Written by Laura Carbonneau, Food Connects Communications and Development Manager
We all have stories that connect us with food. They could be cooking with family members, meals with friends, or perhaps growing your own food. In my work at Food Connects it is my job to tell the stories of local farmers, food producers, our customers dedicated to local food, and schools committed to Farm to School programming.
Telling the stories of these impactful organizations comes easy. The more I write and share, the more reflective I become about my own food story and connections to agriculture. I have been acutely involved in food systems since 2008—before I had even graduated from college. My passions have always included food and agriculture and the influences of it on my life have been profound. It would be easy for me to tell you a beautifully painted picture of my work in food systems, the places I have traveled to so I could study food and food systems, or my personal endeavors in growing and producing my own food. But I have a deeper, more historical connection to agriculture that I would be remiss if I did not share it with you.
My family has old American blood. My family lineage, through my maternal grandmother, can be traced back to the Pilgrims from England. I am related to the Alden, Cooke, Soule, Mullins, Warren, and Rogers families who came over on the Mayflower, as well as numerous other individuals who came on the Fortune, Elizabeth and Ann, and subsequent voyages.
So… what does that have to do with food and agriculture now?
As an individual who is passionate about food justice, I carry with me immense historical guilt. The first English settlers in New England had enormous ecological, social, and agricultural impacts on the land and indigenous people. Those who settled in the Plymouth Colony and those who followed and spread across New England changed the face of the landscape and how the Wampanoag and other indigenous peoples lived.
It is commonly known that the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were ill-equipped for settling in a new land. Based on the inaccuracies of maps at the time, they believed that where the ship would land was a much warmer climate than their homes in England. They landed just before the cold of a New England winter hit and many did not survive the first winter. To survive, many Pilgrims raided Wampanoag food stores and graves, which also stored food. This act of survival was an early example of a supremacist, colonist mentality—there was no thought of respect for the traditions of the Wampanoags, only the focus on self-preservation.
That first spring the Pilgrims relied on the knowledge Tisquantum (more commonly known as Squanto) to teach them how to better use the natural resources at their disposal. Tisquantum aided them in trade between the various leaders of the Wampanoag Confederation. The first ship of European settlers worked with Tisquantum and others but as more and more ships arrived it was easier to ignore the treaties made with different tribes. And as the settlers brought over more guns and disease, they found themselves increasingly in a position of power—both causing the deaths of so many indigenous people.
A striking difference between the two cultures was their way of obtaining food. The Wampanoag tribes knew how to work in harmony with the seasons and had an intimate knowledge of the habits and ecology of the different species of the region. They were flexible, nimble, and mobile in their relationships with food and nature. The European settlers did not understand or respect these traditions and practices. They brought something over that was just as destructive to the land as the disease was to the Wampanoag—agriculture and animal husbandry. This is starkly different than the hunter-gather society that existed. Royal charters from England drew boundaries that had no thought for the claims of the existing inhabitants and focused on the “improvement” of the land. The land was turned over, forests were destroyed, foreign foods and pests were introduced, and overhunting and overfishing occurred.
My family, who came over on the Mayflower, may have had the best intentions—they were looking for a home for their families away from religious persecution. But in doing so they created a chain reaction that changed the face of the landscape. The “us versus them” mentality inherent in their interactions with the Wampanoag people created a deep-seated feeling of superiority that paved the way for ideas like Manifest Destiny and that taking advantage of people who are “lesser” was not only okay but encouraged.
Fast forward about 170 years to meet my distant relative, Eli Whitney. He and I share a common ancestor, John Whitney Sr., who is my 10th great-grandfather and Eli’s 4th great-grandfather. Eli Whitney was an inventor and in his travels to the South, he worked with a benefactor, Phineas Miller, to create the cotton gin. Miller had come to Whitney, on behalf of his colleagues, to find a solution to improve the process of separating the cotton lint from the seeds. Because of the long processing time, growing cotton was unprofitable in America and there was still a reliance on the import of cotton.
The cotton gin dramatically changed the agricultural economy of the South. Human processing of cotton could produce about one pound of cotton per day, but with the use of the cotton gin, that number increased 50 fold. Between the high demand for cotton, in English and New England textile industries, and the new ease with which cotton could be processed, growing cotton became much more appealing. The economy in the South grew, but not everyone benefited. The labor force of the South, African slaves, suffered the deepest wounds with the advent of this new technology. Slavery had started to become “unprofitable” and the cotton gin revived a dying market. The cotton gin replaced the labor necessary to process cotton, but not to grow and harvest it—slavery and cotton would be intertwined until slavery’s abolition, whether that was the intent of the gin or not.
Now, roughly 225 years later, here I am. And how do I resolve this historical guilt that lives inside me? As part of their survival and means of living, my ancestors changed the face of agriculture in America at the expense of Wampanoag and African people. My conflict comes from wanting to be immersed and proud of my family’s history because without them myself and many others would not be here, while at the same time I know that the pain they caused is still being felt by the descendants of those who were taken advantage of. And perhaps that is why I am pulled towards food justice and improving our food system for all. Writing about these stories has been painful and joyful at the same time and has ignited a passion in me to learn more about my family’s story with agriculture that goes beyond our beginnings in America. My hope is that my descendants can look back at my food history and be proud.