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By Kathleen M. Myers

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.
1

Pilgrims discover corn at 'Corn Hill'

As another growing season comes to a close, the words from the old hymn, Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, bring to mind a crop that is unique to the Americas—corn. Part of the grass family, the many varieties of corn were developed from wild plants over a period of time by the people native to the Americas. These include dent corn, flint corn, flour corn, popcorn, sweet corn, waxy corn and pod corn.

The list of corn related foods in use in the USA is extensive—corn meal, corn on the cob, corn bread, johnnycakes, corn fritters, corn oil, corn margarine, corn flakes, corn syrup, corn soup, corn pudding, and corn chips, just to name a few, as well as corn grown as feed for cattle, chickens and other livestock. All around our nation, companies are turning corn into ethanol, an alternate source of fuel to power our cars.

The word “corn” in other countries refers to grains such as wheat, barley and rye. But here, the crop that we today call corn was known as maize to the early settlers, coming from the Native American word “mahiz”, which means “that which sustains us”.2 “Archaeological and paleobotanical discoveries provide evidence that cultivated corn has existed in the southwestern US for at least 3,000 years.  Discoveries in the Tehuacan Valley of southern Mexico have yielded evidence that wild corn existed there from 5,000 to 3,400 B.C.”3   As to the cultivation of corn, “Archaeological evidence of corn’s early presence in the western hemisphere was identified from corn pollen grain considered to be 80,000 years old obtained from drill cores 200 feet below Mexico City”4  Wherever corn originated, it was known to Native Americans long before Europeans reached this continent.

Corn spread throughout North America along the various trade routes of rivers and trails traveled by the Native Americans.  Some speculate that “…cultivating corn is responsible for turning the Native American tribes from nomadic to agrarian societies.”5  Research reveals that corn was a well-established crop in North America by the time of the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620.

Corn was taken to Europe by the early Spanish explorers and eventually spread around the world. “At first, corn was only a garden curiosity in Europe, but it soon began to be recognized as a valuable food crop.  Within a few years, it spread throughout France, Italy and all of southeastern Europe and Northern Africa. By 1575 it was making its way into western China….”6  Were our Pilgrim ancestors familiar with corn before their arrival in the new world?  According to an account by William Bradford,  probably not. 

It was during a scouting expedition that men from the Mayflower found a cache of corn buried underground in a place still known today as Corn Hill. Recorded in William Bradford’s writings Of Plymouth Plantation, we read, “Which, they digging up, found in them divers fair Indian baskets filled with corn, and some in ears, fair and good, of divers colors, which seemed to them a very goodly sight (having never seen any such before).”  With supplies running low and an uncertainty as to whether the grains they brought with them would grow in this new land, the Pilgrims took corn from this cache at Corn Hill with the understanding that they would provide compensation to its owners.

The Wampanoag (meaning People of Light), had been living for thousands of years in the region where the Pilgrims landed. The next spring, it was Squanto, of the Wampanoag Nation, who taught our ancestors how to grow corn. 

At www.plimoth.org we find the following account by the Wampanoags, “Around 1,000 years ago, the elders tell us, our relative the Crow flew from the Southwest to the Wampanoag Nation, bringing us the first corn and bean seeds (weachamin gka tuppaquam wskannemuneash) as a gift from the Creator.  Since that time we have learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers how to sow, tend and harvest these wonderful plants.”

To the Native Americans, “…corn was of divine origin—it was the food of the gods that created the earth.”7  William Bradford said, “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn for we know not how else we should have done.” 

For additional information on the Pilgrims and the history of the Wampanoag Nation, visit www.plimoth.org.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Words: Henry Alford, Psalms and Hymns, 1844; Music:  St. George’s Windsor, George J. Elvey, 1858

[2] http://www.rlrouse.com/history-of-corn.html

[3] Funk and Wagnell’s New Encyclopedia

[4] Origin, History and Uses of Corn (Zea mays), Gibson and Benson, Iowa State Univ., Dept. of Agronomy

[5] http://www.rlrouse.com/history-of-corn.html

[6] Origin, History and Uses of Corn (Zea mays), Gibson and Benson, Iowa State Univ., Dept. of Agronomy

[7] http://www.ontariocorn.org/classroom/history.html