The Preservation of Strawberry Corn

Strawberry corn is a rare and endangered type of corn with roots in Tutelo Indian traditions.


| Summer 2012



Strawberry Corn

Strawberry corn has almost become extinct on multiple occasions, but due to the tireless work of a few individuals it is still around today.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

The story of this extremely beautiful rose-to-raspberry-colored corn is about as tangled as any plant genealogy can get. While I have been able to sort out some of the history, let it be said that we have no Tutelo peoples to celebrate the recovery of what was once an important ceremonial plant in their culture. The last Tutelo died in the 19th century, so the corn lingered on in the hands of other native peoples who cared for it and nurtured its story, an orphan among orphans.

I have no idea how the corn received its intriguing name, although I suspect it may have been associated at one time with a festival that occurred about the time wild strawberries ripened. Furthermore, while the ultimate task of saving the strawberry corn fell mostly to me, I was not the original keeper of the seed. Bringing it back from near extinction was the product of many diligent hands. But first, who were the Tutelos?

The Tutelos

The Tutelos were an Eastern Siouan tribe who once inhabited the piedmont of Virginia and North Carolina, then later, parts of Western Maryland. Due to European encroachments, they moved many times and by the 1740s were living at Shamokin on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. They then removed to New York State to live among the Iroquois. Their main village was destroyed in 1779 during the Sullivan Expedition, and this appears to have effectively broken down their cultural identity, because after that the Tutelos intermarried with other Iroquois, especially the Senecas. 

The Strawberry Festival Corn was taken north during all of these displacements and was adopted by some Senecas as part of their food culture. It is not clear who was growing the corn in the 19th century, but among the Cornplanter Senecas in Warren County, PA, a group living along the Allegheny River, some families maintained the variety. A Cornplanter Seneca whose Indian name was Little Blacksnake appears to have been the last keeper of the seed. 

The Cornplanter Tract had been established in 1796 and was supposed to have been deeded to these people in perpetuity, but the Army Corps of Engineers decided in the 1960s to erect the Kinzua Dam which flooded the Indian lands in 1965 and forced them to relocate. Most of those people moved to the Allegheny Reservation in New York. Quaker Indian rights activist Theodore Brinton Hetzel (1906-1990), a member of the Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, worked with the Cornplanter Senecas in an attempt to prevent the dam. When those lawsuits failed, he helped raise money to cover the cost of relocation.  

This relocation effectively ended the historical agricultural traditions of the Cornplanter Senecas, and Theodore Hetzel found himself heir to a large collection of seeds that had belonged to Little Blacksnake and other people in that group. Due to his tireless work on behalf of the Indians, he was adopted by the Seneca Wolf Clan in 1964 and by the Tuscaroras in 1972. It was from Ted Hetzel that I acquired the Cornplanter seeds because he did not have a garden large enough to maintain so many rare Native American plants. This included a number of beans as well as a partial cornbraid of Tutelo Strawberry Corn and a few ears of a calico hominy corn (short-ear dent) with green and white kernels. Much of the corn had deteriorated, but I froze it hoping that I could revive it at a later time when I could tackle it under more ideal conditions.





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