They Knew They Were Pilgrims

The 17th Century Adventures of Plimoth Plantation's Colonial Interpreters

Plenty More Fish In The Sea

April 24th, 2014 by Sally

You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.

We all love a good fish pun, but today I’m here to tell you about some very important little fish, that is, if you haven’t already been herring all about them. Ha. Got you there! Seriously you guys, I’m not even squidding, I’ve got bigger fish to fry here than a few bad jokes.

I’m talking about these squiggly little dudes:


Alewives, or Alosa pseudoharengus, if you please, are the herring that run UP the brook here in Plymouth every spring. Here’s John Pory, a visitor to early Plymouth (1622/23), to explain it all:

In April and May come up another kind of fish which they call herring or old wives [alewives] in infinite schools, into a small river running under the town, and so into a great pond or lake of a mile broad [ours go to Billington Sea], where they cast their spawn, the water of the said river being in many places not above half a foot deep. Yea, when a heap of stones is reared up against them a foot high above the water, they leap and tumble over, and will not be beaten back with cudgels….The inhabitants [our settlers] during the said two months take them up every day in hogsheads. And with those they eat not they manure the ground, burying two or three in each hill of corn – and may, when they are able, if they see cause, lade whole ships with them. At their going up they are very fat and savory, but at their coming down, after they have cast their spawns, they are shot, and therefore lean and unwholesome.

So that’s that. The herring run. You take the fish, you eat some, you bury some in your corn fields and plant over them. Thank you Squanto, get in a round of corn for everyone! It all sounds so easy, but the reality is that the early colonists here in New England really struggled to feed their families. If they hadn’t learnt from the native people, they never would have known that fish are feritlizer, not just food.



See that fish head spotted rotting away in our corn field last year? It really works.

We set last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn… – Mourt’s Relation

Not only were our colonists eating the herring and using the herring to grow corn that they would then eat, they used the surplus corn to trade for fur, which is really how they managed to begin to find economic stability here, too. Overly simplified, it goes like this:

Fish to eat – fish to plant – corn to plant – corn to grow – corn to eat – corn to trade.

The alewife population in Massachusetts has, sadly, been steadily declining over the years, but conservation commissions all over The Commonwealth have been fighting against this. The Town of Plymouth has been, and will be continuing the work of removing some of the dams between The Mill and Billington Sea, with the intention of making the way easier for our fishy friends. To keep track of the fish as they head upstream, there’s a helpful little fish counting station, just across the street from our water wheel. You can easily see the herring as they come through the fish way, under the road and out the other side:


If this isn’t enough to convince you of the significance of the humble alewife, down at the Plimoth Grist Mill this weekend we’ve got a festival going on!

The excitement begins at our cinema on Friday night, with a premiere of the River Herring Migration documentary by filmmaker Shervin Arya followed by a discussion featuring a panel of wildlife experts which promises to be absolutely fascinating. All day on Saturday and Sunday at The Mill there will be divers and sundry opportunities to learn more about this amazing fish, the ecology of Town Brook and the way our mill works with water power. I’ve heard there will be eels, too!

Many thanks to Miller, and all-round wonderful person, Kim Van Wormer for the brill-iant photos and her all-round wonderfulness. Get yourselves down there to meet Kim and the crew, you’re guaranteed to have a great time and learn a LOT.


This cormorant knows that the herring are running, too!

As for the puns…meh…I cod do batter, let minnow if you think of any more!


6 Responses to “Plenty More Fish In The Sea”

  1. Steven Weyand Folkers says:

    Oh cod! Stop with the puns — you’ll give me a haddock! Yes, I said that just for the halibut.

  2. kim says:

    Thanks Sally, for the great post and for saying nice things about me!
    There are lots of really cool things going on at the mill this weekend, so herring on down!
    Hey, what did the herring say when it ran into a wall? Dam!

  3. Rick McKee says:

    Y’all know me. Know how I earn a livin’. I’ll catch this herring for you, but it ain’t gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down the pond chasin’ bluegills and tommycods. This herring, swallow you whole. Little shakin’, little tenderizin’, an’ down you go.

    -Quint, from Jaws

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