The cranberry is one of only three North American native fruits grown commercially; the others are blueberries and the Concord grape. Cranberry history dates back to the early years of America’s history. Native American used wild cranberries as food, fabric dye, and medicine. Today, cranberries are commercially grown throughout the northern part of the United States and have become part of the holidays we celebrate. The cranberry has helped sustain Americans for hundreds of years and continues to provide food and memories.
What’s in a Name?
The blossoms of the cranberry are white and dip down. This led the settlers to call then “crane berries” because of the blossom’s resemblance to the Sandhill crane. The cranes also liked to eat the berries which grew wild in the bogs of Canada where the cranes made their home.
Native Americans tribes called the cranberry ibimi which means “bitter berry,” or sassamanash (Try saying that three times quickly!)
Cranberries are also called “bounce berries,” because they literally bounce if dropped when they are fresh. Others called them “bearberries,” since bears also love eating them.
Native Americans used cranberries to make pemmican by combining crushed cranberries, melted fat, and dried deer meat – somewhat similar to jerky. Cranberries were also used to treat wounds and cuts. The Native Americans also used the berries to make red dye for their rugs and blankets.
The Native Americans introduced cranberries as food and dye to the Massachusetts settlers. Missionary John Eliot was first we know of to use the written word “cranberries” in a letter in 1647.
American Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall is credited as first to farm cranberries in the Cape Cod town of Dennis around 1816. In the 1820s cranberries were shipped to Europe.
Of Sauce and Juices
There is a record of Union general Ulysses S. Grant serving cranberry sauce as a condiment to his troops during the siege at Petersburg in 1864. Cranberry sauce was first commercially canned by the Cape Cod Cranberry Company in 1912 in Hanson, Massachusetts. They marketed their product as “Ocean Spray Cape Cod Cranberry Sauce.” When the company merged with other growers, it became the Ocean Spray Corporation.
Cranberry juice was first made by the settler’s in 1683. Today it is found fresh, frozen, and alone or blended with other juices in bottled form.
Captain Henry Hall became the first to cultivate cranberries successfully in 1816. The first association of cranberry growers formed in 1871. Today, U.S. farmers harvest over 40,000 acres of cranberries each year.
Cranberries are traditionally eaten at Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, there was a Thanksgiving when they were pulled from the shelves. I remember the “Great Cranberry Scare of 1959.” I have an emotional attachment to my mother’s Fresh Cranberry Salad as a result.
That year it was revealed that a carcinogenic weed killer had been used on cranberry plants. Fresh cranberries were not available – a Thanksgiving disaster for my mother. Fortunately, the cranberry industry survived and thrived. And every Thanksgiving and Christmas we had her cranberry salad – and an emotional reminder of the Great Cranberry Scare.