England, one of their first concerns was shelter.  They planned to build wood-framed houses with thatched roofs, like the ones they’d left in England.  But there was a period of several months during which they had to find other shelter while erecting those houses. They used what they could find: tents and caves and holes dug in the ground. There is even a record of a family living in empty ship casks.  Late Summer 062They also built huts and “hovels,” modeled after peasant country dwellings in England and similar to the sod houses of the westward expansion that would take place generations later. These were sometimes described as “wigwam-shaped,” because they resembled the house forms of their Native American neighbors.

The Puritans had brought with them their house-building tools, and as soon as possible they began constructing frame houses. They trimmed tree logs into rectangular posts and beams for framing and cut grasses and reeds from the coastal marshes to make thatch.  They fashioned their house walls of wattle and daub – a woven lattice of sticks inside the frame Late Summer 067filled with a mortar made of clay and dirt.  They covered the exterior walls with clapboards – thin boards split from tree logs and nailed over the frame.

These first frame houses were small, often with only one room in which all the indoor activities took place. They ate and worked there.  They slept there on mattresses stuffed with straw, corn, or feathers, which were rolled up during the day. Sometimes there was a loft above the room used to hse interior2store food and other goods.  The floor was usually hard-packed earth. The small early windows lacked glass, and were closed with a wooden shutter.  The hearth dominated one end of the room. Large enough to step into, it’s where women spent much of their time, usually maintaining several small fires at once.  Chimneys, when present, were built of wood and clay like the rest of the house.  The interiors were smoky and dark.  And cold in the winter.

Over time, as an owner’s fortune grew, rooms were added, and a second story built.  Often a lean-to was attached to the back of the house, creating the distinctive “salt box” profile of early New England architecture. 

wetu At the time of European-Indian contact, Native American tribes in southern New England lived in settled villages and practiced agriculture.  They also hunted.  In the spring they burned the undergrowth in the woods, making travel easier and encouraging the growth of game-attracting plants.  In some places the hunting lands were so carefully managed that deer could be spotted at a distance of more than a mile.  About every ten years, when the soil was depleted, the villagers moved together to a new location.  They lived in extended family groups in domed longhouses in the winter and usually moved into single-family circular wetus (also known as wigwams) for the spring and summer.

smoke hole The men gathered saplings and stripped off the bark to form the wetu frames.  The sapling bark was then split and used to tie the frame together.  A small wetu required about forty saplings.  The wetu frame was covered with sheets of bark in winter, or with double-sided mats woven of dried reeds in summer.  A smoke hole was built into the center of the roof, situated directly over the fire pit.  Sheets of bark were arranged above the smoke hole to shelter it from rain or snow, sheets which could be adjusted as needed.

Late Summer 027 Inside, multi-purpose platforms were built that were used for everything from storage to sitting and sleeping.  At night they slept under animal skins that were used for sitting on or wearing during the day. Woven mats made of bulrushes lined the wetu interiors.  A pot of succotash almost always simmered over the central fire.

Late Summer 023In the early days of the colony, the dwellings of these two groups were remarkably similar in size and comfort.  There was at least one important difference, though. The round design of the wetus increased their energy-efficiency.  When colonists chanced to sleep in wetus in cold weather, they remarked on how remarkably warm they were compared to their own English homes.


The Forgotten War

ImageWe Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win.  We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.”  References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech.  It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war.  But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books.  And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.

King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England.  A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England.  They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies.  Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast.  They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom.  They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose.  And they wanted land.

It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed.  Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more.  The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.

The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in.  As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.

The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions.  When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically.  He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies.  With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.

Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth.  His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English.  When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.

Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation.  Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.

Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed .  The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000.  The natives, however, fared far worse.  One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000.  More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.

After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes.  They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region.  It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.

They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.  It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War.  Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.