Molasses was such a crucial ingredient to the colonial New England Thanksgiving that a shortage of it in 1705 forced Colchester, Conn., to postpone the holiday for a week.
October 1705 was unusually frigid for the Connecticut Valley town. 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. It was uncommon for the river to be frozen so early, and the winter provisions usually shipped from Norwich and New London hadn’t been laid in.
Colchester then was a tiny settlement with 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 parish had only been established two years before that cold autumn, and the first street wouldn’t be laid out until the next year. Supplies were delivered by boat along a tributary of the Connecticut River, 10 miles away.
It was clear nothing would be delivered on the frozen river, and it was just a few days until November 4, the day set aside for Thanksgiving. There was almost no molasses in town.
Most of All, Pie
In the New England colonies, molasses imported from the West Indies was a cheap substitute for sugar and used in distilling rum for export. A byproduct of sugar refining, it was used in baked beans, brown bread and pumpkin pie. By 1750, colonists consumed an average of three quarts of molasses a year.
Without molasses, there could be no pumpkin pie, and pumpkin pie had come to symbolize the New World bounty celebrated by Thanksgiving. It was already a well-established dish by 1654, according to Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables. The English colonists had learned from the Native Americans about the squash and adapted it to their own cuisine. The first published American cookbook, Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery, in 1796 included a recipe for pumpkin pie.
Pumpkins were so central to the Thanksgiving feast that some 17th-century Puritan ministers denounced them from the pulpit. They preached that Thanksgiving had been transformed into such a day of gluttony it should be called ‘St. Pompion’s Day.’
Molasses was indispensable for the perfection of the flavor of the pumpkin. Without it, 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 it couldn’t be held 'with convenience' on November 4. The solution to the problem is recorded in the Colchester town records:
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.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.