How and When Corn Came to Canada, and How it was Grown

Champlain’s Missed Rendezvous


It’s one of the most significant missed rendezvous in Canadian history – and one of the grandest journeys. Samuel de Champlain, explorer and champion of a fledgling French Canada, had been late for a gathering of native leaders near what was to become Montreal in the spring of 1615. He rushed to catch up with them using two canoes and 10 skilled, mostly indigenous, canoers. They paddled and portaged up the Ottawa River, across Lake Nippissing and down the French River to Georgian Bay – then down the length of its rocky eastern shore with its 30,000 granite islands and wind-blown, scraggy jack-pine trees. After 800 kilometers in 23 days, they arrived suddenly at what must have seemed like an Eden – good farmland and corn farmers in what’s now called Huronia in northern Simcoe County.

That transition in geography is just as unique today as it was then – as anyone who drives south on Ontario Highway 400 from Port Severn into Simcoe County – from a Precambrian landscape to quality farmland – can attest.

This would not have been Champlain’s first encounter with corn farming. Some indigenous farming was done on modest scale by nations along the Ottawa River through which he had travelled. He likely saw corn fields during his historically significant trip to Lake Champlain country in 1609 where he and his companions encountered and shot several Mohawk warriors. But the scale and grandeur of farming in Huronia would still have been a huge surprise.

(After reaching Huronia, Champlain became part of a large group of Huron and Algonkian nation warriors who attacked an Onondaga town near what’s now Syracuse, New York – a raid which was actually the reason for the missed appointment in Montreal and a fascinating story in itself – but I won’t enlarge here. You can read about it all in the classic, Champlain’s Dream, by D. H. Fischer)

Champlain spent that autumn and winter in Huronia visiting about 20 Huron and Petun towns/villages, who collectively called themselves, ‘Wendat.’ His detailed records of what he saw constitute much of what we know about this remarkable farming society during the mostly pre-European-contact era (“mostly” because some European goods were present in interior indigenous communities decades before the arrival of the first European explorers, thanks to well-developed indigenous trade networks).

Champlain estimated that the Huron confederacy numbered about 30,000 people, including towns as large as 5000 residents. When combined with an estimated 15,000 Petun people living just a few km to the west, this represents a Wendat population about as large as what exists in northern Simcoe County today.

These communities were all based on the growing of corn – huge quantities of corn in huge fields. Champlain reported seeing fields as large as 1000 acres and Gabriel Sagard, who wrote about Huronia 15 years later, said, “[The large fields were] the reason why going alone sometimes from one village to another I usually lost my way in these cornfields, more than in the prairies and forest.” The Wendat grew corn in quantities sufficient to produce food reserves for two or more years and also for trade with neighbouring non-farming Algonkian nations – trading for furs and materials such as copper from near Lake Superior. The Wendat did grow plants other than corn (primarily beans, squash, sunflower and tobacco) and their meals sometimes contained meat and fish, but their diet was dominated by corn.

I’ll come back to Huronia later, but first I want to shift back to an era 600 years or more earlier.

The Beginnings


Most readers will know about the transition of wild teosinte into corn (or maize) in Mexico about 5000 BC. From this beginning, corn culture moved slowly northward, entering the southwestern United States in about 2000 BC. It became the basic food for several native societies that flourished in New Mexico, Arizona and adjacent states up until about 1000 AD.

From the southwestern United States and/or northeastern Mexico, corn worked its way north and east, and especially along the Mississippi River system. The largest example of a Mississippian, corn-based civilization is the former city of Cahokia in Illinois, near St. Louis. It flourished from about 1000 to 1400 AD and likely had a population in excess of 25,000 people. Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico at the time – indeed, matching or exceeding some major European cities in size. This was a city and civilization based on corn, but supplemented with some other food crops.

There were many other smaller but significant corn-based communities elsewhere along the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river system. Corn culture spread up the Ohio River valley – then via the Alleghany River into the present New York State – and from there a few kilometers north into the present-day Ontario.

Estimates as to when corn entered Ontario vary. Some say as early as 500 AD. Georges Sioui, in his book Huron Wendat, The Heritage of the Circle, refers to a radiocarbon dating to 615 AD of corn residue found near Rice Lake Ontario. A summary by the Ontario Archaeological Society claims the presence of corn in Ontario near the end of what’s known as the Middle Woodland period, i.e., 700-900 AD. There seems to be broad agreement that corn’s dominance as a food source was well established in Ontario by 1000, AD. Corn was grown in a sporadic manner for many years before that.

This raises a couple of questions. The first is how they grew corn in a sporadic manner. The suggestion is that they planted it and tended it for initial weeks, and then came back for the harvest – perhaps after a hunting or fishing venture elsewhere. A Wikipedia contribution on pre-historic agriculture in the US Great Plains describes how Pawnee tribes planted and tended corn until knee high, then left for buffalo hunting elsewhere, to return for harvest in September.

I cannot imagine that working in Ontario where small fields of corn within forests would have been decimated – just as they would now – by birds, raccoons, squirrels, deer and other animal pests, as well as over-run by weeds. My guess is that corn would have required decent season-long husbandry throughout the full season in order to ensure anything much at harvest. It’s not clear how this occurred during those many years of introduction.

The second issue is timing. I have read several reports from credible historical state sources along the Mississippi River that all say corn was not a significant source of food until around 1000 AD. That’s even true for eastern Texas where the Caddo culture bloomed beginning in about 1000 AD. So two more questions: 1) why did it take so long for corn to get from New Mexico or northeastern Mexico to eastern Texas and the Mississippi? And 2), if corn only flourished along the Mississippi in years just prior to 1000 AD, how could it show up earlier in Ontario?

The first question is not relevant to this column but the second is. I can only guess that statements about corn in Ontario before about 900 AD are suspect – or that earlier corn sites in the Mississippi water shed may have been destroyed, perhaps by flooding. The first explanation sounds more likely.

In any case, corn was well established in southern Ontario by 1000 AD and indigenous people were highly dependent on corn for food, centuries before their first contact with white man.

Ontario Corn Farming After 1000 AD


Thanks to the efforts of Ontario archeologists, we actually know a great deal about indigenous peoples in Ontario beginning 1000 AD. Most of southern Ontario and up-state New York was populated by people who have been collectively called ‘Iroquoian.’ The Ontario Iroquoian were closely related to other indigenous nations in states south of New York, but were surrounded on the west (Michigan and extreme southwestern Ontario), north (about everything north of Huronia) and east (Ottawa Valley, most or all of Quebec, Atlantic Canada and New England) by a much larger group of nations known collectively as Algonkian. The Algonkian people in Michigan and New England were also corn farmers, but in Ontario and Quebec they were dependent (with a few exceptions) on hunting and fishing – and on trade for corn with nations like the Wendat.

(A note on indigenous names is in order here: I am not aware of any reaction to ‘Algonkian,’ but ‘Iroquois’ and ‘Iroquoian’ seem to be universally disliked by those so labelled. ‘Haudenosaunee’ or ‘People of the Longhouse’ are what I’m advised by a Mohawk friend to use to refer to the collective Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora members of the Six Nations Confederacy. But when I asked him about the inclusion of the Wendat and other such nations, he had no advice. Wendat author Sioui recommends ‘Nandoueks’ to refer to the larger grouping, though I note he says it refers to “Wendats, Iroquois and other ethnically related Native groups,” which doesn’t solve my problem. I’ve not seen ‘Nandouek’ used elsewhere; hence, my ‘solution’ is to use ‘Iroquoian’ for the collective but not ‘Iroquois’ for any of its component groups.)

Much is made of the ‘Three Sisters’ – corn, beans and squash – in North American indigenous agriculture; however, archeologists report no indication of beans or squash throughout southern Ontario until at least 1400 AD, and only one archeological report of a single sunflower seed before then (dating to about 1350). Tobacco, used for ceremonial/religious purposes, arrived in Ontario about as early as corn.

Much of southern Ontario was unoccupied for extended periods of time and the occupied areas changed over the centuries. At the time of Champlain’s visits, in addition to the Huron and Petun, there were about 40,000 people known as Neutrals to the French – or Attawandarons to the Wendat – who lived roughly within the triangle between Oakville, St. Thomas and the Niagara River. Although information about the Attawandarons is much sparser than for the Wendat, it’s clear that their culture was almost identical.

There is ample evidence of Iroquoian culture north of Lake Ontario and into eastern Ontario during years prior to Champlain – people were closely related either to the Wendat, or to the Onondaga and Oneida people concentrated southeast and east of Lake Ontario.

When French explorer Jacques Cartier visited the sites of present-day Quebec City and Montreal in 1534-1535, he encountered corn-growing people who are now considered to have been members of the Onondaga nation. However, there was no sign of them when Champlain arrived about 70 years later; they are presumed to have been decimated by European diseases and/or warfare with Algonkian nations to the north.

Iroquoian Corn Culture


From F.W. Waugh. 1916. Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation

There is a good amount of available information on the culture and nutrition of Iroquoian nations, both from Europeans associated with the Huron people (Récollet and Jesuit missionaries as well as various visitors who wrote), and from similar writings about the Six Nations in New York State (especially the Seneca people who lived southeast of Buffalo).  Details on how that corn was grown and on the many dozens of food dishes based thereon, are well described in two historically important books – by A.C. Parker, NY State Museum, 1910, and F.W. Waugh, National Museum of Canada, 1916. (Details are provided below.)

They grew flint, dent, sweet and pop corn with the occasional mutant ear of pod corn as well (developed glumes around each seed), and both white and coloured. The men cleared the land by girdling trees and burning the dead tree skeletons a year or two later. Except for that, corn farming was done by women with help from children and slaves. (There is not much information in what I’ve read about slaves other than to acknowledge their existence; I’ve guessing that their numbers were quite small.) Corn seeds were planted, several at a time, into holes three feet or more apart. The seed was often treated with a water solution containing extracts of several wild plants to discourage crows.

Harvesting extended over many weeks, beginning with green ears including sweet corn in August, and continuing with the collection of either husk-covered ears or whole plants from which ears were later removed. The husks were pulled back and used to hang the ears from many poles or racks under roofs inside the longhouses. When the seed was dried, the ears were shelled and kernels stored in large bark-lined bins inside the long houses. Corn was also stored in underground storage bins lined with bark and/or grass and in aboveground corn cribs.

The quantity of stored ears/grain was in the thousands of bushels. References listed below provide ample details on planting and harvesting, and the many ceremonies and religious events associated with both. However, there is almost nothing on weed control. Perhaps there was not much weeding done. There are descriptions of how fields were sometimes burned after harvest or before planting in springtime for pest/weed control, and of how dead weeds from the previous year were cut off and removed at planting time.

Worth noting is that these folks were totally into no tillage, the only tillage being the opening of holes for seed planting with a sharpened stick, a piece of deer antler or something similar. Even the most ardent no-till farmer in the 21st century does more tillage at seeding time than that.


From A.C.Parker. 1010. Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants

Decimation of Wendat and Attawandaron in 1649-1651

This culture flourished in Huronia and among the Attawandaron until 1649-1651 when the Wendat and Attawandaron communicates were attacked and annihilated by the Five Nation Confederacy from New York State (later to become Six Nations when the Tuscarora nation from North Carolina moved north). Although these were all Iroquoian people, there had been long-term hatred between Ontario- and New York-based nations. The attack was instigated partly because of that and partly because of a need for more beaver pelts for trade to Europeans. (The Wendat blocked direct trade between the Five Nation Confederacy and Algonkian nations to the north.)

The Wendat and Attawandaron numbers were badly weakened at the time by deaths caused by European diseases. Also significant was a split within Wendat society caused by the conversion of some of them to Christianity by Jesuits. (Converts were encouraged to avoid contact with those who weren’t.) In any case, after about 1651, the Wendat and Attawandaron communities in southern Ontario were no more. A few of them went to a new Lorette reserve near Quebec City, some to the Walpole First Nations near Wallaceburg. Some ended up in the Wyandot Reserve in Oklahoma. Some were absorbed by the Five Nations themselves, either as citizens or slaves. Only their memory remains in Huronia and the Attawandaron lands to the south.

In the decades to follow, some Iroquoian settlements were established in southern Ontario, especially along the north shore of Lake Ontario; the present Toronto and Prince Edward County were two sites. These were subsequently driven out before 1700 by Algonkian nations from the north, especially the Ojibwa who were known in the Toronto-Hamilton-Guelph area as Mississauga.


The Ojibwa were not farmers, at least not initially, and their culture in southern Ontario was mostly one of hunting and fishing. However, a series of land transfer agreements after 1780 meant that the Ojibwa people ended up in a number of mostly small reserves with limited potential for hunting. Though the land on most of these reserves is not well suited to farming, concerted efforts by government-appointed ‘Indian agents’ to promote agriculture meant that many Ojibwa people became farmers to some extent.

Six Nations Come to Ontario

The final chapter of indigenous farm culture in Ontario involves the Six Nations. In 1779, US army troops directed by General Sullivan and sent by George Washington destroyed the corn fields of about 40 Six Nations towns/villages in western New York State. (Washington accused the Six Nations of aiding the British though history suggests they were, on balance, neutral.) The resulting starvation forced the people to move near Fort Niagara on the east side of the Niagara River near Lake Ontario, to secure food supplies from the British. That relocation included temporary settlement in what’s now Ontario, west of the Niagara River. After the US War of Independence, Six Nations peoples were granted land along Ontario’s Grand River, and they settled at and southeast of the site of present city of Brantford. Some also settled in the Tyendinaga reserve near Belleville and on reserves near Cornwall Ontario, Montreal, and along the Thames River between London and Chatham Ontario.

The story of these settlements has been well described in many other places (including Arthur Ray’s book, I Have Lived Here Since The World Began, An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People) and will not be repeated here. The Six Nations brought their corn-based culture with them and became well-respected farmers in Ontario on arrival. For a number of reasons, farming and corn growing diminished in the Six Nations reserves over the decades, but there has been a renaissance underway since the year 2000 – also a fascinating story, but beyond the scope of this article.

The European settlers in Ontario largely ignored corn except as a forage (silage) crop in most of the province, preferring to grow the grain crops that they had known in Europe (the exception being a few counties in extreme southwestern Ontario where corn remained dominant).

Then, starting about 1960, there was a resurgence in interest in corn in Ontario and within a couple of decades, it became, once again, the dominant grain crop in the province. Hence, the second millennium ended in Ontario just as did the first – with corn the dominant grain crop – albeit with a few changes in technology over those ten centuries.

Western Canada

Finally a note about corn in western Canada: Corn culture spread up the Missouri River Valley just as it did up the Ohio in years around and after 1000 AD. Corn was grown by the Mandan nation in the Dakotas, though with no evidence thus far of it being grown in prehistoric times in Manitoba. Wikipedia cites a reference stating that corn was grown by indigenous people at the mouth of the Red River, north of Winnipeg in 1790, a decade before the start of the Red River Settlement, though after the first visits by European explorers and fur traders.

Key References:

Cornelius, C. 1999. Iroquois Corn in a Culture-Based Curriculum. State University of New York Press.

Fischer, D.H. 2009 Champlain’s Dream. Vintage Canada.

Ontario Archeology Society. The Archaeology of Ontario: A Summary.

Parker, A.C. 1910. Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants. New York State Museum. (Reproduced by Iroqrafts, Iroquois Publications, 1983 and 1994.)

Schmalz, P.S.  1991. The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario. University of Toronto Press.

Ray, A.J. 1996. I Have Lived Here Since the World Began, An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People. Lester Publishing.

Sioui, G.E. 1999. Huron Wendat, The Heritage of the Circle. UBC Press. (English edition, original published in French, 1994, by Les Presses de l’Université Laval).

Waugh, F.W. 1916. Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation. National Museums of Canada. (Facsimile edition, 1973, and reproduced by Iroqrafts, Iroquois Publications, 1991).

White, R. 1985. Ontario 1610-1985. Dundurn Press.

Wright, J.V. 1966. The Ontario Iroquois Tradition. Bulletin 210. National Museums of Canada. (Facsimile edition in 1973.)

Some good places for information:

Iroqrafts, Oshweken, Ontario.

Huronia Museum, Midland Ontario,

Crawford Lake Iroquoian Village, near Campbellville, Ontario.

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