History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.


     What were the early Indian foods like? What was their method of cooking? An early account by Col. James Smith writes of the food customs of the Native Americans as experienced during his capture in the years 1755 thru 1759.  

     Col. Smith was a Scotch-Irish native of Pennsylvania, but later in life became a resident of Kentucky where he was licensed as a minister of the Presbyterian Church.  

     Col. Smith's account of the early Indian foods reads that they feasted upon "venison and green corn, boiled in large brass kettles, and eaten from a large bowl with a wooden spoon; of a kind of rough brown potato, which grows spontaneously; the potatoes, peeled and dipped in raccoon's fat, taste nearly like our sweet potatoes."  

     They also had "a kind of hominy, made of green corn dried, and beans mixed to- gether." The statement "green corn dried," was evidence of early corn-drying procedures in Ohio among the primitive Indians.  

      Hominy was occasionally served by itself, without bread, salt, or other additives. Col. Smith says that "sometimes we had bread made of Indian corn meal, pounded on a hominy block and mixed with boiled beans, and baked in cakes under the ashes." He writes that when the warriors went on a military campaign, "all we had to live on was corn pounded into meal of small hominy; this they boiled in water." 

     Corn and beans were the Indians staple crop, although Smith mentions tobacco, squash-skins and gourds; no mention was made as to where the crops were grown.

     Feasting or starving was described by Smith regarding the Indians. He writes that the season of greatest reward was in the Fall when their crop of green corn was used for roasting and boiling. At this festival the women would bring in the ears of corn and other field products, while the hunters would supply meat from the forest. An offering was made to the Great Spirit during this time. 

     Hunting was essential in the Winter. Their supply of corn and other vegetable foods were eventually exhausted. The hunter would ever-so discreetly walk onto the hardened snow crust, careful not to scare away the game. But, even though all precautions were attempted, the game would slip away, and for days the Indian would scarcely have a mouthful to eat. 

     Col. Smith, in the winter of 1757-58, made a trip with some Indians on their long winter's hunt. They made a bark canoe and started down the Darby Creek (then called the Olentangy) for the Scioto River in Southern Ohio. The water level of the creek was so low that the party had to wait for a rain. The chief made a prayer to the Great Spirit for rain while in waiting. Smith translated this prayer into English. He writes: "Grant that on this voyage we may frequently kill bears as they cross the Scioto and the Sandusky. Grant that we may kill plenty of turkeys along the banks to stew with our fat bear meat.

     "Grant that rain may come to raise the Olentangy about two or three feet that we may pass safely down to the Scioto without danger to our canoe being wrecked on the rocks. And now, O Great Being, thou knowest how matters stand.

     "Thou knowest I am a great lover of tobacco, and tho I know not when I may get any more, I now make a present of this, the last I have, unto thee as a free burnt offering. Therefore I expect thou wilt hear and grant these requests and I thy servant, will return the thanks and love for thy gift."

     Col. Smith remarks that the rains came in a few days, and so raised the waters of the Olentangy and the party soon reached the waters of the Scioto. The supply of furs accumulated on the hunt was taken down the Sandusky to Lake Erie and traded to the dealers at Detroit.

     The Indians at this time already had the white man's gun, his iron tomahawk and brass kettle.

     Henry Hudson, in 1609, sailed up the great river to New York, which later bore his name, and observed Native Americans who had never before seen a white man. Some of the natives were friendly and some were not. Hudson recorded some 150 years before Col. Smith an occasion of one of the feasts of the more friendly tribes. Hudson writes:

     "I sailed to the shore in one of their canoes with an old man who was the chief of a tribe consisting of forty men and seventeen women. These I saw there in a house well constructed of oak bark and circular in shape, so that it had the appearance of being well built, with an arched roof.

     "It contained a great quantity of maize and beans of last year's growth, and there lay near the house for the purpose of drying enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields. On our coming into the house, two mats were spread out to sit upon, and immediately some food was served in well made red wooden bowls; two men were dispatched with bows and arrows in quest of game, who soon after brought in a pair of pigeons which they had shot.

     "They likewise killed a fat dog and skinned it in great haste with shells which they had got out of the water. They supposed that I would remain with them for the night, but I returned after a short time on board the ship."

     Another historian references that the fat dog mentioned in Hudson's account possibly took the place of the fatted calf. He says that the dog seems to have been among the Indian tribes when the continent was first discovered. Taming it could possibly have been used as a food source rather than joining in the hunt.

     Natural fats were an essential item in the Indians cooking procedures in the colder climates. Without milk products, and few vegetable oils, fats were collected from the beaver, raccoon and the bear.

     Col. Smith describes the work of the squaws in the latter end of March as frying out the last of the bear's fat and making vessels to hold it. These containers were made by pulling the skin from a deer's neck without ripping, one of which would hold about four or five gallons; in these vessels they carried their bear's oil. One practice was that the Indians preserved fat by stuffing it into the entrails of large animals.

     Salt making was not common among the mound building tribes. Col. Smith writes that he was taken to a buffalo lick somewhere in eastern Ohio where the Indians killed several buffalo, and in their small brass kettles they made about half a bushel of salt.

     Evidence of the Indians manner of making salt or sugar by boiling, before the white man supplied their metallic vessels, is not found. The primitive method of boiling was by stones heated hot and placed in the water collected into holes in the ground or in rocks, or into wooden vessels.

     Much attention was paid to the making of maple sugar. The Indian sometimes traveled many miles for this purpose. Col. Smith describes the making of sugar in Ohio in February 1756. Bark from the elm trees was peeled by the tribal women and made into 100 vessels each holding about two gallons. Sugar water was then collected into these containers from notches made in sugar maple trees. Vessels that would hold about four gallons apiece were made for carrying the water from the trees.

     Two large brass vessels were used that would hold about fifteen gallons each; smaller vessels were used in which they boiled the water. The sugar water could not be boiled as fast as it ran, so they made other vessels of bark that would hold about 100 gallons of the water. The manner in which these containers were made water tight by the women were the same methods used in making their bark canoes.

     Maple sugar was put into bear's fat by the Indians in which they dipped their roasted venison. Sugar was also used with their corn whether green or in the form of hominy. The Indians mixed equal quantities of maple sugar and powdered corn, this delicacy supplying a delightful treat while on their journeys.

     Edible roots and herbs were developed and used by the Native Americans, of which the white man knew nothing. It was said that an Indian could flourish in the woods with only a knife and tomahawk, and would fatten where a wolf would starve.

     Edible acorns and an abundance of hickory and chinkapin nuts were consumed. One writer says he saw over 100 bushels of shell-bark hickory nuts collected by one family of Creeks. These nuts were eaten raw and some pounded into pieces and put into boiling water, thus producing the oily part of the nut which they called hickory milk.

     Names such as hickory, chinkapin, maize, potato, tobacco, squash, hominy, succotash, samp, pone, tomato and chocolate, the last two being from the Mexican language, are all derivations of the Native American tongue.

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