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Cod and the Pilgrims

By

Handlining for Cod / NOAA

A drawing of men cod fishing using a dory on the Grand Banks. Drawing by H. W. Elliott and Capt. J. W. Collins and from NOAA Photo Library

NOAA

Long before Europeans arrived and "discovered" America, Native Americans fished along its shores, using hooks they made from bones and nets made from natural fibers. It was the generosity of these Native Americans that helped the Pilgrims, but it was cod that initially led them to the New World.

Discovering the New World:

Accounts from New World explorers included stories about plentiful amounts of fish. Atlantic cod were highly sought due to their white flesh, high protein content and low fat content.

Cod curing techniques had been developed that allowed traders to store fish for long periods of time. There were profits to be had in the cod trade, and America was worth the long sail - descriptions of the fish in New England indicated that cod were as big as men, and some say that fishermen could scoop the fish out of the sea in baskets.

The Pilgrim's Initial Attempts:

In the early 1600's, John Smith charted New England. When looking over his charts and determining where to flee, the Pilgrims were intrigued by the label "Cape Cod." Although, according to Mark Kurlansky in his book Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, the Pilgrims "knew nothing about fishing" (p. 68), they were determined to profit from the plentiful cod in New England.

The Pilgrims' initial attempts at fishing in New England were unsuccessful - they did not have the right gear or techniques. In fact, while the Pilgrims were starving in 1621, there were British ships filling their holds with fish off the New England coast.

Saved By Native Americans:

In a move that eventually led to their displacement, local Native Americans took pity on the starving Pilgrims and assisted them, believing they would "receive blessings" for their generosity. They showed the Pilgrims how to catch cod and use the parts not eaten as fertilizer. They also introduced the Pilgrims to quahogs, "steamers," and lobster.

The Pilgrims survived, and began to thrive. Negotiations with the Native Americans led to our modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving, which would not have occurred if the Pilgrims did not sustain their stomachs and fields with cod. Read more about the history of cod fishing.

While learning about the Pilgrims and celebrating the feast of Thanksgiving is a holiday to many, we should also recognize the Native Americans' role in helping the Pilgrims, a move that eventually led to their displacement.

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