Friday, May 31, 2013

A Partial History of Corn in Southwestern Oklahoma

           Corn: A Food Native to Southwestern Oklahoma
            More than one co-worker at a former job told me corn has little nutritional value. I don't believe it. Although I am mostly Caucasian, a small part of me is American Indian, too. My heart sank just a little upon hearing this. Corn has always had a special place for me. I remember my father telling me that during the Dust Bowl when he was a child -- they often had little or no food. I do recall vividly on one occasion Dad saying were it not for corn bread and pinto beans, his family would have starved to death. Maybe he was exaggerating, he could have been -- I am not certain -- but those are words he DID use when speaking to me on one occasion, about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. He said there were days when the only foods were corn bread and pinto beans, and this alone sustained them. If they ate meat, it was a cotton tail that they’d shot or a cat fish they’d caught. I wondered if this alone sustained them, how could it be that corn is of little nutritional value?
            Since I am from Southwestern Oklahoma, and my ancestors have been here (on one side of my family anyway) a good long while, I thought I’d write a little something on the history of the first domesticated vegetables and meats found here, focusing on corn.
            Foods Grown by the Wichita Indians
            The first people known to history to have lived here were the Wichitas, Wacos, Taovayas, Tawakonis, and Kichais. Today, these peoples are known collectively as the Wichita. Some histories erroneously refer to them as “Pawnee” or “Pawnee Picts”. The Pawnee lived much further North and East. They were called “Picts” because they tattooed themselves as had early people of Scotland, who were also known as Picts. The Wichita predated the Comanche’s in this region by centuries. The Kiowa came still later. The territories of these three tribes overlap in southwestern Western Oklahoma.
            The earliest stories of the Wichita refer to the great gift corn gave to the people.
            "After the man and woman were made they dreamed that things were made for them, and when they woke they had the things of which they had dreamed . . . The woman was given an ear of corn . . . It was to be the food of the people that should exist in the future, to be used generation after generation." [Tawakoni Jim in “The Mythology of the Wichita”, 1904 ]
            From the same website we see --
            Archaeologists believe that the heritage of the Wichita’s may be traced back at least 800 years to the Washita River culture of central and western Oklahoma. Living along fertile valleys, these people resided in small villages of rectangular, mud plastered houses. Nearby were small gardens where women tilled and weeded corn, beans, and squash with hoes of buffalo leg and shoulder bones. Buffalo, elk, deer, and small game were hunted. Wild plants were collected for foods, medicines, and rituals. Tools were made from readily available stone, wood, bone, and antler. Between A.D. 1350 and 1450, some Washita River people began to build larger villages with circular grass houses, some of which were fortified.
            Hoes were made of buffalo shoulder and leg bones. Corn, beans and squash were cultivated.
            "Here they lived the woman fixing up the place, building their grass lodge and shed to dry meat. They lived here a good long while, the woman remaining at home, the man going out hunting every day. They always had plenty of meat, and the woman raised corn, so they had plenty to eat." [Niastor in The Mythology of the Wichita, 1904]
            When first encountered by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541, the Wichita’s were following a way of life that continued into the eighteenth century. Near their large grass house villages, women tilled their gardens while the men hunted buffalo and other game. Coronado’s scribe wrote of the Quivera [Wichita]: All they have is the tanned skins of the cattle they kill [ buffalo], for the herds are near where they live, at quite a large river. They eat meat raw like the Querechos [the Apache] and Teyas [the Jumano]. They are enemies of one another . . . These people of Quivira [Wichita’s] have the advantage over the others in their houses and in growing of maize .
            On the Wichita’s own home website, they say of themselves --
            The Southern Plains is a land of seasonal changes with spring thunderstorms, hot summer days, and cool but dry winter months. The Wichita’s adapted to this environment and reaped abundant harvests from the land by farming and hunting. During the spring, summer, and early fall they lived in grass house villages while the women cultivated nearby gardens. Crops were planted together in the gardens. Each summer, beans climbed the stalks of multicolored corn, and green leafed squash or "pumpkin" plants spread their vines over the ground.
            As summer days shortened and crisp fall mornings dawned, women preserved their harvested corn by roasting and drying it in the sun. Pumpkins were cut into long strips and also sun-dried before being woven into mats which could be folded and stored for later use. The dried corn and pumpkin were used in meat soups or boiled for side dishes. Cornmeal was made by grinding dried corn with a wooden mortar or grinding stone. This cornmeal was then made into bread. Pumpkin mats were often traded to the Comanche’s or Kiowa’s for dried buffalo meat. Preserved foods were stored in buffalo-hide bags in underground cache pits until they were needed later in the year or when the harvest was poor and food was scarce.
            During the late fall and winter, the Wichitas left their villages for extended buffalo hunts. Living in tipis with family members camping near one another, the men tried to bring in enough game to provide meat for later seasons. Women prepared the meat by thinly slicing it and hanging it to dry in the cool winter's sun. Afterwards, the meat could be transported and stored in buffalo-hide bags for future use. Through the cooperative efforts of both men and women, the annual economic cycle began as the people returned to their summer villages.
             The Catalyst for the First Meeting: The Story of First Dragoon Expedition
            An unnamed commander (not named on the historical marker) was Jesse Bean. He was commander of troops that came from Independence County, Arkansas, and they were called "Bean's Ranger's". Two first cousins (James and Jarrett Wayland) of a direct ancestor (Sarah Wayland 1819-1857) of mine were mustered into Bean's Ranger's, and thus participated in the First Dragoon Expedition described below. Records of this expedition can be found online with respect to the Cutthroat Gap Massacre. The Osage massacred many Kiowa, and this expedition set out to prevent a greater war between the Plains Tribes, as well as an effort to secure friendship of the Indians. No American expedition had made at concerted effort to make contact with Southern Plains tribes -- this was the first. The next reference of food eaten in Southwestern Oklahoma is during this expedition.
OKLAHOMA -- Peace on the Plains. About 5 mi. S. E. Wichita Village in Devils Canyon was scene of first meeting between U. S. and Plains Indians in Oklahoma to promote peace, July 21, 1834. U. S. Dragoon Regiment under command of  Col. Henry Dodge accompanied by other officers and civilians including Capts. David Hunter and Nathan Boone, 1st. Lt. Jefferson Davis, Ex-Gov. Montford Stokes, N. C. and George Catlin, artist.
            The above is a link to the Osage massacre of the Kiowa at Cutthroat Gap, near Saddle Mountain in the Wichita Mountains, Kiowa County, Oklahoma. This event was a catalyst to the Dragoon expedition to make contact with some of the Southern Plains tribes. Inscribed in the historic marker is the following. I report this event with all due respect to the souls lost on that day.

Cutthroat Gap Massacre
The Cutthroat Massacre site is approximately 2.5 miles east of this marker. In the early summer of 1833 the summer before "The Stars Fell" an Osage war party attacked an undefended Kiowa camp.
The camp of Islandman, a' d' ate Principal Chief of the Kiowas, consisted of women, children , the elderly, and a few warriors. Most of the warriors were on a raid against the Utes , while others were hunting buffalo. The Osage tracked Islandman's band from Saddle Mountain through the mountains to the camp site early one morning. The Osage raiders struck the camp. The Kiowas surprised and outnumbered were unable to organized a defense. The few warriors tried to hold the Osage back to allow the women and children and elderly to flee. There were many courageous acts of bravery in the camp. It has been estimated that 150 Kiowas were killed. Kiowa warriors found the camp destroyed and decapitated bodies laying where they had fallen . Before leaving the Osage put the heads of there victims in camp cooking pots. They took the sacred Tai-me Medicine Bundle, two captives, a boy named "Thunder" and a girl named "White Weasel" and many horses. Thunder died during captivity. White Weasel was returned to her family in 1834 by the First Dragoon Expedition. For allowing the camp to be surprised, the disgraced Islandman was removed as Principal Chief To-hau-san was chosen to replace Islandman and served as principal chief from 1833 until his death in 1866. Little Bear recorded the massacre on his calendar. It was known to the Kiowas as "the summer that they cut off their heads". The site of the massacre later became known as "Cutthroat Gap" Later Chief To-hau-san with the assistance of United States Indian agents negotiated with the Osage tribe for the return of the Tai-me Medicine Bundle. While To-hau-san was chief the Kiowas resisted all efforts by the United States to pacify them and it is said that he never lost a battle he fought with the United States Cavalry.
Oklahoma Historical Society
Kiowa Historical Society
            So as a result of the above mentioned massacre, the United States sent a troop of Dragoons from Fort Gibson, near the Creek/Cherokee Nation border, to meet with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Wichita Indians. The Wichita grew the corn mentioned above.
            On July 21, Dodge and the remaining men reached a Toyash Village (Wichita Indians) at Devils Canyon. There, Dodge exchanged prisoners, traded, and secured peace treaties with several of the Plains tribes. The expedition returned to Ft. Gibson August 15, 1834.
            Devil's Canyon, in present-day Kiowa County, Oklahoma, was the site of the first formal contact between the United States government and the Plains Indians. On July 21 1834, US troops under the command of Col. Henry Dodge escorted government officials to a peace conference at the Wichita village on the prairie at the confluence of the canyon and the North Fork of the Red River.
            Today Devil’s Canyon is at the Southern tip of Quartz Mountain State Park and I believe part of it is on privately owned land. I am not certain if it is part of the State Park or not.
            Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 3, No. 3, September, 1925; THE JOURNAL OF HUGH EVANS, COVERING THE FIRST AND SECOND CAMPAIGNS OF THE UNITED STATES DRAGOON REGIMENT IN 1834 AND 1835. CAMPAIGN OF 1834  Transcribed From the Original and Edited BY FRED S. PERRINE With Additional Notes BY GRANT FOREMAN
            This town is situated on the head of Red river [note: this is incorrect -- it was on the North Fork of the Red at Devil’s canyon] their lodges are about four hundred in number they are made by placing smal [sic] poles in the ground coming to a point at the top covered over with thatched [sic] grass; they are about sixty feet in circumferance [sic] warm and comfortable with a small hole at the top for the smoke to assend [sic] There is about twelve or fifteen persons to a lodge their village was surrounded by large patches [sic] of corn and (34) manny [sic] other garden vegetables common to a civilized people such as water mellons[sic] cucumbers Beans peas &c.—
            Note:  This Wichita town being described was actually on the North Fork of the Red, and not the Red itself. It was located at the southern end of Quartz Mountain State Park about 15 or so miles North of Altus. There is a historic marker to be found -- take the Quartz Mountain and Lone Wolf exit north of Blair. Then before you get to the river, take the Mangum exit. A short distance down the road you’ll see the historic marker mentioning this Wichita village.
            Note the mention of corn, beans, cucumbers, watermelons, and peas being grown by the Wichita Indians. Another record tells that the Wichita also provided the soldiers with wild plums.
            They gather around us in great numbers admiring the many curiosities of the white people The [women] bring in roasting ears mellons [sic] green pumpkins squashes &c which they trade to us for buttons tobacco strips off our cloths shirts and many other articles we had to dispose of (I have seen a good cotton shirt sell to [women] for two ears of corn.)
            July 22 This morning large numbers of the Indians came into our encampment shook hands in friendship and appeared verry[sic] much gratified to see us.—During this day a number of us visited their town. We were treated with distinguished marks of friendship and hospitality we were conducted into their lodges and mellons [sic] corn with some dried Buffaloe [sic] meat neatly served up and set before us; we were invited to eat sumptuously [sic] which dish (although not verry [sic] clean) was verry [sic] thankfully received as we were on the brink of starvation having nothing to eat save what we got from those Indians .
            So the first American Military Unit to make contact with the tribes of the Southern Plains and is recorded to history as the First Dragoon Expedition --  were saved from “the brink of starvation” by local Indian who provided them with corn, dried buffalo, squashes, melons and plums.
            This military expedition was saved from “the brink of starvation” by the local Indians. So Western Oklahoma could be said to have had our own original “Thanksgiving” celebration then, I suppose.
          Family Stories
            Moving forward in time, an ancestor of mine wrote a little about our family. During the Dust Bowl, there was a project called “Indian Pioneer Papers” -- to get old-timers to describe what life was like living in Indian Territory in the early days before statehood. Elderly people were sought out or volunteered and to tell about their youth,  so this era wouldn’t be lost to history. My great uncle said a little something about food.   Quoting him, Living was pretty hard for us as we were poor and the land had to be cleared and broken before we could plant or grow any crops. Everything had to be hauled by wagon from Nocona, in Montague County, Texas [note: they lived near where Duncan, is today, in the Chickasaw Nation] and the roads were only wagon tracks with no bridges on the streams to amount to anything and the bridges which were built would wash away every time there was a flood on the river or creek.
            At first we depended for our food mostly on rabbits, squirrel, fish and other small game. These animals furnished us with meat and we raised a little corn on land which we were able to clear out.
            I have heard my parents tell of a few other foods they ate as children. I was told wild sage was gathered in the fall and used to season pork and other meats. I believe it was also used in a similar manner as we use incense, to make the house smell better. I remember hearing of wild plums and pecans growing on the creek beds of all the streams. I know mother said the wild pecans were like a third crop for them (besides cotton and wheat). There is a local weed that grows all over the place called lambs quarter -- it can be eaten as a green, but needs to be boiled twice and the water thrown out. I have eaten it and it is much like any other green in flavor.
            Corn today is eaten in many varieties -- roasted or boiled right off the cob, canned as a delicious vegetable. You can dry it in the hot sun for long term storage. Dried corn can be boiled where it becomes hominy. Hominy can be ground and boiled, becoming  grits to be eaten as a hot cereal. Dried and ground as corn meal for the making of 2 kinds of bread -- corn bread and a flat fried “corn tortilla“ or as “corn chips“. It can be eaten as a cold cereal such as “corn flakes” and eaten with milk, or as a hot cereal such as grits. We also have the “corn dog” -- corn meal surrounding a hot dog. Don’t forget one unique variety – pop-corn, that can be eaten as a snack at home or at the movies. Is there any vegetable as versatile as corn? I don’t think so.
            Coronado recorded in 1541 that the local Wichita Indians raised “maize”, another word for corn. The Wichita say they traded corn and pumpkin with the Comanche and Kiowa for dried buffalo meat. Since the Kiowa and Comanche raised no gardens, the three tribes seem to have had a sort of symbiotic relationship, all living in the same geographical area. The earliest American expedition in this part of the country was said to have been saved “from the brink of starvation” -- by Indian corn. When my ancestors moved here in the 19th century one of the first things they raised was corn, to supplement their diet. Dad said corn bread helped save his live in the 1930s in the heart of the Great Depression, locally known as the “Dust Bowl".
            I know I haven’t proven there is any nutritional value in “corn”, but then I haven’t looked for proof of it. I hope I have shown how corn helped sustain the local Indians and even my parents during hard times they endured when they were children.
            So although people say corn is not loaded with nutrients, it must contain some nutrients. Many people have in times past, considered it so beneficial that they think it might have saved their lived from actual starvation -- from the indigenous peoples, to the first American military expedition in this part of the country, to my parents during the Depression of the 1930s. The history of our dependence on corn is fairly well documented. Few vegetables are as versatile as corn. It can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable, it can be roasted over a flame ears intact. It is a cereal hot like grits or cold like corn flakes, a bread, and there is even a variety that is “popped“ -- all being delicious with a little butter, salt and pepper.
            I hope I’ve made you appreciate how vital corn was to our earlier American pioneering families as well as our Native populations. Cultivation of corn sustained many generations of American pioneers from our earliest days to the present. It is a distinctly American food.
            I would like for more local people as well as our visiting guests from military families to learn more about the importance corn once held for our society. I hope this makes you hungry enough to go to the store and purchase a few fresh ears, get out the barbecue, and try roasting them. Maybe I’ve made you hungry for some fresh corn bread hot and steaming, fresh out of  the oven, topped with a little butter. I hope so.


  1. Corn and beans together make a "complete protein" meal with all nine essential amino acids. Preparing the corn with alkali water "liberates" the niacin; maybe your ancestors knew this?

    Toss in some greens and I figure you probably have enough to live on for a good long time!

    I love me some pinto beans but never tried eating them with corn. I make them "gallo pinto" style, slow-cooked with onion, pepper, and bay leaf, then fried with rice. Super-cheap, and I could eat it for weeks without getting sick of it, even for breakfast.

    Like my fellow-New Englanders, I mostly eat sweet corn in the summer and corn bread year-round. I always put a layer of corn in the bottom of a shepherd's pie (which can be made from any sort of meat hash, not just beef--it's my favorite way to use up the Thanksgiving turkey).

    We have a family anecdote involving corn--one of my ggg-grandparents, JJ Bailey, was a Confederate soldier who was captured and imprisoned in the North for many months. Family history says he was "half Cherokee," though I'm still trying to sort it all out--his parents were from Abbeville, SC. Anyway, where he was held, the Yankees fed those Southern prisoners grits, which was nice of them, however, our JJ Bailey *hated* grits. (In spite of the objectionable prison food, he made it through the war OK and later became a Baptist minister.)

    Now that I think of it, my mother hated grits too. I like them fine, though I'm more of a home-fries girl, myself.

  2. I was raised on pintos and corn bread. Dad, who was raised during the dust bowl era, said there were days when the only food they had was pintos and corn bread. We never ate grits growing up, although I do eat them now. You are more likely to find Catawba Indians in South Carolina than Cherokee, but I suppose it is possible.