Dining on Ship’s Biscuits in 1607


Ship’s Biscuits,(Biskits) formed a major part of the diet of those sailing to America

The year was sixteen hundred and seven and three ships of 105 men were sent by the Virginia Company from Britain to America to begin a settlement. It took five months make the crossing with stops in the Caribbean.

To celebrate that journey, the original archeological site, a re-created settlement,  three replica ships and a Powhatan village help us to learn about life as it was centuries ago.   Several interpretive staff at Jamestown, Virginia and the Yorktown Victory Centre – both passionate and knowledgeable about food history gave me helpful information about what we think may have been the diet of those travelling on the three British ships sent to colonize America in 1607.

How a sailor might have looked on the way to Jamestown.
Replicas of the Godspeed and Discovery ships that brought settlers in 1607

I have described the food that those sailing in 1607 might have eaten on their journey inside a short tale.

In the hold of the Godspeed, the wood creaked as the ship tossed and turned in the wild waves of the cold Atlantic. The year was sixteen hundred and seven.

I sat propped up against the side of the ship, in the hold and all around me were the other men, cold, sea sick and weak from the many days of sitting. We were fifty-one in total. We could not go above, to breathe the fresh air, unless we would not be in the way of the sailors. We brought no women on this journey.

We left England for a better life, to start a colony and make money for The Virginia Company. Would we find gold? I was starting to wonder if we would arrive at all. I was a gentleman in England and am not sure why I left. I closed my eyes and dreamt of dinner back in my mother’s kitchen back in England. Our stomach’s groaned with hunger like the ships timber around us.

The Godspeed was packed with food supplies and we survived by eating dried meats, rice, beans, pickled goods and lots of ship’s biscuits. It was damp in the hold and those biscuits started to get buggy. They were made back in England of flour, water and salt and are hard as a rock on the shore, so it is hard to imagine how a bug could settle into one of those biscuits. They are made to last a lifetime, even if ours doesn’t. Our cook made food over a fire burning in a barrel by the opening to the deck or up on deck, but food was getting scarce. We ate mostly soups and stews, and put the ship’s biscuits in the soup so we would fill up. We hoped to land in the Caribbean to take on fresh food and water.

I remember one day the cook was making us some food; we called it Drowning Baby Pudding, as unsavoury as that may sound. I am watching. The cook took some ship’s biscuits, pounded them finely and put them in a pot to mix with some scraps of salt pork. He found some onions, chopped several and added water to the pot. It was a special day because he added some eggs. He mixed up all the ingredients and wrapped it up in a cloth, forming a large ball and put it in boiling water to cook.

Believe me, it tasted good, very good. The ship’s wood groaned, but our stomachs were full, and the Godspeed tossed in the waves. We hoped we would land someday soon.

I baked some ship’s biscuits, to taste them myself. Here’s my “recipe” based on the ingredients that they would have used.

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • bit of salt

I mixed all together an kneaded the mixture for about five minutes. I rolled out the dough and used a round cutter to shape and prick with a fork as well as a second method of forming a flattened ball and pricking with a fork. Put on a cookie sheet in the oven at a 300 degrees for one hour or so.  They would often bake several times to ensure dryness, but mine were very dry. I ate one and – my teeth are still intact.




As I entered the kitchen building of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, I could smell turkey roasting over the charcoal fire. The slow ticking of the clock jack (a device of pulleys and clock like cogs) turned the turkey slowly. The year was seventeen and seventy-five. Spread out on the table was an array of dishes that would have been prepared for just one of the courses of dinner, should you be one of the gentry (upper class,) invited as a guest at the Governor’s palace.

The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg was the capital of the British colony of Virginia from 1699 until 1779. The large wall map in the palace shows Virginia as a much larger piece of the continent than it is at present. Many gentry lived in Williamsburg because it was the political centre of the state. Colonial Williamsburg stands proudly all these years later, and many original buildings exist as well as reconstructions that allow us to live in another time, if just for a moment…

The city had an elegant air that continues to this day and is reflected in the architecture of the buildings. Interpretive staff dressed in garb of 1770, bring history to life. Master food historians, and tradesmen such as wig makers, tailors, blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers continue to pass the skills of this time on to future generations.

Frank Clark, (pictured above) the Master of Historic Foodways at Williamsburg knows those ways of the past. He studied for years to become an expert in his field. After I spent some time in the kitchen, watching the food preparations and took a tour of the Governor’s Palace, I imagined what it would be like to be invited for a meal. One governor brought his French trained cook from England to ensure the quality of his food. Other cooks and slaves helped in the kitchen.

The grand finale course of sweets

Guests were seated in the elegant dining room for their main meal at 2 in the afternoon. A dinner invitation had great social importance and the meal would last for hours. Guests were seated according to rank and importance. Many dishes were prepared for this meal, and no one was expected to taste or dine on all of the dishes, after all, they may not enjoy what was being served.

Above is a sampling of dishes that may have been served for the first course: egg croquets, pie made of sweet breads (the thymus of veal), buttered onions, rabbit, pork dish, chicken cooked the French way, stuffed cabbage, creamed turnip, rolls and likely more dishes. Then a second course, equally as impressive, followed by dessert of crème brulee, Portuguese cake, and sweet confections.

Ornate table setting plans show where the dishes would be placed on the table as some are served, there are replacement dishes to be added. When each guest was seated, one serving platter has been placed in front of each guest. They were expected to cut, carve, and serve that dish to the others who wished to partake. There were so many dishes to be served that the table was covered. When one course was finished, the guests retired to anther room to visit and after a time, a second course was served with different, but similar plates of food.

This plan illustrates where each dish was placed on the table. The small circles outside the large table plans are dishes that would be substituted when another meat dish was completed. Each guest would serve the dish that was placed before them. The contents of the plans also show us the seasonal food eaten.

Food was not wasted at the palace, the governor had paid for it from his personal income and it was an honour to be invited for dinner. Leftovers were eaten as the morning meal the next day or for another meal.

The sweets course was followed by tea in the sitting room for the women and drinks in the dining room for the men. Cards, and games might have followed and the afternoon dinner often stretched into the morning hours.


Elegantly set sweets table at Governor’s Palace
Fruit gelatins made using pig’s feet.

That was dining at it’s most elegant, and those traditions remain alive through the skill and dedication of those preserving food history in Colonial Williamsburg.

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