Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
26 November 2000 Issue

By Robert Cohen, [email protected]

This is Thanksgiving week, and I'd like to share the actual reason for Thanksgiving with you...and the DAIRY connection! Who were America's first milk drinkers? The PILGRIMS!

The first year in America the Pilgrims had very little for which to be thankful. That first bitter winter they had limited food supplies, poor clothing and crudely built housing. During the months before spring, fifteen of the eighteen married women died as did twenty-two of thirty-eight men. Because of this great trauma of death from starvation, something had to be done to assure the future survival of the colony.

The First Dairy Cows in America

In March of 1624, the first dairy animals came to Plymouth on the ship Charity, which delivered three cows and a bull to the grateful pilgrims. Within a generation every family in America had a dairy cow. Milk from these cows was churned into butter. Will and Ariel Durant who wrote "The Story of Civilization" revealed that a typical dairy cow in the 12th century yielded little milk. One can assume that cows in the 1600s yielded as much milk as cows in the 1300s. In "The Age of Faith, History of Life in the Middle Ages," the Durants wrote:

"Dairy farming was unprogressive; the average cow in the thirteenth century gave little milk, and hardly a pound of butter per week."

Making butter requires 21.2 pounds of milk for each "finished" pound of butter. One quart of milk weighs 2.15 pounds. A dairy cow in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts might have yielded his Pilgrim family "hardly a pound of butter per week." That averaged out to three pounds of milk per day, about a quart and-a-half.

People who believe that early Americans drank milk as a routine part of their diet do not consider how little milk cows gave. Nor do they consider the existence of butter churns. Butter churns weren't hood ornaments for Pilgrim's carriages. Pilgrims used them only for one purpose: to churn milk into butter. That three pounds of milk per day would yield only one-half stick of butter. Imagine fifteen of the eighteen Pilgrim wives dying during the first winter. Imagine the same proportion of the mothers in your community dying from starvation over the winter. You'd need emergency rations to survive. Fat from milk, stored underground, saved for the winter months. Got milk? No way! One-half stick of butter per day, one pound of butter per week, carefully and strenuously churned by a Pilgrim and stored for the cruel New England winter.

Did the Pilgrims drink and store milk in the summer? Milk was loaded with bacteria that quickly spoiled, making it undrinkable. By churning the milk into butter and storing it underground, the fat was saved until it was needed. The Pilgrim experience made it necessary for every family to carefully store food through the bountiful months so that they might survive the hardships of winter. Butter became their insurance policy. It became necessary for every New England family to own a dairy cow. In a few years, that's just what happened.

The Actual Reason For Thanksgiving

Imagine the depression of imminent death by starvation. You come to a new world without food and shelter, haven't bathed in three months and are wearing the same clothes in which you started your voyage. It's December of 1620 and it's snowing, you've sent a landing party ashore and stolen corn from some very angry Abenaki Indians who would like nothing better than to shoot their arrows at you. (Which they did!)

Didn't the Pilgrims bear in mind the Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal?" Obviously not! They left England, seeking religious freedom, or so our school children are taught, and immediately broke one of God's commandments by stealing food from the Indians. How would you handle such fear? By spring, half of your fellows are dead.

Fate and Fat: The Dairy Connection

The Pilgrims had actually planned for the harsh winter of 1620. They sailed from Holland to London to Southampton, England, where they boarded the Mayflower, bringing along their provisions. There was one problem. At this point in their journey, they were broke and they could not pay their bills. Owing 100 English pounds, they couldn't sail until they paid this bill. So they sold some of their provisions, a calculated gamble which put them at the mercy of diminished resources and divine providence. Unfortunately, their resources were inadequate. The bet didn't work. Historian William Bradford relates:

"So they were forced to sell off some of their provisions to stop this gap, which was some three or four-score firkins of butter, commodity they might best spare, having which provided too large a quantity of that kind."

They sold their insurance policy, their food for the winter, their butter, and with it the lives of half of their number. A letter written on August 3, 1620, to the "beloved friends" of these Pilgrims explained:

"We are in such a strait at present, as we are forced to sell away our provisions to clear the haven and withal to put ourselves upon great extremities, scarce having any butter...we are willing to expose ourselves to such eminent dangers as are like to ensue, and trust to the good providence of God..."

They sold the concentrated fat that would have helped them to survive in New England. Had they not sold this treasure, they would have most certainly not starved and suffered the trauma of seeing half their number perish. Would a three-day Thanksgiving have been called for, the following year? All because they sold their butter. How much butter did they intend to bring to the New World? Some "three to four-score firkins." William Bradford, author of "Plymouth Plantation," said that the Pilgrims sold approximately 4,040 pounds of butter. That meant that every man woman and child was rationed 40 pounds of butter. By today's standards, in order to produce those 4,040 pounds of butter they would have required 85,648 quarts of milk. A herd of 100 cows, each producing one quart of milk per day would have taken nearly eight months to produce that much milk. Now, that's a lot of churning!

The Pilgrim diaries reveal the favorite food of the native Americans at the first Thanksgiving. Their food of choice was "rancid butter." One can only imagine the salmonella, E. coli, bovine leukemia, clostridium and colonies of paratuberculosis thriving in that rancid butter. Indians fell in love with the creamy taste of the Pilgrim's butter. They traded furs and fish, meat and land for this much desired commodity. Were flu-stricken Pilgrims sneezing behind trees in the woods responsible for the deaths of one million Abenaki and Wampaunoag? Was it perhaps the Native American's love for the rancid butter, the gift of the bovines? Our day of giving thanks might very well have been their day of destruction.

Robert Cohen
Executive Director
Dairy Education Board

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