Don't believe the Pilgrims' beer myth
"We could not now take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beer." – Mayflower diary, 1620.
It is one of the grand chapters of America's storied beer history: Having survived more than two brutal months at sea in their voyage to the New World, the Pilgrims finally set anchor at Plymouth Rock, forced to find dry land because their barrels were empty.
And, thus, the very founding of our nation and the story of Thanksgiving itself was a product of nothing less than man's basic need for a refreshing mug of beer.
Great story, one that has been repeated for years in history books, newspaper stories, TV documentaries and even school plays.
Unfortunately, it's a myth.
Author and beer historian Bob Skilnik maintains it's absurd to believe the Pilgrims anchored simply because they had run out of beer. Aside from making them sound like drunken frat boys on a transatlantic beer cruise, historical documents indicate they had other priorities.
"In actuality, there was plenty of beer still on board for crew members who had to make the return passage to England," said Skilnik, author of "Beer & Food: An American History" (Jefferson Press, 2007).
The diary entry is contained in the chronicles of the voyage written by William Bradford, the settlers' leader. The entire passage is revealing:
"That night we returned again a-shipboard, with resolution the next morning to settle on some of these places; so in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution: to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take the time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it is now the 19th of December."
Expeditionary crews sent from the anchored ship had been checking the lay of the land for weeks, looking for a suitable place to build homes.
Yes, food and supplies had run low. But more importantly, Skilnik noted, the cold was brutal, passengers were dying and the ship's crew wanted to return to Europe.
Meanwhile, there was fowl and fresh water waiting on shore.
It wasn't the shortage of beer that finally prompted the Pilgrims to give up the ship, Skilnik said. It was plain common sense.
So how did the myth become fact?
In the early 1900s, with Prohibition looming, Anheuser-Busch launched an advertising campaign to promote beer as a part of America's founding heritage. A 1908 full-page Budweiser ad in the Washington Post, for example, champions beer as "the drink of the great" and notes how our "Pilgrim fathers drank it."
In other words, banning beer would be downright un-American.
After Prohibition, the message grew even slicker, with an annual Thanksgiving publicity campaign from the U.S. Brewers Association. Each Thanksgiving throughout the 1930s and '40s, newspaper readers were treated to features with headlines like, "Beer, Not Turkey, Lured Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock."
On that first Thanksgiving of 1621, though, it's doubtful that beer filled the pilgrims' cups, for the season's barley crop was described as "indifferent." More likely, they were drinking wine made with wild grapes.
Still, this is one of those myths that's unlikely to die, if only because the more historically accurate alternative – noted in a poem of the era – isn't terribly appealing:
"If barley be wanting to make into malt,
"We must be content and think it no fault.
"For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
"Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips."