A Thousand Years of Corn in Mitchell, South Dakota

Long before there was a Corn Palace, long before there was mill on the James River and long before the French fur traders came to this area, there was a small village of perhaps 200 people.

This village, whose name we shall never know, sat on a bluff, overlooking a creek that we call Firesteel.  On the fertile banks of the creek, the villagers grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and amaranth.  It is the story of corn that interests us the most.

Corn is a tropical plant which needs up to 120 days to mature.  It was first domesticated near present day Mexico City, Mexico, about 5,000 years ago.  From that region, its use spread, as far south as Peru and north to the present-day southwestern United States.  The early corn remained in those confines for about 4,000 years.  It became the most
important food crop of the western hemisphere.

Somewhere around a thousand years ago, corn began to spread into cooler climates, particularly in east-central North America.  It was from there, in the woodlands around the Ohio River Valley, people began to migrate to the west a thousand years ago.  We don’t know why they began to leave the woodlands.  Perhaps there was warfare or disease or perhaps their food sources had become exhausted.  Whatever the reason,
they left and with them they brought corn.

These people ultimately settled on that bluff overlooking that creek, far north from where they first originated, and then they did something truly remarkable.  So remarkable, in fact, that modern science has not improved upon it one bit.  The people who settled on the bluff where able to take the corn they brought with them and adapt it to the very short growing season of the northern plains.

The corn they grew did not look like the corn the farmers grow today.  The ears were very small, no larger than a man’s thumb.  Despite the small size, the corn grown on the
floodplain of the creek was one of the most important foods to these first settlers.  Since there were many people living in this village they had to grow a lot of corn.  This was not “grandma’s kitchen gardening” going on here, rather, this was the first major agricultural operation in what became, a thousand years later, Mitchell, South Dakota.

A thousand years later, the villagers have been long gone, the creek below the bluff has been dammed to create Lake Mitchell and the town of Mitchell has grown around the village site.  But, for a thousand years, that site was untouched until the early part of the 20th century when a student from Dakota Wesleyan University uncovered artifacts on a bluff overlooking a creek.

Today the site is the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, the only archaeological site in South Dakota open to the public.  Each summer archaeologists come and excavate the site, and each summer we learn more about the first settlers who changed the tropical corn plant into a crop that is now the most important crop in our state.  Without these early settlers, we may not have a Corn Palace today.  The Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village site is truly the cradle of northern plains agriculture.

During the summer you can watch as the archaeologists work and we have guided tours all year long.  The Prehistoric Indian Village is located at 3200 Indian Village Road, Mitchell South Dakota.  Our website is http://www.mitchellindianvillage.org/.  You can also learn more about the Village on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mitchellprehistoricindianvillage.   For more information please call 605-996-5473. This article was authored by Cindy Gregg, Executive Director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.