Early Food Preservation in the Finger Lakes

August 30th, 2013

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Living in the Finger Lakes, it is impossible to miss the recent emphasis on fresh, local, organic produce. People today examine and question what they put into their bodies. It is an important element of the Finger Lakes region’s tourism business. Of course, this is a problem that comes only when you have choices about what to eat and, in the United States at least, often an unlimited supply of things to eat. For most of human history, the problem of food was ensuring you had enough to survive. Preserving food when it was available was essential to surviving the long months of winter when it was scarce. Traditional methods of preserving include drying; salting; pickling in vinegar; smoking; fermenting; preserving milk products by making butter and cheese; and preserving in sugar. More recently, canning, refrigeration and freezing were added to the mix.

Bunches of dried white corn braided and hanging from hooks.

White corn grown as part of the Ganondagan State Historic Site White Corn Project.

The first people in the Finger Lakes to deal with the problem of preserving food were the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois: the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora. They and their ancestors adapted to the lake environment over thousands of years. They cultivated crops, foraged for wild plants, and hunted and fished wild game. The primary crops they depended on were the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. Native peoples gathered blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries and blackberries. The corn they relied on was not the sweet corn we love today, but a starchy white corn that could be dried for soups or ground into meal. Once dry, it was stored in granaries, like the large palisaded fort that was at Ganondagan in the 17th century. From there it could be transported or traded. Fish and game were plentiful, including salmon, deer, bison, turkey and other wildfowl. Most of these foods were preserved by drying over a fire or by the sun and wind. Dried strips of meat were pounded to shreds and then mixed with melted fat or lard, a small amount of bone marrow, and some dried fruit to make a long-lasting food that was easy to carry. Called pemmican, European explorers and frontiersmen adopted this Native food to sustain them on long trips.

Most of the earliest non-Native settlers were from New England towns. They had no experience living off the land and wanted to reshape the environment to reflect their values and culture. This meant taming the wilderness with neat houses, fenced livestock, and fields of cultivated wheat. In 1852, Orsamus Turner interviewed some of the remaining pioneers and wrote the History of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the History of the Holland Land Purchase to chronicle their efforts to transform Western New York. His books include stories of privation and near starvation in the 1790s as these families traveled to settle newly purchased land. Many immigrants underestimated the provisions needed to survive the journey from settled parts of the state. One New England family arrived in March at Colonel Seth Reed’s house in Geneva, “destitute of provisions.” All Reed had to share with them was one loaf of bread. Fortunately for them, a ship arrived that afternoon supplied with flour, which they purchased for the remainder of their journey. Salt pork and corn meal were the basis of a limited diet supplemented by whatever wild foods could be found or hunted. When Nicholas Stansell’s family ran out of supplies in Lyons, they bought corn from the Onondaga and relied for food on their cow’s milk, forest greens, and the abundant venison and fish they caught.

These settlers brought traditional English food preferences with them. This meant meals of boiled or roasted meat, soups or stews, boiled vegetables, pickles, porridges, pies, puddings, breads, and cakes. With poor transportation and no ready sources of salt, sugar or vinegar, most of these dishes were impossible to make in the earliest settlements. Women accustomed to using fireplaces and bake ovens to prepare food had to learn to cook over an open fire with limited ingredients. Salt and other supplies had to be conveyed west in Durham boats or bateaux, boats shallow enough to navigate the rivers and streams of the Finger Lakes and light enough to carry between navigable waters. It could take weeks or months to get supplies from Schenectady to Lyons or up the Susquehanna to Seneca Lake and Geneva. Then it was days more for a man to get his purchases from these outposts back home.

Drawing of five men poling and steering a long, shallow boat.

Durham boats were used on New York’s inland waters until the canal era began in 1817.

The first crops most families started were grain crops that would supply bread and porridge. Storage crops of beans, potatoes and turnips would also have been among the first planted. Some men visited their land and planted grains, hoping to have a crop to harvest when they returned with their families. Others cleared enough land to build a rude shelter and plant corn and potatoes anywhere the sun could reach. The first livestock brought to the area were oxen to clear and plow the land, cows for milk, and hogs for meat. Pigs could be left to roam the woods and feed themselves, and then hunted for food. Cows’ milk carried families through lean times and could be preserved by making butter or cheese, even in difficult circumstances. One early immigrant made her cheese on a tree stump, using a stone for her press. Another woman with an outdoor press lost her cheese to a bear.

Newspaper text on how to dry beef for summer use.

Instructions for drying fish and beef appeared in cookbooks like the 1798 American Cookery and 1838 Virginia Housewife.

Clipping from a cookbook describing how to cook fish.

Drying was probably the first and easiest method of preserving food because it could be done with as little as fire, wind or sun. Grains and legumes could be easily stored if kept dry, while fruits, vegetables, meat and fish required more attention. Once transportation became a bit more reliable and salt and vinegar were readily available, families would brine their meat and pickle vegetables to preserve them. Meat had to be rubbed in every crevice with salt and packed in a tub of salt for 10 days. Then it would be put into a barrel of brine. Cookbook author Mary Randolph’s recommendation was 15 quarts of salt to 15 gallons of water to one pound of saltpeter. Then before cooking, the meat had to be soaked for a day to release the salt and make it tolerable to eat.

A drawing of a farm with a house and barn, neat fences, a tidy orchard and well-ordered landscape.

Turner’s History of the Holland Land Purchase includes illustrations of farms through four stages of development in Western New York.

By the first decade of the 1800s, the earliest homesteads began to resemble the third stage of settlement illustrated in Turner’s History of the Holland Land Purchase. The forest is seen only in the distance and a frame house stands next to the old pioneer cabin. Fences enclose the yards and sheds and a barn protect the livestock. An extensive garden is planted next to the house, while the corn grows neatly in the field and a small orchard is laid out to provide more fresh food and greater opportunities for preserving it.

By this time, 1791 traveler Elkanah Watson’s vision was being realized of the day “when the waters of this lake will be stripped of nature’s livery and in its place ruck [zig-zag] enclosures, pleasant villas, numerous flocks, herds, etc., and inhabited by a happy race of people enjoying the rich fruits of their own labors, and the luxury of sweet liberty and independence approaching to a millennial state.”


Recipes from Ganondagan

Living In The Past

Mary Randolph. The Virginia Housewife

Sue Shephard. Pickled, Potted, Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World

Amelia Simmons. American Cookery

Orsamus Turner. History of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase

One response to “Early Food Preservation in the Finger Lakes”

  1. Wally Kusznir says:

    Very interesting time of early settlements in history.

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