Cultivating Corn during the American Colonial Period

There was no such thing as refrigeration or canning during the 18th century. Fresh meat and vegetables could not survive the months-long sea voyages from Europe. Colonists and British soldiers had to rely on local game and planted crops. Vegetables, both native and seed transported from Europe, were grown in the new land and provided the nourishment necessary for survival.

Colonial Harvest of Corn

Indian Corn, called “Guinny Wheat” or “Turkie Wheat” by colonials, was a native of American soil during the settlement of this country. The Native Americans understood its value and developed an intelligent means of cultivating the tall graceful plants that included fertilization. As a food source, corn was abundant, adaptable, and nourishing, saving many early settlements from starvation. The Native Americans taught the Europeans much more than planting and raising corn. They showed how corn was properly ground and made palatable in various ways. Corn was cooked by the colonists the same way Native Americans prepared their food, and Indian names obtained for these corn dishes exist even to this day: hominy, pone, suppawn, samp, and succotash.

Indians and settlers pounded the grain into a coarse meal using a mortar or hollowed stone. They used closely woven baskets to sift the ground corn, and any grains that did not pass through were again pounded and sifted. Pone was pounded in a hollowed block of wood or in a hollowed stump of a tree which had been cut about three feet from the ground. The pestle for grinding was made of wood and shaped to fit the mortar. It had a handle to one side. They lifted and applied the heavy wooden pestle by attaching it to a young sapling that was lowered over the mortar. The sapling acted as a spring that could easily be pulled up after pounding down on the corn. This was labeled a sweep and mortar mill. Settlers adapted this method that was quite loud and could be heard for miles.

Grinding was performed by rude hand-mills called quernes or quarnes. Some of these were still in existence during the Revolution and were called samp-mills. Samp is corn pounded down to a coarsely ground powder which is boiled and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter. As maize became more plentiful, English mills for grinding meal were common in many communities. The establishment of windmills and watermills frightened the Native Americans who dreaded “their long arms and great teeth biting the corn in pieces.” Many tribes attributed the turning of the wheels to evil spirits.

The Native American prepared maize or corn by steeping it or parboiling it in hot water for twelve hours. Suppawn was a favorite Indian and settler dish: corn meal combined with some milk to make a thick porridge. Bread was made of maize and baked in an oblong shape and mixed with dried huckleberries. Pone was baked or fried bread made with corn meal. Sukquttahhash or succotash was “corn seethed like beans.” Today, succotash is applied to corn cooked with beans.

Grinding Corn

Ears of corn were roasted or boiled as it is today. The corn was wrapped within its leaves and either placed on the fire or in the pot. Corn was also “parched” as it was called then or as we know it now as popcorn. Parched meant that the kernel was turned inside out and was “white and floury within.”

Hasty pudding was made in Europe using wheat flour or oatmeal with milk. The name was also applied in the colonies for boiled puddings of corn meal and water. It was not a suitable name as corn meal was never boiled hastily, but slowly. The puddings were sweetened and boiled in a bag. New England families would consume over three hundred such puddings in one year. Popular along with hasty puddings were “jenny-cakes” and corn dumplings.

Pamphlets on proper preparation of corn were published and carefully read. How the corn should be carried to the mill was described in detail. The kind of stone and how it should revolve received close scrutiny. Proper mixing and baking was meticulously explained. Baking required a middle board or “bakeboard” of red oak from the head of a flour-barrel. It was insisted that the fire for baking must be of walnut logs.

Nocake or nookick was a manner of corn preparation that was held to be one of the most nourishing foods known. As one early settler wrote: “It is Indian corn parched in the hot ashes, the ashes being sifted from it; it is afterwards beaten to powder and put into a long leather bag…out of which [is taken] three spoonfuls a day.” Both natives and whites carried nocake in a pouch when they went on long journeys. It was mixed with water and, in winter, snow. It was considered sweet, toothsome, and hearty. It was described that when on a diet of nocake, Indians could carry loads “fitter for elephants than men.”

English: Portrait of Benjamin Hawkins (1754-18...
English: Portrait of Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1818) on his plantation along the Flint River in central Georgia. Hawkins is seen teaching Creek Indians how to use a plow. Behind Hawkins, a Creek Indian carries a basket of corn from the back of a wagon. On the other side, a Creek mother nurses her child. The background is dotted with farm animals and small buildings along the Flint River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cost of corn per bushel varied: ten shillings in 1631 dropped to two shillings in 1672, back up to twenty in 1747, and down to two in 1751. At the opening of the American Revolution, it had risen to one hundred shillings per bushel. The reason for such fluctuations, as in all prices for goods, had to do with the ever-changing valuation of money and, as was with the Revolution, politics. Corn remained a steady value because it supplied much of the colonists’ diet and was a standard rather than measured by the shifting financial markets or events. Colonists were able to make a local profit from corn. One such recorded instance was a farmer who planted eight bushels of seed corn. From this he raised 864 bushels of corn of which he sold to the Indians for beaver skins which gave him a profit of £327.

Throughout the long winter nights, corn was shelled from the ears. They were usually scraped on the iron edge of a wooden shovel or on the fire-peel. A long handled frying pan was fastened across a tub and the corn ears were drawn across the sharp edge of the handle. Some farmers set the edge of a knife blade in a piece of wood and scraped the ear of corn on the back of the blade.

Once the corn was shelled, the cobs were not discarded. They were stored and allowed to dry out. They were used as light-wood to start fires, children playthings building “cob-houses,” or to smoke hams, imparting a sought-after flavor to the ham or bacon.

Lastly, corn kernels were used beyond their nutritional value. In fox and geese, checkers, and other games, corn served as a counter or game piece.  It was even used during elections as a tool to count votes in a ballot box.

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Andrews, Charles M. Colonial Folkways, A Chronicle of American Life. 1919: Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. 1898: The Berkshire Traveller Press, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Purvis, Thomas L. Colonial America to 1763. 1999: Infobase Publishing, Facts on File, New York, NY.

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