top of page

ESSAY Corn: America’s Backbone

Disclosure: This was a College Research Paper where we had to pull inspiration for our midterm and final essays from a book titled “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. In an attempt to stand out from the copious amounts of researched papers involving grassfed cattle, free range chickens, organic, non-organic, chemicals being used and so on, I latched onto one sarcastically made comment that I felt suggested something more and was out of place in a paragraph. Below was the result of researching to prove how this dramatically embellished title could be “researched and proven” for an opinion angled essay.

Shivering in the cold winter of 1777 starving and huddled over their campfires the soldiers of George Washington’s army look to see Polly Cooper and several Oneida Native Americans approach carrying bushels of their savoir, corn (Oneida, 1996, para. 3). When all seemed lost to the British, one of America’s most valuable plants provided the food and fuel in the peak of despair. That is right; during the Revolutionary War, corn came to the rescue of many troops fighting to break America free of British rule. Amazingly, America’s history has a lot to say about corn hidden among events and turns of its history in settling its lands. It is here that it can be seen that none of what America is today, would still be here without the interference and nourishment that corn provided to the country’s early development. Corn deserves to be called America’s Backbone because it provided support to the Indians so they could thrive, saved innumerable colonists, and strengthened the American Army during the Revolutionary War. Without a doubt, corn made America and deserves to be known to the present day citizens of how it helped the Indians, colonists and soldiers stand against the odds.

Starting from the very beginning, corn was the key to America’s first inhabitants and the earliest stages of its creation. Before there were colonists and colonies, America was full of Indians. These people were known for how they lived in harmony with the land. Mastering the art of farming of the various plants around them provided the food needed to sustain several villages. Corn was one such plant, and the plant that provided assistance to the others that they grew in this wild land. Without its support, most of these settlements would have vanished or struggled to maintain a consistent food supply. The cornstalks provided a growing platform for vegetable vines such as beans, to grow on and the leaves from the corn provided the shade for their squash and pumpkins (Growing Food, para. 3). This plant was such a hardy staple for the tribes in the 1600’s that it made up 70% of their food intake (Growing Food para. 5). One of the more useful aspects of corn is its ability to be dried on the cob. Many natives took advantage of this feature, drying the cobs to store for winter months, as well as grinding it into a corn flour, or corn meal they called nokehig (Growing Food para. 4). Most of the fish they caught, herring in particular, was used to fertilize the corn instead of consuming it as food (Growing Food para. 3). Without this plant, the population of the many tribes across America would have never survived in the environments of New England. This becomes very clear in America’s next stage of development when colonists came to its shores.

Without corn, the ability for settling and colonizing this new land, America, would have taken centuries longer due to the lack of dependable food supplies. Roanoke was one of the first American colonies ever attempted and it failed. Many of us do not get the chance to hear this story, but failures are often nixed from the history books. Located off the coast of today’s North Carolina, this colony had a much warmer climate compared to the colonies that followed it soon after. Desperate to keep the colony thriving, its founder and supporter, John White, sailed for Europe for supplies and food, seeing that their current supplies would not last the winter (Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2004, para. 1). Unfortunately, John did not return until 3 years later, only to find the colony empty. No signs were evident of where the settlers had gone, besides the words Croatoan carved in a tree (Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2004, para. 1). There is a wide range of arguments of what was the downfall of this colony, but one thing is clear, they were starving to death when John left. Without a constant supply of food, the settlers were unable to establish a living on this new harsh land they called America. Despite this mysterious and gruesome failure, attempts to settle America continued. Jamestown, one that many of us are more familiar with hearing about, had a better success at settling here in America when 38 out of the 105 settlers survived the winter of 1607 (Ecology and Environment, 2004, para. 46). These individuals owe their lives to the Powhatan Indians who gave them the corn they depended on for their survival (Ecology and Environment, 2004, para. 46). Corn had been the key to surviving in the winters and harsh moments that this new wild land constantly threw at its occupants. At last, a colony in which the settlers lasted the winter, despite how horrendous those numbers were. The very thought that these Indians had corn to spare to these people illustrates how abundant corn was, but Jamestown had not mastered the many ways to use and eat it for themselves at this point.

Colonists had only tapped into corn’s life saving features, but soon would feel the other advantages America’s Backbone could provide for them. After improving their relationship with the locals, the colonists began learning how to grow and use this newfound plant. Corn was new, foreign and an American plant that they had no knowledge or experience. Early settlers had found several cobs of dried corn buried on what they called Corn Hill, which was an abandoned cornfield by the local tribe (, para. 3). Unfortunately, with no understanding on how to grow or eat the plant properly, these settlers were not accessing corn’s full potential as a primary source of sustaining an American life. By 1621, a Native American named Squanto managed to give the colonist what they needed; guidance and mastering of the art of growing America’s lifeblood, corn (, para. 11). Once they grasped the practices of growing this miraculous plant, they set their efforts into farming as much of this resource as possible. The colonists managed to grow surplus food, or in this case corn, to feed them through the harsh winters, but also surplus for trading (Growing Food, para. 15). The colonists, in turn, traded for furs from the Indians and with these furs and extra stores of corn, they traded with the Europeans for spices and expensive imports, including the latest in weapons (Growing Food, para. 15). By the 1700’s, every colony or country in America had successful corn crops to accompany their other cash crops of tobacco, cotton, and sugar (Ecology and Environment, 2004, para. 50). Corn had given these people their legs and strength to stand on so that they could focus on settling and living beyond the fears of starving to death.

This now brings us to a pivotal point in American history, the Revolutionary War. Corn became more crucial and gained its respect during this time of history as it fed our troops, citizens and even became a main contender for currency. When we needed a backbone the most, corn shined down on its people once more and gave them the helping hand needed to turn the favor into their hands once more. George Washington’s men found themselves starving as they camped in Valley Forge (American Revolution 1776-83, para. 7). Polly Cooper and several of her people came to the aid of these men and was startled to see the state they were in (Oneida Indian Nation, 2008, para. 13). Loretta Metoxen, a tribal historian for the Oneida Indian Nation, is responsible for verbally passing down the history of her people, including the American Revolution during 1776-83 and recalls comments said about Valley Forge where “The soldiers were so ravenously hungry that they had to be held back from eating the uncooked dried corn which would have bloated their bellies.” Starving at this point seems as if too light of a word to describe the condition of the American Troops who were fighting to create this country. After travelling over 200 miles to deliver hundreds of bushels of corn, Polly set out to teach and support these troops with her knowledge of the plant and its many uses (American Revolution 1776-83, para. 11). In the hardest and most testing moment, corn came to the rescue through the hands of Native Americans to the bellies of America’s new colonists and citizens. It brought them together for a single cause. A war that was clearly being lost was renewed to face the threat of losing what they had come to love so much about America, wild and free.

Corn’s value was held in high regards at this point during the Revolutionary War, making it America’s backbone. It was one of the most abundant forms of payment for the soldiers at this time, where in one account they were paid about 350 pounds of corn for their services (5 Revolutionary Finance, 2002, para. 13). In the years prior, Corn was the frontrunner in all trades with both locals and ships that came to America’s shores. Loudon County’s museum tells of how corn was one of Virginia’s most abundantly grown grains during the war, and well into the 1860’s (History of Loudoun County, para. 6). Considering this, it only seems natural that Virginia was one of the largest donators of food to the American army, and in 1775, they had the largest militia among the colonies (History of Loudoun County, para. 4). Fed by corn, Virginia was growing at an alarming rate despite the war, and by 1790, it was the most populous colony among the Americas (History of Loudoun County, para. 4). Being the main source of income and food, it was not common when trading or selling corn that many would not take the colonial dollar due to its high counterfeit issues. This included Washington’s agent who ran his plantation while he was away refusing to trade any of the corn for colonial dollars (5 Revolutionary Finance, 2002, para. 22). No one could afford to let corn venture too far. Even over 100 years after the first settlers had mastered farming it for themselves, Americans still held the plant at a high value. As America developed, corn was what fueled its continuing growth, whether that was in population or economically. It was pushing this country towards success at every twist and turn on this long hard road of becoming what we now know as the United States of America.

Reviewing the facts, and countless examples, it is clear to see why corn deserves to be referred to as America’s backbone. Not only did it feed the bellies of America’s populous but also provided a means of trade and profit. Corn came to the rescue incalculable times and when corn was not available, failure was guaranteed. It fed the Indians, supported the colonist, and backed the revolutionary war when things were looking in a dark direction of failure. This plant stepped up to the plate, literally, becoming the backbone to our survival and most of all, helped America come into being. If corn were deleted from history, it is clear to see that the Indian populations would have been scarce, and no colonies would have survived. There would have been no Revolutionary War for corn to save or America for it to continue to feed. The American colonies would have starved and weakened, losing the Revolutionary War would have left the United States to be subjected to British rule. Next time you see this golden or even white item on your plate, be sure to remember that this is America’s Backbone and pay it the respect it dutifully deserves.


American Revolution 1776-83. (n.d.). Oneida Nation. Retrieved June 1, 2012, from

Ecology and Environment. (2004). In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The South. Retrieved from

5 Revolutionary Finance. (2002). In A Financial History of the United States. Retrieved from

Growing Food | Plimoth Plantation. (n.d.). Plimoth Plantation | . Retrieved May 20, 2012, from

History of Loudoun County. (n.d.). Welcome to Loudoun Museum. Retrieved June 1, 2012, from

Lost Colony of Roanoke. (2004). In The Great American History Fact-Finder. Retrieved from (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2012, from (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2012, from

Oneida. (1996). In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin. Retrieved from

Oneida Indian Nation. (2008, August 6). The Revolutionary War | Oneida Indian Nation | Veterans. Oneida Indian Nation. Retrieved June 1, 2012, from

Squanto. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from


7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page