Seasons of Starvation and Plenty

Starvation continued beyond the first winter.  After the first year, the late spring through early fall was a time of plenty. Winters remained times of starvation, however, because ships containing new colonists continued to arrive, sent by the Merchant Adventurers in London – the Fortune (1621), and the Anne and the Little James (1623). These people arrived without any food supplies, clothes, or wherewithal for their life in the colony. They were distributed to live in the existing homes and during the winters, food had to be rationed so everyone could eat.

A conjectural image of Bradford, produced as a postcard in 1904 by A.S. Burbank of Plymouth

Bradford wrote of these newcomers there were

“good members to the body”, some being the wives and children of men there already, some since the Fortune came over in 1621. But Bradford also related about those unfit for such a hardship settlement: “And some were so bad, as they were faine to be at charge to send them home again next year.”

So the names of some of the people arriving on these ships disappeared from the colony’s rolls after 1623.

Members of the Plymouth Colony began trading with fishermen and Native tribes in Maine within a few years of their arrival in 1620. In 1622 they dispatched a small expedition by boat to Damariscove Island, where they obtained supplies and food which carried them through a difficult summer until their crops could be harvested. They also had to bargain at various Native American villages for corn.


When starvation was not a problem, the colonists’ diet was a healthy one, helped by knowledge from the Pokanokets (Wampanaugs) who lived around them.

Beans, squash, pumpkin

Sunchokes – a tubular-shaped, thin-skinned root vegetable of the sunflower plant family that’s in season from late fall through early spring. Also called a Jerusalem artichokes.

Corn bread and corn porridge

Wild greens (watercress)

Fowl (duck, swan, goose, turkey)

Mishoons and hunting. Credit: Plimoth-Patuxet (a mishhoon the Wampanoag word for boat, using fire as a tool to hollow out a tree.)


Fish – The Separatists were not big fish eaters. Being farmers, they were meat and bread eaters.

Lobsters, clams and eels. The Separatists loved eels but soon came to regard lobster as food for the poor because of their abundance and the fact they ate a lot of them early on.

Nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, beechnuts) – some of the first food they harvest when they came ashore in Cape Cod Bay.

Wild berries: Cranberries and currants – wild currants are closely related to gooseberries. Currants come in red, black, and gold colors when ripe. North America is host to more than 80 varieties

Once gardens were established: many different kinds of herbs, onions, garlic, and vegetables like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots and turnips.  Also after a few years, they grew cowcumbers (cucumbers).

Water and also beer made from corn


Cooking was done in the fireplace alcove our outside. Baking was done outside in communal ovens. Eventually, they built real fireplaces with ovens in the back and later to the side. How did they know the temperature to cook at? How did they know when their baking was done?

The Separatists initially tried but failed to grow rye, barley and wheat. In the beginning, barley crops often failed, and the cost of importation was prohibitive. Hops were first introduced into this country from Europe by the Massachusetts Company in 1629.

Food plays an important part in my book, The Last Pilgrim.



16 thoughts on “Seasons of Starvation and Plenty”

  1. This posting reeks of fascinating research! I never have a garden without my Jerusalem artichokes. They are a joy throughout the winter months – especially the soup! Apart from the paucity of supplies at times, a lot of what they ate we would these days regard as feast-day-celebrational fare!

      1. I grow globe artichokes (their season started just last week!), Sunchokes, and the Chinese artichoke (that’s a root and looks like a plateful of little white maggots!) All three taste much the same – like an artichoke!!

      1. Yes – they like sun about the same as a sunflower – BUT you must grow it in a large pot/container – else it will take over your whole garden and you can’t get rid of it. At least that is the case in New Zealand.

  2. Love Jerusalem artichokes, but sadly no suitable place for them now. I wonder why the newcomers had no useful implements or stores to bring with them? Had they been shipped out unwillingly?

    1. The Merchant Adventurers did not equip the people they sent with what they would need. Cheap, cheap. The conscripts went willingly but did not have any idea how hard the life would be.

  3. ever tried jellied eels? Next time you’re here Noelle, I’ll take you to a pie and mash shop and you can try that. I think you’ll stick to lobster after! Fascinating post.

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