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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Indian Farming

Dallas Bogan on 6 August 2004
"The Pioneer Writings of Josiah Morrow" by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

How the North American Red Men Cultivated Their Fields.

Indian Corn Their Chief Crop--Clearing The Forests--Women Did The Field Work--No Plows--Indian Hoes
of Bones and Shells--Planting Corn and
Fish in The Same Hill.

July 2, 1908

Before considering the subject of the manner in which the Indians raised their corn crops, I quote from Carr-Lucien Lucien Carr, a careful writer on the manners and customs of the native tribes of this country. He says in the Smithsonian Report for 1891:
"The testimony is so uniform that of the main fact the cultivation of corn in greater or less quantities by all the tribes living east of the Mississippi and south of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes there cannot be a shadow of doubt. All the writers agree upon the point and there is no room for a difference of opinion except perhaps in regard to the amount grown. Upon this point too the evidence is explicit. Instead of cultivating it in small patches as a summary luxury, it can be shown on undoubted authority, that everywhere within the limits named, the Indian looked upon it as a staple article of food both in summer and in winter that he cultivated it in large fields and understood and appreciated the benefits arising from the use of fertilizers. Indeed such was his proficiency and industry that even with the rude and imperfect implements at his disposal, he not only raised corn enough for his own use but, as a rule, had some to spare to his need neighbors both red and white."

Clearing the Forests.

The clearing of the forest, preparatory to the cultivation of the soil, must have been with the aboriginal tribes a slow and toilsome labor. They felled trees by fire, burning around the trunk, then cutting away the charred part with their stone axes, then burning again. If a canoe was to be made, the fallen trunk was severed at the desired length by the same slow process and then the canoe was dug out by repeated burnings and hackings. Opening a farm in the woods even with the aid of a sharp, steel-edged ax is a patience trying task, and it is not strange that the Indians did not like to undertake it. In Ohio they fixed their villages on or near the treeless plains, which served for their plantations of corn and vegetables.
It is true that many sites of the towns of the ancient tribes who built the mounds of the Mississippi valley were found in dense forests and their earthworks were overgrown with trees of a large size when they were first seen by white men. Their extensive earthworks, such as that at Fort Ancient, indicate an extensive population. They were too numerous to live by hunting and fishing alone, and they as well as the more recent doubtless grew large crops of corn. It has seemed to me not improbable that when Ohio was thickly populated with Mound builders, the state was destitute of trees except, perhaps along the streams, or at least that the treeless regions were far more numerous and extensive than at a later period, and after that race disappeared the forest spread from the banks of the streams over the highlands, and covered their mounds and the sites of their towns and cornfields.

A White Captive's Story.

Our knowledge of how the Indians cultivated their corn is derived largely from white men who lived among them as captives. Only a few such captives were men of sufficient intelligence to write out their recollections of Indian modes of life. Some of them, however, have left us accounts of their life among the Indians which are not only interesting but valuable contributions to our knowledge of the native red men.
Oliver M. Spencer, when a boy of eleven years was captured by the Indians at Columbia and taken to the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize in northwestern Ohio, where he had his home until he was ransomed. It was in this region that General Wayne found the most extensive fields of corn that he had ever seen and from his home young Spencer could see an extensive prairie covered with growing corn only two years before the coming of Wayne's army. After his ransom Spencer became a Methodist minister and wrote out an interesting account of his life among the Indians. He says:
"The Indian women inhabiting the large villages, wherever it was practicable, cultivated portions of the same fields, separated from each other only by spaces of a few feet and varying in size according to the number and strength of the families, seldom raising corn as an article of commerce but merely to furnish food for their own sustenance. Around these fields they made no enclosures, nor indeed, having no cattle, hogs or sheep, were fences necessary. As for their few horses they were either driven out into the woods or secured near their cabins and having bells on, were easily prevented from trespassing by the boys whose duty it was, by turn, while amusing themselves with their bows and arrows, to protect the fields."

The Women Tilled the Soil.

The Indians fields were tilled by their women. The warrior, while he took pride in broad fields as well as in extensive hunting grounds, was too much of a philosopher, too brave and dignified to farm himself while he could get his wife to do the field work. Some modern writers, in looking about for new occupations for women, have suggested that certain departments of horticulture or the cultivation of fruits, flowers and garden vegetables might afford an agreeable, healthful and profitable employment for their delicate hands. But the Indian, long ago, went further, and maintained that agriculture and horticulture, the cultivation of corn and all sorts of vegetables, fell exclusively within woman's sphere. And the Indians wife accepted the doctrine of her age without a doubt of its correction, and she would have been deeply chagrined to have seen her brave lord, even when not occupied with the duties of war or of the chased, stoop to undignified work in the cornfield.
Without animal power, without the plow, without labor saving machinery, women carried on agriculture in this country. With no better tools than a stack of wood, sharpened by fire, a sea shell of a rude implement of flint or stone, she bent over her long and painful summer's toil and thus produced, perhaps one half of the food consumed by her tribe.
But it must not be supposed that because the Indian woman performed the field labor that she was an over worked drudge or that her lot was much harder than that of the pioneer white man's wife. Mary Jemison who was taken captive in 1775 and adopted into the Senaca tribe says: "Our labor was not severe and that of one year was exactly similar to that of the others without that endless variety that is to be observed in the common labor of the white people. Notwithstanding the Indian women have all the fuel and bread to procure and the cooking to perform, their task is not harder than that of the white women, and their cares are certainly not half as numerous nor as great. In the summer season we planted, tended and harvested our corn and generally had our children with us, but we had no master to oversee us or to drive us so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased. In order to expedite their business and at the same time enjoy each others company the women all work together in one field or at whatever job they may have on hand."

Indian Hoes.

James Smith, who was a prisoner among the Delewares in Ohio when a youth from 1755 to 1759, tells us that after his adoption into the tribe he went out from the village one day to see the women hoe corn, and desiring to gratify the ladies he himself took a hoe and worked for an hour or two, and was highly praised for so doing. But when the warriors learned what he had done they reproved him, and reminded him that he was a young man and a warrior, and should never engage in women's work. He says: "They never had occasion to reprove me for anything like this again as I never was extremely fond of work."
There is hardly a doubt that the hoe Smith found in use by the Indian women was the white man's hoe obtained from the French or English traders. Long before the first white settlement in Ohio the habits of the Indians had been modified by their contact with the Europeans.
But there is no reason to doubt that long before iron implements were introduced among them the Indians used an implement fashioned something after the manner of our hoes in the cultivating of their corn. General Fowke, in his Archaeological History of Ohio, gives evidence that such implements were made of stone, the shoulder blades of large animals, tortoise shells or mussel shells perforated for the wooden handle. The Connecticut Indians used a hoe made of horn with a handle of wood five feet long. Catlin says the Mandans raise corn and pumpkins, their women using hoes made of the shoulder blade of the buffalo or elk. Clam shells were used by the Virginia and New England Indians in cultivating the ground and a hoe made of a mussel shell with a hole for the insertion of a handle was found in a mound at Madisonville near Cincinnati.

No Plow.

The Indians cultivated their corn without the plow. Although rude wooden plows and even the iron plowshare were in use in Bible lands from time immemorial, when Columbus discovered America there was not a plow on the western continent. The only substitute for the plow in America was found in Peru and it is described by Prescott as simply a sharpened piece of timber with a cross piece about a foot long from the end on which the plowman set his foot and to which was attached a rope by which it was pulled along by half a dozen men.
The North American Indian had no horses or oxen. There were no native animals strong enough for draught animals except the buffalo and the elk and they were difficult to subjugate. They had no working animals, no farm animals for food or clothing and no domesticated animals whatever except a small black dog.

Planting Corn in Hills

Both in Virginia and New England the English emigrants found maize cultivated by the Indians and the whites learned from the red men how to grow it.
Along the Atlantic and its estuaries the Indian method of planting corn was to make openings ground about four feet apart, using for the purpose a large clam shell. In these openings they dropped four, five or six grains and a fish, sometimes two or three small fishes, and covered them over. The old chronicle of the Pilgrims says that, after the manner of the Indians, they manured their ground with herrings or rather shad, which they took in great abundance--every acre taking a thousand of them and that an acre thus dressed would produce as much corn as three acres without fish. The whites continue to plant fish and corn together for more than one hundred and fifty years.
In an old book entitled "A Perfect Description of Virginia," published in London in 1650, there is a glowing description of the crops then grown by the colonists. "Their maize of Virginia corn," it says, "yields them 500 to 1; they set it as we do garden peas; it makes good bread and malts well."
I understand the statement that "they set it as we do garden peas," to mean merely that they planted it in hills and did not sow it broadcast, as the English did the cereal grains.
The word "hill" means a separate place in which seeds are planted is an Americanism, and probably originated from the planting of corn and forming little hills over the seed, though we now speak of hills where the ground is not elevated.
James Adair who lived with the northern Indians nearly forty years says: "They plant their corn in straight rows, putting five or six grains into one hole about two inches distant. They cover them with clay in the form of a small hill; each now is a yard asunder and in the vacant ground they plant pumpkins, watermelons, marshmallows, sunflowers and sundry sorts of beans and peas, the last two of which yield a large increase."
According to Lucien Carr, some tribes had at least four different kinds of corn and planting them at different times during the spring and early summer, they not only had successive crops which they ate green so long as the summer lasted, but they also raised enough for winter use.
Indian corn is the one food plant indigenous to the new world and in its gift we have received from American aboriginal agriculture the most important food plant in the world. In the number of farms in which it may be used as food the abundance of its yield and the variety of climates in which it may be grown it excels the date of Egypt, the rice of China and any of the cereals of the old world. It is not only the most useful, but the most beautiful grain plant, and as it is of American origin, a stalk of maize might well have been placed on the seal of the United States rather than any wild bird or beast, a fitting recognition of agriculture as the basis of national wealth.

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