Some Things about Indian Corn
by Edward Eggleston
When the white people first came to America, they had never seen
Indian corn, which did not grow in Europe. The Indians raised it in
little patches about their villages. Before planting their corn, they
had to clear away the trees that covered the whole country. Their axes
were made of stone, and were not sharp enough to cut down a tree. The
larger trees they cut down by burning them off at the bottom. They
killed the smaller trees by building little fires about them. When the
bark all round a tree was burned, the tree died. As dead trees bear no
leaves, the sun could shine through their branches on the ground where
corn was to be planted.
Having no iron, they had to make their tools as they could. In some
places they made a hoe by tying the shoulder blade of a deer to a
stick. In other places they used half of the shell of a turtle for a
hoe or spade to dig up the ground. This could be done where the ground
was soft. In North Carolina the Indians had a little thing like a
pickax which was made out of a deer's horn tied to a stick. An Indian
woman would sit down on the ground with one of these little pickaxes
in her hand. She would dig up the earth for a little space until it
was loose. Then she would make a little hole in the soft earth. In
this she would plant four or five grains of corn, putting them about
an inch apart. Then she covered these grains with soft earth. In
Virginia, where the ground was soft and sandy, the Indians made a kind
of spade out of wood.
Sometimes they planted a patch a long way off from their bark house,
so that they would not be tempted to eat it while it was green. The
Indians were very fond of green corn. They roasted the ears in the
ashes. Some of the tribes held a great feast when the first green corn
was fit to eat, and some of them worshiped a spirit that they called
the "Spirit of the Corn."
When the corn was dry, the Indians pounded it in order to make meal or
hominy of it. Sometimes they parched the corn, and then pounded it
into meal. They carried this parched meal with them when they went
hunting and when they went to war. They could eat it with a little
water, without stopping to cook it. They called it Nokick, but the
white people called it No-cake.
When the Pilgrims came to Cape Cod, they sent out Miles Standish and
some other men to look through the country and find a good place for
them to settle. Standish tried to find some of the Indians in order to
make friends with them, but the Indians ran away whenever they saw him
coming. One day he found a heap of sand. He knew it had been lately
piled up, because he could see the marks of hands on the sand where
the Indians had patted it down. Standish and his men dug up this heap.
They soon came to a little old basket full of Indian corn. When they
had dug further, they found a very large new basket full of fine corn
which had been lately gathered.
The white men, who had never seen it before, thought Indian corn very
beautiful. Some of the ears were yellow, some were red. On other ears
blue and yellow grains were mixed. Standish and his men said it was a
"very goodly sight." The Indian basket was round and narrow at the
top. It held three or four bushels of corn, and it was as much as two
men could do to lift it from the ground. The white men wondered to see
how handsomely it was woven.
Standish and his Men find Corn.
Near the pile of corn they found an old kettle which the Indians had
probably bought from some ship. They filled this kettle with corn,
They also filled their baskets with it. They wanted the corn for seed.
They made up their mind to pay the Indians whenever they could find
them. The next summer they found out who were the owners of this
buried corn, and paid them for all the corn they had taken. If they
had not found this corn, they would not have had any to plant the next
spring, and so they would have starved to death.
The people that were with Miles Standish settled at Plymouth. They
were the first that came to live in New England. An Indian named
Squanto came to live with the white people at Plymouth. Squanto was
born at this very place. He had been carried away to England by a sea
captain. Then he had been brought back by another captain to his own
country. When he got back to Plymouth, he found that all the people of
his village had died from a great sickness. He went to live with
another tribe near by. When the white people came to Plymouth, they
settled on the ground where Squanto's people had lived. As he could
speak some English, and as all his own tribe were dead, he now came to
live with the white people.
The people at Plymouth did not know how to plant the corn they had
found, but Squanto taught them. By watching the trees, the Indians
knew when to put their corn into the ground. When the young leaf of
the white oak tree was as large as a squirrel's ear, they knew that it
was time to put their corn into the ground. Squanto taught the white
people how to catch a kind of fish which were used to make their corn
grow. They put one or two fishes into each hill of corn, but they were
obliged to watch the cornfield day and night for two weeks after
planting. If they had not watched it, the wolves would have dug up the
fishes, and the corn with them.
The white people learned also to cook their corn as the Indians did.
They learned to eat hominy and samp, and these we still call by their
Indian names. "Succotash" is another Indian word. The white people
learned from the Indians to use the husks of Indian corn to make
things. The Indians made ropes of corn husks, and in some places they
made shoes of plaited husks. The white people in early times made
their door mats and horse collars and beds of corn husks. They also
twisted and wove husks to make seats for their chairs.
Of all the plants that grew in America, Indian corn was the most
important to the Indians. It was also of the most value to the first
white people who came to this country.