Half-starved, sick from scurvy, suffering from exposure and a variety of diseases, the English colonists also had little in the way of practical farming experience as they tried to survive their first year in the Plymouth Colony. Worse, they had poor soil to contend with on the rocky Massachusetts coast that spring of 1621 when they began planting their crops.
After arriving in Massachusetts Bay in November 1620 following a harrowing 66-day Atlantic crossing, the 105 Pilgrims (as they are known today) spent the first winter aboard their ship the Mayflower. It’s likely we wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving today at all if not for a saintly Native American named Tisquantum, also called Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who spoke English and taught the colonists how to plant native crops (like corn), tap the maple trees for sap, and fish in the Bay. If he hadn’t befriended the Pilgrims it’s possible they would have perished before their first harvest in the fall of 1621. As it was, around half of the passengers and crew died their first winter in the New World.
The Wampanoag grew corn, squash, and beans—crops known as the “Three Sisters”.
Saintly is the only way to describe Squanto. He learned English after being kidnapped with other members of his tribe by an English sea captain named Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain before he was able to make his way to England. From there, Squanto was able to secure passage back home to Massachusetts in 1619 only to find that his tribe had been decimated by smallpox, tuberculosis, or possibly some other disease contracted through their contact with Europeans (there seems to be some dispute on exactly what killed them).
Some folks might not have taken too kindly to the English after such rough treatment. Squanto apparently didn’t hold a grudge since he helped forge an alliance between the Pilgrims and a local tribe, the Wampanoag, another way in which he helped prop up the shaky colony. These skilled Native American farmers knew how to get the most out of the poor coastal soil and taught the Pilgrims to do the same. Unlike the soil of southern England, which is deep, nutrient-rich, loamy and easy to hand till, the soil in coastal Massachusetts is shallow, sandy and stony, making it hard to work by hand, according to the Soil Science Society of America.
Before learning the best crops to grow in their new home, the Pilgrims would have probably tried (and failed) to grow rye, barley and wheat and a variety of English garden vegetables, according to Soil scientist Tom Sauer, who is with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
The Wampanoag grew corn, squash, and beans—crops known as the “Three Sisters” that make a potent growing team, especially in poor, sandy soil that doesn’t retain nutrients or water. The three plants work well together to create fertile soil. Beans are nitrogen fixers, pulling nitrogen from the air, and with the help of soil microbes, turning the nitrogen into plant food. The corn provides the beans a support on which to grow and the squash helps in water retention and with weed control.
The Wampanoag also used wood ash and fish as plant fertilizers. Sauer says wood ash “would have been a relatively concentrated nutrient source” that contains calcium, which acts as a liming agent to raise the pH level. It also contains potassium and smaller amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients.
“Since the yields weren’t very high, applying wood ash would probably have replaced quite a lot of the potassium and phosphorous removed with the crop,” Sauer tells Modern Farmer in an email.
Using fish as a fertilizer was a common practice by many of the Native peoples of the East Coast and provided nutrients and amino acids to help in plant growth, according to tradition. Fish fertilizer, albeit in liquid form, is still in use today. Sauer, on the other hand, doesn’t believe fish is a great plant nutrient source, but says that it would have helped the soil somewhat since “any organic material will release some nutrients when it decomposes. It may have also added organic matter that helped retain water near the seed so maybe it was more than just a nutrient source.” Either way, Native American farming practices helped save Pilgrims from starving to death.
In November 1621, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrated the colonists’ first successful corn harvest. The festivities lasted three days and included a bounty from both field and sea, but unlike today’s typical Thanksgiving, there was no pumpkin pie—obviously, ovens weren’t yet a thing and sugar was in short supply. There was lobster, goose, and venison, though, along with the new crops that the English had learned to grow thanks to the original inhabitants of Massachusetts.