1620s Daily Life: The Wampanoag and the Pilgrims
A Pilgrim interpreter and a modern day Wampanoag Native American describe traditional food, games, and what life was like in the 1620s.
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Hundreds of students across the country submitted questions about The First Thanksgiving. For answers, we turned to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Wrestling Brewster, a pilgrim interpreter, and Randy Joseph, a modern day Wampanoag Native American, tell us about traditional food, games, and what life was like in the 1620s.
Wrestling: Good day, friends. How do you fare? I am Wrestling Brewster, son of our town's ruling elder.
Randy: Que! That means "hi" in Wampanoag. I am a Manomet Plymouth Wampanoag.
How long did it take to make your houses?
Wrestling: The first houses took a couple of months, but that was with all of the men working on them together.
Randy: A spring, summer, and fall home could be put up in one day! A winter home took about two weeks.
How many people slept in the cottages and wetus?
Randy: A small wetu would sleep five to seven people. A wetu is a shelter for spring, summer, and fall. Winter homes would be up to 80 feet wide and 100 feet long. They could sleep several families and would have several fires.
Wrestling: Chiefly, it is one family to each house. Single men, though, are set to live with other families until the Lord sees fit to put a woman in their life to court! It may be six or eight people living in a house.
What were your beds made out of?
Randy: We had beds made out of seven or eight layers of furs from moose, deer, and bear.
Wrestling: Our beds are mostly made from straw. The master and mistress of the house often lay a bed filled with feathers and down over the bed of straw.
How many people lived in your colony or village?
Wrestling: There are about nine score, including the babes and dames. We are fewer than 200 people.
Randy: The Pokanocket Wampanoag numbered about 3,000.
Who was an important leader in your group?
Wrestling: William Bradford serves as our governor now. My father, William Brewster, is the ruling elder and preacher of our congregation.
Randy: Massasoit (the sachem or leader)
Did you make your own clothes? If so, what were they made from?
Randy: Yes, we did make our own clothes. We made our clothes from deerskin.
Wrestling: No, we don't make our own clothes. They are shipped over, ready-made, from England. We don't make any cloth here yet, either.
How did you make your shoes in the 1600s?
Randy: Our shoes were made from deer, moose, and elk. The bottom, or sole, of our shoes was made from the neck skin of a moose, because it's the thickest part. For winter, we had moccasins that were higher up the calf. They were stuffed with beaver, rabbit, or squirrel fur for insulation. They were greased with black bear or raccoon fat to make them waterproof.
Wrestling: We don't make shoes here in New Plymouth. In England, a man called a cordwainer makes shoes.
What types of food do you eat?
Wrestling: We are coming into our season of fowling now, so we eat goose, duck, and even eagle and swan. We have also begun butchering our swine (pigs) and some goats. We eat some wheat, but our chiefest grain is maize.
Randy: We eat fowl, but not eagle! The eagle is sacred to us. We also eat beaver, otter, and muskrat. We collect nuts such as beechnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns. We eat cranberries, too.
Was finding food difficult for the Pilgrims and Native Americans?
Wrestling: It wasn't difficult for us to find food, since the forest and ocean provided great plenty of meats.
Randy: There is plenty of food. That's why we stayed in this area. Some tribes across the country were nomadic and traveled in search of food.
How did you keep your food from getting spoiled?
Wrestling: We would salt our meats to keep them from going bad. We also would dry our grain before storing it.
Randy: We smoke and sun-dry food to preserve it for the winter
What desserts did you eat?
Randy: In the past we didn't really have dessert. We have a dish called boiled bread, which is cornbread mixed with fruit. You mix it with water and make a shape like a hamburger patty. You boil it in a clay pot filled with boiling water. The bread sinks to the bottom at first. When it's ready, it rises to the top. You take it out and put a little maple syrup on it. It's called a Wampanoag Pop Tart!
Wrestling: We make sweet puddings from boiled Indian corn with sugar and cinnamon, then stuff it into the guts of a hog, boil it, and fry it in butter. 'Tis good belly cheer!
How many chores did you have to do?
Randy: Our children really don't have any chores. They learn how to live off the land and how to hunt, fish, grow crops, and make clothing. But if our children don't want to do any of those, they don't have to do them until they feel like it.
Wrestling: We rise with the blush of dawn and do labors until the sun sets. In this country we will learn the art of husbandry: farming, fishing, hunting, and tending to the cattle.
What were some of the rules children had to follow?
Wrestling: Whatever rules their parents set for them, of course. And we also follow the rules of God. To respect their elders, children will not speak unless spoken to or given permission.
Randy: Really, there was no discipline unless a child was endangering him or herself. We try to let kids discover their own spirit and talents.
What happened if you misbehaved?
Randy: You would be redirected and shown why what you did was wrong and why you made a negative decision.
Wrestling: You would be scolded, for certain. You may be beaten if it was necessary.
Did the children have to go to school?
Wrestling: We have no schools in New Plymouth. If parents desire their children to learn, they teach them themselves, if they are able.
Randy: Parents and elders are role models. Children learn how to live off the land and how to provide for community and family.
Did you have school? Was it like our school today? Where was school held?
Randy: Everyday life was school for our children, by learning how to provide for your families when you got older. There were men's and women's jobs, and they worked together.
Wrestling: We have no schoolhouses or schoolmasters here. If a parent desires their children to read, they teach them themselves, if they have the skill. Besides learning numbers and letters, 'tis most important to learn about farming, hunting and fishing, and taking care of the animals.
What were the games that kids used to play?
Wrestling: We play at stool ball, Cobb's castle, seek and find, nine pins, marbles, pitching the bar, quoits, running races, and such like games. When I was little, I used to like to blow bubbles!
Randy: Children play a toss and catch game with three deer toes and a piece of deerskin tied to a deer bone sharpened to a point. You try to catch the toes on the point of the bone. We wrestle, run foot races, swim, play hub-bub (a gambling game), and football.
What is quoits?
Wrestling: You have a large piece of broken pottery and you pitch other pieces through it (like a goal).
What is nine pins?
Wrestling: You set up nine pins and cast a ball to try to knock them down. Do you ever play such a game?
What is Cobb's castle?
Wrestling: You put three stones close together. That is the cobb. You put another stone on top. That is the castle. You cast stones at the castle to try to knock it down.
What is pitching the bar?
Wrestling: You take a large log and have a contest to see who can pitch or throw it the furthest.
What did Pilgrims and Wampanoag do on rainy days?
Randy: We still carried out our daily work.
Wrestling: Our labors mostly remain unchanged in the rain. There is always work to be done!
What music or instruments did you listen to?
Randy: We had water drums, rattles, and leg rattles made of deer or moose dew claws (toenails). We also had flutes and two sticks that we hit together. Rattles can be made from cedar bark with corn and beans inside and a stick for a handle. Small turtle shells with pebbles were also used for rattles.
Wrestling: We have a drum and trumpet, but our most common instrument is our voices!
Do you use art supplies?
Randy: We would paint our clothing with different designs.
Wrestling: Not so much. We don't have any artists in our town. Our legs are better spent farming and hunting.
How do you take showers in Plymouth?
Wrestling: Do you mean how do we bathe? We bathe most commonly in the brook, a few times a year. We do wash our faces, hands, necks, and feet before the Sabbath. We don't like to submerge ourselves in water. It is most unhealthy!
Randy: We bathed every day. We brushed our teeth with charcoal from the fire.
Does the charcoal that you brush your teeth with turn your teeth black?
Randy: No. It makes them white! You take your finger and rub your teeth and gums with the charcoal. Then you have to rinse it out well.
How did you wash your clothes when they were dirty?
Wrestling: We make soap out of wood-ash, called lye. We heat water over a small fire and beat the dirt out with a paddle called a battledore. Then we put it to the lawn to dry and bleach.
Randy: We washed our clothing in the river.
What kind of religion did the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag follow?
Wrestling: We are Protestant Christians, though some are still loyal to the king's church, the Church of England.
Randy: We believe that we are related to all living beings and that we are all equal as one.
Did you have funerals?
Wrestling: It is our custom in the separated congression not to mourn the body of the departed, as the spirit has already ascended into heaven. We do bury our dead. We find time mourning the dead to be wasted labor.
Randy: We paint our faces black to show that we are in mourning. We bury the person facing the southwest, towards the creator. We wrap them in a cattail or bullrush mat and bury them with belongings like bowls, spoons, pipes, and personal belongings. We put cedar leaves and tobacco over them, and put pine boughs inside the grave. The pine tree is everlasting life.
Did you have weddings?
Randy: Each family would give gifts to the folks who were getting married, gifts that would help them on their journey to create a family. The sachem of the tribe would give some words, as would the medicine man. There would be a moose or deerskin mantle, which would be put over both man and woman, and an honor song would be played for them to dance four times around the sacred fire.
Wrestling: We have weddings in New Plymouth, kept much the way they were in Holland, where many of us lived before we came here. They are overseen by a magistrate or our governor as we have not an ordained minister.
At what age did Pilgrims/Wampanoag normally get married?
Wrestling: We marry a bit younger in New Plymouth than in England or Holland. A common age is 22 or 23.
Randy: When a young man knows how to hunt and provide for a family. The same as for the woman.
Do you have arranged marriages? Are wedding traditions like what we do in America?
Wrestling: We do not have arranged marriages. Courting is when you spend time with the person you fancy or favor. If you get married, it is in a civil ceremony, not a church ceremony.
Randy: No arranged marriages for us. Whoever you became interested in, you would approach her mother and father. They would make sure that you would be a good provider. The woman would have to show she could provide for a family, too.
Do you celebrate birthdays?
Wrestling: Nay, we do not. Most know not when the date of their birth was. Of course, when a family is blessed with a babe, it is cause for celebration.
Randy: I don't know, but I do know that there would be ceremonies for when children came of age. Like when a boy shot his first deer, which would be between the ages of 8 and 11.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Wrestling: Nay, we do not keep such Papish customs in our town. In the Bible there is no mention of ways to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Randy: There was no Christmas in our Native religious beliefs.
What other holidays do you celebrate?
Randy: In spring, we have our New Year. In June, we have Strawberry Thanksgiving to honor the first berry of the year. Around August, we have our Green Corn Festival to celebrate our crop of corn. In the fall, we have Cranberry Thanksgiving. Cranberries are the last berry of the year to be picked. We also celebrate the Winter Solstice.
Wrestling: God commanded that we keep every Sabbath Day holy. Our Sabbath is observed every Sunday. When called for, we may have a Day of Humiliation followed by a religious Day of Thanksgiving. On that day we pray all day.
What happened if someone got sick? Was there a doctor to treat them?
Randy: Yes. We have medicine men. A medicine man is a man who knows about the spiritual world and connects with spirits, other beings, and medicine that is on the earth to heal.
Wrestling: We have no physicians in our town. Chiefly, mothers and housewives use herbs from the garden to keep our humours balanced so that we are in good health.
What are humours?
Wrestling: They are the liquids in our bodies. We have four humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. To be in good health, you must keep these humours balanced.
What are some of the herbs that were used to heal?
Wrestling: Tansy, feverfew, and mint are some that my mother used.
Randy: The inner bark of slippery elm. Jewelweed. Pine sap is good for colds. Sage, too. Dandelion is used, too, for respiratory problems.
How did you use pine sap? Do you eat it or rub it on?
Randy: We boil it and add mint to it, then drink it. It's kind of like a cough medicine. It takes away colds and inflammation.
Who took care of you when you had a toothache?
Wrestling: In our town there is a man, Samuel Fuller, who has been appointed surgeon. For a tooth that is rotten, he might put cabbage worms in the tooth to eat out the corruption.
Randy: I can't top that!
What did you use for money?
Wrestling: We have little need to use coin here in New Plymouth. We do send furs back to England and sell them there. That money we use to pay back the debt we have to our investors. We are in great debt to the investors.
Randy: We traded with the English. We gave them beaver and otter skins. They gave us linen shirts, knives and hatchets, kettles of brass and copper, scissors, mirrors, and other things like that. We didn't need those things. They were curiosities to us.
How did you earn money?
Wrestling: Our town sends furs to England, which are sold at the Royal Exchange in London. The profit is used to pay off the debt that we have to our investors. We have no use for coin in our town because we have no fairs or markets to spend it at.
Randy: In the past, there was no concept of money. The great Creator who created all life gave us all that we needed to live a healthy life. In return, we give thanks every day.
Where were you born?
Wrestling: I was born in a city called Leyden in Holland. It is in the southwest part of the Low Countries. Though I am English, I never lived in England.
Randy: I was born in Boston.
What was a typical day like for you?
Wrestling: We rise at the blush of dawn and set to work in the fields. We take our leave in the midst of the day for dinner. This being the fowling season, we may go hunt in the afternoon. We take our leave with the fall of the sun. We may study scripture by the light of the hearth before retiring to bed.
Randy: In the past, we would get up before sunrise and go out hunting and fishing. We'd come home at midday and have something to eat. We'd work on the house or a boat, or at making bowls and spoons. In the evening we would have another meal and might play a game or tell stories to the children.
What was a typical day for women?
Wrestling: Chiefly, they first prepare a meal so that we can break our fast in the morning. They assist the children in setting the house to rights by putting the bedding away. Then mayhaps in season they tend to the kitchen garden for a time until they begin to prepare dinner in the mid day. They may set to dusting, washing the clothes, and other labors after dinner.
Randy: Women got up in the morning and prepared breakfast. After that they would tend the crops. At midday, they would make lunch for the men who were coming back from hunting and fishing. In the afternoon, they would make a clay pot, work on a twined bag, or make clothing. Then they'd prepare a meal for the evening.
Did you get to choose your jobs or were they assigned to you?
Randy: They weren't assigned to you; it was just daily life. Men and women knew what they needed to do.
Wrestling: Our labors are dictated by what needs to be done. We do different sorts of work depending on the season of the year.
How did you send mail?
Wrestling: We send letters by ships, which come ofttimes into the harbor. They then deliver them to family and friends in England or Holland.
Randy: We didn't send letters. We didn't have written documents since we were an oral culture. We would send runners from one community to another to deliver an oral message.
What time would you get up in the morning?
Wrestling: I rise with the sun.
Randy: Before sunrise.
Where did you get the metal to make weapons, tools, and the like?
Randy: We traded with the English to get metal. We gave them furs, and they gave us copper and brass pots that we broke up and made into jewelry and arrow points. Before the Europeans came, we traded with the Great Lakes tribes to get copper.
Wrestling: We have yet to find any mineral ore in this country. All of our tools, nails, and kettles must be brought from England.
What is your most useful tool?
Wrestling: A musket. Nails, saws, hammers, and such like tools are also important.
Randy: Everything was useful to complete a day's work.
How did you tell time?
Randy: There was no time. It was from sunup to sundown. You would plan your workload around the length of days, because daylight would get shorter.
Wrestling: We have no bells in this place to mark the hour, so it is difficult to know the hour. We rise with the sun and take ourselves to bed with the sun. God sends us the most light during the time when the most labor needs to be done.
How did you keep your valuables safe?
Wrestling: We keep a watch every night in our town. We are trying to protect our town from wild beasts and wild men, but also from any other thing that would wish harm upon us. There was some thievery within our town in the early years. A man was flogged for taking more than his share of corn. We do lock our doors.
Randy: Everybody knew each other in the community. Our doors were open. If someone did steal, they were told not to do it again. If they did it a second time, they would be told in front of the whole community. If they did it a third time, they would be asked to leave the community, and their nose would be sliced through the nostril. That way they would be known as a thief in other communities.
Do you use a calendar?
Randy: We go by the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter, and the solstices. We also go by the thirteen moons in the year.
Wrestling: We do keep calendar in the Julian style. March 25 is the start of our new year.
What was your main law?
Randy: We don't have a main law. I suppose you could say that we should treat each other with love and respect.
Wrestling: To honor God and to carry out His will. It is man's purpose to serve God. It is woman's purpose to serve her family.
What was the expected life span of a person then?
Randy: For the Wampanoag, we could live up to 100 years old. Our diet was high in protein with low sodium and no fat.
Wrestling: Having been in this country now for seven years, we find it to be a healthful place. My father is the oldest in the town at two and sixty years old. It is the decision of God when he calls you home to your reward.
Do you speak any other languages than English?
Wrestling: Aye, I grew up around the Dutch and learned to speak the language. That was one of the reasons that we left there and came here. My father thought we were getting to be more Dutch than English.
Randy: Just Wampanoag.