Colonial Hunting & Fishing

FOOD FROM FOREST AND SEA from Home Life in Colonial Days, by Alice Morse Earle, 1898

Though all the early explorers and travellers came to America eager to find precious and useful metals, they did not discover wealth and prosperity underground in mines, but on the top of the earth, in the woods and fields. To the forests they turned for food, and they did not turn in vain. Deer were plentiful everywhere, and venison was offered by the Indians to the first who landed from the ships. Some families lived wholly on venison for nine months of the year. In Virginia were vast numbers of red and fallow deer, the latter like those of England, except in the smaller number of branches of the antlers. They were so devoid of fear as to remain undisturbed by the approach of men; a writer of that day says: “Hard by the Fort two hundred in one herd have been usually observed.” They were destroyed ruthlessly by a system of fire-hunting, in which tracts of forests were burned over, by starting a continuous circle of fire miles around, which burnt in toward the centre of the circle; thus the deer were driven into the middle, and hundreds were killed. This miserable, wholesale slaughter was not for venison, but for the sake of the hides, which were very valuable. They were used to make the durable and suitable buckskin breeches and jackets so much worn by the settlers; and they were also exported to Europe in large numbers. A tax was placed on hides for the support of the beloved William and Mary College.

In Georgia, in 1735, the Indians sold a deer for sixpence. Deer were just as abundant in the more Northern colonies. At Albany a stag was sold readily by the Indians for a jack-knife or a few iron nails. The deer in winter came and fed from the hog-pens of Albany swine. Even in 1695, a quarter of venison could be bought in New York City for ninepence. At the first Massachusetts Thanksgiving, in 1621, the Indians brought in five deer to the colonists for their feast. That year there was also “great store of wild turkies.” These beautiful birds of gold and purple bronze were at first plentiful everywhere, and were of great weight, far larger than our domestic turkeys to-day. They came in flocks of a hundred, Evelyn says of three hundred on the Chesapeake, and they weighed thirty or forty pounds each: Josselyn says he saw one weighing sixty pounds. William Penn wrote that turkeys weighing thirty pounds apiece sold in his day and colony for a shilling only. They were shy creatures and fled inland from the white man, and by 1690 were rarely shot near the coast of New England, though in Georgia, in 1733, they were plentiful enough and cheap enough to sell for fourpence apiece. Flights of pigeons darkened the sky, and broke down the limbs of trees on which they lighted. From Maine to Virginia these vast flocks were seen. Some years pigeons were so plentiful that they were sold for a penny a dozen in Boston. Pheasant, partridge, woodcock, and quail abounded, plover, snipe, and curlew were in the marsh-woods; in fact, in Virginia every bird familiar to Englishmen at home was found save peacock and domestic fowl.

Wild hare and squirrels were so many that they became pests, and so much grain was eaten by them that bounties were paid in many towns for the heads of squirrels. County treasuries were exhausted by these premiums. The Swedish traveller, Kalm, said that in Pennsylvania in one year, 1749, £8000 was paid out for heads of black and gray squirrels, at threepence a head, which would show that over six hundred thousand were killed.

From the woods came a sweet food-store, one specially grateful when sugar was so scarce and so high-priced,—wild honey, which the colonists eagerly gathered everywhere from hollow tree-trunks. Curiously enough, the traveller, Kalm, insisted that bees were not native in America, but were brought over by the English; that the Indians had no name for them and called them English flies.

Governor Berkeley of Virginia, writing in 1706, called the maple the sugar-tree; he said:—

“The Sugar-Tree yields a kind of Sap or Juice which by boiling is made into Sugar. This Juice is drawn out, by wounding the Trunk of the Tree, and placing a Receiver under the Wound. It is said that the Indians make one Pound of Sugar out of eight Pounds of the Liquor. It is bright and moist with a full large Grain, the Sweetness of it being like that of good Muscovada.”

The sugar-making season was ever hailed with delight by the boys of the household in colonial days, who found in this work in the woods a wonderful outlet for the love of wild life which was strong in them. It had in truth a touch of going a-gypsying, if any work as hard as sugaring-off could have anything common with gypsy life. The maple-trees were tapped as soon as the sap began to run in the trunk and showed at the end of the twigs; this was in late winter if mild, or in the earliest spring. A notch was cut in the trunk of the tree at a convenient height from the ground, usually four or five feet, and the running sap was guided by setting in the notch a semicircular basswood spout cut and set with a special tool called a tapping-gauge. In earlier days the trees were “boxed,” that is, a great gash cut across the side and scooped out and down to gather the sap. This often proved fatal to the trees, and was abandoned. A trough, usually made of a butternut log about three feet long, was dug out, Indian fashion, and placed under the end of the spout. These troughs were made deep enough to hold about ten quarts. In later years a hole was bored in the tree with an augur; and sap-buckets were used instead of troughs.

Sometimes these troughs were left in distant sugar-camps from year to year, turned bottom side up, through the summer and winter. It was more thrifty and tidy, however, to carry them home and store them. When this was done, the men and boys began work by drawing the troughs and spouts and provisions to the woods on hand-sleds. Sometimes a mighty man took in a load on his back. It is told of John Alexander of Brattleboro, Vermont, that he once went into camp upon snowshoes carrying for three miles one five-pail iron kettle, two sap-buckets, an axe and trappings, a knapsack, four days’ provisions, and a gun and ammunition.

The master of ceremonies—the owner of the camp—selected the trees and drove the spouts, while the boys placed the troughs. Then the snow had to be shovelled away on a level spot about eighteen or twenty feet square, in which strong forked sticks were set twelve feet apart. Or the ground was chosen so that two small low-spreading and strong trees could be trimmed and used as forks. A heavy green stick was placed across from fork to fork, and the sugaring-off kettles, sometimes five in number, hung on it. Then dry wood had to be gathered for the fires; hard work it was to keep them constantly supplied. It was often cut a year in advance. As the sap collected in the troughs it was gathered in pails or buckets which, hung on a sap-yoke across the neck, were brought to the kettles and the sap set a-boiling down. When there was a “good run of sap,” it was usually necessary to stay in the camp over night. Many times the campers stayed several nights. As the “good run” meant milder weather, a night or two was not a bitter experience; indeed, I have never heard any one speak nor seen any account of a night spent in a sugar-camp except with keen expressions of delight. If possible, the time was chosen during a term of moonlight; the snow still covered the fields and its pure shining white light could be seen through the trees.

“God makes sech nights, so white and still
Fer’s you can look and listen.
Moonlight an’ snow, on field and hill,
All silence and all glisten.”

The great silence, broken only by steady dropping of the sap, the crackle of blazing brush, and the occasional hooting of startled owls; the stars seen singly overhead through the openings of the trees, shining down the dark tunnel as bright as though there were no moon; above all, the clearness and sweetness of the first atmosphere of spring,—gave an exaltation of the senses and spirit which the country boy felt without understanding, and indeed without any formulated consciousness.

If the camp were near enough to any group of farmhouses to have visitors, the last afternoon and evening in camp was made a country frolic. Great sled-loads of girls came out to taste the new sugar, to drop it into the snow to candy, and to have an evening of fun.

Long ere the full riches of the forests were tested the colonists turned to another food-supply,—the treasures of the sea.

The early voyagers and colonists came to the coasts of the New World to find gold and furs. The gold was not found by them nor their children’s children in the land which is now the United States, till over two centuries had passed from the time of the settlement, and the gold-mines of California were opened. The furs were at first found and profitably gathered, but the timid fur-bearing animals were soon exterminated near the settlements. There was, however, a vast wealth ready for the colonists on the coast of the New World which was greater than gold, greater than furs; a wealth ever-obtainable, ever-replenished, ever-useful, ever-salable; it was fish. The sea, the rivers, the lakes, teemed with fish. Not only was there food for the settlers, but for the whole world, and all Europe desired fish to eat. The ships of the early discoverer, Gosnold, in 1602, were “pestered with cod.” Captain John Smith, the acute explorer, famous in history as befriended by Pocahontas, went to New England, in 1614, to seek for whale, and instead he fished for cod. He secured sixty thousand in one month; and he wrote to his countrymen, “Let not the meanness of the word fish distaste you, for it will afford as good gold as the mines of Guiana or Potosi, with less hazard and charge, and more certainty and facility.” This promise of wealth has proved true a thousandfold. Smith wrote home to England full accounts of the fisheries, of the proper equipment of a fishing-vessel, of the methods of fishing, the profits, all in a most enticing and familiar style. He said in his Description of New England:—

“What pleasure can be more than to recreate themselves before their owne doores in their owne boates, upon the Sea, where man, woman, and childe, with a small hooke and line by angling, may take diverse sorts of excellent fish, at their pleasure? And is it not pretty sport to pull up twopence, sixpence, or twelvepence, as fast as you can hale and veare a line? If a man worke but three days in seaven hee may get more than hee can spend unless hee will be excessive.

“Young boyes and girles, salvages, or any other, be they never such idlers may turne, carry, and returne fish without shame or either great pain: hee is very idle that is past twelve years of age and cannot doe so much: and shee is very old that cannot spin a thread to catch them.”

His accounts and similar ones were so much read in England that when the Puritans asked King James of England for permission to come to America, and the king asked what profit would be found by their emigration, he was at once answered, “Fishing.” Whereupon he said in turn, “In truth ’tis an honest trade; ’twas the apostles’ own calling.” Yet in spite of their intent to fish, the first English ships came but poorly provided for fishing, and the settlers had little success at first even in getting fish for their own food. Elder Brewster of Plymouth, who had been a courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s time, and had seen and eaten many rich feasts, had nothing to eat at one time but clams. Yet he could give thanks to God that he was “permitted to suck of the abundance of the seas and the treasures hid in the sand.” The Indian Squanto showed the Pilgrims many practical methods of fishing, among them one of treading out eels from the brook with his feet and catching them with his hands. And every ship brought in either cod-hooks and lines, mackerel-hooks and lines, herring-nets, seines, shark-hooks, bass-nets, squid-lines, eel-pots, coils of rope and cable, “drails, barbels, pens, gaffs,” or mussel-hooks.

Josselyn, in his New England’s Rarities, written in 1672, enumerated over two hundred kinds of fish that were caught in New England waters.

Lobsters certainly were plentiful enough to prevent starvation. The minister Higginson, writing of lobsters at Salem, said that many of them weighed twenty-five pounds apiece, and that “the least boy in the plantation may catch and eat what he will of them.” In 1623, when the ship Anne arrived from England, bringing many of the wives and children of the Pilgrims who had come in the first ships, the only feast of welcome that the poor husbands had to offer the newcomers was “a lobster or a piece of fish without bread or anything else but a cup of spring water.”

Patriarchal lobsters five and six feet long were caught in New York Bay. The traveller, Van der Donck, says “those a foot long are better for serving at table.” Truly a lobster six feet long would seem a little awkward to serve on a dinner table. Eddis, in his Letters from America, written in 1792, says these vast lobsters were caught in New York waters until Revolutionary days, when “since the incessant cannonading, they have entirely forsaken the coast; not one having been taken or seen since the commencement of hostilities.” Beside these great shell-fish the giant lobster confined in our New York Aquarium in 1897 seems but a dwarf. In Virginia waters lobsters were caught, and vast crabs, often a foot in length and six inches broad, with a long tail and many legs. One of these crabs furnished a sufficient meal for four men.

From the gossiping pages of the Labadist missionaries who came to America in 1697 we find hints of good fare in oysters in Brooklyn.

“Then was thrown upon the fire, to be roasted, a pail full of Gowanes oysters which are the best in the country. They are fully as good as those of England, better than those we eat at Falmouth. I had to try some of them raw. They are large and full, some of them not less than a foot long. Others are young and small. In consequence of the great quantities of them everybody keeps the shells for the burning of lime. They pickle the oysters in small casks and send them to Barbados.”

Van der Donck corroborates the foot-long oysters seen by the Labadist travellers. He says the “large oysters roasted or stewed make a good bite,”—a very good bite, it would seem to us.

Strachey, in his Historie of Travaile into Virginia, says he saw oysters in Virginia that were thirteen inches long. Fortunately for the starving Virginians, oyster banks rose above the surface at ebb-tide at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, and in 1609 a large number of these famished Virginia colonists found in these oyster banks a means of preservation of life.

As might be expected of any country so intersected with arms of the sea and fresh-water streams, Virginia at the time of settlement teemed with fish. The Indians killed them in the brooks by striking them with sticks, and it is said the colonists scooped them up in frying-pans. Horses ridden into the rivers stepped on the fish and killed them. In one cast of a seine the governor, Sir Thomas Dale, caught five thousand sturgeon as large as cod. Some sturgeon were twelve feet long. The works of Captain John Smith, Rolfe’s Relation, and other books of early travellers, all tell of the enormous amount of fish in Virginia.

The New York rivers were also full of fish, and the bays; their plenty in New Netherland inspired the first poet of that colony to rhyming enumeration of the various kinds of fish found there; among them were sturgeon—beloved of the Indians and despised of Christians; and terrapin—not despised by any one. “Some persons,” wrote the Dutch traveller, Van der Donck, in 1656, “prepare delicious dishes from the water terrapin, which is luscious food.” The Middle and Southern states paid equally warm but more tardy tribute to the terrapin’s reputation as luscious food.

While other fish were used everywhere for food, cod was the great staple of the fishing industry. By the year 1633 Dorchester and Marblehead had started in the fisheries for trading purposes. Sturgeon also was caught at a little later date, and bass and alewives.

Morton, in his New England Canaan, written in 1636, says, “I myself at the turning of the tyde have seen such multitudes of sea bass that it seemed to me that one might goe over their backs dri-shod.”

The regulation of fish-weirs soon became an important matter in all towns where streams let alewives up from the sea. The New England ministers took a hand in promoting and encouraging the fisheries, as they did all positive social movements and commercial benefits. Rev. Hugh Peter in Salem gave the fisheries a specially good turn. Fishermen were excused from military training, and portions of the common stock of corn were assigned to them. The General Court of Massachusetts exempted “vessels and stock” from “country charges” (which were taxes) for seven years. Seashore towns assigned free lands to each boat to be used for stays and flakes for drying. As early as 1640 three hundred thousand dried codfish were sent to market from New England.

Codfish consisted of three sorts, “marchantable, middling, and refuse.” The first grade was sold chiefly to Roman Catholic Europe, to supply the constant demands of the fast-days of that religion, and also those of the Church of England; the second was consumed at home or in the merchant vessels of New England; the third went to the negroes of the West Indies, and was often called Jamaica fish. The dun-fish or dumb-fish, as the word was sometimes written, were the best; so called from the dun-color. Fish was always eaten in New England for a Saturday dinner; and Mr. Palfrey, the historian, says that until this century no New England dinner on Saturday, even a formal dinner party, was complete without dun-fish being served.

Of course the first fishing-vessels had to be built and sent from England. Some carried fifty men. They arrived on the coast in early spring, and by midsummer sailed home. The crew had for wages one-third share of the fish and oil; another third paid for the men’s food, the salt, nets, hooks, lines, etc.; the other third went to the ship’s owners for profit.

This system was not carried out in New England. There, each fisherman worked on “his own hook”—and it was literally his own hook; for a tally was kept of the fish caught by each man, and the proceeds of the trip were divided in proportion to the number of fish each caught. When there was a big run of fish, the men never stopped to eat or sleep, but when food was held to them gnawed it off while their hands were employed with the fish-lines. With every fishing-vessel that left Gloucester and Marblehead, the chief centres of the fishing industries, went a boy of ten or twelve to learn to be a skilled fisherman. He was called a “cut-tail,” for he cut a wedge-shaped bit from the tail of every fish he caught, and when the fish were sorted out the cut-tails showed the boy’s share of the profit.

For centuries, fish was plentiful and cheap in New England. The traveller Bennet wrote of Boston, in 1740:—

“Fish is exceedingly cheap. They sell a fine cod, will weigh a dozen pounds or more, just taken out of the sea for about twopence sterling. They have smelts, too, which they sell as cheap as sprats in London. Salmon, too, they have in great plenty, and these they sell for about a shilling apiece which will weigh fourteen or fifteen pounds.”

Two kinds of delicious fish, beloved, perhaps, above all others to-day,—salmon and shad,—seem to have been lightly regarded in colonial days. The price of salmon—less than a penny a pound—shows the low estimation in which it was held in the early years of the eighteenth century. It is told that farm-laborers in the vicinity of the Connecticut River when engaged to work stipulated that they should have salmon for dinner but once a week.

Shad were profoundly despised; it was even held to be somewhat disreputable to eat them; and the story is told of a family in Hadley, Massachusetts, who were about to dine on shad, that, hearing a knock at the door, they would not open it till the platter holding the obnoxious shad had been hidden. At first they were fed chiefly to hogs. Two shad for a penny was the ignoble price in 1733, and it was never much higher until after the Revolution. After shad and salmon acquired a better reputation as food, the falls of various rivers became great resorts for American fishermen as they had been for the Indians. Both kinds of fish were caught in scoop-nets and seines below the falls. Men came from a distance and loaded horses and carts with the fish to carry home. Every farmhouse near was filled with visitors. It was estimated that at the falls at South Hadley there were fifteen hundred horses in one day.

Salted fish was as carefully prepared and amiably regarded for home use in New England and New York as in England and Holland at the same date. The ling and herring of the old countries of Europe gave place in America to cod, shad, and mackerel. The greatest pains was taken in preparing, drying, and salting the plentiful fish. It is said that in New York towns, such as New York and Brooklyn, after shad became a popular fish, great heaps were left when purchased at each door, and that the necessary cleaning and preparation of the shad was done on the street. As all housewives purchased shad and salted and packed at about the same time, those public scavengers, the domestic hogs who roamed the town streets unchecked (and ever welcomed), must have been specially useful at shad-time.

Not in the waters, but of it, were the magnificent tribes of marine fowl that, undiminished by the feeble weapons and few numbers of the Indians, had peopled for centuries the waters of the New World. The Chesapeake and its tributaries furnished each autumn vast feeding-grounds of wild celery and other aquatic plants to millions of those creatures. The firearms of Captain John Smith and his two companions were poor things compared with the fowling-pieces of to-day, but with their three shots they killed a hundred and forty-eight ducks at one firing. The splendid wild swan wheeled and trumpeted in the clear autumn air; the wild geese flew there in their beautiful V-shaped flight; duck in all the varieties known to modern sportsmen—canvas-back, mallard, widgeon, redhead, oxeye, dottrel—rested on the Chesapeake waters in vast flocks a mile wide and seven miles long. Governor Berkeley named also brant, shell drake, teal, and blewings. The sound of their wings was said to be “like a great storm coming over the water.” For centuries these ducks have been killed by the white man, and still they return each autumn to their old feeding-places.