November 27, 2014

Pilgrim food and etiquette

When we think of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, what comes to mind is turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

This has its origins in the Victorian era, however; the the spread on the table of the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621 was quite different.

So what did the Pilgrims and natives actually eat at that first Thanksgiving? And how did they eat it?

Most Europeans in the 17th century didn't eat potatoes; they were thought to be poisonous and fit only for pigs. Meals in general were far more meat-heavy with few vegetables; 17th century people worked physically much harder than people do today, and they needed all that extra protein and fat.

So at this three-day fall harvest feast, those who had braved the Atlantic and the first harsh few months in a strange and foreign land would have likely had fowl (probably turkey and duck), lobster, eel, nuts, turnips, corn, and berries. The Wampanoag natives who participated (we don't know if they were actually invited or whether they crashed and the English were too polite/scared to tell them to shove off) may have contributed by bringing deer meat.

For 17th century Europeans, the main meal of the day was eaten at about noon, at the time we today consider to be lunch. The lighter evening meal, supper, would usually consist of leftovers from noontime "dinner."

The English custom of set mealtimes must have seemed strange to their Wampanoag native guests, who simply ate when they were hungry.

They didn't yet have porcelain or even pewter plates at this time. Instead they had wooden plates-and-bowls-in-one called trenchers, and children often shared their trenchers with siblings. No forks either-- just spoons and knives. Instead of placing napkins on laps (which I personally feel is stupid and pointless), the napkin was draped over the left shoulder, convenient for wiping hands.

A trencher, c. 1600

There were no courses; everything would have been on the table at the same time. The feasters would not have been expected to sample everything, but would only eat the foods that were close to them.

Everyone would have been seated according to class, with the best foods next to the most important people. Children would have served the adults, and likely would not have been seated at the table with them, but would stand behind the adults, waiting for food to be passed to them.

Some things haven't changed much though; here is a little poem by Tudor-era poet Francis Segar from Schoole of Vertue (1582):

Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library
“For rudeness is thy pottage to sup,
Or speake to any, his head in his cup
Thy knife be sharpe to cut fayre thy meat:
Thy mouth not be full when thou dost eat
Pyke not they teethe at the table syttnge,
Nor use at thy meat Overmuch spytynge;
This rudeness of youth is to be abhorred;
Thy self mannerly Behave at the borde.”


Don't talk with your head bent over your cup-- look up before speaking.
Don't hack your food, and swallow what's in your mouth before taking another bite.
Don't spit too much or pick your teeth at the table.

Board is an old word that refers to a narrow table off which one eats, and it's still in use today in the expression "room and board"-- i.e., room and meals.

Whatever you'll have on your table today, and whomever you'll be sharing it with, have a happy Thanksgiving!

November 10, 2014

Veteran's Day: Honoring Great-uncle James Fitzgerald RYAN

I have many ancestors and relatives who have served in the U.S. military, but today I'd like to focus on one: my great-uncle James.

James Fitzgerald Ryan was born on 31 Jul 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of David Thomas Ryan and Mary Elizabeth Fitzgerald. He was the youngest of five children; there was an 8 and a half-year gap between the two youngest, my grandmother Clare (born on 18 January 1911) and James.

My father talked quite a bit about his uncle growing up-- James was something of a savant, and became a teacher. He was fun-loving and musical, able to play the piano by ear very well.

Dad mentioned in passing a couple of times that Uncle James had served in the Pacific during World War II. Awhile back, I poked around on Fold3 and found several Navy records pertaining to his service.

He enlisted in the Navy on 2 July 1942 and served on the U.S.S. Prairie, a Dixie-class destroyer tender, until at least October of 1945. According to the ship's reports of changes, Uncle James was an "S2", which I found out via a Google search of Navy rank abbreviations meant Seaman 2nd class. The report of changes I found dated 30 April 1944 gives a new rank for James-- he was now a TM3c, which means a Torpedoman's mate 3rd class (thanks again, Google!). That sounds a bit more interesting than simply a seaman... according to Wikipedia, this job mainly involved maintaining torpedo equipment, though it also seems to have involved getting to help blow stuff up.
The U.S.S. Prairie, photo courtesy of

The first log of changes I could find on Fold3 listing Uncle James as a TM3c
The U.S.S. Prairie's locations during World War II

James was a brave man, never one to be intimidated, either by the many tough boys he had to teach, or by muggers!

He passed away on 15 January 1995 due to the effects of Lou Gehrig's Disease.

I only met him once, but I was a toddler and only very vaguely remember him playing the piano in our living room in Quincy, Massachusetts. I wish I could have known him, or at least had a photo of him (for some reason, photos of my Ryan relatives are very scarce).

So, along with all of my other family members-- past and present-- who serve and have served in the United States armed forces, I want to honor James Ryan. Thank you for your service, and eternal memory.

November 8, 2014

SEVERANCE of Salisbury, MA and Kingston, NH

Generation 1: My first Severance ancestor in America was John Severance, who was born about 1609, probably Suffolk, England. He was a planter, a "vintner" (winemaker), and a "victualler", which is a ship goods supplier. John Severance was also master of a ship called George which brought many English to Massachusetts. John married Abigail Kimball, daughter of Henry Kimball and Ursula Scott, and he died on 9 April 1682.

Generation 2: Ephraim Severance was born on 8 April 1656 in Salisbury, Massachusetts. He married Lydia Morrill, daughter of Abraham Morrill and Sarah Clements in Salisbury, and he died in Salisbury on 24 October 1732.

Generation 3: Jonathan Severance was born on 21 April 1700 in Salisbury, Massachusetts. On 24 Feb 1726, he married Katherine Tucker, daughter of interestingly-named parents Benony Tucker and Ebenezar Nichols (yes, Ebenezar was female). Jonathan died on 14 May 1786 in Kingston, New Hampshire, having removed there at some point after marriage.

Generation 4: Samuel Severance I was born about 1741, probably in Kingston, New Hampshire. On 9 August 1768 he was married to his first cousin Hannah Winslow, daughter of Samuel Winsley/Winslow and Frances Tucker (Frances was the sister of his mother Katherine... yeah, you can say it-- "eewww!")

When the rebellion against their mother country of Britain broke out in 1775, Samuel volunteered and served in the Continental Army that summer. He took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and reportedly took a stone as a memento of that event. He only served for three months when he contracted "camp sickness" (dysentery), and was sent home. A letter that he wrote to his family is preserved by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, having been donated by an ancestor. More on this in this entry.

Generation 5: His son, my 4th great-grandfather Samuel Severance II, was born during that revolutionary summer, while his father was serving, on 25 August 1775. He married Judith Towle in Kingston on 6 January 1802; she was the daughter of Jeremy Towle and Mary Sargent. His death date is not known.

Generation 6: Mary "Polly" Severance was born in Kingston on 14 November 1805. She married William Winslow, son of John Winslow and Mary Webster, on 26 February 1824 in Kingston. She and William had a large family of ten children, but she was widowed at 55 in 1860 when her husband froze to death while walking home from visiting friends on the night of 14 February 1860. She never remarried, and died on 13 September 1889.

Ancestry line:

John SEVERANCE (1609-1682) m. Abigail KIMBALL
Ephraim SEVERANCE (1656-1732) m. Lydia MORRILL
Jonathan SEVERANCE (1700-1786) m. Katherine TUCKER
Samuel SEVERANCE I (b. 1741) m. Hannah WINSLOW
Samuel SEVERANCE II (b. 1775). Judith TOWLE
Mary "Polly" SEVERANCE (1805-1889) m. William WINSLOW
James W. WINSLOW (1838-1906) m. Lizzie MACE
Bessie Maud WINSLOW (1886-1970) m. Frank Bailey PALMER
Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984) m. Henry Richard HOWES
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father