“Mesoamerican farmers bred a nondescript grass into a staff of life so prolific, so protean, that it represents nothing less than one of humankind's greatest achievements.”
--Cynthia Clampitt, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland
It is believed corn (maize) farming first began in Southern Mexico around 7,500 BC. Maize was developed from a wild grass (Teosinte) originally growing in Central America. The kernels of this crop were small – on cobs a few inches long and not fused together like the kernels of the larger, husked ear of later plants. The Olmec and the Mayans cooked, ground or processed corn through nixtamalization (a process for preparation in which the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, ususally limewater, washed, and then hulled).
Over a period of thousands of years, natives purposefully transformed maize through special cultivation techniques. They bred the corn plants to have more and more corn. By collecting and cultivating plants best suited for human consumption, they firmly established this vital resource. Natives had developed 200 varieties by the time Europeans got here.
Around 2500 BC, maize began to spread to the north; it was first cultivated in what is now the United States at several sites in New Mexico and Arizona, about 2100 BC.
Early Native Americans raised corn in little patches about their villages. Often they had to clear trees to plant the crop. Since their axes were made of stone and were not sharp enough to cut down a tree, they cut down larger trees by burning them off at the bottom.
In some places they made a hoe by tying the shoulder blade of a deer to a stick. In other places they used half of the shell of a turtle for a hoe or spade to dig up the ground. In North Carolina the Indians had a little thing like a pickax which was made out of a deer's horn tied to a stick.
Sometimes natives planted a patch a long way off from their bark house, so that they would not be tempted to eat it while it was green. They were very fond of green corn.
When the corn was dry, the Indians pounded it in order to make meal or hominy of it. Sometimes they parched the corn, and then pounded it into meal. They carried this parched meal with them when they went hunting and when they went to war. They could eat it with a little water, without stopping to cook it. They called it Nokick, but the white people called it No-cake.
The history of the Iroquois Confederacy goes back to its formation of the Deganawida, a political and cultural union of five Iroquoian-speaking Native American tribes in 1142. When Iroquois people began to grow corn further north, in the northeast part of North America, about 1000 AD, they found that the corn took too long to get ripe, and often frost killed the plant before the corn was ripe. They had to slowly adapt the plant to the northern climate by making it evolve a shorter growing season. In the north, the Iroquois cooked their corn by boiling it over their fire: they ate mainly corn pudding, corn mush, or corn soup.
Ohio Native Americans greatly depended upon corn for their survival. Besides multi-colored corn, they developed varieties of eight and ten-row corn. The natives planted corn and beans in small mounds of soil and often pumpkins, squash, or melons in the space between.
The Shawnee (comes from the Algonquin word "shawun" (shawunogi) translated as “Southerner) spoke an Algonquian language and were living in the Ohio Valley as early as the late 1600s. The Iroquois -- also in the area during this time -- were unwilling to share these rich hunting grounds and drove the Shawnees away. Some went to Illinois; others went to Pennsylvania, Maryland or Georgia.
But, as the power of the Iroquois weakened, members of the Shawnee nation moved back into Ohio from the south and the east. They settled in the lower Scioto River valley.
The Shawnee divided themselves into different clans, and 5 major sub-nations. The were ...
Chillicothe (Calaka, Chalaakaatha, Chalahgawtha), Hathawekela (Oawikila, Thaawikila, Thawegila), Kispoko (Kiscopocoke, Kispokotha, Spitotha), Mequachake (Maykujay, Mekoce, Mekoche), and Piqua (Pekowi, Pequa).The principal leader of the Shawnees could only come from one clan. The name of this clan was “Chillicothe.” When a village was called Chillicothe, it meant that it was home to the principal chief, the “capital city” of the Shawnees.
Care of their corn fields was the responsibility of the women. Shawnee men hunted and cleared fields for planting. Crop rotation is not specifically mentioned in histories. One must consider that the Shawnee followed a seasonal migratory pattern – traveling south in the winter and returning to their northern villages in the spring.
Many important Shawnee ceremonies were tied to the agricultural cycle: the spring bread dance at planting time; the green corn dance when crops ripened; and the autumn bread dance to celebrate the harvest.
Of course, Europeans continued to rely on agriculture as the primary means of feeding one’s family as they moved into the Ohio country during the mid-to-late 1700s. Most of the original Europeans to settle Ohio raised wheat, corn, and other grain crops. But, it was corn, the staple diet of the Shawnee, that became the staple crop of the Scioto Valley.
By 1849, Ohio produced more corn than any other state, and ranked second in wheat production.
In reference to corn, popular history writer Cynthia Clampitt said, "This is an American story, and the story of the Midwest." Corn practically created the center of the country, she writes in the introduction to her new book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland.
"Some have compared the spread of corn across the United States to the sweeping conquest of the great empire builders. It is an apt comparison. Corn made it possible to "conquer" the frontier with astonishing speed and created an empire of farms, transportation, and cities that made the country wealthy. The Midwest is not where corn started, but it is where it became powerful."
Clampitt continued: "The Corn Belt was born in Ohio. Chillicothe and the Scioto River Valley is where the paradigm of farming shifted to feeding corn to animals." Cleveland, with its lake, canals and railroads, participated mightily in the birth of corn trade."
Local connections to corn are well-documented. The History of Lower Scioto Valley, Ohio records the following:
"In April, 1785, four families from the Redstone settlement in Pennsylvania descended the Ohio to the mouth of the Scioto River, and there moored their boat under the high bank just below where Portsmouth now stands. They commenced clearing the ground to plant seeds for a crop to support their families, hoping that the red men of the forest would suffer them to remain and improve the soil.”
The Lucasville Connection
Most colonists wanted land to own and to farm. The lands north of the Ohio where the Shawnee villages had been established contained fertile soil and abundant resoures. Land situated along the Scioto River, was particularly ideal for farming. Nurtured by occasional floods from the Scioto River, the soil was unsurpassed in fertility and durability.
Historian and researcher Kurenn Sisler wrote ...
“In order to survive in this new terrain that could not support the 'civilized,' modern infrastructure of the European and east coast colonial culture, the early frontier colonists looked to the Shawnees of the Ohio country as their model. Observing the Shawnees, the frontier colonists learned how and where to hunt, what crops to plant, and what styles of clothing to wear in their new environment.”
Lucasville's soil was so rich and alluring that it was said to be a principal reason for the site of the first permanent settlement made by the colonists of Scioto County. After hearing about this ideal farming land, Hezekiah Merritt, often regarded as the founder of Lucasville, traveled to Scioto County from neighboring Adams County in order to settle in a valley between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Soon, other colonists followed his lead. In 1819, John Lucas named this area Lucasville.
Historian Nelson Evans claimed in the late nineteenth century, a hundred years after the first permanent settlement in Lucasville that Lucasville was, without a doubt, the best of all the townships for agriculture.
A 1931 Portsmouth Times article on the history of Lucasville claims that Lucasville was, at that time, “the heart of one of the richest corn belts in the world.”
From Native Americans to early settlers to people of today, corn has been a vital part of local human existence. The rich soil here has always been an extremely important natural resource – a giver of life and a provider of commerce. Corn is the crop that gave roots to settlements of Native Americans and later to White European expansionists. One cannot stress enough the role of maize in Ohio, in the Scioto Valley, and in the development of Lucasville. The vegetable we enjoy so much now has a long, storied history of unbelievable public service.
“Ancestral Pueblo Farming.” National Park Service.
K.E. Carr. “The History of Corn.” Quatr.us Study Guides, n.d. July 03, 2017.
Colon G. Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America. New York. Penquin
History of Lower Scioto Valley Ohio. 1884.
“Native American History of Corn.” NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art.
Kurenn Sisler. “Signs of Earth Democracy in Lucasville, Ohio:Looking at the History of a Small Midwestern Appalachian Town to Determine the Future Potential of a U.S. as an Earth Democracy.” California Institute of Integral Studies. 2008.
“Some Things About Indian Corn.” Heritage History. 2013-2015.
Wittenburg. “Lucasville Known As Corn-Fed Town. Portsmouth Times. 1931.