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.

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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.