Keeping food fresh (or even edible) was a problem in colonial times, since neither refrigeration nor tin cans had been invented yet. Preservation and packaging by pickling, smoking, and other means were crude and careless. It was discovered early on that the kinds of provisions which would stand the long voyage on a slow sailing ship were very few. Settlers, in planning their venture to the new world, lived off ship’s supplies while en route, but the challenge was in carrying supplies after disembarking the ship. When colonists landed in America, they expected to fend for themselves, surviving on what they could harvest in the new world. Of the foods they found, the most important were corn, fish, and game. As the years progressed, gardening and husbandry were developed, and livestock and vegetable gardens supplemented their food supplies; but until the new Americans had settled, hunting would play a large part in survival.
Deer were plentiful and remained so for many decades. Some families would live on venison alone for up to nine months of the year. Vast numbers of red and fallow deer roamed the hills and woods of Virginia. One early settler wrote: “Hard by the fort, two hundred in one herd have been usually observed.” At first deer were so devoid of fear, that they would continue to graze as men approached.
At first, the deer were killed for their venison. Later, they were slaughtered wholesale for their hides, which became very valuable to make durable buckskin breeches, jackets, and leggings, a favorite garment acquired from the example of Native Americans. Merchants exported deer hides to Europe. Institutions, such as William and Mary College, benefited from a tax placed on the hides. Fire-hunting was common. Tracts of forests were burned over by starting a continuous circle of fire miles around, which burned in toward the center of the circle. Deer were driven into the middle and hundreds were killed. Natives traded for deer or sold them outright. In Georgia, a deer would fetch sixpence. In New England, a buck would be exchanged for a knife, kettle, or a few iron nails. Our modern term for the dollar, ‘buck’, derived from the eventual value colonists placed on a buck deer.
Turkeys were common and plentiful at first. They came in flocks of a hundred or more and weighed thirty to forty pounds each; some were reported up to sixty pounds. William Penn wrote that they were sold for a shilling apiece. However, by 1700, they were so hunted that the species mainly moved inland and were rarely shot along the coast of New England.
Pigeons darkened the sky and snapped the branches of trees which they lighted upon. They were so plentiful, that they were sold for a penny a dozen in Boston. In the Revolutionary War, American General Montgomery’s soldiers, during their invasion of Canada, shot so many pigeons, that huge piles of birds were heaped up several feet high before butchering. Other birds and waterfowl were plentiful: pheasant, partridge, woodcock, quail, plover, snipe, and curlew. All these were relentlessly shot and over time, dwindled to the extent that some species became extinct.
Wild hare and squirrels were so plentiful that settlers not only consumed them, but considered them pests. In some villages, bounties were placed on the heads of squirrels. The Swedish explorer and botanist, Pehr Kalm, who had been hired by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to travel the colonies and return with seeds and plants that might prove useful to European agriculture, reported that, in the year 1749, the State of Pennsylvania paid out £ 8,000 for heads of black and gray squirrels at threepence a head, meaning that over six hundred thousand squirrels had been killed.
As the number of livestock increased, farms and plantations made use of domestic meat. The busiest month of the year was November which was called the ‘killing time.’ On a chosen day, oxen, cows, and swine, which had been fattened for winter’s stock’s slaughter, were killed early in the morning, when the meat could be hard and cold before pickling or the smoking process began. Sausages and rolliches[i] were made. Lard was tried out[ii] and tallow[iii] saved.
Sausage-meat was cut coarsely into half inch pieces and thrown into wooden boxes about three feet long and ten inches deep. In the first chopping, men used spades which had been ground to a sharp edge. After being sufficiently ground up, the meat was placed in a sausage-stuffer, or sausage-gun, which was a long wooden tube with a piston and handle at one end. Meat was packed in the tube. The piston was replaced and was either twisted or pressed down, forcing the meat out through a nozzle at the other end into what was called ‘sausage-cases.’
Eventually, a family could live off the food that was produced on the farm and then some. A farmer wrote in 1787: “At this time my farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it, and left me one year with another one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm provided all.”
Calhoun, Arthur W. A Social History of the American Family from Colonial Times to the Present. 1918: The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio.
Earle, Alice Morse. Colonial Days in Old New York. 1896: Scribner Publishers, New York, NY.
Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. 1898: Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY.
Stanard, Mary Newton. Colonial Virginia Its People and Customs. 1917: J. B. Lippincott Company Philadelphia, Penn.
Ward, May Alden. Old Colonial Days. 1896: Roberts Brothers, Boston, Mass.
Wharton, Ann Hollingsworth. Colonial Days & Dames. 1894: J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Penn.
Footnotes:[i] Rolliches were made of lean beef and fat cut in pieces about as large as dice, then seasoned with herbs and spices, sewed in tripe and boiled for several hours. The roll was then pressed into an oblong loaf. It was cut and served cold. [ii] To try out: Soft fat is cut into small pieces and put into a kettle with a little water then set to boil over a fire. [iii] Tallow is the fatty tissue or suet of animals. It is melted to make candles, soap, etc.