Native American Foods That Influenced the Diets of European Colonists.
Updated: Oct 18
When Christopher Columbus first sailed into the Bahama archipelago, he believed that he had reached Asia—thus the name Indian for the Native Americans. However, it soon became clear that he had entered a New World previously unknown to Europeans. A New World filled with unfamiliar new people, flora, and fauna.
Probably the greatest impact on Old World culture was the rapid introduction of New World ornamental and food plants. When approximately 12,000–15,000 years ago, people from northeast Asia crossed the Bering Land Bridge to enter and inhabit North America, these people rapidly adapted to the available food sources and soon developed new foods. By the time Columbus and other European explorers arrived, the Native Americans had already developed maize (corn), new varieties of beans, and squashes, and had an abundant supply of nutritious food. Today, it is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America.
This article provides only a small sampling of the rich and highly varied Native American food culture that has been passed down, through adoption into European cuisine, to modern civilization.
The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters were the three main agricultural crops of various Indigenous peoples of eastern North America: squash, maize ("corn"), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). In a technique known as companion planting, the maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year; squash is typically planted between the mounds. The cornstalk serves as a trellis for climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen in their root nodules and stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds.
The grain that we typically refer to as “corn” is more correctly known as Maize (Zea Maize). Back in Europe during the Middle Ages, the word “corn” we often see the word corn referring to ingredients in English recipes. However, this is not referring to the plant we call corn today. According to the Britannica Dictionary, Corn (in olden times) referred to a plant (such as wheat or barley) that produces seeds which are used for food also: the seeds of such a plant, i.e., grain. Outside the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the word "corn" is synonymous with grain referring to any cereal crop with its meaning understood to vary geographically to refer to the local staple, such as wheat or barley in England and oats in Scotland or Ireland. In the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, corn primarily means maize. This usage started as a shortening of "Indian corn" in 18th century North America.
During European colonization of North America, confusion would occur between British and North American English speakers using the term corn so that North American speakers would need to clarify that they were talking about Indian corn or maize, such as in a conversation between the Massachusetts Bay governor Thomas Hutchinson and the British king George III where Hutchinson spoke of “rye and corn mixed, and King George replied “What corn?”, to which Hutchinson replied, clarifying by saying. “Indian Corn or as it is called in authors, maize.”
The Maize plant is a cereal grain first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Most historians believe maize was domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. Recent research in the early 21st century has modified this view somewhat; scholars now indicate the adjacent Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico as the center of domestication. A 2002 study has demonstrated that, rather than the multiple independent domestications model, all maize arose from a single domestication in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. The study also demonstrated that the oldest surviving maize types are those of the Mexican highlands. Later, maize spread from this region, north and south into North, Central, and South America. It is believed that beginning before 2500 BC, the crop spread through much of the Americas.
After the arrival of Europeans in 1492, Spanish settlers consumed maize, and explorers and traders carried it back to Europe and introduced it to other countries. Spanish settlers much preferred wheat bread to maize, cassava, or potatoes. Despite these preferences, Spaniards did consume maize. Archeological evidence from Florida sites indicate they cultivated it as well.
When the Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607, they were particularly impressed by maize. It was unknown in England, and they referred to it, as we discussed earlier, as “corne,” their word for wheat or other starchy grains. For the first few decades of English colonization in North America, knowledge to produce native food crops remained squarely in the hands of Indigenous communities. The English could not rely on their own agricultural skills, nor on regular shipments of food from England. Instead, accounts of the earliest days of English colonial settlement make oblique but numerous references to the skill and knowledge of Indigenous peoples.
When English colonists first arrived in Massachusetts onboard the Mayflower in 1620, they resorted to the theft of Wampanoag food supplies. Finding a winter Wampanoag settlement on what is now known as Corn Hill, the colonists stole the winter corn supplies and robbed Wampanoag graves, taking “sundry of the pretiest things away” with them. These stolen foodstuffs did not last long, however, and without the knowledge to grow their own corn successfully, and with their own supplies from England dwindling, colonists increasingly relied on Indigenous people to feed them.
Perhaps the most famous was Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet community, who had been kidnapped in 1614 by the Englishman Thomas Hunt and trafficked by Hunt to Spain where he was sold into slavery alongside twenty-three other Indigenous people. Tisquantum eventually managed to gain his freedom and returned to America in 1619. On arrival, Tisquantum found his community deserted. A mysterious disease, most likely spread by European colonizers, had ripped through the area between 1616 and 1619, wiping out Tisquantum’s people and his home of Patuxet. Tisquantum is credited with teaching the Plymouth colonists how to grow maize, including the use of small fish as fertilizer. He also taught them Native American methods of agriculture, including how “to cull out the finest seede, to observe the fittest season, to keepe distance for holes, and fit measure for hills, to worme it, and weede it; to prune it, and dresse it.”
Sweet corn, as we know it today, occurred as a spontaneous mutation in field corn and was grown by several Native American tribes. The European cultivation of sweet corn occurred when the Iroquois tribes grew the first recorded sweet corn (called 'Papoon') for European settlers in 1779. Later they taught the settlers how to grow, harvest, and prepare the corn.
Most of the corn grown by native tribes was what we would call “field corn” today. The principal field corn varieties are dent corn, flint corn and popcorn. Dent corn, also known as grain corn, is a type of field corn with a high soft starch content. It received its name because of the small indentation, or "dent", at the crown of each kernel on a ripe ear of corn. Flint corn has less soft starch than dent corn and so, flint corn does not have dents in each kernel from which dent corn gets its name. Instead, with flint corn each kernel has a hard outer layer to protect the soft endosperm, it is likened to being hard as flint, hence the name.
Flint corn was the preferred type of corn for making hominy, a staple food in native diets since pre-Columbian times. Hominy is a food produced from dried maize (corn) kernels that have been treated with an alkali, in a process called nixtamalization; nextamalli is the Nahuatl word for "hominy." "Lye hominy" is a type of hominy made with lye. To make hominy, field corn grain is dried, and then it is treated by soaking and cooking the mature grain in a dilute solution of lye (which can be produced from water and wood ash). The maize is then washed thoroughly to remove the bitter flavor of the lye or lime. The alkalinity helps dissolve hemicellulose, the major adhesive component of the maize cell walls, loosens the hulls from the kernels, and softens the corn.
This process is called Nixtamalization. Nixtamalized corn has several benefits over unprocessed grain: It is more easily ground, its nutritional value is increased, and flavor and aroma are improved. Also, soaking the corn in lye kills the seed's germ, which keeps it from sprouting while in storage. Finally, in addition to providing a source of dietary calcium, the nixtamalization process frees niacin into a state where the intestines can absorb it.
Another, although not the only other, use for the corn that natives grew was parched corn. Parched corn is essentially the dried corn kernels, Dent, Flint, or Hominy, which is then dry “toasted” until the kernel cracks open. This was used to prepare the corn for carrying on long journeys and for winter storage. The toasting drives out almost all remaining moisture thus helping to prevent spoilage and it alters the “texture” of the kernels to make it easier to pound/grind into some flour. Benjamin Franklin wrote a pamphlet on maize in which he says about parched corn:
“That which is parched and pounded into powder in mortars, this being sifted will keep long fit for use. An Indian will travel far, and subsist long on a small bag of it, taking only six or eight ounces of it per day mixed with water.”
Other native uses for maize (corn), depending on the tribe, include corn soup, dumplings, tamales, hominy, grits, ash cakes, and a ceremonial "wedding cake" bread.
While some types of beans were well known in Europe and other parts of the world before the “discovery of the Americas, most of the types of beans we eat today are part of the genus Phaseolus, which originated in the Americas. The first European to encounter them was Christopher Columbus while exploring what may have been the Bahamas. He reported seeing them growing in fields. Five kinds of Phaseolus beans were domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples: common beans (P. vulgaris) grown from Chile to the northern part of what is now the United States, lima beans (P. lunatus), tepary beans (P. acutifolius), scarlet runner beans (P. coccineus), and polyanthus beans.
Most importantly, a diet based on beans and maize is rich in essential proteins that neither food can provide on its own. Maize alone is not a perfect food, it’s missing some amino acids, particularly lysine, which is found in beans. Beans are deficient in other amino acids, cysteine, and methionine, which are found in maize. So, when you eat beans on a corn tortilla, which was the basis of Aztec and Maya diets, you have a complete protein food.
A few native uses for beans, fresh or dried, include cooked in soups and stew, mashed into cakes, and ground into flour., bean bread, a sort of baked beans and mixed with corn to make succotash.
Pumpkins, gourds, and other hard-skinned winter squashes (Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima and C. moschata) were part of the famous “three sisters” planting strategy practiced by Native Americans alongside beans and maize. Winter squash takes a long time to mature and, as mentioned earlier, the plant’s broad-leafed vines extend in all directions, providing a helpful ground cover that traps moisture and suppresses weeds, aiding the corn and beans. Native Americans prized gourds, squash, and pumpkins for their nutrient-rich flesh, their protein-packed seeds, and their sturdy shells, which were dried and used as containers and water jugs.
Interestingly, “pumpkin” is a vernacular term for mature winter squash of species and varieties in the genus Cucurbita, but no agreed upon botanical or scientific meaning. The term pumpkin is sometimes used interchangeably with "squash" or "winter squash", and is commonly used for cultivars of Cucurbita argyrosperma, Cucurbita ficifolia, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo. Native to North America, C. pepo pumpkins are one of the oldest domesticated plants, having been used as early as 7,000 to 5,500 BC.
There are several proposed origins of the word with one being for pumpkin being derived from the Massachusett word pôhpukun, meaning 'grows forth round', but there is currently no evidence to support the idea that this word actually entered English. The Wampanoag people could have used this term when introducing pumpkins to English colonists at Plymouth Colony, located in present-day Massachusetts. Similarly, the English word “squash” is derived from a Massachusett word, variously transcribed as askꝏtasquash, ashk8tasqash, or, in the closely related Narragansett language, askútasquash. While “pumpkins” were used as part of the “three sisters,” these were not the modern pumpkin cultivars we typically see in store today as their weight might damage the other crops. Within a few decades after the beginning of European colonization of North America, we find illustrations of pumpkins like the modern cultivars “small sugar pumpkin” and “Connecticut Field Pumpkin” being published in European books and magazines.
Most parts of the pumpkin plant are edible, including the fleshy shell, the seeds, the leaves, and the flowers. When ripe, the pumpkin can be boiled, steamed, or roasted. A 3.5 oz. piece of raw pumpkin supplies 25 calories, 6.5 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of protein, and is high in Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are edible and nutrient rich. Per one ounce serving, pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, magnesium, copper, and zinc.
These “cucurbits” (winter squash, gourds, and pumpkins) were made into soups, breads, desserts, stuffings, storage containers, musical instruments, utensils, etc. Native Americans also used pumpkins to treat intestinal worms and urinary ailments, and this Native American remedy was adopted by American doctors in the early nineteenth century as an anthelmintic for the expulsion of worms. In Germany and southeastern Europe, seeds of C. pepo were also used as folk remedies to treat irritable bladder and benign prostatic hyperplasia.
This article can only touch on a few of the most important native foods that became integrated into European diets. There are many more that were eaten by the indigenous people of North America and are still a part of our diet today. These include items such as wild rice, amaranth, hickory nuts, pecans, Jerusalem artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, persimmons, papaws, sweet potatoes, turkey, and maple sugar/syrup. Hopefully, we can revisit this subject at some time in the future to discuss some of these foods.
We hope you enjoyed today's post outlining the foods eaten by Native Americans and their impact on the American diet. Please join us again next time when we will examine the history of Halloween and its observance in Colonial and Early America.
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Kernan, S. P. (2017, March 17). Foods of the Columbian Exchange. Retrieved from The Newberry: Digital Collections for the Classroom: https://dcc.newberry.org/?p=14426
Park, S., Hongu, N., & Daily, J. W. (2016). Native American foods: History, culture, and influence on modern diets. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 171-177.
Parker, A. C. (1910). Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants. Albany, NY: New York State Museum.
Raine, C. (1997). A Woodland Feast. Native American Foodways of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Huber Heights, OH: Morning Star* Publications.
Rountree, M., & Rountree, H. (2020, December 07). Diet in Early Virginia Indian Society. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Virginia: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/diet-in-early-virginia-indian-society