You can call it what you will – maize, Indian corn, hard-shell corn or cornmeal corn – but this once wild member of the grass family, native to central Mexico, is one of the most important things to come out of the New World. Originally, its seed head, or cob, of which there was only one to a plant, was about an inch long. After countless generations of careful artificial selection by the indigenous people of the Americas, which occurred across centuries, this little grass with its energy-packed seed head became one of a number of critical factors impacting cultural success in the New World. Those who possessed it, and understood the intricacies of its cultivation, were able to add agriculture to their survival repertoire a mixed bundle of food procurement strategies that led to a better chance of both individual and community success. These folks were agricultural geniuses who took a simple grass plant and modified it across time into a nation builder.
The Narragansett people here in South County fully realized how important maize was to their health and well-being. Indeed, its story was an integral part of their nature-based belief system. Every Narragansett child knew the legend of “the Gift” – how their creator spirit, Cautantowwit, sent them maize in the beak of his messenger bird, the crow. It was the reason that young Narragansett children guarded the fields and only shooed the crows away; no Narragansett would ever kill a crow.
The Narragansett people accepted “the Gift” and used sustainable strategies to encourage its growth and maintain its yield. This they called the “Three Sisters.” They planted maize in a mound, a few kernels along with a small fish, now called an alewife, for fertilizer. Maize was the first sister and as she grew, the Narragansett planted the second, a hard shelled-bean, which they trained to climb up the trellis-like corn stalk. At that same time they planted the third sister, one of a variety of squash, similar to today’s acorn squash, pumpkins and gourds, which they trained to grow around the mound; the squash’s big leaves shading the mound to minimize evaporation.
The selection of these specific three crops was well thought out and based upon generations of trial and error. All three of these foodstuffs were protected from mold, insects and varmints by a hard shell. In this time long before refrigeration, these foods could be stored in specially designed lined pits in the ground and last throughout the winter, guaranteeing nutritional meals for the tribe almost year round. And this symbiotic planting strategy worked perfectly in the environment that was southern New England. The crops did well, and in turn the Narragansett thrived. Think about it; these people were the architects of a complex agricultural strategy that brought them success and a good life. A child born into this world benefited from the success of this planting strategy.
The Narragansett settled for the most part in areas specifically chosen to help assure this success. These places were on the margins between two ecosystems; — one water-based one, along a river or large inland freshwater body or along the various protected coves and inlets of Narragansett Bay, the other a forest edge, a place suited for planting the Three Sisters. Food, both fin and shell fish, could be reaped from the river, pond or bay and, supplemented by the Three Sisters and other gathered plant products of field and forest, helped fill the nutritional needs of the tribe members.
Each season the planting areas were cleared using a very carefully monitored slow burn. It involved just enough smoldering to turn vegetative matter into fertilizer for soil replenishment; too hot a fire scorched the soil and ruined it for planting. The Narragansett knew all this, just as they knew the cycle of the alewives, it was critical; It was agriculture.
These villages were located in proximity to the bay in places like the recently discovered Salt Pond coastal village site in Narragansett, along the coves and inlets near Wickford, Hamilton, Rome Point and Quidnessett. They could also be found in the riverine margin areas in Charlestown and South Kingstown, near Devils Foot Rock in North Kingstown and out in the farming regions of Slocum.
By 1524, the accepted “first contact” date between the English and the Narragansett people, the tribe was so populous and successful that not only was the western shore of Narragansett Bay on numerous occasions specifically identified as the most densely populated area in what was to become the colonies, it was also noted as being extensively cleared for agriculture.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, in a 1524 letter, describes it in this fashion: “We frequently went five to six leagues into the interior, and found it as pleasant as I can possibly describe, and suitable for every kind of cultivation – grain, wine, or oil. For there the fields extend for twenty-five to thirty leagues; they are open and free of any obstacles or trees, and so fertile that any kind of seed would produce excellent crops ...” And, you see, sadly, as the Bard so aptly said, “Therein lies the rub.” This extraordinary agricultural success contributed to the very downfall of these people.
In spite of their willingness to not only, in a controlled fashion, share this land with the colonists, but also to share the knowledge of “the Gift” from Cautantowwit (think back to your elementary school Pilgrim and Squanto story here), it just wasn’t enough for those colonists. They coveted all that cleared farmland, from the tip of Cape Cod to the shores of South County, the English interlopers wanted the land that the native peoples occupied. This more than anything else, this land envy, this agriculturally motivated greed, was a primary driver behind King Philip’s War, the conflagration that severely impacted the Narragansett, the “people of the small point” (the west side of Narragansett Bay).