Pilgrim History: What Did the Pilgrims Have to Eat During Their First Years in the New World?

As a run-up to the publication of The Last Pilgrim, I am re-posting blog pieces I wrote earlier about the Separatists. Remember, they were not called ‘Pilgrims’ until named that by William Bradford toward the middle of the 17th century.

When the Separatists finally settled on what is now Plymouth to be their home, their food supplies were spoiled and running low. They had long before run out of fresh water, which they were able to renew from springs they discovered in their explorations of Cape Cod. One of the things this site offered was a brook with good water, which teemed with spawning fish once a year.

The was no livestock on the Mayflower. The only animals mentioned in any historical reports are two dogs, an English mastiff and an English spaniel. However, they must have brought some chickens because chickens wandered freely in the early village and were fed worms because grain was in short supply. Here were possibly some goats and pigs. By 1623, a visitor to the colony reported there were six goats, fifty pigs and many chickens.

The Fortune was the second ship to reach the Plymouth Colony, but other than the passenger manifest, I’ve been unable to find any mention of animals aboard. The first cows arrived on the ship Anne in 1623, and they were nicknamed the ‘Great Black Cow,’ the ‘Lesser Black Cow,’ and the ‘Great White-Backed Cow.’ By 1627, two of them had had calves.  Onboard the Jacob in 1624 were four black heifers. By May 1627, there were 16 head of cattle and at least 22 goats living in the colony.

So the Pilgrims initially had a source of eggs, possibly some pork (after the pigs had offspring) and maybe a bit of goat’s milk; however, they had no butter, milk, cheese or cream. I’ve found no mention of goat cheese. They had no flour, except for what they brought with them, and that would undoubtedly have been moldy after so long in the Mayflower’s lowest deck. After the first year’s corn harvest, they had corn flour for making bread.

They did plant barley (for beer) and peas in the spring of 1621, but the plants did poorly, possibly because, unlike the corn, they lacked fertilizer. The Pilgrims were taught how to grow corn by the Wampanoags, specifically Squanto – two fish were planted with a few corn kernels, and squash was planted around the corn stalks and twined around them as the corn grew, providing the corn with shade from the sun. The Indians also taught them how to fish and hunt. Remember that the Pilgrims were not farmers but craftsmen and tradesmen, used to purchasing their food, and they knew little of survival skills. How amazing is it then, that they survived?

In his journal for the year 1622, William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth colony, recorded the landing of new colonists from England. Bradford confessed that he and his fellow colonists were humiliated because with their limited food resources, that they had little  better to offer the newcomers than lobster.

Pilgrim woman making dinner                                                             from

One thing I’ve found is that Plymouth Harbor teemed with fish of all sorts, and the nearby streams had eels. In fact, I used to play in one of them (aptly named Eel River) when I was a child. There were abundant wild turkeys, swans, geese and ducks, and deer and rabbits in the forests. Plus there were mussels, clams and lobsters – the latter so common that they could be plucked by the bushel from the nearest tidal pool.

In considering what the Pilgrims ate, you must consider what was normal for the time: beer, bread, meat and cheese. English settlers looked on seafood – except for oysters and eels – with scorn.  The Pilgrims wanted meat, not anything from the sea. They weren’t trained as fisherman and had brought the wrong size fish hooks. They had to fashion some when it was clear they would need fish to fertilize their corn and feed their pigs.

With regard to drink, beer was the preferred drink for the whole family, even children. It is possible, from some of what I’ve read, that a few families in Plymouth brewed a small amount of beer from corn in the first years. Most had to drink water, which at that time was considered unhealthy! Eventually the colonists realized their children remained healthy, despite drinking water instead of beer. Cow’s milk was not considered good to drink either, and when it was eventually available it was usually made into butter or cheese, or cooked with grain to make porridges.


From all this, it is clear that one of the Plymouth colonists’ main goal was to get food on their tables, in order to survive. Most of the work that they did — hunting, fishing, farming, gardening, cooking, and taking care of their animals — had to do with getting and preserving food, enough for the whole year.

The women had brought a few spices with them, and they grew onions, garlic, lettuces, carrots, parsnips, squash and pumpkins during their first year in the New World. But imagine a diet without dairy products, flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, wine and barley for beer. While these staples eventually arrived yearly on ships from England, the Pilgrims’ first two years were hard! And yet, after the first winter, they were a hale and hearty population – perhaps because of a healthy diet?



24 thoughts on “Pilgrim History: What Did the Pilgrims Have to Eat During Their First Years in the New World?”

  1. Fascinating, Noelle! I am always amazed by research posts – since so many myths have worked their way into our culture.

    I never really thought about how the Pilgrims would have brought livestock (or not!), or what was available to them after they landed. I just swallowed the stories of what they ate at that first Thanksgiving: turkey, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy and – of course – the green bean casserole (LOL) 🙂
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  2. This is very interesting Noelle. I would have thought the pilgrims would have been better prepared but obviously they were not. They got by and learned though so it all turned out well in the end.

    1. Only half made it through that first year, many of then children. I amazed they were not better prepared, but then they thought they were going to be settling in part of the Virginia land grant and not in the middle of winter. Their only goal for the first several years was survival.

  3. As both an historical researcher and a scientist I wondered how you account for the three cows arriving in 1623 and two of them calving in 1627!!!
    We might think these days we’re more “sophisticated” and would cope so much better than the Plymouth colonists – but how many among us know how to make butter and cheese? and how many would care to wring the head off a chicken? !

    1. lol, Bruce – then, as now, reportage was not always accurate or trustworthy?

      In any case, we don’t seem to be even adequate at cause-and-effect thinking these days, based on the results of our elections, so I doubt we’d fare even half as well.

    2. I think cows was a generic term. I wondered that myself. Unless they borrowed a bull from somewhere. But the Massachusetts Bay Colony wasn’t begun until 1628…

      1. It could’ve been a miracle! I was wondering re water being bad for health – it would be interesting to take where the pilgrims came from and explore their sewerage systems. Perhaps the water was unhealthy back in the Mother Country?

    3. The water there WAS unhealthy, often polluted. So it’s no surprise they had an aversion to it, except for its use in making beer. They were forced to drink it because they ran out of beer.

  4. Fascinating, enjoyable, article. I’m guessing the water over there was somewhat healthier than in towns over here – hence most people drank weak beer in preference (small beer).

  5. Isn’t that fascinating? I had no idea that they didn’t know how to hunt, but it makes sense. And I also assumed that they’d grown wheat right from the start. What didn’t surprise me was the whole family drinking beer. What I’ve learned about medieval Europe (before this time, but not by much) is that the water was often fouled up by waste from humans and animals and could make you sick. Beer and wine were a lot safer. So interesting, Noelle. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Diana! They didn’t have wheat for quite a while but what they really wanted were hops for their beer. I have to explore this a bit for the book. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Utterly fascinating! I never really stopped to think about what the pilgrims ate and how they survived. We take so much for granted. What I found most intriguing in this post is that they considered most seafood beneath them. That was a huge eye-opener.
    Great post, Noelle!

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: