Before Maine became a state 200 years ago this year, at least three prominent residents had already adopted a vegetarian diet, marking them among the oldest known vegetarians in early America.

This plate of Capt. Peter Twitchell appears in the 1891 “History of Bethel,” where he is noted as one of the town’s founding fathers, a long-time vegetarian and “a man of uncommon strength.” Reprinted from “History of Bethel Formerly Sudbury Canada Oxford County, Maine 1768-1890 with a Brief Sketch of Hanover and Family Statistics”

In the March 1899 edition of Food Home and Garden magazine, a short piece titled “The Pioneer Vegetarian” profiled Captain Peter Twitchell of Bethel. Born in 1761 in Sherborn, Massachusetts, the captain performed military honors at President Washington’s funeral, first farmed in Bethel in 1784, joined Bethel’s Congregational Church in 1816 and died in the town in 1855, after he was struck by a horse and carriage while out walking at age 94.

Food Home and Garden was the earliest incarnation of the national magazine published for decades by the Vegetarian Society of America, founded in 1886.

The short feature quotes from a letter sent to the magazine’s editor relating that the captain “was of a philosophical turn of mind, having been, previous to his death, for forty years a vegetarian. He was accustomed to walk four miles to church and stand during the delivery of the sermon. He was married twice and had six children.”

The magazine’s editor says the letter was “sent by a descendant of Captain Twitchell to Stanley G. Wright, Detroit, who thinks the captain was the Pioneer Vegetarian in this country.” The editor then relates that the “Bible Christians came from England in 1817, and if the statement ‘forty years’ be accurate, he is historically entitled to the distinction.”

This story pegs 1815 as the year the captain stopped eating meat. By that time the captain was settled in Bethel, and the Bible Christians had yet to erect a church in Philadelphia and gain notice for preaching in favor of the vegetable diet, as vegetarian food was called then. The word “vegetarian” didn’t come into common use until 1847. Scholars, including Adam D. Shprintzen in his 2013 “The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921,” trace the roots of today’s modern vegetarian movement to the arrival in America of the Bible Christians in 1817.

Twitchell’s biography in the 1891 “History of Bethel,” by William B. Lapham, calls him “a man of uncommon strength” who for “thirty-five years of his life he was a vegetarian.” This would mark 1820, the same year Maine gained statehood, as the date he adopted the vegetable diet. So which is it? 1815 or 1820?

It turns out 1899 wasn’t the first time Twitchell and his vegetarian diet showed up in print.

The captain also appears in the July 1851 edition of The American Vegetarian and Health Journal, a magazine published by the American Vegetarian Society (an organization that predated the Vegetarian Society of America and whose founders included the Rev. Sylvester Graham and Dr. William Alcott). Edited by the Rev. William Metcalfe, a Bible Christian, this periodical published a long letter from the captain describing his diet.

In the letter, Twitchell details how as a young man he “abstained from the use of flesh” and became “sensible that I gained strength by doing so.” Twitchell writes: “I eat no flesh or fish, or butter, nor anything like grease, eggs, or sweetning (sic), and drink no tea, coffee, or milk; I eat bread and different kinds of sauce, and pies, except those that may have meat in them.”

The captain’s use of the word “sauce” likely refers to vegetables, beans and peas, according to Jane C. Nylander’s 1993 “Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home: 1760-1860.”

While his 1844 letter details what he ate at different stages of his life (all of it vegetarian), he never indicates how long he’s eaten a purely vegetable diet. From his comment about abstaining from flesh, we can infer that at some point he was a meat eater. On the other hand, in one passage the captain writes: “My father was a temperate man, used no spirits, tea, or coffee, neither did he allow them to be used in his family. Then it was our practice to eat spoon victuals twice a day. In this way I was brought up.”

“Spoon victuals” is a rare, archaic food term similar to the phrase “spoon meat,” which means light fare or children’s food eaten with a spoon. In the 1879 book “Vegetarianism the Radical Cure for Intemperance,” Harriet P. Fowler uses the term “spoon-victuals” to refer to oatmeal. If Twitchell’s use of the term meant simple, plant-based fare, could he have been brought up on a mostly vegetarian diet? If so, that could push his vegetarianism further into the past than 1815.

His parents, Capt. Joseph Twitchell (1719-1792) and Deborah Fairbanks Twitchell (1719-1775) of Sherborn had 12 children, at least four of whom were among the early settlers of Bethel. In the 1891 “History of Bethel,” Joseph Twitchell is described as “a man of affairs.”

While I have yet to find additional clues about his parents’ diet or that of his two wives, Sarah Bullard Twitchell and Amey Perry Twitchell, I suspect at least one of Capt. Peter Twitchell’s descendants followed his dietary lead. In Lapham’s “History of Bethel,” Capt. Twitchell’s son John A. Twitchell is described as “an early temperance man, being one of the seven who organized the first temperance society in town.” During the 19th century, the temperance movement and the vegetarian movement had similar messages, and many shared adherents.

Capt. Twitchell resurfaced in 2011, when the Bethel Historical Society’s The Courier republished a trio of reports originally printed in the Oxford Democrat in 1855, 1856 and 1857, detailing a series of Antiquarian Suppers sponsored by the Bethel Farmers’ Club. Randall H. Bennett, of the Bethel Historical Society, wrote that in the years before the Civil War “a variety of groups of people in many New England towns began holding ‘antiquarian suppers.’” These events aimed for nostalgic re-enactments of local colonial life.

At the first dinner, in 1855, Bethel residents brought relics from colonial days and dressed in old-fashioned costumes. Twitchell was asked to give a blessing, as the town’s oldest patriarch. The captain, “though unexpectedly called upon,” the Oxford Democrat reported, “collected his ideas so as to adapt them to the special occasion, much to the delight of the company.”

The menu at these dinners highlighted the foods eaten by Bethel’s early European settlers. Bean porridge, parched corn and pumpkin pie were featured dishes at all three events. Other dishes mentioned at one or more of the Bethel dinners are baked beans, hulled corn, johnnycakes, brown bread, doughnuts and sage tea. The only meat mentioned at all three dinners is moose steak.

Elders in attendance at the Antiquarian Suppers reminisced about bean porridge, homemade bread, roasted potatoes, apples (fresh and dried), pumpkins, cakes, cheeses, milk and cider. At that time, dishes like bean porridge and baked beans were often fattened and seasoned with meat, so we can’t assume they were vegetarian. Even so, these suppers paint a picture of the diet of early Bethel settlers in which the bulk of calories came from plants.

While the captain was a notable, early Maine vegetarian, unless he was vegetarian for longer than 40 years before his death, he was neither the first American vegetarian nor even the first Maine vegetarian.

A daguerreotype in the collection of the Maine Historical Society shows the Rev. Jotham Sewall in 1847. He was described as “a man of giant size and venerable appearance.” Courtesy of MaineMemory.net

That title might go to a mason named Jotham Sewall, from Newbury, Massachusetts, who began building a homestead in Chesterville in 1783. Later, he became a minister, according to the 1875 “History of Chesterville, Maine,” by Oliver Sewall. Other than a reference to exchanging bushels of apples for corn, the history makes no mention of his diet. But in the April 1851 issue of the Vegetarian and Health Journal, the Rev. Jotham Sewall of Maine is included in a list of “very aged and remarkable men” who followed a vegetarian diet. Sewall had died the previous year at age 90.

Two years later, Sewall’s vegetarianism was recognized again, this time in a longer profile in Dr. Alcott’s 1853 update to his popular “Vegetable Diet: As Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages.”

“He is a man of giant size and venerable appearance,” Alcott wrote of Sewall. “His only drinks are water and sage tea. These, with bread, milk, and fruits, and perhaps a little salt, are the only things that enter his stomach.”  Alcott says he doesn’t know how long Sewall has “abstained from flesh” but suspects it might be up to 40 years. He does note that Sewall has abstained from tea and coffee for 47 years.

Forty years dates Sewall’s vegetarian diet to 1810, which predates that of Captain Twitchell. A third pioneer vegetarian’s diet, that of lifelong vegetarian James Gower of Abbot, goes back even further, predating the American Revolution. Gower was born in Topsham in 1772 and later served as sales agent for college lands in Maine.

In the 2004 history “Vegetarian America,” authors Karen Iacobbo and Michael Iacobbo write: “Vegetarianism in the United States dates to even before it was a nation,” and that among “the Europeans who inhabited the Thirteen Colonies during the eighteenth century, were a few groups and an unknown number of individuals who abstained from animal flesh.”

Gower, who died in 1855 at age 83, was one of them. He appears in the summer 1891 edition of The Maine Historical Magazine in a short profile titled “A Vegetarian.” It states: “His son Davis M. Gower now of Winthrop is authority for the statement that his father ‘never in this life ate of anything that ever breathed,’” marking James Gower as a lifelong vegetarian since 1772.

Lifelong vegetarians usually have vegetarian parents. Gower’s mother, Mary Henry Gower (1745-1837), was born in Rhode Island and his father, Robert Gower (1723-1806), immigrated to the United States from Norwich, England, where vegetarian ideas were in active circulation. What either ate, however, remains a mystery. I suspect Maine was home to many more early vegetarians, yet like Gower’s parents and the wives and children of all three men, few clues remain about their dietary practices.

In 2008, Gower made the news again when multiple news outlets in Maine and New Hampshire noted he was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of former Alaska governor, and vice presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. No mention was made of Gower’s eating habits.

It’s been 129 years since Gower’s meat-free diet last made headlines and 248 years since his birth. It’s time to set the record straight: James Gower is Maine’s earliest documented vegetarian.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila


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