By the time you read this column, this year’s corn harvest will be complete and soybeans will be harvested and shipped to market.
Another year in the farmer’s calendar is almost over. Farmers say spring planting and fall harvest periods are when they make their living.
Fourteen-hour days spent in the tractor cab during the race to get crops planted or harvested before rain or snow arrives – again – are common.
Modern tractors boast automatic transmissions, heat, air conditioning, two-way radios, cell phones, GPS satellite trackers, computers more powerful than the moon landers had, and stereo FM and satellite radios, a far cry from the 1960s when someone with an AM radio was strapped to their tractor – sometimes with baling wire – was considered some kind of cutting-edge technological pioneer.
Historically, the vast cornfields that cover northern Illinois are the clearest reminder of the area’s Native American heritage.
Without the Indians and their Indian corn, the colonists and pioneers would certainly, if not starve, at least have a much tougher life.
Also, tragically, a variety of staples from corn whiskey to fried cornmeal would never have been invented.
Indians, like my friend Dr. Ray Hauser, now retired from Waubonsee Community College, pointed out, never farmed.
Instead they relied on horticulture. The difference between the two is significant even if not understood.
Agriculture relies on the use of the plow for planting and cultivation, while horticulture, or gardening, relies only on hoes or other hand tools.
Native Americans never developed the plow or the domesticated animals needed to pull it, but evidence of the ancient use of hoes and other such tools is common throughout Kendall County and Illinois.
But even though they never practiced agriculture, that didn’t stop the Native Americans from developing a wide variety of really good menu choices.
Most of us are unaware of the Indian origins of these traditional dishes when we eat foods like roast turkey, boiled potatoes, Boston baked beans, squash, tomatoes, cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, cornbread, or pumpkin pie.
American Indians were good farmers and, as mentioned above, developed and cultivated a variety of crops.
Maize, beans, peanuts, potatoes, cassava, tapioca, squash and many other foods were first grown by indigenous people. The most important of these native crops, however, was maize.
Maize is really nothing more than a genetically altered grass developed through careful cross-breeding over thousands of years.
It can grow in areas too dry for rice and too wet for wheat. In addition, its yield per hectare is more than twice that of wheat.
When corn was noticed by Spanish colonists in the last years of the 15th century, it was brought to Europe where it quickly took hold.
As a result, corn was grown in Europe many years before the Jamestown settlement was established in Virginia or the Pilgrim colonists arrived on the Massachusetts coast.
So when the Pilgrim Fathers stumbled upon a cache of corn hidden by Indians, they immediately knew what it was.
And having nothing of their own and seeing no one around to dispute its ownership, in typical European fashion, they stole it.
Wrote Pilgrim leader Governor William Bradford, “A pile of sand … just cleared, we might see how they (the Indians) had paddled it with their hands – which we dug up … and found a fine large basket full of beautiful Indian corn , and dug further and found a fine, large basket full of very beautiful grain from this year, and with about six and thirty fine grain shears.”
The stolen corn enabled the Pilgrims to survive the first winter and plant a substantial crop the following spring.
Until they leaned better, the Indians were very forgiving of the Europeans and even taught them how to plant, fertilize and harvest the crops grown from their stolen ears.
Despite this help, the Indians still had to provide food for the Pilgrims to see them through their second winter.
Here in Illinois, the indigenous people were hunters, fishermen and farmers. In the Illinois tribes, women did the majority of the farming.
The life lived by Indian women was about as harsh as that lived by their colonial European counterparts.
The Indian women of the Fox Valley area usually had ownership of the cornfields and the furnishings of their homes.
Because of their importance, women of the Potawatomi tribe were often allowed to sit in councils with the men.
The women took care of the planting, cultivation and harvesting themselves after the men cleared the fields.
When the fields became unproductive, they were abandoned and the entire village moved to a new location. When they reached a new location in the village, the men would build new lodges and then clear the fields.
In the fall, all remaining trees standing where the new fields lay were re-girded by cutting off strips of bark around the entire trunk, effectively killing the tree.
The following year, the dead trees were felled and the entire field set on fire. The ground was left over the winter with the ashes adding potash to the soil.
The following spring, the women planted their first crops. Corn was planted in hills two to three feet apart with four kernels in each hill. They then planted beans and squash between the corn rows.
The bean plants used the cornstalks for support and the squash spread among the rows as living mulch, keeping the soil moist during dry weather and smothering most of the weeds during wet periods. At harvest time, the best corn cuttings were kept back for next year’s planting.
Other than the division of labor, not much has changed in Illinois in several hundred years.
Corn and beans – admittedly very different strains – fields are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
The interesting thing, however, is that this activity is just as important here and now as it was 1,000 years ago.
Roger Matile is a former farm boy and retired weekly newspaper editor, columnist, reporter and photographer. Read his blog, History on the Fox, at https://tinyurl.com/4m3r82ws.
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