Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Indian Agriculture and Foods
Nature Bulletin No. 387-A   September 19, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Most of the Indian tribes east of the Great Plains were part-time farmers. Some of them cultivated sunflowers, giant ragweed, canary grass and pigweed for their seeds, which they used as food. Many grew tobacco. But corn, beans and squash -- wherever the climate permitted - - were the principal crops. There were several varieties of beans. They ate both the seeds and rinds of some dozens of kinds of squash and pumpkin. When game was not abundant there was a wealth of wild fruits, berries, and many kinds of wild plants with edible leaves, seeds, or roots. Corn, however, was the ' staff of life" and they depended on corn, beans and squash -- "the three sisters" -- for year-round food.

The Iliniwek nation, called "Illinois " by the French, were typical. They had permanent villages where the squaws had established cornfields, using crude tools such as sharpened hardwood sticks, elk antlers, shoulder bones of elk or buffalo, and large mussel shells, to break and cultivate the ground. In the summer, after the crops were growing well, and again in winter after they had been gathered and stored in pits, the whole group would move to some wilder part of the country, where they would spend from six to twelve weeks hunting all kinds of animals.

The division of labor was really very fair. To the women fell the duties of caring for the children, tending the crops, erecting the habitation, cooking, preparing the skins, making garments, and fashioning the baskets and crude pottery. To the men were allotted the tasks of hunting, fishing, trapping, defending the camp, and making war -- all of which were serious business.

In 1792, in Philadelphia, was published an interesting account of three years of travel, by a Capt. Jonathan Carver, in the Northwest Territory. He observed that they boiled wild rice; ate the flesh of bear, buffalo, elk, deer, beaver and raccoon roasted or boiled the "dry" flesh of deer together with the fat juicy flesh of bear; had no milk but drank the broth of boiled meat: and made no use of salt or spices. They ate maple sugar by itself and some used it for seasoning. "They also have several species of MELON or PUMPKIN. which by some are called squashes, and which serve many nations partly as a substitute for bread. Of these there is the round, the craneneck, the small flat, and the large oblong squash. The smaller sorts being boiled, were eaten during the summer as vegetables: and are all of a pleasing flavor. The craneneck which greatly excels all others, are usually hung up for a winter's store, and in this manner preserved for several months. "

"Whilst their corn is in the milk, as they term it, that is, just before it begins to ripen, they slice off the kernels from the cob to which they grow, and knead them into a paste. . . They parcel it out into cakes and enclosing them in leaves of the basswood tree, place them in hot embers, where they are soon baked. And better flavored bread I never eat in any country. "

"One dish, however, which answers nearly the same purpose as bread, is in use among the Ottagaumies, (the Foxes), the Saukies, and the more eastern nations, where Indian corn grows. . . This is composed of their unripe corn as before described, and beans in the same state, boiled together with bear's flesh, the fat of which moistens the pulse and renders it beyond comparison delicious. They call this food Succotash".

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