Native American Cuisine Saves the Colonists


By Dale Carson

(c) Connecticut Explored Spring 2006

Subscribe/Buy the Issue!

All images courtesy of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, UConn

In 1620, English Separatists came ashore at Plymouth, Massachusetts. These newcomers arrived in a land of plenty — if only they knew how to take advantage of its bounty. The 101 souls of Plymouth Plantation would have died out that first winter had it not been for Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his people.

The indigenous peoples taught the early colonist culinary survival techniques and deeply influenced their traditional diet. In turn, the colonists introduced the Native Americans to European foods. Today we might recognize this blend as the first fusion cuisine in America.

The colonist’s English diet largely consisted of meat, fish, and bread. There was abundant game, both large and small, and the shoreline teemed with fish and shellfish. But the newcomers were not able to recognize local edible plants and vegetables. In addition, the storm-swept sea journey, lingering disease that claimed half their number, and a severe New England winter took a heavy toll on the group. It was the Wampanoag who introduced the colonists to the variety of edible plants and vegetables. They taught the English how to plant the “Three Sisters” — corn, beans, and squash — and how to identify and harvest chestnuts, watercress, strawberries, wild grapes, jerusalem artichokes, and various shoots and roots that were indigenous foods. The term vegetable was not in use yet; edible plants were called herbs, roots, or wallet and were generally cooked to death or served raw. 

The colonists brought wheat, oats, rice, and other grains to the table, along with sugar and molasses from Europe. They also brought cabbage, turnips, and other root crops. In turn, the Native Americans shared their cornmeal and other flours made from acorns, cattails, and amaranth. Maple sugar and syrup were the sweeteners most often used in Native cooking. 

Crab apples were indigenous to North American, but they were so bitter that the Native people did not place much value on them as a food. Ten years after the colonists came to Massachusetts, the first apple seedlings were brought to this country toy the colonists. Soon apple trees were common in both colonial and Native gardens. Dutch explorers sailing on Long Island Sound in the early 1700s noted orderly orchards all along the shoreline of Rhode Island and Connecticut. Birds and wind carried the seeds westward, and as the Europeans moved that direction themselves they found wild apple trees growing in the northwestern woodlands. 

Apples were cherished by the colonists not just as fruit but for the cider they yielded. Cheap and plentiful, cider became a staple drink in New England. When it “hardened,” it became an intoxicating beverage, even more so when colonists mixed it with rum. The introduction of hard cider was not good for Native people, who had no experience with intoxicants and therefore no tolerance for intoxication’s effects. Until they sampled hard cider, Native people had generally consumer herbal teas made from indigenous plants such as sassafras, birch, maple, mints, reships, bee balm, and elderberry. Coffee and cocoa are both indigenous to the Americas but were not known to the Native people of New England in early colonial times. The first known coffee house in colonial America was opened in Boston in 1670; that establishment also served hot chocolate. 

Many of th Native Americans who lived in Connecticut in the early 17th century were not easy to distinguish by tribal group. Many tribes were collectively called “River Indians” because they lived on both sides of the Connecticut River. Other tribes of note also lived along the other rivers of this state; the Pequots along the Thames, Hammonassets along that river; Quinnipiacs gave their name to that river, and so on. The northwest woodland hills of Connecticut were virtually uninhabited at that time because of raids by the Mohawks of New York State. By the end of the 1700s the Mohawks had ceased their excursions eastward, and tribes from all over Connecticut began to relocate to the northwest of the state. 

Native Americans of Connecticut were, and are, skillful cooks and quite adept at preserving food by various means to sustain themselves during the harsh winters. The primary methods of preservation were drying and smoking. Squash and pumpkin were sliced in large rings and hung; corn, cranberries, beans, mushrooms, and other delights were also dried. Many foods were buried in bark or skin containers to be retrieved as needed.

A goodly amount of inter-marriage between colonists and Native Americans occurred. The Europeans brought with them iron pots, freeing Indian women from using birchbark containers and clay pots and greatly extending their natural cooking ability. Colonial women learned much about seasonings from the herbs and fruits Native women taught them to identify and use. The culinary melding of these two cultures produced some unusual and delicious recipes that we all enjoy today. 

The Europeans took Native American foods and seeds — crops like maize, potatoes, wild rice, amaranth, tomatoes, cacao, and peppers — to other parts of the world. These Native American agricultural products now feed millions. It would be a wonderful thing if the broad contributions of these indigenous foods and cooking methods of modern Native American culture were better understood. Some Native American foods have become so integrated in the culture at large that their origin is blurred. For example, Boston baked beans and New England clam chowder historically derived from the Native cupboard. What would pizza be without the tomato, or French fries without the potato, dessert without vanilla flavor? But who ever stops to consider these ingredients’ origins in Native American cooking?

Dale Carson is of Abenaki descent and is the author of Native New England Cooking (Peregrine Press, 1980), New Native American Cooking, and A Dreamcatcher Book. She was the weekly food columnist for Indian Country Today.


Read more about Native Americans in Connecticut on our TOPICS page.

Read more food stories on our TOPICS page.



Comments are closed.