Photograph by Chris Johns/Nat Geo Image Collection
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Farmers work together to collect cranberries from a large bog during harvest season.
Photograph by Chris Johns/Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Bitter Berries: The Historic Battle for Cranberry Power Bars

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau had a brief financial flutter with the cranberry. Hard put to pay for his cellar full of unsold copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau came up with a scheme to work off his debt by selling cranberries to New York City. First he priced berries in Boston’s Quincy Market, with an eye to purchasing an “indefinite quantity.” This “made a slight sensation,” he later wrote in his journal, “and for aught I know raised the price of the berry for a time.” He then checked out freight costs on ships bound for New York (on deck or in the hold), and found a cooperative skipper “very anxious” to take on a cargo of cranberries. As a final step, he checked out the selling price of cranberries in New York and found, to his dismay, that they were markedly cheaper there than in Boston.

The deflated Thoreau finally paid off his $100 debt by selling pencils from the family pencil factory.

The berry that so disappointed Thoreau is—like the Concord grape and the blueberry—a native American fruit. Though it has relatives abroad—among them Vaccinium oxycoccos, the European cranberry, and Vaccinium vitis-idaea, the lingonberry—the American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is by far the biggest and most impressive of the bunch. Known to the Wampanoag of Massachusetts as ibimi-bitter berries, cranberries were used as food and medicine by the native tribes of what is now the northern United States and Canada. The Inuktitut smoked cranberry leaves like tobacco; the Cree used the boiled berries to dye porcupine quills; and the Chippewa used cranberries as bait to trap snowshoe hares. The most popular use of cranberries, though, was in pemmican, a mix of dried venison, fat, and pounded cranberries that functioned as a primeval power bar.

Cranberry Harvest

See how a farmer harvests cranberries from one of the largest and oldest cranberry marshes in Wisconsin.

Like the sticks of butter that fuel the mushers on the Iditarod, pemmican was high-energy trail food, a prime source of quick calories for travelers and traders. In fact, it soon became so essential to settlers, tradesmen, and Indians alike that a battle was fought over it.

In 1814, Miles MacDonnell, then governor of the Red River Colony (near Winnipeg, Manitoba), in response to a worrisome food shortage, issued a Pemmican Proclamation that forbade the export of pemmican. MacDonnell was hoping to preserve valuable food supplies for the employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company; in doing so, however, he infuriated Hudson’s Bay’s main competitor in the fur trade, the North West Company, as well as the local American Indians, the Métis, who had a thriving pemmican business. Tempers ran high, culminating in 1816 during a clash over pilfered pemmican that came to be known as the Seven Oaks Massacre. The Métis won (there were more of them, and they were better shots); and subsequent investigation by a Royal Commissioner showed that they should have, since the pemmican in question was rightfully theirs.

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Two women make jelly out of Northern Mountain cranberries in Sodervik, Sweden. Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel/National Geographic Creative

Cranberries: Give Me Some Sugar

The early Massachusetts colonists didn’t think much of cranberries. The cranberry, as nature made it, is tongue-curdlingly sour. If cranberries had a part in the first Thanksgiving, chances are they were nobody’s favorite at the feast. Their prospects looked up, however, with the advent of sweeteners. Honeybees arrived in Massachusetts in 1638 and were soon providing the colonists with honey, and by 1647, Governor John Winthrop was commenting on the delights of the new sugar trade with the West Indies.

Given enough sugar, the Wampanoag bitter berries became positively delicious. Travel writer John Josselyn in New England’s Rarities DiscoveredJohn Josselyn in New England’s Rarities Discovered, first published in 1672, describes the “Cran Berry or Bear Berry, because Bears use much to feed upon them,” adding that the English and American Indians boil them with sugar to make a sauce for meat. Dozens of cranberry recipes followed. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery—published in 1796 and believed to be the first American cookbook—includes a laconic recipe for cranberry tart: the berries, Miss Simmons writes, should be “stewed, strained, sweetened,” then put in a crust and “baked gently.” She also recommends cranberry sauce as an accompaniment for roast turkey.

By the early 19th century, cranberries were so ubiquitous that Bostonian William Tudor (who made a fortune selling ice; see Frederic Tudor: The King of Ice) wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay titled “Cranberry Sauce,” on the subject of “our most universal dish.” To make the sauce, he wrote, “the berries are stewed slowly with nearly their weight of sugar for about an hour, and served on the table cold…It is eaten with almost every species of roasted meat, particularly the white meats, turkies, partridges, &c. Some even eat it with boiled fish, and I knew one person, otherwise a very worthy man, who eats it with lobsters for supper.”

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A frog rests among floating cranberries in a bog in Wareham, Massachusetts. Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic Creative

Health Benefits of Cranberries

The fat New England cranberry was also shipped overseas. A record of 1677 shows the Massachusetts colonists attempting to placate an annoyed King Charles II with a gift of 10 barrels of cranberries, along with two hogsheads of samp (cracked corn) and 3,000 codfish. The colonists had stepped on the royal toes by illegally coining money; perennially short of cash, the frustrated Bay Colony had begun stamping out the famous pine tree shilling, in spite of the fact that minting was the prerogative of the crown. It’s not clear whether the cranberries did the trick, or the fast-talking lawyer who managed to convince the king that the pine tree on the offending coin was actually a royal oak, but the colony was at least temporarily forgiven.

Medicinally, the cranberry was used to treat fevers, as a poultice for wounds, and (most effectively) to prevent scurvy. Cranberries were not only good sources of vitamin C, but they kept well on shipboard, a winning combination in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were popular enough among sailors for lack of cranberries to be cause for complaint. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick a sailor rants against the cranberry-less Captain Ahab: “Go out with the crazy Captain Ahab! Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.”

Nowadays cranberries are also known to contain hefty amounts of polyphenols that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, antioxidants that may help prevent cancer, and proanthocyanidins that could block the adhesion of bacteria to stomach and urinary tract walls, thus probably helping to prevent ulcers and bladder infections. Bitter berries are good for you.

They’re also good to eat.

Provided, that is, you add enough sugar.

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Photograph by Mark H. Anbinder/Creative Commons 2.0

Cranberry Sauce

From Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1851)

Wash a quart of ripe cranberries, and put them into a pan with about a wine-glass of water. Stew them slowly, and stir them frequently, particularly after they begin to burst. They require a great deal of stewing, and should be like a marmalade when done. After you take them from the fire, stir in a pound of brown sugar. You may strain the pulp through a cullendar or sieve into a mould, and when it is in a firm shape send it to table on a glass dish.

How do you tell if your cranberries are ripe? Drop them on the floor. The ripe ones bounce.


  • Cole, Stephen, and Lindy Gifford. The Cranberry: Hard Work and Holiday Sauce. Tilbury House, 2009.
  • Cox, Robert S., and Jacob Walker. Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table. The History Press, 2012.
  • Theobald, Mary Miley. “Bogged Down in Cranberries.” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Holiday 2006.
  • Wilson, David Scofield, and Angus Kress Gillespie, eds. Rooted in America. University of Tennessee Press, 1999.