Caribbean Rum Helped Win the First Wild West
by Jeff McCord
With autumn upon us and winter around the corner, some Virginians may have thoughts of hot rum toddies sipped before roaring fires as cold winds sweep past storm glass windows. Beyond such soothing imagery, though, rum played a very real role in Colonial America’s ruthless expansion beyond the Appalachians.
For now, let’s stick with pleasantries. Historic Mount Vernon’s web site offers an appealing rum toddy recipe supposedly inspired by Martha Washington. To make a bowl serving six-to-ten people, you need the following:
3 oz. White Rum, 3 oz. Dark Rum; 3 oz. Orange Curacao; 4 oz. simple syrup; 4 oz. lemon juice; 4 oz. fresh orange juice; 3 lemons quartered; 1 orange quartered; 1/2 Tsp. grated nutmeg; 3 cinnamon sticks (broken); 6 cloves; 12 oz. boiling water
Our love affair with rum began in the mid-1600s on the British island of Barbados where slave dependant sugar planters learned that molasses — that heavy, sweet syrupy waste residue of sugar refining — could be fermented and, with the addition of water, produce an intoxicating drink. In the islands, the liquor was first known as “kill-devil.”
Barbadan rum, of the thick, dark variety also known as “blackstrap” became wildly popular in Britain and her North American colonies. To meet demand, production quickly spread from Barbados to Jamaica and other sugar producing Caribbean islands. Since 1760, the Virgin Island of St Croix has produced “Cruzan Rums.” St. Croix became known for its lighter, white and dark rums blended from thicker, more aged rums. They’re ideal for mixing in rum punches and hot toddies.
As a young man, George Washington personally witnessed rum distillation during his sole trip abroad. In 1751, at age 19, he traveled to Barbados with older brother Lawrence. They thought the warm climate and clear sea air would help Lawrence’s battle against tuberculosis. It didn’t and Lawrence died in 1752.
George then moved into Lawrence’s estate Mount Vernon to help his widow manage its lands and enterprises. He also became active in Lawrence’s most promising venture — the formation and management of the Ohio Company of Virginia, which aimed to develop a healthy trade with Indians living beyond the mountains and secure Virginia’s land claims before French Canadians moved in. In return for valuable beaver skins, furs and land, Indians would receive cheap British manufactured goods, such as cloth, beads, firearms and rum.
The Potomac River (and a system of portages) provided a good highway for early traders’ canoe traffic, enabling them to approach a key pass through the Alleghenies west of what is now Cumberland, MD. But, to receive the imported trade goods from Britain and transport them up the Potomac required a deep water port and warehouses. In the 1730s, a warehouse storing tobacco for export had been built at the confluence of Hunting Creek and the Potomac. The Ohio Company, encouraged by the Washingtons, Lees and other local landowning investors, chose that location for construction of new docks and warehouses. Young George Washington was one of the first surveyors of that land that would become Alexandria. Docks, storehouses, an inn and even a rum distillery (producing cheap “Alexandria Rum” from imported West Indian molasses) were all constructed in the mid 1700s along the shore line. In the 1980s, archaeologists working the site now known as Harborside found extensive remains of that development.
Beyond his surveying, Washington played a fascinating role during the 1750s in establishing Ohio Company forts (log stockades) and storehouses along the route West from Alexandria to Winchester and Cumberland, as well as the first attempt to establish a British presence at what’s now Pittsburgh. In the process, 21-year-old Washington and the band of Virginia frontiersmen he led unwittingly sparked what became the French and Indian War.
Through it all, Indians had developed quite a taste for rum. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin, then representing the province of Pennsylvania in an effort to secure peace and trade in the West, described 1753 negotiations with Indians held in the frontier town of Carlisle, PA:
“[Knowing it would make the Indians disorderly], we strictly forbade selling any liquor to them; and, when they complained, we told them that if they would continue sober during the [negotiations], we would give them plenty of rum when business was over. They promised . . . [and] because they could get no liquor, the treaty was conducted very orderly, and concluded to mutual satisfaction. They then claimed and received the rum; this was in the afternoon; they were near one hundred men, women, and children [camped outside town] . . . In the evening, hearing a great noise among them, [we] walked out to see what was the matter. They had made a great bonfire in the middle of [camp]; they were all drunk, men and women, quarreling and fighting . . . running after and beating one another with firebrands accompanied by their horrid yellings; there was no appeasing the tumult and we retired to our lodging. At midnight a number of them came thundering at our door, demanding more rum, of which we took no notice.”
Aware they had “misbehaved,” the next day Franklin said the Indians’ “orator” excused themselves by explaining: “The Great Spirit, who made all things, made everything for some use . . . and for that use it should always be put. Now, when He made rum, He said, ‘Let this be for the Indians to get drunk with,’ and it must be so.”
Sadly, Franklin concluded that “rum may be the appointed means” in “Providence’s design” to displace these Indians with European cultivators.
More to the point, John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary in the region who lived among the Indians in the 1750s, described in his own book the use of rum: “The general prevalence of drunkenness among the Indians is owing to unprincipled white traders who persuade them to become intoxicated that they may cheat them more easily and obtain their lands or pelts for a mere trifle.”
Secular authorities found it all distasteful, while averting their eyes. Virginia Governor Dinwiddie, an important investor in the trade-dependent Ohio Company, disingenuously called such Indian traders “a set of abandoned wretches” in a 1753 letter to the Pennsylvania Governor. Later, in 1755, British General Braddock, whose mission was to subdue the French and their Indian allies in the region, called Indian traders “Banditti,” although he used them as scouts and followed their trails.
Ultimately, the traders, rum and Anglo-American military muscle did fulfill what Franklin called Providence’s plan. The trans-Appalachian frontier was opened for settlement at the expense of the unfortunate Indians who were moved further West beyond the Mississippi River. Some Indians were even sent to the Caribbean as slaves.
As we enjoy our rum drinks, we may not wish to consider that dreadful West Indian slave plantations produced the elixir that, in turn, helped create the Native American diaspora
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work on international economics and consumer protection has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years, he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” which was a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.