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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Early Indian Foods

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

What The Aboriginal Tribes of North America Had to Eat.

Great Feasts Followed by Starvation---Venison And Green Corn Boiled---Dried Green Corn---Bread Made of Pounded Corn and Beans---Dog Meat---Maple Sugar Mixed With Fat.

July 9, 1908

I conclude my articles on the agriculture of the Indians with an account of the foods and cookery of the aboriginal tribes of North America. Our knowledge of the subject is obtained from the narratives of the early explorers and of white captives. The first account we have of life among the Indians of Ohio is that given by James Smith in his story of life among the Indians, printed thirty years after his return to his own people. A part of the long title of his book is:
"An account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith (now a citizen of Bourbon county, Ky.) during his captivity with the Indians in the years 1755, '56, '57, '58 and '59. In which the Customs, Manners, Traditions, Theological Sentiments, Make of Warfare, Military Tactics, Discipline and Encampments, Treatment of Prisoners, etc., are better explained and more minutely related than has heretofore been done by any author on that subject. Written by himself. Lexington: printed by John Bradford on Main street, 1799."

The author was a Scotch-Irish native of Pennsylvania, but later in life a resident of Kentucky where he was licensed as a minister of the Presbyterian church. In 1810 he made bitter attacks on the Shakers, some of which were first published in the Western Star at Lebanon. In his last years he wrote a treatise on the best mode of conducting a war against the Indians, the title of which was so long that the reading of all of it would somewhat delay the beginning of a campaign.

In Ohio 150 Years Ago.

Col. Smith's narrative of his life among the Indians gives us the first picture of Ohio as the habitation of red men. He is said to have been the first writer in English who has given an account of his adventures northwest of the Ohio. His book gives us glimpses of the agriculture of the Indians, of their feasts and their periods of starvation.
He tells of a feast of "venison and green corn, boiled in large brass kettles, and eaten from a large bowl with a wooden spoon; of a kind of rough, brown potato, which grow spontaneously; these potatoes, peeled and dipped in raccoon's fat, taste nearly like our sweet potatoes." It is evident that this edible root or tuber was not the potato. They also had "a kind of hominy, made of green corn dried, and beans mixed together." "Green corn dried;" here was the corn-drying industry in Ohio among the Indians. Sometimes they had hominy by itself, without bread, salt, or anything else. "Sometimes (as a rarity) we had bread made of Indian corn meal, pounded on a hominy block and mixed with boiled beans, and baked in cakes under the ashes." The great importance of their agricultural products is shown by Smith's statement that when the warriors went on a military campaign, "all we had to live on was corn pounded into meal of small hominy; this they boiled in water."
At this period corn and beans were evidently the staples of Indian agriculture in Ohio, tho Smith makes mention of tobacco, squash-skins and gourds, without stating whether they were grown in this region or not.
The life of the Indians as described by Col. Smith, was full of extremes. At one time they would be feasting in abundance; again they would be starving, and many died from want and exposure. The season of greatest plenty was in the autumn when they could have ears of green corn for roasting and boiling. They then cared little for animal food. Having gorged themselves with boiled or roasted corn they felt little disposition to roam the woods for game.
In the winter hunting was essential. When they were without corn or other vegetable food and a crust was frozen over the snow so that in walking the hunter's foot-steps would make a noise to scare away the game, the greatest scarcity of food would be extinct and days would be past with scarcely a mouthful to eat.
We can easily believe that the greatest annual festival was the feast of green corn. For this great occasion the women brought in the ears of corn and other products of the fields and the hunters supplied meat from the forest. At this festival they made an offering to the Great Spirit.

An Indian's Prayer.

A prayer to the Great Spirit reported in Col. Smith's book shows the kind of animal food the Indian in Ohio was most anxious to obtain as well as his high estimation of tobacco. In the winter of 1757-58 Smith was with some Indians on their long winter's hunt. They made a bark canoe and started down the Darbey creek (then called the Olentangy) for the Scioto, but the water was too low in the creek and they were compelled to wait for a rain. The prayer of the chief made while they were waiting, was put into English words by Smith:
"Grant that on this voyage we may frequently kill bears as they cross the Scioto and the Sandusky. Grant that we may kill plenty of turkeys along the banks to stew with our fat bear meat. Grant that rain may come to raise the Olentangy about two or three feet that we may pass safely down to the Scioto without danger to our canoe being wrecked on the rocks. And now, O Great Being, thou knowest how matters stand. Thou knowest I am a great lover of tobacco, and tho I know not when I may get any more, I now make a present of this, the last I have, unto thee as a free burnt offering. Therefore I expect thou wilt hear and grant these requests and I thy servant, will return the thanks and love for thy gift."
Col. Smith records that in a few days the rains came and raised so that they safely reached the Scioto. The stock of furs secured on the hunt was taken down the Sandusky to the lake and disposed of to traders at Detroit.

A Feast of Dog, Pigeon, Corn and Beans.

The Indians Col. Smith described one hundred and fifty years ago already ad the white man's gun, his iron tomahawk and brass kettle. Fortunately we have an account of a feast got up one hundred and fifty years earlier by the Native Americans and certainly before their habits had been modified by the white race. In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the great river of New York which bears his name and saw red men who had never before seen a white man. Sometimes his ship, the Half Moon, was saluted with volleys of arrows, but in some places the natives were more friendly. Near the site of Catskill the great discoverer went on shore and was most hospitably entertained. Says Hudson:
"I sailed to the shore in one of their canoes with an old man who was the chief of a tribe consisting of forty men and seventeen women. These I saw there in a house well constructed of oak bark and circular in shape, so that it had the appearance of being well built, with an arched roof. It contained a great quantity of maize and beans of last year's growth, and there lay near the house for the purpose of drying enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields. On our coming into the house, two mats were spread out to sit upon, and immediately some food was served in well made red wooden bowls; two men were also dispatched with bows and arrows in quest of game, who soon after brought in a pair of pigeons which they had shot. They likewise killed a fat dog and skinned it in great haste with shells which they had got out of the water. They supposed that I would remain with them for the night, but I returned after a short time on board the ship."
The fat dog which in this feast took the place of the fatted calf in the oriental festivities seems to have belonged to the only domesticated race of quadruplets in aboriginal North America. A little dog seems to have been among the Indian tribes when the continent was first discovered, and the first motive in taming it may have been to furnish food rather than assist in the hunt. The origin of the dog of the American Indians is unknown as is that of the domesticated dog in every other part of the world.

Indian Cookery.

Of the natural fats which are so important an element in the food of man in cold climates the Indians having no milk were entirely without butter and they had few vegetable oils, but they collected the fat of the beaver, the raccoon and the bear. Col. Smith describes the work of the squaws in the latter end of March as frying out the last of their bear's fat and making vessels to hold it. These vessels were made by pulling the skin from a deer's neck without ripping, one of which would hold about four or five gallons. In these vessels they carried their bear's oil. It is also said that some Indians preserved fat by stuffing it into the entrails of large animals as the whites now preserve sausage meats. Some tribes collected the marrow of bones by breaking the bones and boiling the pieces when the marrows would rise to the top and be skimmed off.
Salt making does not seem to have been common among the mound building tribes. Col. Smith relates that he was taken to a buffalo lick somewhere in eastern Ohio and there the Indians killed several buffalo and in their small brass kettles made about half a bushel of salt.
The Indians paid much attention to the making of maple sugar and it seems went sometimes a considerable distance from their villages for this purpose. In the entry of a Virginia military land warrant on the east side of the Little Miami on August 1, 1787, there is a reference to the first old sugar camp above where Clark's old war road crosses the river being near where Corwin now is. Col. Smith thus describes the method of making sugar in Ohio in February 1756.
The Indian women peeled bark from elm trees and made with the bark over one hundred vessels each holding about two gallons. Into these vessels the sugar water was collected from notches made in sugar maple trees. They also made bark vessels for carrying the water from the trees which would hold about four gallons each. They had two large brass vessels that would hold about fifteen gallons each and smaller vessels in which they boiled the water. But as they could not boil the water as fast as it ran, they made other vessels of bark that would hold about one hundred gallons of the water. These vessels seem to have been made water tight by the women in the same manner as the men made their bark canoes.
I have found no certain evidence that Indians made either salt or sugar by boiling before the white man gave them metallic vessels, but it is not improbable that they did. The primitive method of boiling was by stones heated hot and placed in the water collected into holes in the ground or in rocks, or into wooden vessels.
The Ohio Indians put maple sugar into bear's fat and dipped their roasted venison into the sweet mixture. They also ate sugar with their corn whether green or in the form of hominy. Dr. Benjamin Rush says the Indians mixed equal quantities of maple sugar and powdered corn and on a journey a few spoonfuls of the mixture afforded a pleasant and strengthening meal.
In their struggle for subsistence the native tribes obtained a knowledge of many edible herbs and roots of which the white man knew nothing. James Adair, after living with them many years, says that an Indian driven out into the woods, with only a knife and tomahawk, would fatten where a wolf would starve. They had a great deal of wild fruit some kinds of which they dried.
They found different kinds of edible acorns and gathered great quantities of hickory and chinkapin nuts. Bartram says he saw over a hundred bushels of shell-bark hickory nuts collected by one family of Creeks. These nuts they ate raw and also pounded them into pieces and put them into boiling water and thus got the oily part of the nut which they called hickory milk. This they used in cooking hominy and corn cakes.
The name hickory and chinkapin are from the Indian tongues. Only a few of the names for the crops we grow and the foods we eat are derived from the native languages of North America, the most common being: maize, potato, tobacco, squash, hominy, succotash, samp, pone, tomato and chocolate, the last two being from the Mexican language.


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