The Stubborn Staying Power of the Alewife Herring

Among the rich natural resources that attracted humans to New York’s harbor was a small migratory fish the colonists called the alewife or sawbelly. As these river herring crowded into spawning creeks every spring, they were noted by the earliest French Jesuits, Dutch trappers and English settlers, and were caught and consumed with abandon by Native Americans and colonists alike.

Alewives are bony, tasty, nutritious and relatively easy to preserve; and, in colonial times, they were abundant. The fish could be eaten by humans or fed to pigs or other livestock. It is highly likely that the famous agricultural mentoring between Squanto, a Patuxet native to what is now Massachusetts, and the pilgrims memorializes yet another less obvious use of herring: as fertilizer for the colonists’ inaugural crops.

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Alewives in Watts Bar.