Iroquois Corn Fields... as Far as the Eye Can See!

When we think of the First Nations growing corn… many visualize quaint family plots growing outside the longhouse palisade. Actually the fields were so big that visiting priests complain about getting lost in them. We are talking about fields 100 to 1,000 acres in size.

The land was cleared in a three season split. First year all the brush and lower branches were cleared and put around the big trees which were girdled. In the next spring the girdled trees were burned and cut down. The third year is when corn would be planted. The first two years of corn was the best yields. If a field got too low in production it was left fallow for two years. Never were all fields growing crops at once.

Preparing the corn seed was done by soaking the seed in a corn medicine solution for one hour. Then put in a basket and wait until it started to sprout. The corn varieties used were flint corns adapted to the shorter growing season. There was also soft white & yellow corn… and gummy or sugar corn.

The fields were prepped by chopping the weeds off last year “hills” and pulling out the old corn stalks. Next the fields of stalks were burned. The new corn seedlings in the old hills would often follow the root channels of last year’s crop.

When the leaves on the oaks were the size of a red squirrels foot or the June berry was in blossom… it was time to plant corn. Sowing corn was done by the Iroquois women. There was an older woman overseeing a group of younger women. Planting started out with prayer first. There was much singing with young braves guarding.

Each woman carried a notched stick of oak, ironwood or hickory that looked like a half shovel 5 inches wide with a one foot branch handle. The woman would stand in a line and each would plant a row across the field. The corn was sowed a meter apart in hills with 4 seeds per hill planted about 1 inch apart and 1 inch deep. When possible the women planted in the hill from last year. After planting there was a prayer of protection and thanks.

Some records talk about Iroquois field 180 meters by 90 meters with 9 rolls of corn alternating with beans… the outside perimeter surrounded by squash and melons. Each village had it's own layout.

Then there was the protecting of the fields from crows, blackbirds, raccoons, muskrats, rabbits, woodchucks and deer. The creatures were scared off by guards or snared. They also had suspended wooden whistles that blew in the wind or young girls on platforms.

When the corn came up there was a dance. The first hoeing was when the corn was 2”
high to remove competing weeds. The second hoeing happen when the corn was 2 ft high and they would hill them more too. This was also the time they would plant beans, squash, pumpkins and melons between the corn. The corn was actually used as a climbing ladder by the beans.

Then there would be rain invoking ceremonies and rain stopping ceremonies.

About the start of August was green corn season for about 2 weeks. This was corn on the cob harvested in the sweet stage. Gummy corn or sugar corn.

The final harvest of mature beans and corn was at the start of October. The women entered the fields with slung baskets on their backs. The mature corn was always picked with the right hand and tossed over their shoulder. When the baskets were full the women walked to an assigned piling spot and bent over to dump the corn out. These harvest piles were about 4 ft high and 9 ft long. A field yielded about 16 bushels per acre of corn. One Seneca village attacked by the American General Sullivan had over 160,000 bushels in storage.

The harvested corn was then weaved together in groups of 50-60 ears about 8ft long braids. The braids were put on dry racks. The seed source for the next year was picked out and hung in the long house. Corn seed was viable for up to two years.

The dried the corn was shelled by flailing, then winnowed. The blank cobs were burned to be used as seasoning. The shelled kernels were stored in bark chests which could hold 100 to 120 bushels.

Other shelled corn was stored in waterproof pits. Some pits were trenches 5-6 ft deep, others were round holes of the same depth. The holes were often in sandy soil, lined with dry willow branches on the bottom with a layer of thick dried grass on top. The side walls were lines with a thick layer of grass held in place with a willow branch weaving. The top was covered with woven corn mats, leaves and earth. The pit locations were disguised in case of enemy attack and were some distance from the long houses.

The amount of corn grown was enough to supply a village for three years… but often an annual crop was partially traded to the non-farming Algonquin for quill work, nets and furs. For the Iroquois corn was life. In fact the words for corn stages were used as time markers... planting, sprout, blade, stalk, silk, tassel, ear, kernel, husk, braid and hang.

Today big corn planter sweep across the land planting hybrids that yields 10 times more per acre and big mechanical combines shell a cob in a second. Remember when you lift a can of corn off the shelf... we’ve got it good!

If wishing a hiking classroom to learn about First Nations plants and trees visit this link.

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