Corn: Diet And Downfall

by Bill Monson

There's been corn in Illinois for a thousand years. Maize arrived from the American southwest about the tenth century A.D. and was waiting in New England when the pilgrims landed. It was a common crop for Indian and white settler alike.

Growing maize encouraged the nomadic tribes of the prairies and woodlands to settle down. Their temporary summer camps along the Spoon and Illinois evolved into granary villages as the bottomlands became cornfields.

Indian men cleared the fields, girdling trees to kill them, and burning away brush. Then, while the men fished or hunted small game, the women worked the fields with stone or wooden hoes. They planted beans and squash and gathered seasonal harvests of nuts, berries and wild fruits. Roots or tubers were another source of nutrition. The most popular was the wild potato, but the women also gathered the edible roots of wild artichoke, milkweed, arrowhead and wild dill, which they either boiled or roasted.

Corn was important most of the year. In late spring, immature ears were pickled and eaten whole, cob and all, just the way uptown folks eat those tiny cocktail corn ears. When the corn was ''green'' or ''in the juice'' with the ears mature, the Indians roasted or boiled them -- a treat all of us enjoy every summer. The Indians learned to stagger their plantings so that green corn season lasted up to three months.

But a store of corn was also needed for winter, so the women parched large quantities for later boiling. In the fall, the women picked the mature hard ears, soaked the inedible kernels, and pounded them in a mortar to remove the tough skins. They served the soft insides boiled with salt or maple sugar. The Algonquin name for this dish was rockahominie, which Americans who survived on it during the winter shortened to ''hominy.''

Other hard corn was dried and beaten into meal as needed to thicken the soups or stews which were a staple of both Indian and frontier diets.

We got our custom of pulling, piling and burning stalks every fall from the Indians, who spread the ashes over their fields for the next season's planting.

While maize was a prime part of the Indian diet, meat, bone and fat were the most critical elements of Indian meals. That meant the men had to hunt. As game grew scarce around their villages, they would go farther and farther away to find it. Fur, hide and hair were essential for fiber, clothing, cover and trading. It was not uncommon for Indians of this area to go deep into Iowa in search of buffalo, deer and beaver.

While the hunters were gone, old men and women ran the villages. The absence of the warriors left the villages vulnerable, but most tribes hunted at the same time so there were few inter-tribal attacks.

Early settlers in this area adopted this style of life right down to the pattern of hunting, planting cornfields and berry picking. However, the increased competition for land and small game hurt the Indians more than whites -- who could fall back on cattle and pigs for meat. (Sometimes the Indians helped themselves to a pig or cow, which increased friction between Red and White.)

The early white settlers also learned when they could attack Indians' villages with the least chance of harm. Burning cornfields and grain supplies in the fall while the braves were gone hunting could bring a tribe to starved submission during the following winter. Generals like William Rogers Clark and Mad Anthony Wayne made a specialty of this, and more campaigns were won by burning corn supplies than killing braves in battle.

So -- as our local cornfields ripen and grow tall, they're a yearly reminder of the Indian contributions to our diet -- and how maize speeded the downfall of Indian civilization in Illinois.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 26, 2000

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