What our ancestors ate

In his 1834 book, History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton, Joseph B. Felt wrote in 1834, “Before Agawam was peopled by the English, it had fields of corn planted by the Indians. No doubt but that the primitive settlers of Ipswich either brought other sorts of grain with them, or obtained some to plant from their neighbours. As early as 1629, the officers of the Massachusetts Company wrote to John Endicott, ‘We have sent grayne for seed, wheat, barley, and rye in the chaff.’

“These, along with oats have been continually cultivated in larger or smaller quantities, according to the demand and seasons for them. Such grain has fallen and risen in price as corn has. It has been observed, that, when rye was mildewed, barley was not; and when the latter was so blasted, the former escaped. English grain is found to be better when sown in the fall than in the spring. It was long ago discovered, that grain of this kind would suffer a blight when growing near barberry bushes in flower. Before the Revolution, when beer was more commonly used than afterwards, barley was raised here in considerable quantities and made into malt for brewing. The fact that the several kinds of grain, except corn, were exotics, and brought from England, has given them the name of English for about two centuries.


“Fruits such of these as grow spontaneously in our woods and other wild lands, are natural to the soil, and often served to regale Indians long before the English came among them. Of this kind, which once abounded, but are now scarce, were mulberries, strawberries, black and red currants. We are told that the plums, which are found on Plumb Island, were plenty, many years since, in various parts of the town. Fruits from Europe, such as apples and pears, began to be cultivated immediately after the arrival of our ancestors hither. In 1649 their records speak of orchards among them.


“Of the esculent vegetables, which our fathers found cultivated by Indians, are pumpkins, watermelons, beans, and peas. To them were added others from European seed, which are generally found in our gardens. Potatoes, though of American origin, were not cultivated in this town till 1733, and then but seldom. They were kept as a rarity, to eat with roast meat. They were at first planted in beds, as beets and carrots. Three bushels of them were considered a large crop for one farmer’s family. Now a hundred bushels of them are not thought so much of, as one was then. Before potatoes came into use, turnips were raised abundantly and supplied the place, which the former now do. Sweet potatoes were imported from Bermuda into Boston as early as 1636; it seems that no efforts were made here to cultivate this species of potatoes.

“Deer were abundant at the first coming of our ancestors. As they were valuable, they were often hunted. In 1739, the law for preserving deer was read before the town, and they chose two persons to see it executed. In 1770 it was voted, that the deer-reeves of Ipswich join with those of other towns, to prevent these animals in Chebacco Woods from being extirpated. A few of them were seen here as late as 1790. Soon after this, they disappeared.

“Among domesticated quadrupeds, such of these, as were formerly in common use, but not in modern years, are the goat and the ass. Ipswich, having good grazing land, soon abounded with cattle.

“Edward Johnson (Wonder-working Providence, (1628-1651), said of Ipswich, ‘They have very good Land for Husbandry, where Rocks hinder not the course of the Plow The Lord hath been pleased to increase them in cattle of late, insomuch, that they have many hundred quarters to spare yearly, and feed, at the latter end of summer, the towne of Boston with good beefe.’ As long as wolves and other beasts of prey infested the woods, the inhabitants had certain persons to take a constant care of their cattle and sheep, while out at pasture.

“Dinners, though not the same in every respect formerly as now, have never essentially varied. Such meals, in England, were commonly taken at 11 o’clock before noon, in the 16th century. The regular hour in Ipswich has been, for the most part, at twelve o’clock, when the bell rings. There was a time, a few years since, when the bell rang at half past twelve.

“The suppers and breakfasts of our former inhabitants have been very much altered. For more than a century and a half, the most of them had pea and bean porridge, or broth, made of the liquor of boiled salt meat and pork, and mixed with meal, and sometimes hasty pudding and milk, both morning and evening. This is indeed different from our fare. Were an original proprietor of our soil to revisit us, and look in upon our tables at the beginning and close of day, and judge where he was by the appearance of them, he would think himself in a strange land. Among the several articles of diet already mentioned, broth was more common than the rest. A lady of eighty relates, that she had become so attached to it, that after having been in several families, about 1790, and partaken of their Thanksgiving dainties, she was heartily glad to return home and set a meal of her favorite broth.”

In Ipswich and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Franklin Waters added, “Brass baking pans and dripping pans, kettles and pots, gridirons, frying pans and skillets, tell of more appetizing fare. The cattle in the stalls and the abounding game in forest and sea, furnished the material for substantial and generous living for the great majority, we will believe.

“Yet the best spread table would have looked strange to us. Wooden plates, sometimes a square bit of wood slightly hollowed or perfectly plain, and platters for the central dish, at best dishes and plates of bright pewter; no forks, for forks did not attain common use till the later years of the century; no coffee or tea, but plenty of home-brewed beer and cider and stronger spirits for drinks, — these things seem rude in style and deficient in comfort.”

3 thoughts on “What our ancestors ate”

  1. Thanks for the great excerpts from the Felt book. Something like this helps vivify for us the dryness of so much of what we family history researchers generally encounter about Colonial times.
    David Fuller

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