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Monday, May 4, 2015

Liquor on the Frontier

Survival was a basic goal of early settlers in Marietta and the Ohio country. The area was a wilderness. Priorities were food, shelter, protection from the elements, eking out a living wage, and....alcohol. Yes, booze in colonial times was considered a basic necessity.

Alcohol was an integral part of life in early America, a fact omitted from our conventional history lessons. You probably did not know that George Washington enjoyed his spirits; his war time expense account for liquor from September 1775 to June 1776 exceeded $6,000, and he was a major distiller of whiskey at Mount Vernon. Or that John Adams started the day with a hard cider eye opener. And that Thomas Jefferson was a wine connoisseur who with guests consumed 1,203 bottles of wine at his Monticello estate in just over two years. 

Attitudes towards alcohol were liberal then by today's standards. There were no prohibitions on the purchase, consumption, or production of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol was part of the diet and tradition from England. Spirits were believed to have health benefits, be safer than often unsanitary water, and be a welcome morale booster in often difficult life situations. 

In the 1790s it was estimated that the average American over fifteen years old each year drank 34 gallons of beer and cider, 5 gallons of distilled spirits, and 1 gallon of wine. All that is reported to be the equivalent of 7 ounces of distilled liquor a day. Even children drank “small beer” with a low alcohol content. But people were not partying and tipsy all the time. Author Corin Hirsch points out that "life expectancy was lower then and life was pretty hard so you can’t judge anyone.”

Scholars of "spiritual" history point out fascinating aspects of drinking and attitudes about it, sometimes in amusing terms:
  • "...most of the founding fathers were buzzed, if not flat-out hammered, when they formulated the ideals....for their new country."  Ethan De Siefe, 2014.
  • "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy." Ben Franklin.
  •  “Americans drank beer, and cider with breakfast; rum and wine with dinner; claret, ratafias, creams, punches and other concoctions in the evening.” Robinson, 2001, as quoted in Tom Jewett's 2007 article.
  •  “Alcohol lubricated such social events as christenings, weddings, funerals, trails, and election-day gatherings, where aspiring candidates tempted voters with free drinks. Craftsmen drank at work, as did hired hands in the fields, shoppers in stores, sailors at sea and soldiers in camp. Then, as now, college students enjoyed malted beverages, which explains why Harvard had its own brewery. In 1639, when the school did not supply sufficient beer, President Nathaniel Eaton lost his job.” Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio Vol II, 1908.
Alcohol was also a staple of life in early Marietta and the Northwest Territory:
  • Liquor rations for the soldiers at Fort Harmar included a gill (4 ounces) of rum daily. Surveyors in the initial group hired by the Ohio Company had a similar ration. Imagine having a job that provides 4 ounces of booze each day.  Nice benefit, eh?
  • Drunkenness was the leading offense of the day - both at Fort Harmar and in the general public. Punishment at Fort Harmar was 100 or more lashes. In Marietta, there was a fine of "5 dimes for the first offense and $1.00 for each offense thereafter."
  • Peach brandy was reportedly made from peaches grown at Fort Harmar and elsewhere. Campus Martius Historian Bill Reynolds observed with a grin that “peaches were not just grown for eating, you know.”
  • Portable liquor cabinets from that period are on display at Campus Martius Museum, one belonging to Rufus Putnam, another to Israel Putnam, Rufus' half brother. It held several bottles in a small wooden box that could be easily transported. These were fairly common during that time.
  • Joseph Buell, a soldier at Fort Harmar, kept a journal which records incidents of liquor consumption.
    • July 4, 1786, "The great day of independence was commemorated by the discharge of 13 guns, after which the soldiers were served with extra rations of liquor and allowed to get as drunk as they pleased." 
    • May 1, 1786: May Day is celebrated with a maypole, dancing, "curious antics, drinking, carousing, and firing guns." 
    • December 3, 1786: provisions were delivered including 20 kegs of flour and 10 kegs of whiskey.
    • September 9, 1787. A group of Indians visited the fort and entertained the locals - and themselves. On this day they..."danced in the hot sun, drinking whisky at the same time, until they were as drunk as they could be and stand on their feet."
  • Colonel John May also kept a journal of his time in Marietta. 
    • Tuesday, May 6, 1788: Near Simmrill's Ferry, Pennsylvania, on his way to Marietta, he procured 4 barrels of finest flour and a barrel (30 gallons) of "whisky." The contents were placed on a ferry, which nearly sank under the weight.
    • May 27, 1788. He reported dining with General Josiah Harmar. The elegant dinner included beef, boiled fish, bear-steaks, roast venison, etc.,.and "wine and grog." Even on the frontier, high ranking military officers ate and drank well.
    • June 8, 1788. Another fabulous dinner with Generals Harmar, Putnam, and Varnum plus others. Libations included spirits, excellent wine, brandy, and beer.
  • The first July 4th celebration at Marietta was quite an event, including a sumptuous feast, an oration by Judge Varnum, and a 14 gun salute. There was celebratory drinking, too, with "a bowl of punch, also wine, grog, etc." May reported that the celebration continued until past midnight after which they "went home and to bed, and slept sound until morning." During the event there were toasts - many toasts. No one, it seems, was left out. They drank to:
  1. United States
  2. Congress
  3. His Most King of Majesty The King of France
  4. The United Netherlands
  5. The Friendly Powers Throughout the World
  6. The New Federal Constitution
  7. George Washington and the Society of Cincinnati
  8. His Excellency Governor St. Clair and the Western Territory
  9. The Memory of Heroes
  10. Patriots
  11. Captain Pipes and a Successful Treaty
  12. Amiable Partners of our Lives
  13. All Mankind
Our early ancestors drank a wide variety of beverages - some conventional, others quite unusual - in content and name. Here are some of the more conventional ones:
  • Beer and cider - these were easy to make using apples for cider and grains for beer.
  • Rum - a staple of the colonies.  In 1770, there were 140 Rum stills in the northeastern colonies producing 4.8 Million gallons of rum.
  • Grog – generally, any drink mixed with water. Originally it was water mixed with rum and lime or lemon juice. The concoction was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1740 by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who was nicknamed “Old Grog” after the Grogham cloth coat he wore.
  • Shrub – a fruit liqueur made with rum or brandy mixed with sugar and juice or rinds of citrus fruits.
  • Wine was always popular but more expensive and mostly imported from Europe.
  • Whiskey became more popular in the late 1700's as molasses used for rum became more expensive.
Then there are the mixed drinks, many quite unknown to us today. The quirky names are as interesting as the recipes:
  • Stone Fence. A bracing blend of rum and cider. Ethan Allen and the legendary Green Mountain Boys are reported to have imbibed this for liquid courage before raiding Fort Ticonderoga. 
  • Flip. A blend of beer, rum, molasses, and eggs or cream mixed in a pitcher and whipped into a froth by plunging a hot fire poker (called a flip dog) into the mixture.
  • Syllabub. A mix of wine, cream, and lemon topped with whipped egg whites. Eggs and cream were supposed to make the drink more nutritious. Really, that was the belief.
  • Rattleskull is named after the English slang for a chatty person, and probably for its effect on the drinker. It is a potent blend of 3-4 oz of a rum/brandy mix poured into a pint of stout porter (an ale) tarted up with lime and topped with nutmeg. One colonial drink expert says this "bad-ass drink is a dangerously smooth and stultifying concoction."
  • Calibogus. A mix of dark rum and spruce beer (beer made with the needles or new shoots of a spruce tree). Since spruce shoots have vitamin C, the drink was popular among sailors to ward off scurvy from lack of vitamin C in their diet at sea.
  • Sangaree was a mix of madeira or port wine with lemon juice, sugar, and nutmeg. It was the precursor to the more modern Sangria.
Alcoholic beverages were part of the culture, though some spoke out against the social and health damage from excessive drinking. Few listened. Benjamin Rush was a Philadelphia physician who studied mental illness. He wrote a fascinating paper titled Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, published in 1785. He presciently classified alcoholism as a disease and addiction. His work would influence the temperance movement which eventually reduced alcohol consumption. But that would be decades in the future. Meanwhile drinking remained America's favorite pastime.

Sources:
Jewett, Tom, “Spirits of Our Forefathers,” 2002, http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2002_summer_fall/forefathers.htm

Burns, Eric, The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, 2004, Temple University Press.

Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio Vol II, 1908


Crews, Ed, “Drinking in Colonial America,” 2007, Colonial Williamsburg Publications, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/holiday07/drink.cfm

Hildreth, Samuel, Pioneer History, Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, 1848, W. Derby & Company (Cincinnati)

De Seife, Ethan, Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch, 2014, http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/forgotten-drinks-of-colonial-new-england-by-corin-hirsch/Content?oid=2344349