Brief History of Pumpkins
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.
Pumpkin in a Pumpkin Patch
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.
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 U.S., the pumpkin was one of the group of crops known as the three sisters and was grown together with corn and beans.
The Three Sisters: An Iroquois Creation Legend
According to legend, a pregnant woman living in the sky world above the present world 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 after, there sprouted from the spot where the mother had been buried corn, beans and pumpkins sprouted 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.
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 knew but, 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.
All Pumpkins Are Not Orange
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.
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 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.
© 2006 Chuck Nugent