A Very Pleasant and Good Drink:

Brewing at Niagara in the Spring of 1760 

         

      On St. Andrews Day, 1759 Fort Niagara's new Commandant, Lt. Colonel William Eyre, took pen in hand to write to Major General Jeffrey Amherst, His Majesty's commander in North America. Cold weather was closing in on Fort Niagara and Eyre feared that the coming winter would lead to an outbreak of scurvy among the garrison. Since capturing the Fort the previous July, soldiers had focused on filling siege trenches and repairing the Fort's damaged barracks. There were no fresh vegetables or fruits to ward off the dreaded disease.

            One supposed remedy for scurvy was spruce beer, a beverage often issued to British soldiers. Spruce beer was made from a mixture of molasses, yeast, fresh spruce tips, and water and took only a few days to be ready for consumption. The spruce tips provided the vitamin C, but the fermentation process reduced the amount that ended up in the beer. Eyre's problem was that he had no molasses to make spruce beer.  He looked ahead to a dismal winter in a strange land, subsisting on a diet of bread and salted meat. Eyre had served long enough to realize that he was confronted with a recipe for disaster.

            By the time he arrived at Fort Niagara in November 1759, Lt. Colonel William Eyre was a veteran of many years service in the British Army. During the 1740s he served in Scotland and in the Low Countries. He accompanied General Braddock's expedition to America in 1755 as a Captain in the 44th Regiment. A talented engineer, he constructed Forts Edward and William Henry on the Hudson/Lake George portage. As commander of the latter post, he successfully defended the Fort against a strong French and Indian raid in March 1757. The following year Eyre was wounded in the assault on Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga). When Fort Niagara's commandant, Lt. Colonel William Farquhar died of “flue and fever” in October 1759, Eyre was dispatched by General Amherst to replace him.

            By January, Eyre's fears were realized as men began to complain of bleeding gums, wobbly teeth, atrocious bad breath, lethargy and weakness. The disease, if left unchecked, would result in a slow, agonizing death for many of its victims.

            Scurvy occurs when the human body is denied an adequate supply of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), causing the body's connective tissue to degenerate. For centuries scurvy remained a medical mystery. The cause of the disease was widely regarded as the result of a virus or “evil vapors.”  By the early 17th century, the British medical profession knew that scurvy was caused by diet not virus. In 1734 the Polish-born Dutch theologian and scientist Johann Bachstrom published a treatise on scurvy in which he observed scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens, which is alone the primary cause of the disease.  In 1747 Scottish naval surgeon James Lind proved that scurvy could be treated by supplementing the diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Lind published “A Treatise of the Scurvy” in 1753.

            Lt. Colonel William Eyre also understood that poor diet led to scurvy. Such theoretical knowledge must have been cold comfort to Eyre, sitting in wintry,  isolated Fort Niagara hundreds of miles from the supplies necessary to combat the disease. During the remainder of the winter, the disease spread rapidly through the garrison. By February 25 Eyre described scurvy in the garrison as “violent.”

            Various measures were taken to ship the needed supplies to Fort Niagara. In mid-February, General Thomas Gage promised to send vinegar and lime juice from Albany to Oswego by sleigh. Eyre in turn dispatched a boat to Oswego for medicine, vinegar, and molasses. By early March a supply of vinegar,  lime juice and cabbage was forwarded from Oswego to Niagara but the supplies were not quick in arriving and 123 men were dead by the middle of April.

            In the meantime, Eyre looked to the woods and the lake for the solution to the problem. By early February he ordered the garrison into the nearby woods to look for sassafras, an herb thought to possess great medicinal value. Products of the sassafras tree had been used by Native Americans for centuries. Europeans shipped quantities of sassafras back to England and Continental Europe for the manufacture of teas and poultices. It was believed that the root bark, when crushed and steeped in boiling water could reduce fevers, soothe rheumatism, gout, dropsy, relieve eye inflammation, ease menstrual pain and even serve as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea.  If fermented, sassafras root could be used to make molasses and beer.

            With supplies of sassafras in hand, a brew house was set up inside the Fort and the men took to brewing in their barracks to supplement the supply. At first the sassafras brew provided “a bitter drink.” Later the men added hickory bark and maple sap to sweeten the concoction. Eyre wrote to General Thomas Gage on March 18, 1760,

 

           I have likewise a Brewery going on here upon a New Plan. And by which Means I supply All  the Sick in the Hospital, And the Well Men Brew in the Barracks for their own Use. This Brew is made of Hickery and sassafras boiled together, And by adding some of the Juice which we now collect from the Maple Tree, make a very agreeable Drink. (Gage Papers v. 5)

 

Amherst later reported that ...he brews Sassafras, Hickery, with some of the Maple which makes a very pleasant and good drink...Each man was given one-half gallon of this “beer” a day. (Amherst Papers v. 5 April 10, 1760),

           

            Eyre also took other measures. Fishing nets were procured and the men started harvesting the bounty of Lake Ontario. Others gathered watercress in the woods. By early May a palisaded garden was well underway. Eyre reported to Gage on May 8, Our people in general is growing better and indeed much faster than I expected. Our fish and Beer helps us much and I keep constantly Men out gathering Greens of different kinds in the woods for the Sick. (Gage Papers, v. 6)  The same day Eyre wrote to Amherst The men in general are mending fast. We still continue to catch Fish enough to Supply the Garrison, and our Beer, I think grows better. I am building a Brew house close to the water side which will be more convenient than having one in the Fort.

 

            The crisis had passed. A total of 149 men died of scurvy the winter of 1760. Had the brew house helped end the crisis?  It is unlikely that it contributed substantially to the cure. Hickory contains trace elements of vitamin C but it is more likely that Eyre's other measures were more effective. Nonetheless Colonel Eyre's efforts the winter of 1760 led to the construction of western New York's first documented brewery.

           

           

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