Indians Fishing by John White, produced c 1585 - 1593
Fish and fishing among the Algonkian peoples of Southern New Netherlands
Among the Algonkian people of Southern New Netherlands, Hunting, Fishing, trapping, gathering and growing of the three sisters was the staff of life, each one having its place as part of the Algonkian diet that revolved around the seasons. Algonkian people are recorded in the 17th century as living a “Feast/Famine Lifestyle” where in times of plenty, food was abundant such as late spring, summer and fall. Everyone ate their fill while also preparing foods by drying or smoking for leaner times of the year. During the winter and early spring, food was in short supply and all the food that was dried and smoked in the spring to fall was used to supplement the diet in place of fresh food (particularly meat and vegetables).
Of the many foods Algonkian people ate, and Native American communities continue to eat to this day, fish (namaes / nah mays in Unami dialect of Lenape) remains one of the most important and vital. Algonkian people tended to live by water, be it rivers, lakes, ponds, coastlines, necks, bays, swamps and estuaries. In those environments, fish were abundant, particularly at certain times of the year. The shad run of the early spring of the eastern United States brought hundreds of people to certain spots on migration routes where fish were harvested to excess. Fish were also a vital food source for so many communities due to their high protein, fat, vitamins and minerals that kept people alive and healthy.
Numerous European travelers, explorers, colonists and traders recorded the fish of the new world and the ways the Algonkian people caught and prepared them for consumption. Europeans often marveled at the abundance of wildlife in the New World. Adriaen Van Der Donck noted: “Practically all the waters and rivers of that country abound in fish. In the rivers, according to season and locality, we have sturgeon. It is not valued and seldom taken as food [by Europeans at this time]” when full-grown. No one takes the trouble to salt it for profit, and the roe, of which the precious caviar is made, is not utilized at all. Salmon exist in some places, and the twalift [unidentified fish] are everywhere. The latter fish I can compare by its appearance to nothing closer than the salmon, from which it differs only in that the salmon is red inside and the twalift all white. It is good eating and some people are particularly keen on the head. The dirtienen [ another unidentified fish] is not comparable to other we know, other than that it is a fairly good fish, easily as long as the cod but not as bulky. (1)
This white fish, mentioned by Van Der Donck as “twalift”[likely a Whitefish] is mentioned by explorer Isaack De Rasier in his letter to patroonship holder Samuel Blomaert “They support themselves [the Indians of Long Island Sound] by hunting, and when the spring comes, by fishing. In April, May and June, they follow the course of these, which they catch with a drag-net they themselves knit very neatly, of the wild hemp [dogbane, a plant in the milkweed family], from which the women and old men spin thread. Three kinds of fish which they principally take at this time are shad, but smaller than those in this country ordinarily are, though quite as fat, and very bony; the largest fish is a sort of white salmon, which is of very good flavor, and quite large; it has white scales; the heads are so full of fat that in some there are two or three spoonfuls, so there is good eating for one who is fond of picking heads. It seems that this fish makes them lascivious, for it is often observed that those who have caught any when they have gone fishing, have given them, on their return, to the women, who look for them anxiously. Our people give the same report; it is the same with them when they eat a great deal at one time, as can be shown by the shirts”(2)
Algonkian men are also recorded fishing in numerous ways “Sturgeon: The natives venture one or two in a canoe, and with an harping iron [pronged spear point] or such like instrument stick this fish, and so haul it into their canoe. Sometimes they take them by their nets, which they make of strong hemp [Dogbane] …Their nets, which they will set thwart some little river or cove wherein they kill bass (at the fall of the water) with their arrows or sharp sticks, especially if headed with iron gotten from the English etc…
The natives take exceeding great pains in their fishing, especially in watching their seasons by night; so that frequently they lay their naked bodies many a cold night on the cold shore, about a fire of two or three sticks, and oft in the night search their nets, and sometimes go in and stay longer in frozen water. [Narragansett Bay]”(3)
This fish when caught was eaten in a variety of preparations. Fresh fish could be gutted, de-scaled and cut into pieces to be boiled for soup, or a whole fish could be roasted on a spit, cooking sticks, or planked on a board around the hot coals of a fire.
Drying and preserving fish and other seafood (shellfish such as oysters, mussels, clams and lobster.) was incredibly important. Dried fish made up a large part of winter food and was a large source of protein in a time that was otherwise protein deficient. This dry fish and seafood could be eaten as is like jerky but is recorded being pounded into a pemmican like substance as well, and reconstituted back into soups by aid of boiling water; making the hard and dry meat soft and edible again. “In summer these Indian women, when lobsters be in their plenty and prime, they dry them to keep for winter, erecting scaffolds in the hot sunshine, making fires likewise underneath them, by whose smoke the flies are expelled, till the substance remain hard and dry. In this manner they dry bass and other fishes without salt, cutting them very thin to dry suddenly, before the flies spoil them or the rain moist them, having a special care to hang them in their smoky houses in the night and dankisb weather [Massachusetts Bay] (4)
We are fortunate also to have documentation from the Dutch on some of the fishing and food processing methods used in southern and northern New Netherlands Colony “Fishing is done in inland waters, except by those who live on the coast or the sea islands and there enjoy special opportunities. They fish with seines, pound nets, small fykes, gill nets and gaffs. They are not accustomed to salting or curing fish but dry a few for pounding into meal while the fish still smells. In winter, the meal is added to their porridge, as a starter.”(5)
- A Description of New Netherlands, Adriaen Van Der Donck, Of the Fish, paragraph 1, page 58, section “The Country”
- Isaack de Rasieres to Samuel Blommaert 1626-28, pages 2-3, paragraph 2
- Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 90, paragraph 2, Roger Williams (1643), 137, 141
- Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 92, paragraph 3, William Wood (1634) pg 107
- A Description of New Netherlands, Adriaen Van Der Donck (1647), Of the Original Natives of New Netherlands, pg 98, paragraph 2, special account of their hunting and fishing.