top of page

Cranberries… the introduction to European settlers!!

We would not have known the benefits, experienced the popularity, or known how to cultivate today’s Cranberries, one of only three native fruits to North America (Blueberries and Concord grapes being the other two) without the knowledge and trade savvy of the indigenous community in what is now, geographically New England, Wisconsin and possibly Quebec.

The name cranberry is a modification of the term “craneberry”. The early settlers called the fruit "craneberry" because before the flower expanded, its stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. It may have also come about because cranes found it to be one of their favourite foods. Some other previous names for the cranberry were fenberries (fen is an old English word for bog, or mire) and bear berries… you guessed it, because it is a favourite of our ursine friends.

The “crane” berry

The Narragansett, Algonquin, Chippewa, and Cree, among others, gathered wild cranberries where they could find them in what is now Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, all the way west to Oregon and Washington, and north to areas of British Columbia and Quebec. The berry was called sassamenesh (by the Algonquin) and ibimi (by the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape), which translates literally as "bitter" or "sour berries”.

Before cultivation by European settlers, the indigenous tribes used wild cranberries for everything from rug/clothing/jewelry dye, to medicines (laxatives, wound healing, “blood purifiers” and fever, amongst others) and even used the leaves for a tobacco substitute.

The most common use among the indigenous, however, was for food. They used the berry to make tea and even ate it raw… probably enjoyed it more when the European settlers brought the first honeybees and made honey available, or with existing maple sugar. Yet one of the more intriguing ways that the indigenous prepared cranberries though, was in a mixture called pemmican — sort of like a modern-day energy bar. They would pound cranberries into a mixture of equal parts ground dried deer meat and fat tallow, then store the mixture in animal skin pouches. The fat preserved it, as did the acidity in the fruit, which lowered the pH and helped resist bacteria. The pemmican would last for months and could be eaten on long journeys as a reliable source of protein and fat.

And historians generally agree that cranberries had to have been on the table for the first Thanksgiving feast.

Pemmican - The original energy bar

Pemmican was essential to the indigenous and Europeans that engaged in the fur trade. For the traders, pemmican was a chief source of calories on the winter trade routes; for the Métis, pemmican was a source of commerce. Also important, it was a source of scurvy prevention, due to its high vitamin C content for sailors returning to Europe.

By the mid-19th century, the European settlers began formally cultivating the cranberry for commercial use and were mostly using it as a sweet sauce for any type of game meat accompaniment which incidentally included turkeys. The cranberry that was introduced by indigenous tribes to the settlers 250 years ago has thrived, and today is worth over $300 million.

There are independently owned cranberry farms across the northern United States and southern Canada—and some tribes have kept their connection to the berry. An organic cranberry farm in Oregon, Coquille Cranberries, is owned and operated by members of the Coquille tribe. And each year, on the second Tuesday in October, the Wampanoag celebrate Cranberry Day on Martha's Vineyard.

Iroquois Cranberry Growers (ICG) was owned and operated by the Wahta Mohawk Territory, an indigenous peoples community in Central Ontario. The project was started in the 1960s as an economic development venture with just one-half acre of cranberries and has grown to 68 acres (280,000 m2) at its heyday. It has provided employment for community members and has helped to support an economic base for community government.

The Wahta Mohawks moved to Wahta Mohawk Territory in 1881 from Oka, Quebec, and traditionally picked and sold cranberries from a bog just north of the Musquash river. That same spot had all the requirements for a commercial cranberry operation. A good supply of water, impermeable peat soils, and an abundant supply of sand comes together at the site.

This facility, unfortunately, closed in 2017 due to a glut in the market. A wonderful video about their operation can be found here.

Iroquois Cranberry Growers – ca. 1971


193 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page