Pilgrim Homes, Food and Farms

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On 28 December 1620, house plots were assigned to family groups–each family was responsible for building their own house. Once warmer weather set in, their progress was impeded by a request from Captain Miles Standish to build a fort at the top of the hill to house the cannon and arms, followed by a request to erect a 6-9’ palisade around the settlement. This latter was a half-mile in length. Later, everyone was engaged in planting the corn crop and taking care of the new shoots as they came up. This took men away from working on their own houses. By December of 1621, seven houses had been built with four of them for common use.

This is an aerial view of Plimoth-Patuxet, the village as it was circa 1622-23.

Remember, the colonists were not skilled carpenters and lacked tools, so their first houses were fairly crude, just protection from wilds animals and the elements.

They had one door, one window, dirt floors, fireplace, and a wooden chimney (also a fire hazard). In the 1600s and into the 1700s, the typical fireplace was a walk-in, a wide open recess, with only a semblance of a mantel or no mantel at all.

The houses were lined inside with daub and wattle but had no insulation, so they were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. And smoky. They were crowded, sometimes with six or more people.  The windows usually had shutters and were covered over with oiled paper in the winter.

Daub and wattle has been used for at least 6000 years. It is a woven lattice of wooden strips or twigs  called wattle, which is filled in with daub, a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw.

The women planted gardens as soon as possible beside or behind their houses, using seeds they brought with them from England. Some of the seeds did not do well, but onions, garlic, and vegetables like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips did well.  Later they learned to cultivate squash and pumpkin. Separatists initially tried, but failed, to grow rye, barley, and wheat, so corn was their main crop. The Separatists drank water until they learned to use corn to make beer. Hops were first introduced from Europe by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629.

They didn’t have any livestock. Only chickens and maybe a pig or goat came on the Mayflower. The chickens ran free in the settlement and were fed worms because grain could not be spared for them. So the first two years were made more difficult.

Three Red Devon milking cows came only in 1623 – so no milk, no butter, no cheese unless there was a goat or two – but this was not recorded.  The cows came on the Anne and were named Great Black Cow, Lesser Black Cow, and Great White-Backed Cow. That same year, 1623, it was reported that six goats, fifty pigs and many chickens populated the colony.

Remember these early colonists were farmers. They did not like to fish and fish was not on the menu often.  Not that they could fish – the fish hooks sent with them were too large for the type of fish in the harbor!

During the first two years, all of the crop growing was done communally. But not everyone contributed equally, so in 1623, men were then assigned an acre each family for their own farming, with any surplus food contributed to the common supply.  As the colony grew, more land was needed for farming and in 1628, the Plymouth court distributed land, about   20 acres per share, to the colonists. Livestock was also apportioned.

The apportionment of larger farms meant the colonists moved further and further away from the settlement. In time, this led to the establishment of new towns. All of the plots assigned had at least some either ocean or riverfront. That was because there were no roads and the Pilgrims had to return to the settlement for Sunday services. They came by boat. And some maintained their original house in the settlement where they lived in the winter.  By 1624, there were 32 houses in the Plimoth settlement.

All this is the background to my book, The Last Pilgrim.

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