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The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

New England colonists used molasses imported from the West Indies because it did not cost as much as sugar. A byproduct of sugar refining, molasses was a multipurpose foodstuff. Colonists used it in baked beans, brown bread, pumpkin pie and as occasional livestock feed. By 1750, colonists consumed an average of three quarts of molasses a year.

In October 1705, the Connecticut settlement of Colchester, consisting only of a handful of families, was facing an early winter. 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 would not lay out streets until the next year. Colchester relied on boats to deliver supplies along a tributary of the Connecticut River, 10 miles away.

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 had not laid in winter provisions usually shipped from Norwich and New London.

While New England was known for its cold snaps, this one was unusually premature and severe, with temperatures so low that nearby waterways froze. The timing was unfortunate; the community had not yet received wintertime provisions, which were typically shipped to them by boat, and a day of Thanksgiving, planned for 4 November, was quickly approaching. At the time, Thanksgiving was not yet a fixed holiday. The most important item, molasses, was running low in pantries around town, and without it, residents faced a gloomy situation: Thanksgiving without brown bread, baked beans, or pumpkin pie.

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.

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. And so Colchester’s town fathers postponed Thanksgiving because they could not hold it "with convenience" on 4 November. 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.

Rather than suffer a paltry holiday spread, town residents voted to postpone Thanksgiving by a week in the hope that a molasses delivery would arrive in time (apparently it did). In the years to follow, the event would be dubbed the "Great Colchester Molasses Shortage," became a food legend and even parodied in poems.

In fact, molasses was so important that it was a contributing factor in the American Revolution; in 1733, Great Britain issued the Molasses Act, which levied taxes on molasses imported to the colonies from islands outside of British control. The proclamation heavily impacted the American rum industry, created a molasses black market, and stirred up early sentiment against the crown, which would eventually boil over four decades later.

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