In 1605, near the time of the Penobscot kkihkayí-kisohs, or “moon of planting and sowing,” Captain George Weymouth and crew landed at Monhegan Island after setting “saile from Ratcliffe,” England.

The voyage is best known for paving the way for the establishment of Jamestown in today’s Virginia in 1607, followed months later by the short-lived Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River. But the record of the voyage, written by James Rosier, appears to have culinary significance, too. I believe that Rosier’s account is the first time a European recorded the Native American use of nut milks and nut butters.

Except the scribe misinterpreted the evidence.

Heralding the “fertility of the ground” and “strawberries bigger than ours in England,” Rosier’s report catalogs plants, animals and cultivated forests that “did all resemble a stately Parke.” He details cordial interactions with groups of Wabanaki ancestors, that is until Captain Weymouth kidnapped five local men. After communicating (or miscommunicating) with the captured people, Rosier made a curious remark about local Wabanaki culture:

“They shew .. how they make butter and cheese of the milke they have of the Rain-Deere and Fallo-Deere, which they have tame as we have Cowes,” Roiser wrote in his report.

Hold it right there

“The Wabanaki were not domesticating wild animals,” said ethnobotanist, culinary historian and author E. Barrie Kavasch, who has documented both nut milk and nut butter as indigenous traditional foods in the northeastern United States.

“Doubtless Rosier was referring to other substances used in another way that he was totally unaware of,” Kavasch said. “In Maine especially, the Maine Indians used the resources from the nuts, which are enhanced by roasting, cooking and drying.”

As it turned out, by not domesticating livestock for dairy milk, they were able for centuries to avoid diseases that killed many Europeans.

In “Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes,” Kavasch included recipes and insights into the plant-based milk products traditionally made in the Wabanaki homeland.  Nuts, she wrote, “were also ground in a mortar with water to make a flavorful nut ‘milk’ to add to various dishes.”

Kavasch told me nuts “were pounded in wooden mortars and pestles but more often taken to the riverbanks, where there were stone grinders. Sometimes they would grind the nut shells with the paste and sometimes they would even work in birch twigs and other fragrant twigs. Many of the Maine Indians are famous for their birch bark containers, which contain a special preservative. They would put their nut butters in a birch bucket, and it will last much longer than in a refrigerator.”

Cows in the New World

The historical record is clear that before European colonists arrived in America the Wabanaki nations and other Native American nations neither domesticated animals, other than dogs, nor confined them. Animal confinement creates zoonotic pathogens, which can jump from animals to humans. Because the Wabanaki and other Native Americans did not keep livestock at the time, they weren’t afflicted with zoonotic diseases, such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis, until the 1500s, when European arrived. The Native Americans had no immunity from such diseases and died in droves.

The historical record doesn’t tell us which zoonotic pathogens Weymouth and his crew may have left on these shores. But we do know that the Wabanaki people at the time weren’t milking wild animals.

Passamaquoddy historic preservation director Donald Soctomah is also skeptical about the accuracy of Rosier’s “Rain-Deer milke” report. Among contemporary Passamaquoddy, though, he had heard of grinding sunflower seeds, which can be used to make both milk and butter.  Sunflowers are a traditional crop for the Passamaquoddy and other Wabanaki nations.

Fascinatingly, he referred me to C. Keith Wilbur’s 1978 “The New England Indians,” which like Howard S. Russell’s 1980 “Indian New England Before the Mayflower,” touches on traditional Native American plant-based infant formula. Western culture “invented” packaged infant formula in 1865, when German chemist Justus von Liebig patented an imitation mother’s milk made from a mixture of cow’s milk, wheat flour, malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate. The baby formula industry has relied on cow’s milk-based products ever since, despite decades of criticism that it is less healthy for babies and that in developing nations the water needed to reconstitute it may not be safe.

For most of history, Europeans preserved fresh milk as cheese or yogurt. Widespread fresh milk consumption is a relatively recent invention. Though the first cows were brought to New England in 1624, fresh cow’s milk didn’t become a common beverage until the 19th century with improved refrigeration and distribution technology. Its history is problematic.

In his 2006 book “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” Sandor Ellix Katz discusses the deaths of infants and children in New York City in the 19th century linked to milk produced in the city by poorly fed cows confined in their feces, which inevitably ended up in the milk. Reform movements alternately advocated farm sanitation standards or pasteurization, he writes. The pasteurization advocates won.

But until Europeans arrived in America, the Wabanaki people had no such problems, as they had been nourishing their infants with a plant-based food for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Wabanaki walnut milk

Columnist Avery Yale Kamila grinds acorns with an ancient mortar and pestle, both found along the shoreline of the former Cobbosseecontee Stream, now Pleasant Pond, in Litchfield. Many Wabanaki artifacts have been found on this property where Kamila grew up. Photo by Alden A.M. Hill

We know about the Wabanaki’s infant feeding recipe because in 1728 the first edition of a pamphlet later called “An Account of the Captivity of Elizabeth Hanson” was published. The 40-page booklet tells of Hanson’s 1725 abduction by “eleven Indians, armed with tomahawks and guns” from her homestead in Dover, New Hampshire, and her subsequent forced march to Canada along with her maid and four children.

Her youngest child “was but fourteen days old” when they were kidnapped. The rough travel conditions and lack of food meant her milk dried up and her “helpless babe” was “very poor and weak, appearing to be little more than skin and bones” by the time they reached Canada.

A sympathetic woman recognized Hanson’s plight and taught her to pound walnuts with a little water until it “looked like milk.” To this she was instructed to add “the finest Indian corn meal, and just boil it up together.”

Hanson reports, “I did so; and found it very palatable, and soon perceived that it nourished my babe, for it quickly began to thrive and look well … I afterwards understood, that with this kind of diet the Indian children were often fed.”

That recipe demonstrates the culinary knowledge of the Wabanaki ancestors, Kavasch said. “The cornmeal would have been ground fine and roasted,” she said. “Roasting makes it more digestible. The roasted cornmeal would have been essential in settling the stomach and keeping them feeling fed. When you pound them up fine enough, it’s the most incredible beverage.”

Plenty of scholars have described nuts as a crucial food source for the Wabanaki people, and early colonial records indicate the same. In 1607, colonists from the Popham Colony described the Casco Bay islands as “overgrown with woods very thick as oaks, walnut, pine trees & many other things growing as sarsaparilla, hazle nuts & whorts in abundance.”

Ethnobotanist Nancy Asch Sidell documents that charred beechnut remains that are more than 5,000 years old have been discovered “preserved in a hearth feature” in central Maine. At the archaelogical site on the well-documented Norridgewock village on the Kennebec River – a Wabanaki town destroyed by the British in 1724 – researchers have recovered evidence of hazelnut and beechnut consumption, Sidell reports.

“The use and importance of nuts is as ancient as the people themselves,” Kavasch told me. “The trees they come from were so sacred and important. But many of our European ancestors couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They weren’t thinking of it as a nut forest.”

Yet a nut forest it was. And here on Maine soil those beloved trees provided nut milks, butters, and creams long before cows were imported, chained to stalls, and milked in America. Nut milk, it turns out, is America’s original milk.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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