How Early Farmers Grew Corn – Even as Wheat Dominated 19th Century Agriculture



Photo by Reuben Sallows, Goderich Ontario, early 1900s.

This column was published originally in the Ontario Farmer in 2004. Reproduced here with permission.

Early corn in Ontario

Even though it had been the principal crop of aboriginal agriculture for a thousand years, corn played only a minor role in pioneer Ontario. The settlers wanted wheat to make European foods and for export sales.  Spring wheat and, later, winter wheat were planted on the first cleared fields. Water-powered flour mills followed quickly and surplus produce was shipped to Montreal and England.

Only in Essex and Kent Counties in extreme southwestern Ontario was corn grown to a significant extent by immigrant farmers.  While settlers ate some corn-based foods, corn was mainly for pigs and chickens.

Father Louis Hennepin, the first European to describe Niagara Falls, recorded the earliest reference to European agriculture in present-day Ontario – on about 100 acres of land near Fort Frontenac (Kingston) around 1680. “Both the Indian and European corn throve very well,” he wrote, though “the corn was very much spoiled by grasshoppers,” a common result in all the parts of Canada because of “the extreme humidity of that country.”

The first permanent (French) settlers arrived near present-day Windsor in 1749, across the river from Fort Pontchartrain built in 1701 at the present site of Detroit Michigan.  They likely grew corn as did their aboriginal farmer neighbours. More extensive settlement occurred all across Southern Ontario after American independence in 1783.

Corn was grown by “Loyalist” settlers who came to Essex and Kent from the newly formed United States of America after 1783. In 1802, Angus Mackintosh, an Essex agent for the North West Company, informed farmers that he needed more white flint corn, not wheat or yellow “gourd” corn, for northern trading posts. But that was unusual. Wheat was dominant. For many farmers, the crop rotation after clearing forest trees was wheat-wheat-wheat.

Wheat ruled Ontario agriculture until 1865 when the American civil war ended and new US import duties depressed Ontario wheat prices.  Provincial livestock production then flourished. Cheese factories arose everywhere and dairying expanded.  Better-quality cattle were imported and bred.  Wheat was still the main or only grain crop on farms until the early 1900s when production shifted to the Prairies and oats and barley grew in popularity in Ontario. In Kent-Essex, tobacco became the money crop.

The 1881 Report of the Ontario Agricultural Commission devotes 27 pages to wheat, versus four for each of “Indian corn” and oats and barley.  Though grown mainly in southwestern Ontario, small quantities of corn were present elsewhere, including Muskoka and Manitoulin where “Corn does well and is seldom affected by spring frosts,” states the report.

Though the report discusses corn fodder, corn silage is not mentioned.  Nor is it in the extensive “History and Incidents of Indian Corn, and Its Culture” published by William Emerson in the United States in 1878.  But “The Book of Corn” published in 1903 has a full chapter on silage.  Corn silage was apparently produced on a limited scale after 1850, though the first tower silos were only built (in Michigan and Maryland) in 1875. Hand-chopped corn silage was popular in Ontario after 1900 to supplement turnips, carrots and mangolds/mangels grown for winter feed.

Dual-purpose Shorthorn and Ayrshire cattle dominated Ontario livestock in 1881. There were no Ontario Holsteins yet, though present in New York State. There were many sheep – and sheep exports – 100,000 to Britain in 1880 alone.  Pork production was minor except in Kent and Essex where corn was fed. Local corn was sold to distilleries in Walkerville and Amherstburg after 1850.

Early corn in the Thirteen Colonies

Unlike Ontario, corn dominated agriculture in the Thirteen Colonies – for reasons of both circumstance and soil-climate.

The first settlers in Virginia in 1607 lacked skills or interest in farming.  England was to provide the food while they sought natural riches. But the boats didn’t arrive, and kind aboriginals provided corn to prevent them from starving.  Only after two years did settlers learn to grow their own.

The Pilgrims reaching Cape Cod in 1620 expected to buy corn from natives.  Natives soon taught them how to farm. Early settlers elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies learned native corn farming techniques from the beginning.  Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, wrote in 1751 that corn did much better than wheat on the prevalent sandy, drought-susceptible soils of the Atlantic seaboard.  In Pennsylvania and New York where soils are less sandy, wheat was more dominant.

American colonists adapted native farming techniques: they girdled and burned trees; planted corn in hills (versus broadcasting seeding of grain crops in Europe) and stored ears in cribs.  Birds, rodents and weeds plagued colonial crops just as they had for the natives.  However, horses and oxen were now used for tilling soils. Aboriginal farmers had used “no till” planting and hand weeding.

Farmer George Washington reported 12.5 bushels per acre on 75 acres of corn grown in 1800, worth about thirty cents per bushel.  President Thomas Jefferson, also a prominent farmer, wrote about corn growing.

As settlement proceeded westward, corn farmers led the way.  Frontier farmers often grew corn continuously without fertilizer on newly cleared lands.  When infertility depressed yields, they simply moved westward.  Other farmers fertilized corn with manure, fish or crop rotations.

Corn adapted slowly to mechanization

Farming changed little for two centuries after the first arrival of settlers from Europe, but as the nineteenth century unfolded, so did the inventions. There were thousands of new plows and tillage machines. One hundred patents for hand planters before 1869. The first mechanical corn seeders appeared after 1800, but acceptance came slowly. Early mechanical seeders could not plant corn in hills perfectly aligned both ways for cultivation (“horse-hoeing”) for weed control.

Farmers marked fields two ways with light sleds (runners 40-44 inches apart), and then planted three to eight seeds per hill, up to four acres/day, with a “hand jabber” planter. Final stand depended on pest damage. “One seed for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm and one to grow.” Tillers (suckers) were often removed manually.

Though testimonial information (formal research began only about 1870) showed that drilled corn yielded more, check planting remained popular – for both ease of cultivation for weed control and aesthetics. I remember seeing check-planted corn in southwestern Ontario and the US into the 1950s.  Fields with corn hills lining up every direction were sure attractive.

Mechanical planting in properly spaced hills did evolve, thanks to the use of trip wires with regularly spaced knots that were laid across fields to be seeded, but these were awkward to use.

Mechanical harvesting came even more slowly. Early settlers, like natives, harvested ears with husks attached in autumn, and “shucked” them later in community husking bees – major social events. Hand-held bone or wooden “shucking pegs” were the same as those used centuries earlier.

By 1800, corn shocks (stooks) had become popular. The farmer first bound together the tops of plants in four adjacent hills, using stalks, grape vines or elm-bark strips, and then stacked plants from other hills around the outside.  Plants then dried, sometimes until well into winter, when ears were removed. Winter wheat was often inter-seeded between the shocks.  Horse-drawn sleds with stalk-cutting edges, and, later, corn binders, speeded the shocking process in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Stover remaining after ear removal was often used for winter feed.  Though leaves were once collected from immature plants, this largely ended before 1825 because it reduced yield.

Direct harvesting and husking became common.  Horses pulled wagons slowly up the field while farmers removed and shucked the ears, and threw them into wagon boxes.  “Bang boards” above the opposite side of the wagon helped prevent ears from being thrown clear across.

Efforts to design a mechanical corn “dehusker” began before 1850. “Indian Corn and its Culture,” published in 1878, describes a “machine husker” resembling a modern corn picker. But the 1903 “Book of Corn” states, “no practical machine adapted to [field harvesting] has appeared.” The first horse-drawn field pickers arrived around 1900.

Nap King of Pain Court, Ontario, formerly president of King Grain, recalled how his father first bought a tractor-powered corn picker in 1927. “Much better than hand picking,” said Nap.  But both picker and tractor were causes for controversy.  Pickers missed too many ears, critics said.  And tractors compacted the fields!

Mechanical corn picking was hampered by the natural breakage of stalks before harvest – far worse when European corn borer insects appeared about 1920.  Indeed, the acceptance of hybrid corn in the 1930s and 1940s in southwestern Ontario was driven as much by superior standability and machine harvestability as by better yields.

Shelling was equally time consuming.  Hand shelling gave way to hand-powered single-ear  shellers by about 1850.  Larger machine shellers came much later.

As late as World War I, except for “horse power,” North American corn farming largely resembled what native farmers had practiced centuries earlier.  Most of what now constitutes “modern corn technology” had yet to be developed.

Some references:

Fussell, Betty. 1992. The Story of Corn. University of New Mexico Press.

Hamil, Fred C. 1951. The Valley of the Lower Thames, 1640-1850. University of Toronto Press.

Kalm, Peter. 1751. Description of Maize. Translated by M. Oxholm and S. Chase from original in Swedish. Economic Botany 28:105-117, 1974.

Orange Judd Company. 1903. The Book of Corn.

Pegg, Leonard. 1988. Pulling Tassels, A history of seed corn in Ontario. Blenheim (ON) Publishers Ltd.

Reaman, G. Elmore. 1970. A History of Agriculture in Ontario. Volume I. Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd., Aylesbury UK.


How Corn Began

 About 17 years ago, I wrote a series of articles on the history of corn for the Ontario Farmer. With its permission, I plan to reproduce several of them, with minor revision, on this blog site. A couple of the original columns feature historical information already available on the site and so won’t be reproduced here. Future columns will be mainly about corn in Ontario and adjacent parts of North America in years following settlement by immigrant farmers. However, the first is a brief overview of corn’s origins. More information is available in the references listed at the end of the article.


Teosinte ear (Zea mays ssp mexicana) on the left, maize ear on the right, and ear of their F1 hybrid in the center (photo by John Doebley, University of Wisconsin)

The real gold discovered by Columbus in 1492 in the New World was a plant that Caribbean Indians called “Mahiz.” Maize seeds were brought back to Spain, planted and the new crop spread quickly.  Within a generation, it covered much of southern Europe and parts of Africa.  Soon after, it reached India, China and Southeast Asia.

The high, yield and ability of maize/corn to produce several hundred seeds per seed planted – far greater than with Old World grains – made it popular.

Corn flourished, though details were rarely recorded.  Indeed, seventeenth-century botanists identified Turkey or Africa as its place of origin. “Turkish wheat” or “Guinea wheat” were common names. Some writers linked corn to Biblical scriptures, proclaiming a Mediterranean origin.

A treasured book of mine, “Le Maïs ou Blé de Turquie,” first published in Bordeaux France in 1785, debates whether the source was Old World or New. With time, the evidence became clearer: It was the New World, specifically Mexico, where corn began.

The story begins with arrival of humans in Mexico sometime before 10,000 BC.  The first people in Mexico, as in most of the Americas, were big game hunters. But as human populations grew and large animals became scarce or extinct (mammoths, indigenous horses), people in Mexico became more dependent on wild plants for food. With time, they selected preferred plant types and eventually learned about planting.

Beans, squash and gourds were among the first “farmed” crops.  They also ate grass seeds such as Setaria (foxtail). Eventually they tried teosinte.

Teosinte is a grassy weed growing in certain semi-arid valleys of Mexico and northern Guatemala.  Teosinte plants exist as both annuals and perennials and look like well-tillered corn, with male flowers at the top and female flowers in leaf axils.

The seed and ear structures, however, are very unlike corn. Seeds are encased in hard shells – a bit like buckwheat – and grow in a single spike that shatters at maturity. There are many spikes per leaf axillary node.

Because of the different seed structure, many scientists rejected teosinte as the parent for corn when this was first proposed sometime before 1900. Some still argue that the true ancestor is a now-extinct plant, and that teosinte is only a relative.

But the case for teosinte is strong.  Corn and teosinte have the same chromosome number, they cross easily, and resulting seeds are fertile.  Genetic studies have shown that the key differences between teosinte and corn involve only about five major genes.

Teosinte seed casings must be removed and/or softened before eating. Some researchers suggest that early diners popped the seeds by heating – like popcorn.  Perhaps seed casings were removed using grinding stones. Or teosinte seeds may have been softened in water and then eaten directly with hulls spit out after partial chewing (like sunflower seeds). Eventually someone found a mutant with no seed cases, or softer ones, and teosinte became a better food crop.

The difference between a single and multiply double kernel rows also involves mutant genes. One gene permitted teosinte kernels to grow in two alternating rows, somewhat like heads of rye or two-row barley.  Other mutations meant two-row teosinte became four-row corn – and later eight-row corn.  The latter is still grown in Mexico, known by names such as “Maiz de Ocho.” (The number of kernel rows is always even since two seeds develop at each node on the compressed “rachis” or cob in all types of corn except teosinte where only one kernel develops.  Modern Ontario hybrids usually have 14, 16, 18 or 20 kernel rows.)

Natural mutation and human selection changed teosinte/corn from having several spikes per axil to only one large ear.  However, the original teosinte trait still exists in modern corn.  If you examine an ear of corn at silking, you’ll find several tiny ears – each with its own minute kernel initials – in the axils of husk leaves.  If the main ear does not pollinate properly, the side ears will sometimes enlarge and produce silks.

The first archeological evidence of corn dates back 7000 years to Tehuacán caves near Mexico City containing cobs, about one inch long, which once bore 50-60 kernels in four or eight kernel rows per ear.  The initial steps in domestication likely occurred as much as 2000 years earlier.

Teosinte still crosses naturally with corn where teosinte grows wild near Mexican cornfields.  Cross pollination occurred regularly during early days of domestication, adding new genes to the corn genetic base.

A rapid expansion in corn ear size occurred about 1500-1000 BC.  Higher yields triggered a boom in human cultural development. Corn served as the base – both nutritional and religious – for several Mexican societies including the successive Olmec, Mayan, Toltec and Aztec civilizations between 1200 BC and the time of Spanish conquest. Corn also dominated life for the Incas in South America.

The first evidence of corn in the United States was found in caves in New Mexico, containing corn ear remnants from about 2500 BC.  Corn was grown extensively from 0 to 1400 AD throughout Arizona and New Mexico using sophisticated irrigation schemes. These major southwestern civilizations ended for unknown reasons about 200-400 years before the Spanish conquest, leaving only the building ruins that are so intriguing to tourists today.  However, some present-day Hopi, Navajo and other southwestern Indian communities still grow corn using traditional varieties. (Blue corn is popular.)

From Mexico and the southwestern United States, corn spread slowly north and east by various avenues including a dominant route along the Gulf coast to the Mississippi and thence north. Substantial settlements existed at various times up the Mississippi.

A spectacular site is the former city of Cahokia, near St. Louis, where up to 30,000 people lived before 1400 AD in a settlement extending over six square miles.  Imagine how much corn would have been required at an estimated per-capita annual consumption of 8.5 bushels!

Most native corn in the Mississippi valley and southeastern United States had soft, long, thin, indented white kernels, commonly called “gourdseed” corn by settlers. Ears were fat and squatty, often containing more than one thousand kernels in 16 to 36 kernel rows.

By contrast, the indigenous corn grown in Ontario, in New England, the northern Great Plains and in states bordering the Great Lakes, had round, yellow or white, flint kernels, generally with only eight or ten kernel rows on long, thin cobs.

U.S. east coast settlers grew both flint corn favoured by northern aboriginals and gourdseed varieties from the south.  Eventually the two were crossed to form the familiar dent corn that now dominates North American agriculture.

The plant now grown worldwide is known as “maiz” in Latin America, “maïs” in France and Germany, “blé d’inde” in Quebec, “maize” in most English-speaking countries and by many other names elsewhere – including “corn” in English-speaking Canada and the United States. The double name, “Indian corn,” once used widely to distinguish maize from old world corns such as wheat and rye is rarely used. (“Indian corn” now means only a particular type of multi-coloured flint.)

Corn has been called the New World’s greatest gift to humankind. Little did Christopher Columbus realize the real treasure he had encountered in the New World was the few corn ears he took back home.

Some readily accessible references on origins of corn:

Carroll, Sean B. 2010. Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years. New York Times.

Doebley, John. 2004. The Genetics of Maize Evolution. Annual Review of Genetics.

Edmeades, G.O.; Trevisan, W.; Prasanna, B.M.; Campos, H. 2017. Tropical maize (Zea mays L.). In: Campos, H.; Caligari, P.D.S. (eds). Genetic improvement of tropical crops.

Fedoroff, Nina. 2004. Ancestors of Science – Prehistoric GM Corn. Science.

Katz, Brigit. 2018. Rethinking the Corny History of Maize. Smithsonian Magazine.

National Geographic. 2009. Corn Domesticated From Mexican Wild Grass 8,700 Years Ago.