Molasses played such a starring role in the colonial New England Thanksgiving that a shortage of it in 1705 forced Colchester, Conn., to postpone the holiday for a week.
The weather turned unusually frigid for the Connecticut Valley town that fall. In mid-October a terrible cold snap lasted for three days, followed by mild weather, and then a blast of even colder weather.
The river froze, a frigid wind blew and a storm blanketed Colchester under three feet of snow. Because the river rarely froze so early, the settlers hadn’t laid in winter provisions usually shipped from Norwich and New London.
Colchester then had only a handful of families. Founded in 1698 on land purchased from the Mohegan tribe, it was the northernmost town in the colony of New London. The settlers had only established the parish two years before that cold autumn, and they wouldn’t lay out streets until the next year.
Colchester relied on boats to deliver supplies along a tributary of the Connecticut River, 10 miles away.
In early New England, the Puritans replaced Roman Catholic feast days like Christmas and Easter with secular holidays like Training Day and Commencement Day. Thanksgiving days and Fast days had a religious purpose: to come together as a community for meditation and communing with God.
New England’s theocratic governments called for public days of fasting or thanksgiving in response to political or natural events. They could happen several times a year. And they were often local affairs.
In 1705, November 4 had been proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving. But as the day approached, Colchester had almost no molasses. Worse, nothing could be delivered on the frozen river to the settlement.
New England colonists used molasses imported from the West Indies because it didn’t cost as much as sugar. A byproduct of sugar refining, colonists used it in baked beans, brown bread and pumpkin pie. By 1750, colonists consumed an average of three quarts of molasses a year.
The English colonists had learned from the Native Americans about the pumpkin, called pompion, and adapted it to their own cuisine.
The pumpkin pie came to symbolize the New World bounty celebrated by Thanksgiving. By the time Colchester discovered its molasses shortage in 1705, pumpkin pie had been a well-established dessert for half a century.
Pumpkins played such an important role in any feast that some 17th-century Puritan ministers denounced them from the pulpit. They preached that Thanksgivings should be renamed ‘St. Pompion’s Day’ because of the gluttony they inspired.
But without molasses, the townsfolk of Colchester couldn’t make pumpkin pie. Nor could they have baked beans, molasses cake or sweetener for rum. The bottom line: No molasses, no Thanksgiving.
A Food Legend
And so Colchester’s town fathers postponed Thanksgiving because they couldn’t hold it “with convenience” on November 4. The Colchester town records describe how they came to solve the problem:
At a legal town-meeting held in Colchester, October 29, 1705, It was voted that WHEREAS there was a Thanksgiving appointed to be held on the first Thursday n November, and our present circumstances being such that it cannot with convenience be attended on that day, it is therefore voted and agreed by the inhabitants as aforesaid (concluding the thing will not be otherwise than well resented) that the second Thursday of November aforesaid shall be set aside for that service.
The tale of the Great Colchester Molasses Shortage became a food legend. Two centuries later, Rose Mills Powers wrote a poem about it for the July 1908 edition of Good Housekeeping Magazine:
Colchester housewives are glum and sad—
Colchester housewives who should be glad—
Baking and brewing for Thanksgiving day.
What is the trouble up Colchester way?
Answer the housewives with streaming eyes,
“No molasses for pumpkin pies!”
The sloop that fetches the precious freight,
Thanksgiving molasses, is late, is late,
And how can Colchester celebrate!
Colchester housewives are gay and glad—
Colchester housewives bake like mad.
No feast decreed by the governor, this,
But Colchester colonists shall not miss
Their dinner, though late by a week and a day—
The sloop’s in the harbor—Hurray! Hurray!
Thanksgiving molasses for all the town,
For pies of pumpkin so rich and brown;
Colchester folk at last sit down.
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This story was updated in 2022.
Image: Blackstrap molasses by By Badagnani – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4129522.