Indian Corn & the American Colonists
INDIAN CORN from Home Life in Colonial Days, by Alice Morse Earle, 1898
A great field of tall Indian corn waving its stately and luxuriant green blades, its graceful spindles, and glossy silk under the hot August sun, should be not only a beautiful sight to every American, but a suggestive one; one to set us thinking of all that Indian corn means to us in our history. It was a native of American soil at the settlement of this country, and under full and thoroughly intelligent cultivation by the Indians, who were also native sons of the New World. Its abundance, adaptability, and nourishing qualities not only saved the colonists’ lives, but altered many of their methods of living, especially their manner of cooking and their tastes in food.
One of the first things that every settler in a new land has to learn is that he must find food in that land; that he cannot trust long to any supplies of food which he has brought with him, or to any fresh supplies which he has ordered to be sent after him. He must turn at once to hunting, fishing, planting, to furnish him with food grown and found in the very place where he is.
This was quickly learned by the colonists in America, except in Virginia, where they had sad starving-times before all were convinced that corn was a better crop for settlers than silk or any of the many hoped-for productions which might be valuable in one sense but which could not be eaten. Powhatan, the father of the Indian princess Pocahontas, was one of the first to “send some of his People that they may teach the English how to sow the Grain of his Country.” Captain John Smith, ever quick to learn of every one and ever practical, got two Indians, in the year 1608, to show him how to break up and plant forty acres of corn, which yielded him a good crop. A succeeding governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Dale, equally practical, intelligent, and determined, assigned small farms to each colonist, and encouraged and enforced the growing of corn. Soon many thousand bushels were raised. There was a terrible Indian massacre in 1622, for the careless colonists, in order to be free to give their time to the raising of that new and exceedingly alluring and high-priced crop, tobacco, had given the Indians firearms to go hunting game for them; and the lesson of easy killing with powder and shot, when once learned, was turned with havoc upon the white men. The following year comparatively little corn was planted, as the luxuriant foliage made a perfect ambush for the close approach of the savages to the settlements. There was, of course, scarcity and famine as the result; and a bushel of corn-meal became worth twenty to thirty shillings, which sum had a value equal to twenty to thirty dollars to-day. The planters were each compelled by the magistrates the following year to raise an ample amount of corn to supply all the families; and to save a certain amount for seed as well. There has been no lack of corn since that time in Virginia.
The French colonists in Louisiana, perhaps because they were accustomed to more dainty food than the English, fiercely hated corn, as have the Irish in our own day. A band of French women settlers fairly raised a “petticoat rebellion” in revolt against its daily use. A despatch of the governor of Louisiana says of these rebels:—
“The men in the colony begin through habit to use corn as an article of food; but the women, who are mostly Parisians, have for this food a dogged aversion, which has not been subdued. They inveigh bitterly against His Grace, the Bishop of Quebec, who, they say, has enticed them away from home under pretext of sending them to enjoy the milk and honey of the land of promise.”
This hatred of corn was shared by other races. An old writer says:—
“Peter Martyr could magnifie the Spaniards, of whom he reports they led a miserable life for three days together, with parched grain of maize onlie”—
which, when compared with the diet of New England settlers for weeks at a time, seems such a bagatelle as to be scarce worth the mention of Peter Martyr. By tradition, still commemorated at Forefathers’ Dinners, the ration of Indian corn supplied to each person in the colony in time of famine was but five kernels.
The stores brought over by the Pilgrims were poor and inadequate enough; the beef and pork were tainted, the fish rotten, the butter and cheese corrupted. European wheat and seeds did not mature well. Soon, as Bradford says in his now famous Log-Book, in his interesting and forcible English, “the grim and grizzled face of starvation stared” at them. The readiest supply to replenish the scanty larder was fish, but the English made surprisingly bungling work over fishing, and soon the most unfailing and valuable supply was the native Indian corn, or “Guinny wheat,” or “Turkie wheat,” as it was called by the colonists.
Famine and pestilence had left eastern Massachusetts comparatively bare of inhabitants at the time of the settlement of Plymouth; and the vacant cornfields of the dead Indian cultivators were taken and planted by the weak and emaciated Plymouth men, who never could have cleared new fields. From the teeming sea, in the April run of fish, was found the needed fertilizer. Says Governor Bradford:—
“In April of the first year they began to plant their corne, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both ye manner how to set it, and after, how to dress and tend it.”
From this planting sprang not only the most useful food, but the first and most pregnant industry of the colonists.
The first fields and crops were communal, and the result was disastrous. The third year, at the sight of the paralyzed settlement, Governor Bradford wisely decided, as did Governor Dale of Virginia, that “they should set corne every man for his owne particuler, furnishing a portion for public officers, fishermen, etc., who could not work, and in that regard trust to themselves.” Thus personal energy succeeded to communal inertia; Bradford wrote that women and children cheerfully worked in the fields to raise corn which should be their very own.
A field of corn on the coast of Massachusetts or Narragansett or by the rivers of Virginia, growing long before any white man had ever been seen on these shores, was precisely like the same field planted three hundred years later by our American farmers. There was the same planting in hills, the same number of stalks in the hill, with pumpkin-vines running among the hills, and beans climbing the stalks. The hills of the Indians were a trifle nearer together than those of our own day are usually set, for the native soil was more fertile.
The Indians taught the colonists much more than the planting and raising of corn; they showed also how to grind the corn and cook it in many palatable ways. The various foods which we use to-day made from Indian corn are all cooked just as the Indians cooked them at the time of the settlement of the country; and they are still called with Indian names, such as hominy, pone, suppawn, samp, succotash.
The Indian method of preparing maize or corn was to steep or parboil it in hot water for twelve hours, then to pound the grain in a mortar or a hollowed stone in the field, till it was a coarse meal. It was then sifted in a rather closely woven basket, and the large grains which did not pass through the sieve were again pounded and sifted.
Samp was often pounded in olden times in a primitive and interesting Indian mortar made of a hollowed block of wood or a stump of a tree, which had been cut off about three feet from the ground. The pestle was a heavy block of wood shaped like the inside of the mortar, and fitted with a handle attached to one side. This block was fastened to the top of a young and slender tree, a growing sapling, which was bent over and thus gave a sort of spring which pulled the pestle up after being pounded down on the corn. This was called a sweep and mortar mill.
They could be heard at a long distance. Two New Hampshire pioneers made clearings about a quarter of a mile apart and built houses. There was an impenetrable gully and thick woods between the cabins; and the blazed path was a long distance around, so the wives of the settlers seldom saw each other or any other woman. It was a source of great comfort and companionship to them both that they could signal to each other every day by pounding on their mortars. And they had an ingenious system of communication which one spring morning summoned one to the home of the other, where she arrived in time to be the first to welcome fine twin babies.
After these simple stump and sapling mortars were abandoned elsewhere they were used on Long Island, and it was jestingly told that sailors in a fog could always know on what shore they were, when they could hear the pounding of the samp-mortars on Long Island.
Rude hand-mills next were used, which were called quernes, or quarnes. Some are still in existence and known as samp-mills. Windmills followed, of which the Indians were much afraid, dreading “their long arms and great teeth biting the corn in pieces”; and thinking some evil spirit turned the arms. As soon as maize was plentiful, English mills for grinding meal were started in many towns. There was a windmill at Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1631. In 1633 the first water-mill, at Dorchester, was built, and in Ipswich a grist-mill was built in 1635. The mill built by Governor John Winthrop in New London is still standing.
The first windmill erected in America was one built and set up by Governor Yeardley in Virginia in 1621. By 1649 there were five water-mills, four windmills, and a great number of horse and hand mills in Virginia. Millers had one-sixth of the meal they ground for toll.
Suppawn was another favorite of the settlers, and was an Indian dish made from Indian corn; it was a thick corn-meal and milk porridge. It was soon seen on every Dutch table, for the Dutch were very fond of all foods made from all kinds of grain; and it is spoken of by all travellers in early New York, and in the Southern colonies.
Samp and samp porridge were soon abundant dishes. Samp is Indian corn pounded to a coarsely ground powder. Roger Williams wrote of it:—
“Nawsamp is a kind of meal pottage unparched. From this the English call their samp, which is the Indian corn beaten and boiled and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, and is a diet exceedingly wholesome for English bodies.”
The Swedish scientist, Professor Kalm, told that the Indians gave him “fresh maize-bread, baked in an oblong shape, mixed with dried huckleberries, which lay as close in it as raisins in a plum pudding.”
Roger Williams said that sukquttahhash was “corn seethed like beans.” Our word “succotash” we now apply to corn cooked with beans. Pones were the red men’s appones.
The love of the Indians for “roasting ears” was quickly shared by the white man. In Virginia a series of plantings of corn were made from the first of April to the last of June, to afford a three months’ succession of roasting ears.
The traveller, Strachey, writing of the Indians in 1618, said: “They lap their corn in rowles within the leaves of the come and so boyle yt for a dayntie.” This method of cooking we have also retained to the present day.
It seemed to me very curious to read in Governor Winthrop’s journal, written in Boston about 1630, that when corn was “parched,” as he called it, it turned inside out and was “white and floury within”; and to think that then little English children were at that time learning what pop-corn was, and how it looked when it was parched, or popped.
Hasty pudding had been made in England of wheat-flour or oatmeal and milk, and the name was given to boiled puddings of corn-meal and water. It was not a very suitable name, for corn-meal should never be cooked hastily, but requires long boiling or baking. The hard Indian pudding slightly sweetened and boiled in a bag was everywhere made. It was told that many New England families had three hundred and sixty-five such puddings in a year.
The virtues of “jonny-cake” have been loudly sung in the interesting pages of Shepherd Tom. The way the corn should be carried to the mill, the manner in which it should be ground, the way in which the stones should revolve, and the kind of stones, receive minute description, as does the mixing and the baking, to the latter of which the middle board of red oak from the head of a flour-barrel is indispensable as a bakeboard, while the fire to bake with must be of walnut logs. Hasty pudding, corn dumplings, and corn-meal porridge, so eminently good that it was ever mentioned with respect in the plural, as “them porridge,” all are described with the exuberant joyousness of a happy, healthful old age in remembrance of a happy, high-spirited, and healthful youth.
The harvesting of the corn afforded one of the few scenes of gayety in the lives of the colonists. A diary of one Ames, of Dedham, Massachusetts, in the year 1767, thus describes a corn-husking, and most ungallantly says naught of the red ear and attendant osculation:—
“Made a husking Entertainm’t. Possibly this leafe may last a Century and fall into the hands of some inquisitive Person for whose Entertainm’t I will inform him that now there is a Custom amongst us of making an Entertainm’t at husking of Indian Corn whereto all the neighboring Swains are invited and after the Corn is finished they like the Hottentots give three Cheers or huzza’s but cannot carry in the husks without a Rhum bottle; they feign great Exertion but do nothing till Rhum enlivens them, when all is done in a trice, then after a hearty Meal about 10 at Night they go to their pastimes.”
There was one way of eating corn which was spoken of by all the early writers and travellers which we should not be very well satisfied with now, but it shows us how useful and necessary corn was at that time, and how much all depended on it. This preparation of corn was called nocake or nookick. An old writer named Wood thus defined it:—
“It is Indian corn parched in the hot ashes, the ashes being sifted from it; it is afterwards beaten to powder and put into a long leatherne bag trussed at the Indian’s backe like a knapsacke, out of which they take three spoonsful a day.”
It was held to be the most nourishing food known, and in the smallest and most condensed form. Both Indians and white men usually carried it in a pouch when they went on long journeys, and mixed it with snow in the winter and water in summer. Gookin says it was sweet, toothsome, and hearty. With only this nourishment the Indians could carry loads “fitter for elephants than men.” Roger Williams says a spoonful of this meal and water made him many a good meal. When we read this we are not surprised that the Pilgrims could keep alive on what is said was at one time of famine their food for a day,—five kernels of corn apiece. The apostle Eliot, in his Indian Bible, always used the word nookick for the English words flour or meal.
We ought to think of the value of food in those days; and we may be sure the governor and his council thought corn of value when they took it for taxes and made it a legal currency just like gold and silver, and forbade any one to feed it to pigs. If you happen to see the price of corn during those years down to Revolutionary times, you will, perhaps, be surprised to see how much the price varied. From ten shillings a bushel in 1631, to two shillings in 1672, to twenty in 1747, to two in 1751, and one hundred shillings at the opening of the Revolution. In these prices of corn, as in the price of all other articles at this time, the difference was in the money, which had a constantly changing value, not in the article itself or its usefulness. The corn had a steady value, it always furnished just so much food; and really was a standard itself rather than measured and valued by the poor and shifting money.
There are many other interesting facts connected with the early culture of corn: of the finding hidden in caves or “caches” in the ground the Indian’s corn which he had stored for seed; of the sacred “corn-dances” of the Indians; that the first patent granted in England to an American was to a Philadelphia woman for a mill to grind a kind of hominy; of the great profit to the colonists in corn-raising, for the careless and greedy Indians always ate up all their corn as soon as possible, then had to go out and trap beavers in the woods to sell the skins to the colonists for corn to keep them from starving. One colonist planted about eight bushels of seed-corn. He raised from this eight hundred and sixty-four bushels of corn, which he sold to the Indians for beaver skins which gave him a profit of £327.
Many games were played with the aid of kernels of corn: fox and geese, checkers, “hull gull, how many,” and games in which the corn served as counters.
The ears of corn were often piled into the attic until the floor was a foot deep with them. I once entered an ell bedroom in a Massachusetts farmhouse where the walls, rafters, and four-post bedstead were hung solid with ears of yellow corn, which truly “made a sunshine in a shady place.”
Some of the preparation of corn fell upon the boys; it was their regular work all winter in the evening firelight to shell corn from the ears by scraping them on the iron edge of the wooden shovel or on the fire-peel. My father told me that even in his childhood in the first quarter of this century many families of moderate means fastened the long-handled frying-pan across a tub and drew the corn ears across the sharp edge of the handle of the pan. I note in Peter Parley’s reminiscences of his childhood a similar use of a frying-pan handle in his home. Other farmers set the edge of a knife blade in a piece of wood and scraped on the back of the blade. In some households the corn was pounded into hominy in wooden mortars. An old corn-sheller used in western Massachusetts is here shown.
When the corn was shelled, the cobs were not carelessly discarded or disregarded. They were stored often in a lean-to or loft in the kitchen ell; from thence they were brought down in skepes or boxes about a bushel at a time; and after being used by the children as playthings to build “cob-houses,” were employed as light wood for the fire. They had a special use in many households for smoking hams; and their smoke was deemed to impart a specially delightful flavor to hams and bacon.
One special use of corn should be noted. By order of the government of Massachusetts Bay in 1623, it was used as ballots in public voting. At annual elections of the governors’ assistants in each town, a kernel of corn was deposited to signify a favorable vote upon the nominee, while a bean signified a negative vote; “and if any free-man shall put in more than one Indian corn or bean he shall forfeit for every such offence Ten Pounds.”
The choice of a national flower or plant is much talked about to-day. Aside from the beauty of maize when growing and its wonderful adaptability in every part for decoration, would not the noble and useful part played by Indian corn in our early history entitle it to be our first choice?