On August 15, 1620; the Mayflower and the Speedwell set sail for VIRGINIA.  Unfortunately, after only about 200 miles in the rough waters of the north Atlantic, the Speedwell sprang began taking on water and had to turn back.  The decision to abandon the Speedwell and transfer many of its passengers onto the Mayflower set about a series of events that would ultimately foil their best laid plans and beach the Pilgrims in New England nearly 220 miles from their intended destination. 

After being at sea for nearly two months, with nearly twice as many passengers than they had supplies to feed and more importantly keep hydrated, the Mayflower sighted land.  The ship had been blown far of course, but they did know where they were, but they had a problem and this would end their voyage. The Mayflower had run out of beer.

Sound ridiculous?  Not in a world where water could kill you.  Fresh water was often dangerous to drink.  In most of Europe, the same rivers from which people pulled their drinking water was also the river than drained their sewers.  It was filled with various pathogens like typhoid and cholera.  Drinking water could kill you.  So, people drank brewed and fermented beverages, like beer.

 “Ship’s beer” wasn’t what we drink today.  The alcohol content was lower, and it was consumed because normal water would become brackish and undrinkable during long-trips.  During long periods at sea, people need to consume large quantities of beer in order to stave off dehydration and the combined stores of the Mayflower and the Speedwell were more than enough to sail to Virginia, deliver their passengers and safely sail back with some to spare.  Unfortunately, with the Speedwell returning to England and the extra passengers transferred to the Mayflower, the beer just was sufficient.  They were dangerously low and some beer was required for the crew on the return trip.  There just wasn’t time for the extra travel from Massachusetts Bay to Virginia.  In fact, there given the difficult weather, they couldn’t even sail to the New Amsterdam on the Hudson.  It was Cape Cod or dehydration and certain death.  Captain Christopher Jones had little choice but to recommend a landing near the top of Cape Cod.

William Bradford and his companions “were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer.”  After the Pilgrims were on land and the Pilgrims found the local water difficult to drink (mostly due to fears as the water in Massachusetts was safe) but often frozen.  When Bradford tried to appeal to the captain for some of the remaining beer stock, he was told that he wouldn’t get it “not even if he were my own father.”  So, they had a dilemma.  They had no beer and no barley to brew it with! 

After some careful and cautious learning from the Indians, however, a solution was found – Corn.  “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that[1].”  Yes, you can make beer from just about any grain and it was only a short time before the Plymouth Colony was brewing their own beer and distilling their own whiskey.  In fact, corn was used from the beginning of English settlement for brewing, both at Jamestown and Plymouth.  Even after the colonies were firmly established, barley crops often failed, and the cost of importation was prohibitive.  Corn grew readily in American and made adequate beer.  So next time you think Budweiser is not beer, think again.  Beer brewed with corn is true American Beer!


[1] George Thorpe, 1620


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Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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