Skip to main content

Brief History of Pumpkins

Where do pumpkins come from?

Where do pumpkins come from?

Pumpkins Are Indigenous to the Americas

While the early explorers to the New World (the North and South American continents, which were mostly unknown to Europeans prior to their discovery by Columbus) were most interested in the gold, silver, and animal furs, the New World also contained many new foods which are now enjoyed by people the world over.

Among the crops indigenous to the New World are many popular traditional American autumn holiday foods including pumpkins, cranberries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn (maize).

While the native peoples of the New World had enjoyed these foods for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the newly arrived European settlers quickly began adding these native crops to their diets. In addition to growing and eating these new foods, the settlers came up with new ways of preparing and serving these new foods.

Thus, pumpkins were not only grown and eaten in the traditional native manner, but also ended up being transformed into things like pumpkin pies and jack-o-lanterns.

A Jack-O-Lantern to be growing in a pumpkin patch awaiting Halloween.

A Jack-O-Lantern to be growing in a pumpkin patch awaiting Halloween.

From Pepon to Pumpkin

The name pumpkin is descended from the centuries old Greek word pepon, which meant "large melon" and obviously did not refer to the pumpkin that we now know.

The French then changed the pronunciation to pompon, but again the reference was to a melon or other gourd, as the pumpkins that we know are native to the New World.

As with many French words, pompon crossed the English Channel and became pumpion, again still referring to another pumpkin-like vegetable.

When the English came to the New World, they were introduced to what we know as pumpkins by the Indians.

Upon being introduced to the pumpkin, these early English settlers modified the pronunciation, for a third time since its Greek origin, to the present pumpkin.

Pumpkins growing in an Arizona pumpkin patch.

Pumpkins growing in an Arizona pumpkin patch.

Native American Origins of Pumpkins

The pumpkin is native to the New World and was one of the foods grown by the Indians.

Among the Iroquois of the northeastern United States, the pumpkin was one of the group of crops known as the "three sisters" and was grown together with corn and beans.

Harvested pumpkins  Apple Annie's Orchard in Willcox, Arizona

Harvested pumpkins Apple Annie's Orchard in Willcox, Arizona

The Three Sisters: An Iroquois Creation Legend

According to legend, a pregnant woman living in the sky above craved the bark of the root of the great tree that grew in the middle of the Sky World.

Her husband, like all good husbands of pregnant wives, promptly acceded to her request and dug away the dirt from the base of the tree to expose the roots of the tree. This also created a hole in the sky.

After her husband had given her the bark she desired, the woman leaned over and peered into the hole. However, she lost her balance and fell into and through the hole to the earth below. The poor woman thus became the first human on earth.

Having survived her fall, the woman eventually gave birth to a daughter who grew up and was impregnated with twins by the West Wind.

Just before the time came for their birth, the twins got into a fight about how they were to emerge from the womb. The twin on the left side did not want to emerge in the usual way and, instead, forced himself out through his mother's left armpit, killing her in the process.

Once freed from the womb the twins buried their mother. Shortly thereafter, there sprouted from the spot where the mother had been buried corn, beans and pumpkins, and became one of the main food staples of the Iroquois.

Cultivating of Pumpkins by the Iroquois

While the men of the Iroquois hunted and fished, the women tended to the crops.

Each spring the women of the tribe first prepared the ground in the fields surrounding their village for planting. Once the ground had been prepared, the women carefully dug holes for the seeds.

Into each hole they placed a fish along with a corn, bean and pumpkin seed. The hole was then covered. The dead fish fertilized the ground for the seed. As the three seeds in each hole sprouted, the cornstalk provided support for the bean plant to climb on, the pumpkin provided ground cover to keep the weeds out and the roots of the bean added nutrients to the soil.

As spring moved into summer and summer to autumn, whole fields were filled with corn, beans and pumpkins growing together like the three sisters of legend to provide sustenance for the human families of the tribe.

This pumpkin will make a nice Jack-O-Lantern.

This pumpkin will make a nice Jack-O-Lantern.

European Colonists Invented Pumpkin Pie

When the first colonists arrived from England, they survived by trading with the Indians for food, thereby becoming acquainted with the foods native to this country.

However, the Europeans made their own contributions as well.

In the case of the pumpkin, they not only gave it the name we now know, but also changed its use—instead of cutting them into strips and baking them as the Indians had done for generations, the colonists cut off the top of the pumpkin, scooped out the seeds, and then filled the hollow pumpkin with milk, honey, and spices.

Pumpkins come in different colors, sizes and shapes

Pumpkins come in different colors, sizes and shapes

Once filled, they replaced the top and baked the pumpkin in the hot coals of a fire, thereby inventing pumpkin pie.

In time, the European settlers decided to scoop out the meat from inside the pumpkin, mix it in a bowl with the milk, honey and spices and then baked the concoction in a crust to give us the version of the pie that we serve every Thanksgiving.

Giant pumpkins: these will make huge Jack-O-Lanterns!

Giant pumpkins: these will make huge Jack-O-Lanterns!

Irish Settlers in the New World Used Pumpkins for Jack-O-Lanterns

Halloween has been observed in Ireland since ancient times.

Among the Halloween traditions that were developed by the Irish was the jack-o-lantern.

In Ireland, people used to hollow out turnips, carve a scary face on them, and then place a candle inside. When moving about outside after dark on Halloween, they would carry the lit turnip with them to light their way and scare the Devil away with its scary face.

An Ugly Duckling Pumpkin

An Ugly Duckling Pumpkin

After arriving in America, many Irish immigrants began substituting pumpkins, which were both larger and already hollow inside, for the turnips.

Thus, the pumpkin, in the form of a jack-o-lantern, became the main symbol of Halloween in addition to its other holiday uses.

Typical Autumn decorations - pumpkin and dried corn stalks

Typical Autumn decorations - pumpkin and dried corn stalks

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


PiaC from Oakland, CA on October 06, 2011:

I love the myth about the origin of the pumpkin! I had never heard it before. Thanks for this very well researched Hub.

What's News on August 21, 2010:

Great hub. Good content. I never knew that pumpkins flowered. Learn something new ever day.

Tath from georgia on October 09, 2009:

thanks i enjoyed learning about the orgins of the pumpkin!

i love learning something new

Gwen Wilkinson on October 30, 2007:

i think that these are good stories but not all true

they are very informational though

i think that they are great

Satan on February 10, 2007:

Giant pumpkins developed independently of the character Howard Dill. He was yellow and lucky enough to sell his name and the seed of this "public" variety. See the patent papers. And see the history - which progresses without contribution from this person. No more than a rudimentary application of logic to the facts apprises that such claims are one more holiday of obnoxious absurdity by media with its common undiscriminating patronage. The fantasy has no defense. This is not to contend that this individual did not do some of his own phenotypic selections as have unnamed others. Opportunistic reputation jockeying is a fundamental archtype of sociological pathology. The writing is always on the wall. Clean-up the internet. Thanks.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 07, 2006:

Good question. I did some more research and have posted the results in the text box below.

gredmondson from San Francisco, California on September 28, 2006:

Thanks for that! Do you know anything special about the huge pumpkins that we see in the newspapers every fall? Where are the most pumpkins grown commercially now?