How Thanksgiving started: With a glass of beer

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DO YOU know the first words spoken by Native-Americans to the Pilgrims after they landed at Plymouth Rock? “Welcome Englishmen . . . I’ll have a beer.”

Or something to that effect, according to an account (see sidebar) of the first visit to the Pilgrims’ village by an Algonquin named Samoset.

The greeting comes to mind this season because it was those words that eventually led to the first Thanksgiving in America. That’s right – though our nation’s annual feast is traditionally washed down with wine, it actually began with beer.

The date was March 16, 1621.

The Pilgrims, essentially English religious separatists, had arrived in the New World the previous November following a 65-day voyage aboard the Mayflower. They eventually disembarked at Plymouth because they were running out of onboard supplies, notably beer.

Beer was a matter of survival for these settlers because no one could be certain if the local water was drinkable. Earlier American settlements had been wiped out by disease from drinking poisoned or dirty water. Beer, the Pilgrims knew, wasn’t merely safe to drink, it was a source of much-needed nourishment.

That first winter was brutal, as 45 of the 102 Mayflower Colonists succumbed to disease, starvation and lack of shelter. With few able-bodied men and little more than muskets for protection, they understandably kept their distance from the Native-Americans who populated the region.

So, when Samoset (his name means He Who Walks Over Much) wandered into their camp a few days before the arrival of spring, he was met with apprehension and suspicion.

The feeling should have been mutual, for the English were widely hated for kidnapping the locals and selling them into slavery.

Samoset, however, seems to have been naturally curious about the newcomers. He’d first met Englishmen in the fishing colonies they had established in what is now Maine, learning their language . . . and sharing their beer.

He is described in a diary of those early days as “a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all.” He arrived in the settlement naked, except for a fringed leather covering around his waist.

“He saluted us in England [sic], and bade us welcome,” the diary reads.

And then he asked for beer.

It’s tempting to interpret Samoset’s request in a modern context – that he was trying to be sociable, to break the ice. In fact, he was probably just thirsty.

Nonetheless, I like to think of it as an attempt to bond over a bracing brew, for that meeting was the first of a string of fortuitous events that both rescued the haggard settlers from certain death and ultimately brought the Pilgrims and Native Americans together in peace.

In quick order, Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to a Native American from the Patuxet tribe named Squanto, who taught the settlers how to catch eel and grow corn. It was Squanto who would serve as an interpreter in the Pilgrims’ peace treaty with the Wampanoag leader Massasoit.

Sometime between September and December of 1621 – barely a year after they’d landed – the Pilgrims would celebrate their successful first harvest with the Wampanoag in a feast now regarded as America’s first Thanksgiving.

So, a simple beer gave us Thanksgiving.

Only, the record shows that the Pilgrims didn’t have any the day that Samoset wandered into their settlement. Instead, they gave him biscuits, butter, cheese, pudding and something they called “strong water,” which is presumably distilled spirits.

OK, so maybe we should be toasting next week with a bottle of Beefeater. But I wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story, so here’s a six-pack of suggested locally brewed beer for your Thanksgiving feast:

  • Evil Genius Santa!! I Know Him! An aromatic saison brewed with rose hips, chamomile, black currants and dark Belgian candi sugar that goes with practically anything on the table.
  • Roy Pitz Gobbler Lager labelWeyerbacher Double IPA #1. The first in a series of limited-edition imperial India pale ales cleans the palate after a plate of cheesy appetizers.
  • River Horse Tripel Horse. A strong (10 percent alcohol), spiced Belgian-style tripel that cuts right through the turkey skin.
  • Roy Pitz Gobbler Lager. A nicely balanced, German-style Marzen with just a touch of sweetness to complement those marshmallow-crusted sweet potatoes.
  • Dogfish Head Higher Math. At 17 percent alcohol, this golden ale brewed with sour cherry juice and chocolate is a liquid dessert that pairs nicely with tryptophan.
  • Flying Fish Exit 15. A golden IPA brewed with coffee – the perfect cuppa joe for hop heads.

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