The Grains Used in Historic Southern Distiilling





The Grains Used in Historic Southern Distilling:

Corn, Rye, Wheat

A talk delivered at the Grain Gathering, Lexington KY 9-16-19

David S Shields


What kind of corn, rye, and wheat was used in the first century of  whiskey making in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia and hills of North Carolina?  Can this information be supplied despite the fact that there exists no reputable written explanation prior to the 1880s for the precise varieties of corn, rye, and wheat employed in distilling? 

            I won’t talk about barley today because I discussed  the historic prevalence of 6 row Winter barley in southern fields in my last talk to the southeastern wheat breeders.

            What do the documentary records provide from the first half century of whiskey distilling from KY and TN?  This: “Whiskey is made either with rye, barley, or Indian corn. One, or all those kinds of grains is used, as they are more or less abundant in the country. I do not know how far they are mixed in Kentucky; but Indian corn is here in general the basis of whiskey, and more often employed alone.”This is from Anthony Boucherie’s The Art of Making Whiskey, published in Lexington,Kentucky, in 1819.[i]  Indeed his chemical orientation immediately translates all grain into saccharine matter in his process, so it really doesn’t matter whether spirits are concocted from all corn, or any mixture of grains.   In all the early recipes—corn is designated as corn or Indian maize; no specification of variety; the same is true for rye and wheat.  This is also the case for the one eighteenth-century whiskey recipe from a resident of Kentucky, Jonathan Taylor’s diary of the 1794,[ii] or the most reliable printed instruction available before Boucherie’s Art. Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s 1809 manual The Practical Distiller.    

            M’Harry’s handbook mirrors Taylor’s recipes in having one for all corn whiskey, and others for mixed corn and rye.  In his main rye whiskey recipe he presents the early optimum formulation of 1/3 rye and 2/3rds corn that would be standard for the first half of the nineteenth century.  When it comes to character of his ingredients M’Harry conveys one thing that it is consequential—“Indian Corn cannot be ground too fine for distilling.”[iii] A fine grind insured best results for cooking in the still.

            This sentence enables us to make a preliminary judgment about what corn was used in early distilling.  Of the general categorizations of corn at the end of the 18th century, flint corns, pop corns, flour corns, gourdseed corns and sweet corns.  Flint corns and pop corns because of their granularity in milling would have been too troublesome to process.[iv]  Sweet corn was too rare and highly valued as a table corn to put in a still.  You will perhaps note the absence of dent corns here—created from the crossing of gourdseed and flint corns,[v] they did not become a general feature of the southern agricultural landscape so called until the second quarter of the 19th century—in the 1830s and 1840s  to be precise when Carswell White in Georgia, Cocke’s Prolific in Virginia, Kentucky Yellow, Leaming Yellow, and Bloody Butcher became standardized.  Reid’s Yellow Dent emerged in Illinois at the same time. 

            When we look to Tennessee and Kentucky in the post-Revolutionary settlement period, there are several things to consider.  After modest beginnings in Jonesboro, Tennessee distilling took off in 1790s in Davidson and Robertson counties—that is from Nashville north to the Kentucky border.[vi]  The Shawnee had inhabited the area until 1745, the Cherokee had a temporary presence, and it was largely vacant when settlers began camping along the Cumberland in 1760.  Corn does not naturalize, so Shawnee red corn and white flour corn were not growing in the region as a resource.

            Settlers used corn they brought with them from North Carolina and Virginia.  The same might be said of Kentucky.  The Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia settlers of Bourbon County in the 18th century, came from areas long expert in distilling. Historian Henry G. Crowgey in the second chapter of Kentucky Bourbon supplies a roll call of early distillers who brought knowledge and technology from parts East into Kentucky:  John Hamilton,   William Calk, Col Evan Shelby, Evan Williams, William Shiell, and the legendary Elijah Craig.[vii]  One presumes they brought seed of their favorite corn and rye varieties with them as well.  William Caulk of Boon’s fort is one of the earliest recorded corn planters in the territory cultivating a patch in his first year of settlement, 1775.  So what were people growing at the end of the 18th century in North Carolina north to Pennsylvania?

            They brought Native landraces—old strains improved by the indigenous peoples. In 1837, just before the emergence of the Dent Corns, Dr. Peter A Browne published “An Essay on Indian Corn,” that supplied as orderly a taxonomy of varieties that were stable enough to be recognized during those decades when growers were growing multiple varieties contiguously, and cross-pollinization was rampant.[viii]  It was widely republished and established itself as the word on the subject.  He organized them by color—Yellow, White, Red, Blue, and Particolored.  Color sorting was the second common method of conceptualizing maize after the type categorization into flint, gourdseed, flour, sweet, and pop corn.  For our purposes it is important because the only stated preference found in advertisements by distillers buying corn in Kentucky and Tennessee is this:  “Corn, Rye and Barley, for which the highest market price will be given in cash—to be delivered at the Distillery formerly occupied by Mr. Benajah Bosworth, one mile from the city, convenient to the Railroad. N. B. Yellow Corn would be preferred.”[ix] This 1833 ad by distillers Daniel and Henry McCourt of Lexington states a preference that could be said to pertain to this very day, when #2 Yellow Dent is the default corn employed by most distillers. 

            Turning to Dr. Peter A Browne’s section on Yellow Corn, we encounter first and most extensively listed, Yellow Gourdseed Corn. 

“A. Yellow Corn.

A.a. The genuine gourd seed Indian corn, so called from the supposed similitude in shape, between its grains and the seeds of the gourd; the spike contains, when thus unmixed with any other variety, twenty-four rows, which is the highest number of rows on any cob of Indian corn I have ever seen. I have heard of twenty-six rows. When this corn is mixed with any other variety, its spike gradually diminishes in its number of rows until it arrives at the maximum of the variety with which it is mixed. Examples of these mixtures are seen in #2 of twenty-two rows; #3 of twenty rows; #4 of eighteen rows; #5 of sixteen rows; #6 of fourteen rows; and #7 of twelve rows.” (“Indian Corn,” 84.)

Two other yellow corn varieties are listed: 8 row King Phillip Flint from New England and 12 row Sioux Flint Corn from the upper mid-west.  Prior to the emergence of yellow dent corns in the 1840s—Leaming’s Yellow  (originally called Clinton Corn)[x] and Yellow Dent in Ohio and Kentucky,  Yellow Gourdseed corn was the preferred variety for distilling.

            The three cultivars in the USDA GRIN collection that most closely approximate the description provided by Browne are PI 414179 and PI 414183 and PI 608456 .  Until the 1870s agronomists believed that  the Yellow gourdseed “produced greater yield than any other variety in proportion to the size of the ears.  They had more starch and less protein and oil than the flint kinds.  They had more oil and flavor than the white gourdseed varieties. 

            So we come to the question—why the preference among distillers for yellow corn.  Ohio agronomist William D. Emerson observed, “distillers say it is richer in material for their product”.[xi] Richer both in the sense of capacity the generate spirits, and also to impart flavor.  This was a judgment formed before the orthodoxy that corn supplied neutral spirit, while wheat, rye, limestone water, and toasted barrel were where a product’s flavor derived.

             Even in Samuel M’Harry’s The Practical Distiller, there is a recipe for all-corn whiskey, with the comment that sometimes one’s rye crop fails. Are there corns whose intrinsic chemistry imparts sufficient flavor in a spirit—in white dog—that no additional grain additives are needed?  This is a rhetorical question among multi-generational moonshine families.  Of course there are and the shine families maintain them: whether Leaming, Kentucky Yellow Dent, John Hauk corn, or the Appalachian Red Dent called “Master Corn”.[xii] This red corn is of historical interest because it is a parent of both Bloody Butcher and Jimmy Red, the former being a hybrid of Master and Hackberry Corn, according to antebellum botanist John Klippart,[xiii] the latter being a hooch corn that came to the Carolina Lowcountry in the post Civil War period.  Both these red corns are presently the focus of much craft distilling experimentation.[xiv]  

            From the 1840s to the 1890s corn production for distillation were governed by two competing impulses: a desire among farmers to collect varieties, cross, and improve corn—a penchant that in open pollinated countryside led to more than a little chaos[xv]—and the desire to have a reliable, prolific variety that performed in predictable ways—as feed, as fodder, as mash.  While new varieties proliferated in the seed catalogs ever year post 1865, fewer and fewer corn varieties were employed by farmers for mass planting, until in the 1890s Reid’s Yellow Dent (like all dents a cross between flints and gourd seed corns), became the default corn of the Midwest corn belt, and by happenstance the go to corn of twentieth century distillers before Prohibition.[xvi]  

            The end of the 19th century saw a conception of product take hold among large scale distillers.  Product doctrine held that consistency was the highest good—a consistency achieved despite differences in weather, terroir, grain variety, and formulation.  Food chemist David Wesson had proposed a new model for constructing mass products—there should be a taste neutral palate upon which flavor was admixed.[xvii]  Wesson made cotton seed oil flavorless so that it could be universally applied to any product than required a lipid.  A similar kind of reasoning took hold among distillers—the corn spirits should be a neutral basis into which rye or wheat or both would be intermixed to supply the basis for taste.  There were two consequences of this reasoning—a group of distillers who realized that white dent corns provided consistently less flavored spirits than yellow dent embraced Hickory King Corn, a variety introduced by A. O. Lee of Hickory Virginia in 1880, or the higher yielding Johnson County White, when it became available in the early 20th century. Others thought that the distilling process could mute the distinctive character of yellow corn, provided that the corn employed  was grown on such broad scale in such large production that differences wrought by time, soil, and temperature were averaged out.  This contributed to the large scale  adoption of Reid’s Yellow Dent and its descendants such as No. 2 Yellow Dent. 

            Since rye and wheat were so important in flavoring whiskey, bourbon, and rye, what types of rye and wheat supplied the savor?  Let’s talk about rye first, because in the two decades before Prohibition an agronomic sea change in rye cultivation took place—traditional varieties were supplanted by two introduced varieties: Abruzzi from Italy and Rosen from Russia.  In 1900 USDA Plant Hunters dispatched to Italy found Abruzzi Rye, a productive strain growing east of Rome.  Through the promotional efforts of Coker Seed and the USDA, Abruzzi had become the standard rye grown in every part of the South except West Virginia and Kentucky which embraced Rosen Rye after its introduction in 1909.  

            One old rye was not supplanted—in the Lowcountry, Florida, and the Gulf coast of Alabama a heat tolerant landrace, black seed rye proved better able to withstand the growing conditions than Abruzzi. In 1986 the University of Florida released a select version of this ancient rye, FL 401, extensively used for winter forage, cover, and as a wind break, since it is tall growing.  There is reason to believe that black seed was the first rye grown extensively in the South, brought from Europe and cultivated in the colonial period.  In 1856 an agricultural historian recalled the sequence of rye varieties grown in North America:

            “The varieties of Rye are much fewer in number than those of oats, but still deserve our notice.  And first upon our list we find our old and once very “Common Blake Rye,” so called after the dark color of its grains, which made a correspondingly dark flour. This is process of time, gave way to our “Small White Rye,” and our “Large White Rye,” varieties of whose origins I can saying nothing, but I know that they have been displaying the old, little hard-grained black variety . . . , And now our country also has the famous “Multicole” Rye or Poland Rye, which was introduced to our country twelve or fifteen years ago by the Hon. William C. Rives of Virginia.”[xviii]

            While the Multicole, or tillering rye is greatly important in the history of rye breeding, for our purposes, chronicling the distilling grains, the important successor to black seed rye was the large white.  Though our historian did not know the origins of this variety, there is a rich paper trail for the plant.    In 1811 the first notice appears in New England, “White Rye, an entire new kind this part of the country.”[xix]   Contemporary reports give it another name, “Egyptian White Rye” and a source, Richard Peters of Pennsylvania. It was “beautiful” and it was “large.”[xx]  E. S. Thomas of Baltimore in 1821 began the extensive shipment of Egyptian White Rye across the South, with the Carolinas a particular focus of sales.[xxi] People knew that Egypt was a fictional provenance for the rye.  “George Albrecht raised a small amount of fine Egyptian rye this year on his place north of town.  The berry is clear and bright, almost like wheat in appearance and of large size.  The see came from Russia and the flour makes a bread almost like corn.”[xxii]  Indeed the fictional Egyptian origin became a feature of fantasy such as this Reidsville, NC, rhapsody: “Mr. W. R. Vickers . . . set his famous Egyptian rye whiskey with the pedigree.  He ways ‘the soil was ploughed and planted by Methuselah’s father—the grain was reaped by Methuselah himself—distilled at the Pyramids of Egypt by the Sphynx—watered by the river Nile—dripped through a copper worm a thousand miles long—heated by two volcanoes—shaked up by four earthquakes—drawn through the great desert of Sahara and refined—stored in the Catacombs until the flood-rescued by the Egyptians, put in Noah’s Ark, landed on top of Mount Ararat, rendered respectable by age—crowned with glories of antiquity, sampled by the monks—inspected by ten thousand revenue officers, glorified with stamps, and covered with the cobwebs of creation, was drawn by elephant teams to Vicker’s saloon in West Market street.”[VSD1] [xxiii] So we have Egyptian White Rye Whiskey in western North Carolina in the 19th century, what about Kentucky.  Well in the Bourbon News of Paris Kentucky from August through September of 1899 (a year before the discovering of Abruzzi Rye) ran multiple notices of white rye seed for sale. No other rye seed was mentioned. One notice indicated a batch came from Michigan. That speaks to a development in terms of seed supply—northern farmers took up rye seed production and managed to create lines with mammoth seed heads.  These varieties remained in cultivation until 1930. 

            Now white rye is gone.  There are analogs to the old Egyptian-Russian large white winter rye that endure, including the oldest regularly planted rye cultivar in the world, Sangaste, bred in 1875 in Estonia by Friedrich Georg Magnus van Berg  (then a part of the Russian empire) out of local large white rye landraces.[xxiv]  It is a divergent development that approximated the same tall habit, large head configuration of the white mammoth rye produced out of Egyptian White in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and the Dakotas at the end of the nineteenth century. 

            And what of wheat? The American Revolution set in motion a number of developments that would cause the eclipse of the old settler wheats of the colonial era—yellow lammas and Old English White—and the rise of a trio of wheats that would dominate grain cultivation in the early republic—early white wheat (Isbell’s forward, white May wheat, rare ripe), purple straw Wheat (blue stem, mountain purple straw, early purple straw), and red may wheat (Red Wheat).

            War disrupted seed production, leading to a scramble for wheat seed in the 1780s procured from every possible source.  Second, the war saw the introduction of a major pest, the Hessian Fly reportedly conveyed in the straw bedding of Hessian hired soldiers with the British Army, but just as likely to have come with English supplies.  It appeared first on Long Island in 1784, and in eastern Virginia in 1785.  It spread across New York and New England, and the eastern seaboard, traversing Virginia by 1798.  The Fly had fall and Spring hatching cycles. It infested young wheat stunting its growth, inducing straw collapse and inhibiting grain formation.  Finding seed not infected by the fly, and that sprouted at times when the larval flies were not active became the foremost agronomic aims of wheat growers in the early United States.

            Planting times later in autumn and harvest times earlier in Spring (late May or early June) became the keys to a wheat’s ability to make a bankable harvest.  The first of the early wheats was discovered in Carolina County Virginia by Henry Isbell III in 1787.  He sent away for a batch of white wheat seed from a merchant.  (In the years after the Revolution mercantile grocers handled much of the seed business in the United States.). “When his wheat was in flower,  [he] observed a single early almost ripe.  Hence he conceived an idea it might be a different species.  To determine this, he carefully preserved the wheat produced by this solitary ear, which has now multiplied to such a degree, as that several thousand bushels will be produced at the next harvest, having been distributed into many hands.”[xxv]

            The new wheat had a number of striking qualities:


1.      “This wheat ripens from 15 to 20 days earlier than any other”

2.     “The straw is short by one third, than that of any other kind”

3.     “The straw is encumbered by very little fodder”


Isbell’s wheat became known as “forward wheat” or “Virginia early wheat” because of the first quality; it’s short stature gained it a following because it minimized lodging (the blow down of grain in storms—a problem with tall grains).  But the greatest consequences of these attributes were that it escaped the infestation cycle of the Hessian Fly and it also evaded infection by the dreaded disease, rust. By 1796 Isbell’s seed was being shipped across the United States. Agricola of New York reported in 1800, on a comparative planting of Virginia early and red chaff:  “The Virginia wheat ripened ten days earlier than the other, its straw was one fifth less in height, and scarcely on half in bulk.  The berry was yellow, hard, large, plump and handsome.  That of the red-chaff wheat was shrunk, and did not yield more than half of the quantity of Virginia wheat on the same space of ground.”[xxvi]  Agricola calculated the Virginia yield at 42 bushels an acre. He planted on November 3.

            Virginia’s great agronomist John Taylor of Carolina County in 1818 summarized its virtues and pointed out a signal liability:  “Isbell Wheat.  There are two varieties of this species bearded and unbearded.  .  .  .  Having cultivated both for many years, I have preferred the bearded for very slight reasons.  .  .  .  The characters of both are 1st. Great forwardness.—2nd. A liability once in 20 years to be injured but not destroyed by frost.—3rd. To produce every year a few black rotted heads, which do not injure the other wheat or materially effect the crop. 4th.  To be far less liable to rust than any latter species.—5th.  It requires strong land and produced on poor, worse crops than late wheats,-- 6th.  It is hard wheat to get out. 7th. It makes very fine flour.  8th. It is one fourth lower than late wheats.  I have for many years partly cultivated it.  The high repute it once had, has diminished as lands have grown poorer.”[xxvii]  

            Taylor pointed out the great problem taking place in Virginia: extractive farming (the planting of staple crops in the same fields without rotations for successive years) was leaching soil of its nutriments.  Certain grains were more sensitive to this depletion than others.  Isbell’s early wheat (which began to be called White May wheat in the 1800),[xxviii] suffered the greatest decline in productivity.  Rather than amend the soil  (the geoponic crisis would not influence southern farmers’ field practices until the mid-1820s).  A farmer from Orange County, Virginia, told what happened in 1817:  “The old White Wheat cultivated by our Fathers yielded to the forward May Wheat—that lasted a few years and the Baltimore bearded expelled it.  The latter in turn gave place the purple straw.”[xxix]

            Planting staple grains in fields repeatedly until nutrition was stripped was only one dimension of the problem.  The amount of wheat being grown in the upper South exploded in the 1790s as tobacco gave way to small grains.  In 1796 an observer noted, “double the number of acres are now put down to wheat that were four years ago; and, on account of the extraordinary propitiousness of this season, it is expected that she will turn into market nearly double the quantity this year that she did last.”[xxx] Expansion of acreage and mono-cropping wheat gave rise to a host of problems: the accelerating spread of Hessian Fly, outbreaks of rust disease (in 1800), smut, and mildew. 

            Rust, a fungal disease caused by Pucinnia triticina-black leaf rust, or Pucinnia striiformis-yellow leaf rust (aka stripe rust), could cause anywhere from 20 to 50% crop loss.  “In wheat ripening by the 12th of June the rust scarcely ever makes its appearance; when it ripens later than the 20th it seldom escapes.” .”.   From the 1790 onward only two wheats dependably ripened before the outbreak: “ the old white May wheat, and the early purple straw.  They came to the scythe in a very few days of each other, the former being a little the earlier of the two.  The white May was sometimes cut in the last week of May; generally the first week in June, scarcely ever later than the 10th.  It was, without doubt, the most perfect wheat ever grown in this climate, making a flour superior to any manufactured in these days, and often weighing sixty-six pounds to the bushel.  It was also very productive on rich land, frequently yielding upwards of thirty bushes to the acre.  The purple straw was equally productive, perhaps rather more so, and weighed well.”[xxxi]

            A beardless soft red wheat that grows erectly atop stiff straw that colors from dark red to purple to blue when the grain achieves the dough stage, Purple Straw Wheat was developed in the Virginia Piedmont at about the time of the American Revolution.  “The blue stem or purple straw originated in Fauquier county, having been distinguished in its growth by a Mr. [Robert] Embrey.  Not being particularly acquainted with the facts in detail, I would beg leave to refer to the gentlemen living the neighborhood of Embry’s family—among others, are gen. John Blackwell, John C. Scott, and William Shuke, Esqrs and others, near the Falmouth post office.”[xxxii]

            What variety of wheat Embrey was improving is difficult to determine.  Gina Brown-Guedira, the USDA’s small grain geneticist for the southeast has noted genetic similarities to North African Spring wheats.  What can be said without equivocation is that enough seed was circulating in Virginia in 1790 for agronomist John Taylor to make an extensive comparative grow-out of the variety to test productivity: “On the 10th July, 1790, a crop of wheat of 110 loads, the purple straw red wheat chiefly, was hauled home and secure in houses and stacks . . . . The load was estimated at fifteen bushels, giving for the crop 1650 bushels.  In the month of December following . . . the produce proved to be thus—White wheat 495 bushels, purple straw red wheat 1144, making a total of 1639 bushels; exhibiting minus eleven bushels only.  The land from which this crop was raised was 66 acres of fallow and 40 of corn ground, planted in the order of 4 feet by 6, two stalks to a hill; the wide rows always in the direction of N. and S. for the advantage of seeding without digging up the corn crop.” Arator[VSD2]  [John Taylor], “Indian Corn vs. Wheat,” Alexandria Gazette (June 11, 1818), 1. 


            Purple Straw’s ability to thrive on marginal soils, its ability to evade rust, its earliness, its productivity, and the quality of its flour, made it the field preference for farmers in parts of the South throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth.  Numbers of times rival wheats were put forward by farmers with the aim of supplanting purple straw’s place—Lawler wheat, Hunton Wheat, Maryland-Pennsylvania Yellow Bearded—and all failed.  It found strong champions—Edmund Ruffin, the agriculturist and editor, spent the 1830s improving the seed.  He explained why no other wheat could supplant it:  “We prefer the mountain purple straw to any other kind of wheat, and sow of it altogether; not on account of its being considered more productive, but because its peculiar disadvantages may be obviated by using proper care, and it will better withstand the dangers which no care can guard against.  Its great advantage consists in the ripe grain being able to bear more exposure to wet weather, than any white, or bearded red wheat: and where we make large crops out wheat is exposed in the field from the beginning of reaping to the end of thrashing.  Besides this important ground for preference, this kind of wheat is heavier than the bearded, and makes better flour.” Indeed, for yielding flour, it is said by some of the most experienced millers to be inferior to no other kind—though the flour of white wheat sells better, merely because it is of a purer white.”[xxxiii] Ruffin’s efforts insured that enough Purple Straw seed was dispersed throughout the South that the disruptions of seed production in the South caused by the Civil War would not imperil the variety.  The White May would, in contrast, suffer.  

            The multiplication of pest and pathogen pressures over the first half of the 19th century set farmers experimenting.  New wheat strains were imported from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Planting different kinds of wheat side by side and “crossing” wheat—selecting out mutations—and by the mid century—intentionally breeding wheat for specific traits.  The most important southern breeding initiative involved crossing the landrace yellow lammas with White May to create Red May Wheat. 

            The yellow lammas (old lamme, or red lammas) was an English landrace that had a short red berry and produced yellowish flour.  It had the liability of coming to maturity at times when rust plagued southern fields.  Crossing it with Isbell’s Early White May Wheat gave rise to Red May sometime between 1825 and 1830 near Amelia, Virginia.  It had features of both—the sensitivity to soil quality, short stature,  and earliness of the White May, the short head, coloration, and plump berry of the yellow lammas.  Agronomist James Killibrew gave a portrait of the wheat after it had been in general cultivation for a quarter century:  “This is a most excellent variety, but varies very much in yield.  On the alluvial bottoms it will give 20 to 25 bushels, while on rich up lands 10 to 12 bushels per acres is considered a good yield.  It has a short head, short straw, small berry. . . . It is not much liable to any of the diseases to which wheat is heir.  It is a very certain crop, though not the heaviest.  It does not tiller well, and hence must be sown thicker than the usual kinds.[xxxiv]  

            The popularity of Red May Wheat arose from virtues not immediately apparent in its two parent strains: extraordinary drought tolerance and great cold tolerance.  An 1843 letter to the Southern Planter attested to Red May’s resilience and won the wheat general admiration including its adoption by the Shaker communities in the South as their standard winter wheat in the antebellum period.[xxxv]  

            White May, Purple Straw Wheat, and Red May Wheat were direct responses to the rise of a new set of field conditions that prevailed in the upper South after the American Revolution.  Each possessed virtues that kept it long in cultivation despite the introduction of foreign wheat varieties that promised well:  Canadian white Flint Wheat, Mediterranean Wheat, Yellow Bearded Wheat.  All would survive into the 21st century and have become the linchpins for restored southern heirloom winter wheat. 

            In summary, what do we know about what corn made up classic whiskey, bourbon, and rye in the century after the American Revolution?


In the 18th century it was made of whatever corn was available, black seed rye, and red/yellow lammas wheat. 

From 1810 to 1850 it was made with yellow gourdseed corn, Egyptian  White Rye, and Purple Straw Wheat or in the 1840s Red May Wheat.

From 1850 to 1890 is was made from yellow dent corn, Egyptian White Rye, and Red May Wheat or some other red winter wheat. 


All of these components grains survive somewhere in North America, except Egyptian White Rye.  There is, however, an analog for that as well. 

















[i] Anthony Boucherie, “Of the Distiller of Whiskey,” The Art of Making Whisky so as to Obtain a Better, Purer, Cheaper and Greater quantity of Spirit from a Given Quantity of Grain (Lexington, KY: Worsley & Smith, 1819). Boucherie had visited distilleries the United States before returning to France where he published this treatise in French; it was translated by C. M. and published in Lexington.

[ii] Diary of Jonathan Taylor from August 1794 through Oct. 24,1794, Mss. A T243j, The Filson Historical Society.

[iii] Samuel M’Harry, The Practical Distiller: or an Introduction to Making Whiskey, Gin, Brandy and Spirits (Harrisburg: Wyeth, 1809), 65.  See also Michael Krafft, The American Distiller (Philadelphia, 1804), 55-57.

[iv] That being said, distillers in the earliest decades of southern whiskey making tended to use whatever was available and in surplus, including corn husks, in creating their product. It was only when the retail market for whiskey made the quality of produce a price issue (let’s say 1815 or so), that the lessons about grain quality, grind, water quality, and barrel preparation went from principle to practice. 

[v] Some botanical taxonomists have taken to categorizing gourd seed corn as a dent corn, since it was a soft corn suited for milling.  But at no time prior to the creation of gourd-seed / flint crosses was the term dent ever applied to them.  The descriptor “dent” was first used by farmers in the 1830s precisely for those crosses and does not become general in print until 1840 when it begins appearing with some frequency.  

[vi] Kay Baker Gaston, “Tennessee Distilleries: Their Rise, Fall, and Re-Emergence,” Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association 12 (1999),

[vii] Henry G. Crowgey, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008).

[viii] Peter A Brown, “Indian Corn, an Essay on Indian Corn,” The Farmer & Gardener, and Live-Stock Breeder and Manager (July 11, 1837), 84-85.

[ix] “Wanted—Corn, Rye, and Barley,” Kentucky Gazette (April 20, 1833), 3.

[x] Leaming Golden Dent Corn—an improved dent corn secured by Christopher Leaming (1777-1850) “from off a flat boat at Columbia, Hamilton County, Ohio.” The original cobs were a landrace yellow gourdseed hailing from the mouth of Bullskin Creek on the Ohio River, probably of Native American origin. “A Brief History of the Celebrated Cereal,” Wilmington News-Journal (Wilmington OH) 15 Oct 1879, 2.    The original landrace was reputed to be pale yellow and small cobbed.  It was called “little yellow.” Christopher’s son, Jacob S. Leaming (1815-1888) spent decades improving the strain by seed selection until it achieved its prize winning configuration: “A short thick stalk tapering from the ground to the tassel, earing very low on the stalk, that succors but little, but when it does nearly every succor has a good ear.” The stalks bore one or two ears of 16 to 24 rows of golden dent kernels on a red cob. The rows could be quite irregular. Because the kernels were large Leaming had a good reputation as a field/feed corn.  It ripened ten to fourteen days earlier than other dent varieties in the mid-19th century.    It spread into New York and New England during the 1850s.  In 1878 it won the silver medal for corn at the Universal Exposition at Paris. In 1904 it won the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

[xi] William D. Emerson, History and Incidents of Indian Corn (Cincinnati 1878). 148.

[xii] “Master is from Tennessee, and is so distinct as to maintain its character when mixed with other sorts, upon which it leaves its impress, and hence the name it bears.  The grains are rather deep, dented, sound, though not heavy.  Each stalk produces one of two ears, and each ear up to twelve rows.  It is from medium to large size, dull red color, early, and is a soft variety.”  John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 668. It is probably related to the Shawnee Flame corn. 

[xiii] John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 666.

[xiv] Jill Neimark, “From Hooch to Haute Cuisine: A Nearly Extinct Bootlegger’s Corn Gets a Second Shot,” The Salt NPR (January 2, 2018):

[xv] In 1848 Isaac Fowler of Erie County Ohio wrote to the agriculture secretary of the U. S. Patent office, “In the year 1839, I planted one and a half acrews of ground with three different kinds of corn, half acre of china, half acre yellow gourd seed, half acrew white flint . . . when I commenced with that corn [China] it was a flint corn; from seven years’ use, it has become so closely allied to gourd seed that the kernel is very much dented, and the ears from twelf to twenty rows.  The same remarks hold good in relation to white flint.” “Experiments in the Culture of Indian Corn,” Genesee Farmer (July 1848), 168.

[xvi] C. Wayne Smith, Javier Bertran, E. C. A. Runge, Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 167.

[xvii] David S. Shields, Southern Provisions The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 301-04.

[xviii] “Rye Varieties, Dollar Newspaper Philadelphia (May 26, 1858), 4.

[xix] Hampshire Federalist (September 19, 1811), 3.

[xx] Berkshire Reporter (November 2, 1811), 3.

[xxi] Charleston City Gazette (October 20, 1821), 4.

[xxii] Jamestown Alert, (September 19, 1895), 6.

[xxiii] “Rambler at Reidsveille” The Western NC  Sentinel (January 10, 1884), 1.

[xxiv] Rolf H. J. Schlegel, Rye: Genetics, Breeding, and Cultivation (Boca Raton, London, New York: CRC Press, 2014), 236.

[xxv] “An account of a new species of wheat,” General Advertiser (May 4, 1794), 1.

[xxvi]“ To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine,” The Monthly Magazine (May 1800), 328.

[xxvii] John Taylor, “Communicated for the American Farmer by G. W. Jeffreys,” American Farmer (February 2, 1821), 374-75.

[xxviii] The first use of “May Wheat” to designate Isbell’s forward white wheat took place in  “Extract of a letter from Manchester, Virginia dated June 12, 1800,” New-York Gazette (June 26, 1800), 2.

[xxix]“A Farmer, Orange,” Richmond Enquirer (July 8, 1817), 4.


[xxx] New York Herald (July 27, 1796), 1. 

[xxxi] S., “Petersburg Letter,” Richmond Dispatch (October 17, 1868), 5. 

[xxxii] Fauquier, “Mssrs, Gales & Seaton,” National Intelligencer (July 1, 1817), 1.  

[xxxiii] Edmund Ruffin, Farmer’s Register (October 1835), 382.

[xxxiv] James Killibrew,Wheat Culture in Tennessee, (Nashville: The America Company, 1877), 253.

[xxxv]“Red May Wheat,” Southern Planter (October 1843), 236.


 [VSD2]ˆis this meant to be narrator?

Cocke's Prolific Corn Boarded on Ark of Taste

By David Shields

Experts thought it extinct.  The experts were wrong.

Cocke’s Prolific, one of America’s most important heirloom corn varieties, has been preserved by a 95-year-old farmer Manning Farmer of Landrum, SC. 

A flinty white dent corn that grows stout ears measuring a foot and a half long, Cocke’s was the first commercially important prolific variety. Because prolific corn always set two or more ears per stalk (old landraces set one, maybe two), they insured productivity. Breeding and growing prolific corn became an obsession of American farmers in the second quarter of the 19th century. 

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has been instrumental in recovering this corn, putting it into the hands of Dr. James Holland of NC State for his comparative grow out of southern landrace maize, and distributing seed to growers in GA, KY, SC, and NC. 

Cocke’s Prolific has been boarded onto The Slow Food Ark of Taste, a global register of the most historically resonant, flavorful, and endangered culinary ingredients and preparations in the world.

Maintained in Italy, the Ark of Taste calls attention to the world’s most precious edible resources and alerts farmers, chefs, and consumers to their food heritage. Cocke’s Prolific White Dent Corn was preserved for us by the efforts of one devoted grower.  We are all in Manning Farmer’s debt. 

Cocke’s Prolific was named for Gen. John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation, Va., one of Thomas Jefferson’s friends and agricultural associates. Sometime in the 1820s, Cocke improved a Native 12-14 row landrace maize variety to use as a field corn. Its meal quality was superlative, and roasted ears during the milk stage proved sumptuous. Livestock thrived on its fodder. 

Widely adopted in Virginia during the mid-19th century, Cocke’s Prolific was called simply “Virginia Field Corn,” but seed companies from other states began introducing rival prolific strains — Comanche Corn, Dorrance Prolific, Champion Prolific, Wyandoot/Hick’s Prolific — so Virginians began calling it by the name of its creator in the 1870s. 

When agricultural experiment stations began the comparative testing of corn varieties for productivity, disease resistance, and quality in the 1880s, the virtues of Cocke’s Prolific became widely documented. Seed was nationally available from the 1880s to the 1930s, and it won a broad following for its vitality, reliability in the field under a wide range of growing conditions, and quality as corn meal. 

Manning Farmer’s uncle purchased the seed and began growing it on family property outside Landrum in the 1930s.  Manning himself took over planting it in the wake of World War 2 and maintained the integrity of the seed rigorously for seven decades.  Commercial availability of Cocke’s seed ceased during the War.  By the 21st century it was functionally extinct.

Among American white dent corns only Hickory King (introduced by A. O. Lee of Hickory, Va., in 1880) rivals it in historic importance.

The loss of Cocke’s Prolific inspired an extensive search in the 2010s for surviving seed stocks. In 2017, as chair of the Ark of Taste Committee for the South, I distributed a list of the ten most wanted lost culinary plants of the region, including Cocke’s Prolific. 

Angie Lavezzo of Sow True Seed Company in Ashville, NC, contacted me indicating that she had purchased a white dent by the name of Cox Prolific from Clarence Gibbs on Craigslist. Gibbs indicated the seed came from Manning Farmer’s fields in Landrum. Upon inspection, it proved to be the long lost Cocke’s white dent. 

A lively cultivator and seed saver, Manning Farmer maintained his strain of Cocke’s Prolific because its qualities were precisely suited to his needs. He mills his own meal in a shed he built with his own hands with boards milled at his own sawmill.  The shed also serves as a wheelwright work station — repairing wagon wheels is an avocation. 

Announcement of the rediscovery of Cocke’s Prolific in November 2017 prompted great interest, and the seed has been distributed to several institutions and persons. 

Because it was the only corn variety associated with Thomas Jefferson’s agricultural circle, it is being grown out at Monticello, and the revived crop will be on view at the Harvest Festival there on September 21-22.  Cocke’s Prolific meal should be commercially available in autumn 2018. 

A Sweet Security: White African Sorghum

By Zoe Nicholson and David Shields

White African Sorghum

White African Sorghum

Grain sorghum is an ancient food — indeed one of the staples of ancient Egypt. The lush seed heads of this tall-growing Asian and African grass were harvested and boiled like millet, or ground into flour (non-gluten) to make flatbreads and thicken soups and stews.

Grain sorghums — heat and drought resistant, lushly vegetative, and sugary in their sap — came to the West Indies and the American South in the Colonial era, as early as the 18th century, brought from Africa on the very vessels holding the enslaved.

In America it went by many names — Guinea Corn (because it came from West Africa), chicken corn (because the seeds were splendid feed for fowl), Tennessee rice, drooping sorghum, and broom corn. The leaves were stripped from the stalks and used as livestock fodder, the seeds for grain, and some used the stalks as a source for saccharine.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that 15 high sugarcane varieties from South Africa, imported to South Carolina by Lawrence Wray, made sorghum the source of a popular syrup.

Since the Civil War, southern sorghum has been thought of as a sweetener. But recently attention has shifted again to its earliest uses — as a kind of grain. Brewers and bakers have rediscovered grain sorghum because it does not activate celiac sensitivities. And Gullah farmers in South Carolina have started planting White African Sorghum, a variety that combines superb seed grain quality and high saccharine content.

("Agriculture"  The Southern Recorder.  May 31, 1828. 1)

("Agriculture" The Southern Recorder. May 31, 1828. 1)

In the South, Guinea corn was mainly known for its excellent use for livestock fodder, generally not seed for human consumption, except by the people who had traditionally eaten it: the impoverished and the enslaved.

Historically grain sorghum was handled differently depending on who prepared it. African Americans tended to make whole grain porridges from it, or parch it in a skillet, grind it into meal, wet it and form it into griddle cakes. An 1797 song from Jamaica published in the Columbian Magazine for May 1797 details the process:

Guinea corn, I long to see you

Guinea corn, I long to plant you

Guinea corn, I long to mould you

Guinea corn, I long to weed you,

Guinea corn, I long to hoe you

Guinea corn, I long to top you

Guinea corn, I long to cut you

Guinea corn, I long to dry you

Guinea corn, I long to beat you

Guinea corn, I long to thrash you

Guinea corn, I long to parch you

Guinea corn, I long to grind you

Guinea corn I long to turn you

Guinea corn, I long to eat you.

Anglo-American farmers and processors tended to mill unparched sorghum seed soaked in water (bolting it) into flour. The flour went to make flapjacks, bread, and crackers.

Periodically there were campaigns in the 1800s to promote sorghum flour as a substitute for other cereals and pseudo-cereals. An 1865 notice that was reprinted widely in American newspapers: “We have no doubt but that cakes made from sorghum flour are much more healthy and nutritious than those made from buckwheat.” It was “prepared like wheat flour by bolting.” (“Sorghum Flour,” Richmond Inquirer. October 3, 1864).

But using White African Sorghum as a grain was not unheard of. An editorial correspondence from 1823 recommends guinea corn “for table use in lieu of rice or small hominy” and also trumpets its value as feed for poultry and horses.

The writer urges “Mr. Skinner” to introduce the grain to his neighbors: “they are very prolific, and if not known in your neighborhood, will be a great acquisition to the kitchen garden.” (“Guinea Corn—Beans&c.” The American Farmer. May 2, 1823. 5)

The history of sweet sorghum may be more familiar. After the Fall of Vicksburg in 1863, Louisiana cane sugar production was halted, rendering sugar scarce. Sorghum provided relief to both Union and Confederacy households during the war, when many resources were scarce. It became the most popular alternative ingredient to cane sugar.

Sorghum Processing

Sorghum Processing

During the cane sugar shortage of the Civil War, sorghum presented itself as a cheap, durable, and versatile alternative to both sides of the fight.

From 1862 to 1865, “the strange creaking of hum of the cane-mills pervaded the land” (David Dodge. “Domestic Economy in in the Confederacy” The Atlantic Monthly 58. 1886. 235). What had been used as fodder and cereal across the world, was used as a sweetener in war-torn America.

The use of sorghum as a sweetener “was best known and cheapest in Confederate times,” making it almost ubiquitous in the wartime American diet (Mrs. M. P. Handy, “Confederate Coffee” Ouachita Telegraph. Monroe, LA. Dec. 7,1877).

While the use of sorghum was pervasive throughout the nation, the varieties used in the North and South were quite different. In 1853, William Prince imported “Chinese Sugar Cane” from France and distributed it among Northern planters. Around the same time, Leonard Wray, an experimental agriculturalist doing research in South Africa, shipped Imphee grass, a type of sorghum, to Governor Hammond of South Carolina, thus introducing the grain to southern planters. Four years after its introduction, merely 20,000 acres from Minnesota to Georgia were planted, but by 1862, it was a staple across the south, north, and Midwest.

Sorghum Processing

Sorghum Processing

The Chinese sugarcane’s ability to tolerate cold weather meant it could be grown farther north than cane sugar and did not require labor-intensive tending, making it a more politically and morally appealing option for northern farmers than the backbreaking cane sugar, which could not be grown without slave labor and a warm climate.

Sorghum as a sweetener still proved popular post-war. From 1870 to 1920, the sorghum jug sat next to the biscuit basket on many southern and Midwestern tables. Its mellow and malty taste, along with its comparatively low-labor input and manageable growing season ensured sorghum’s longevity in the American diet when products like rye coffee faded into the background once typical ingredients became available again.

Of the dozens of sorghum varieties brought over by Wray and Prince in the 1850s, only one is still available: White African Sorghum. Originally imported as Enyama Imphee, the sorghum variety was one of 15 strains experimented with during the 19th Century. When beet sugar production boomed in the 1880s, however, many of these strains were abandoned, eventually leaving White African as the sole surviving Imphee variety. The tall, leafy stalk slightly resembles a corn stalk. Standing at an average of ten-feet tall, the white seeds (of which the grain earns its name) are enclosed within a black glume. A coating ensures high rates of water retention, ensuring the White African’s ability to grow in harsh climates. Currently, White African seeds are available to purchase from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.


Sorghum is the “fifth most important cereal crop in the world.” Its durability and versatility ensures the grower food security.

Dr. Steven Kresovich, the Coker Chair of Genetics at Clemson University and Member of the Board of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, stands at the forefront of selecting and breeding varieties of sorghum suited to the particular needs of brewers, distillers, the livestock industry, biofuel producers, and the baking industry.

At a time when the thirstiness and lack of heat tolerance stress corn and make it an unattractive option in parts of the country suffering water shortages, sorghum has become an economical alternative. Qualities of resilience, drought tolerance, and foliage generation are among the traits that are strengthened in new strains of sorghum being bred in South Carolina.

For those seeking the traditional taste of guinea corn porridge or griddle cakes, White African Sorghum is the first choice. If traditional syrup is one’s desire, White African has rivals — Amber (an old variety) and Honey/Sugar Drip.

In January 2018, a shipment of White African sorghum was sent to Gullah farmers along the East Coast. What was once only fodder and provisions may finally make its way into the American diet as a respected staple along rice or hominy — a meal 300 years in the making.

The Old Ones: the landrace oats of America

By David Shields and Zoe Nicholson

The Hulless Oat

The Hulless Oat

Oats. These humble, reliable, and hearty field grains aren’t typically heralded as classic American crops, but they rank among the highest producing cereals of 2018. They are steeped in the agricultural history of our nation, and, in a way, can help us to trace our various paths through the Atlantic and Pacific to America.

Traditionally we imagine oats to be white, and visualize them being used for meal, bread, and beer — culinary oats. But there are non-white oats — black, gray and red — that have long been exiled from the popular imagination; in the 1800s these were favored for livestock feed.

The old segregation of white “human oats” and colored “animal oats” are from fears of spoilage; discoloration would reveal contamination with ergot or other dangerous pathogens, and discoloration could be seen readily on white oats. Yet the colored varieties of landrace oats possess the same slightly sweet, commonly wholesome flavor of the white culinary oats. But in our age of modern technology and sufficient refrigeration, this separation is no longer needed.

The livestock varieties also have an added benefit. Because these black, red, and grey landraces had been selected over centuries to provide hearty sustenance to livestock, their protein profiles far exceed the modern commodity oats (typically averaging 17.5%) bred in the last century. One such oat, the Winter Turf Oat, was bred specifically for race horses: literally, fuel for speed. A bowl of oatmeal for breakfast is intended to energize for a day; a bowl of Winter Turf Oats would be like that same bowl of oatmeal, plus a pair of Red Bulls. 

These landrace oats aren’t lost or extinct, but have been relatively well-preserved thanks to the USDA Small Grains repository. Since they proved sturdy, successful crops, many of these oat varieties also served as parents for many selections of new varieties of grains in the late 9th and early 20th  centuries. No landrace oat in North America is an indigenous crop, all were imported.

Since spoilage is now a non-issue when considering landrace oats, let’s explore the varieties of colored oats that have been left out for the livestock for too long:

The Barley Oat

Found in a potato field in Cumberland, England in 1788, the barley oat — or the potato oat — was a major crop in the English-speaking world during the early 1800s.

In the 1860s, agronomists believed that hundreds of millions of bushels of the oat had all descended from the single plant found in Cumberland the century before (“The Potato Oat,” Lake Superior Miner. July 18, 1868. 4).

A short, white, and heavy grain, the barley oat was harvested green and sufficiently survived storm winds. It yielded high amounts (70-75 grains per head and about 50 bushels per acre) and contained high amounts of protein. Where the average white oat is of between 17-17.5 percent protein makeup, the Barley Oat is 21 percent. Another bonus, it was a favorite with livestock, meaning its tough texture was a non-issue. The oat lacks an awn, making it easy to process.

The USDA maintains several lines, more information can be found here.

White Tartarian Oat 

When the unilateral panicle grain was imported from Europe in the early 19th century, it was primarily being cultivated in France, not Russia or Siberia.

A sturdy variety, the White Tartarian resists stem rust and its late maturation made it a popular field crop in the Northern U.S. and Canada during the latter part of the 19th century. The strain was particularly useful in the Midwest, where it was able to withstand prairie winds.

According to an article from The Cultivator in 1856, the white tartarian “will produce large crops on light soils,” making it a popular livestock feed choice (“Experiments with Oats.” The Cultivator. April 1856. 110). The sweetness of the grain made for suitable “dry fodder” for horses and cattle (Henry Stephens, The Farmer’s Guide to Scientific and Practical Agriculture. New York:1851. 449).

More information of the White Tartarian here.

The Winter Turf Oat

N.J. Willet Seed , Augusta, Georgia, 1915.

N.J. Willet Seed, Augusta, Georgia, 1915.

Also known as the Virginia Grey Oat, this landrace oat was famed for tilling profusely and yielding substantial crops.

Harvested in October, the longish grains was largely used for horse and cattle feed, leading it to become extremely high in protein (“On the Culture of Oats” Southern Cultivator. May 1852. 134).  Used in America at least by 1762, it was planted in the fall by George Washington himself, as recorded in his diary. The hardiest of all landrace oats in North America, its late maturity ensured the oat was “much better than ordinary spring oats for feed” (“Winter Turf Oats.” Coleman’s Rural World. August 27, 1902. 8). 

By the early 20th Century, the variety ceased to be a primary southern cultivation, but it became an important genetic resource in breeding the century’s winter oat varieties.

More information here.

Red Oat

Also known as the Rustproof oat, the red oat was the second winter oat grown in North America after its arrival in 1849 (The Winter Turf being the first).

A product of war, the red oat was introduced in the South by a soldier returning from the Mexican War. Originated in the Mexican highlands, the red rust-resistant oat provided small, tender, and tasty straw for livestock, primarily in Georgia and the Carolinas (“The Red Oat” Raleigh Observer. June 14, 1877. 2).

In these areas, particularly those that had become exhausted from cotton cultivation, the red oat could generate 20 bushels with ease. Its resistance to rust, or puccinia coronata, made it a highly valuable crop, especially since the disease it was mostly immune to devastated crops globally. Because of this asset, the red oat became a resource for breeders in the 20th century looking to impart the oat’s rust-resistance onto more productive oat varieties (Franklin Arthur Coffman. “Oat History” Identification and Classification USDA Agricultural Research Service Bulletin, 1516. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977, 58).

Because of its usefulness, the red oat, a native of the Mexican hills and a staple in the Southeast, has remained in germplasm banks around the world.

More information here.

Black Tartarian Oat

Also called the Siberian oat, this “old black oat” was a widely cultivated long straw grain of average quality.

Its upside?

The grain produced 100 bushels per acre.

The landrace thrived in the “peaty, marshy soils” of the Southeast — think Piedmont bottoms, Carolina bays, and coastal floodplains.

An Eastern Ukraine native, the landrace was introduced to British fields in the early 19th Century before making its way to the States in the 1840s. High in protein, it is made up of about 21.5 percent protein. Its use wasn’t relegated to the Southeast, however. The black tartarian proved popular in some northern states, especially new York. Usually black or brown, the “thin and rather small” grains were used as fodder (“The Oat” Genesee Farmer. March 1838).

More information here.

Hulless Oat

An oat of many names — the naked oat, peel oat, pellowes oat — this ancient Indo-European landrace, also called the Skinless Oat and the Peelcorn, is thought to be the original “bread corn” of the British Isles.

Found as early as 1597 in writing, when John Gerhard included it in his famous English Herbal guide, the Hulless oat is known primarily for its field hardiness (“Skinless Oats” The Genesee Farmer. February 4, 1832, 33).

While it probably the least productive of the livestock field oats listed here, it generated ample straw for the Americans in the 19th century — and was high in protein (22 percent). Its long history meant many Americans imported the grain in the 1830s, leading to a number of rumors about the Skinless Oat’s origin: China, Siberia, and England to name a few.

The oat is grown all the over the globe and has been grown in Anglo-America since the 18th century.

While it is susceptible to smut, it’s easy to mill and produces a high amount of protein. According to many, the taste of the Skinless Oat is as well-rounded as its ancient history.

More information on the Hulless Oat here.

The livestock landrace oats are uncharted culinary ingredients, and their availability means they are ripe for the cultivating. While the culinary benefits are exciting, the historical impact of the landrace oats remind us that the agricultural and culinary history of America didn’t completely originate on this soil. It was a culmination of many cultures, many crops, and many methods that created the great American diet.

The Oat Cake

The Oat Cake

And what better way to sample one this unknown aspect of the American agricultural history than with an oat cake?

Oats, water, salt cooked crispy. There is something substantial, satisfying, and texturally proper about a classic oat cake. It is the one preparation where you can encounter, unadorned, the natural splendor of an oat. It is the food par excellence in which the virtues of the old heirloom oats shine.

Now it is Found: the Story of Cocke's Prolific Corn

By Zoe Nicholson & David Shields 


“We’ve been growin’ it here since the 1930s — my uncle & my father. . . I’ve been growin’ it since after World War 2,” Manning Farmer, a 95-year-old farmer from Landrum, SC, says as he motions to the mounds of corn he’s been growing for over 75 years. The corn was Cocke’s Prolific, and to Dr. Shields’ knowledge, Farmer’s supply was the only available supply “on the planet.”

One part of the “trinity of classic Virginia field corns” — along with the Bloody butcher and White Gourdseed — Cocke’s Prolific was a signature field corn and popular to the Virginian diet for over a century. Credited to Gen. John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation in central Virginia, the corn earned its second qualifier from the amount of cobs each stalk is able to produce: two to four, at the very least.

Why did it prove so popular? For starters, the average corn variety in Virginia at the time of Cocke’s Prolific creation was only able to produce one to two stalks, while Cocke’s Prolific usually produces two stalks and a nubbin, and sometimes up to four full stalks.

In the Antebellum South, prolific corn was the favored grain for this very reason, where farmers, especially those associated with the Old Dominion and the economic elite [1] , were always searching for the next big cash crop. It is surmised that the corn originally gained notice through such circles as these because of Gen. Cocke’s involvement in the Albemarle Agricultural Society.

A dent corn, and a flinty one at that, Cocke’s prolific was the preferred corn variety for livestock silage and cornbread meal. Also known as Virginia Ensilage, the corn never became a staple of the spirit’s industry; Gen. Cocke was an avid supporter of the temperance movement and discouraged the use of his productive grain in whiskey and bourbon.

The Prolific corn was sought after because it allowed two stalks when densely planted, but up to seven if the planter spaced them out or extensively tilled. A single grain can produce many stalks and ears of corn, proving it to be cost-efficient and space-saving.

Cocke’s Prolific is a 120-day corn and typically yields 55 to 105 bushels per acre. Although the cobs are small, the number of them per stalk makes up for their less than average size. Initially, the stalks were smaller than average and relatively weak, but expert seed selection throughout the 19th Century improved this defect.

Buchanan’s Seeds , Memphis Tennessee 1917, p. 50.

Buchanan’s Seeds, Memphis Tennessee 1917, p. 50.

Its popularity increased into the 1880s and beyond, where it outlasted and outsold the other prolific breeds, including Hick’s Prolific from New York and Peabody’s Prolific from Mississippi. Cocke’s Prolific was the longest-lasting of all the Prolific varieties of the Southeast, but almost completely disappeared from the market after the Second World War.

For the past three years Dr. Shields has been looking for this grain. Thanks to Angie Lavezzo of Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC, Dr. Shields was connected with Manning Farmer and his son, Darrell. Lavezzo came across the seed for “Cox’s Prolific” on Craigslist, which is synonymous to Cocke’s Prolific. The seller of the seed, Clarence Gibbs, is a close friend of Farmer, and put Dr. Shields and Lavezzo in touch with the growers, which culminated in a visit to their farm earlier this year along with Gibbs and Chris Smith of Sow True Seed.

“See those piles there, along the curve of the road. That’s the corn,” Manning Farmer said with a knowing smile. Beyond his scuppernong bower, 16 mounds of stalks and husks waited to be utilized by Farmer and his son. The Farmers began growing Cocke’s Prolific in the 1930s and take great care with seed selection and spacing. Spaced out at eight to ten inches, Farmer rotates the corn with Knuckle peas. He allows the cobs to dry out on their stalks, making them optimal for plucking and shucking.           


Cocke’s Prolific was only being grown on their farms in the Upstate, but since our visit, the corn is now being reintroduced to growers and researchers. Robert McDonald of Dancing Stars Farms Seeds in Pennsylvania, Dr. James Holland of NC State University, and Dr. Bob Perry at the University of Kentucky all possess the variety and are growing it out. Currently, it is also being grown at Monticello, homestead of Thomas Jefferson.

“Now it is found,” Dr. Shields writes of the heritage grain that was so vital to the Virginian agricultural landscape for over a hundred years.

Cocke’s Prolific is one of many lost grains and vegetables The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is hoping to recover, along with the Palmetto Asparagus and the Crawford Turnip. Fortunately it has been found — white kernels glinting in the winter sun, on a small farm in the Blue Ridge foothills.   

Mighty Sweet Rice: Inland and Garden Rice in the 20th Century

Written by James H. Tuten

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Rice cultivation has an unbroken tradition in small or garden plots around parts of the African Diaspora from Sierra Leone to the hill rice in Trinidad. In the old Rice Kingdom of the United States, however, where Carolina Gold once dominated, an emphasis on commercial production or plantation agriculture obscured the history of garden rice.

Although commercial rice production ended in the late 1920s or very early 1930s, rice growing for personal use is nearly an unbroken tradition here too. After emancipation, when the Gullah faced a choice on whether to grow rice, relocate, or remain in place and grow other crops, many chose to be involved in rice. They maintained a connection to rice as commercial growers and garden plot growers and they sustained tradition through their foodways.

A look at small plot rice growers in South Carolina establishes a connection with that aspect of the African Diaspora not only during the era of the enslavement or plantation production in the half-century or so after emancipation but well into the 20th century. 

At several junctures, especially in the decade that we call Reconstruction in the U.S., from 1865-1876, and again in the 20th century as commercial-scale production concluded on rice plantations, rice growers faced inflection points where they had to decide whether to continue growing rice.

These contingent moments further include both a choice about sticking with commercial growing or to grow rice for home consumption. Gullah people were choosing change or continuity with rice. 

Commercial or Plantation Rice Culture

First we will consider the sustained interest that Gullah people had for sticking with commercial rice cultivation. Two reasons for this were that many of them had pride in place and in rice growing skill. Before we get to those reasons I want to stipulate that people like the way a field of rice looks. Agricultural people, farmers, typically admire the visuals of their crops. Growers and even visitors to the Rice Kingdom openly applauded the look of rice. 

The aesthetics of rice fields under cultivation affected visitors and planters alike. Near the end of the antebellum era T. Addison Richards reported in Harpers magazine on his visit to the Lowcountry. “[F]ew are they who know aught of the graceful grain, living, blossoming, and ripening into golden beauty in its native fields,” he declared. He considered rice to be the “most beautiful ... of the great family of grains.” [T. Addison Richards, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1859) 721-738]

Other visitors noted the visual effect of rice and the plantation fields. During Reconstruction Edward King investigated the region as a journalist and waxed eloquent on what he found.

“Beautiful were the broad and carefully cultivated acres, stretching miles away on either side of the placid, deep, and noble Combahee; picturesque were the granaries … and novel and inspiring the vistas of the long sedge-bordered canals.” [Edward King, The Great South, 436]

Rice fields made a strong impression upon people in part because of the geometric shapes they imposed upon the landscape and the sharp relief that the waterways provided between every cultivated square. Often, too, the terrain and agricultural patterns struck viewers because they were so different from that to which they were accustomed. 

When a crop or commodity is important to a particular society, residents will often have festivals and celebratory events connected to the cultivation cycle. Those who labored through the hot and mercilessly humid summer days enjoyed the brief parties of the harvest season.

Maggie Black recounted such events: “Den when dey ge t’rough, dey hab big supper dere fa aw dem wha’ whip rice. Gi’e em aw de rice en hog head dey is e’er wan’. Man, dey’ud hab de nicest kind uv music dere.” [George P. Rawick, ed, South Carolina Narratives, vol 2 The American Slave: A Composite Biography, 1 and 2, 59]

Rice culture required participants to manipulate land and water in ways not demanded by other crops. Judith Carney captured that well by calling rice culture a “knowledge system.” Planters came to believe that only they could manage such a complex undertaking, which added to their pride of being rice planters. Their specialized knowledge enabled them to look down upon those who grew other crops. Moreover, it added to their sense of uniqueness and led them to consider the aesthetic qualities of their land and crops.

The Last Black Rice Laborers

Elizabeth Alston Pringle and the other Waccamaw Neck planters quit planting commercially as a result of a 1910 storm. However, many African Americans continued to reside on the plantations. They no longer worked at growing rice commercially, but they continued to plant small plots of rice for their own food. On Sandy Island, for example, the all-black community grew rice for domestic consumption and as a trade commodity into the late 1940s. [Vennie Deas Moore, Sandy Island: Nothing is the Same, 2-3 ]

For the African Americans who associated with rice culture either through labor alone or by virtue of both employment and abode, the cessation of planting hastened a process of migration into other employments. Over time this migration eroded many of the plantation communities.

Even so, some plantation communities lasted until after the Second World War. After 1900, with little employment left in phosphates, most black men that remained in the rural areas turned fully to timber, turpentine, or railroad work, employments previously pursued in conjunction with planting rice, cotton, and efforts to raise most of their own food. Others joined the ranks of the cotton tenants and sharecroppers, in some cases on the highlands of the same plantations where they had grown rice.

Those African Americans who remained on the rice plantations until the industry collapsed lost more than a job. Many of them appear to have stayed on the plantation because of a sense of place or an attachment to rice culture.

John Rutledge served as the supervisor of the Cheves Family plantation of Weehaw outside of Georgetown. The Cheves brothers’ focus lay with their other lands, and they allowed the houses and the banks to degrade over time. In January of 1901, traditionally the time of year when rice plantation leases were renewed, Rutledge wrote to Henry Cheves informing him of the disintegration of the plantation and of his own commitment.

"Mr Speights told me that my time is up with him he says that he cannot give me any further orders … so i write to ask you if I must continue to go round the bank to look after them. Also the empty houses the hands is moving off because there is nothing to do. I myself will never leave until I die [John Rutledge to Henry Cheves, January 5, 1901. Cheves Papers, SCHS.]

Rutledge was not a singular case. Historian Charles Joyner made an important point with a quote from Ben Horry, a rice growing man born in slavery: “slavery time people done something!”

They had, as Joyner made clear, a sense of ownership of the land because they knew they and their ancestors grew, cultivated and harvested the rice. Morris, also born into slavery but a man who lived well into the 20th century, told the owner of the land where he lived, Bernard Baruch, “My mammy and Daddy worked de rice fields. Dey’s buried here. De furst ting I remember are dose rice banks. De strength of dese arms and dese legs and of dis old back, Mist’ Bernie is in your rice banks.” He went on to make it clear that his connection to the plantation was such that “de ret of dis body want to be with de strength of de arms and de legs and back dat is already buried in your rice banks.” [Joyner, 42-43]

Rutledge and Morris demonstrate the strong sense of connection to the land, the crop of rice and suggests pride in managing the elegant system that produced it. Large plantations were not the only places of rice production in the Lowcountry, though. 

Upland or Interior Rice

The plantation-scale rice culture has had a number of books written about it. But that is not the only area where rice growers raised the grain. In the Pine Barrens just inland from the tidewater, former slaves and their descendants grew rice as a provision crop into the 1930s. This sparsely settled belt was less productive than the Lowcountry, and it was easier for blacks to buy small plots of land or to find tenant arrangements on largely undeveloped pine tracts. In fact, the Black Belt enjoyed a substantial increase in black population after emancipation. 

Perhaps no better example of both upland rice cultivation or the sustained commitment to rice for the kitchen exists in the Lowcountry than in the vicinity of Mars Bluff, South Carolina. In her wonderful book on the subject, African American at Mars Bluff, author Amelia Wallace Vernon interviewed a number of people in the late 1980s who had learned to cultivate upland rice in garden plots.

Matthew Williamson, for example, grew rice on land that his father and his grandfather had used to cultivate rice. “The rice was a way of life at that particular time, because they made it.” [Amelia Wallace Vernon,  African American at Mars Bluff , 207]

Vernon undertook an oral history project in the Mars Bluff community 50 miles above the known tidal rice cultivation area, but still near one of South Carolina’s great rice rivers, the Pee Dee. There, up to around 1920 African Americans supplemented the sharecropping of cotton with garden plots of rice ranging from about one-third to an acre in size. They planted in low ground, trusting to rain or occasionally turning to irrigation from wells.

Vernon found at least one person who grew rice within the town limits of Florence, a medium size city in the state, all the way up to 1939. [101] Some grew wetland and some dryland rice. All grew it for their own table or to share with friends and family. But in general rice growing declined in the 1920s as a generation died or others moved away as part of the great migration of African Americans out of the South.

While Vernon believes her subjects didn’t eat the rice they grew, I find that unlikely. She does see it as an African Diaspora cultural survival. Rice was perceived as only having marginal cash value and was grown on otherwise unused lands, so a sharecropper could grow some and keep it all. There are signs that rice had been grown as a tertiary provision crop in Mars Bluff during slavery. They ate some and sold some. They kept planting it, because “that skill … had set them off as special and had given them a degree of autonomy…”[125-128]

Though rice growers in the Pine Barrens did not always make the grain central to their foodways, rice did carry some of the same symbolic content that it had in the Lowcountry rice kingdom.

Vernon’s research suggests that whites, more than blacks, maintained a rice kitchen around Mars Bluff. The African Americans in the area that raised rice, but only occasionally ate it, grew it because it conferred status upon them as farmers. 

In other words, African Americans, like white rice planters, gained some degree of self-respect and status from the greater technological and agricultural complexity involved in growing rice as opposed to cotton or corn.  [Vernon, African Americans at Mars Bluff, 127-128]

Another method for getting at the production of rice for home use is the Census of Agriculture. For my purposes here I focused on the data for 1934 and 1939.

The old rice plantation counties still had many small, non-commercial rice growers during the Great Depression, a decade to a quarter century after commercial-scale cultivation ended. For example, Beaufort County had over 400 farms reporting rice on a total of 380 acres. That indicates small plots of an acre or less in. Similarly, Charleston had 379 farms amounting to 323 acres of rice. The figures for broadly uniform for the old coastal counties. 

Rice Production in Rice Kingdom, 1934

407 farms223379324125174433
380 acres208323422166329872
1294 bbl6681448115441422992566

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

What the Agriculture Census also shows is a precipitous decline in the garden plot rice during the Great Depression. Five years later, in 1939, the number of rice farmers, acres and barrels grown had fallen by half or more in each county. 

As important for us to notice, though, is the inland rice production by small farmers. The chart on inland counties reveals that in 1934 Orangeburg County, pretty far inland, grew more rice than two of the counties in the rice kingdom. These were mostly small-scale growers continuing a tradition of inland production in the pine belt that had existed at least since Reconstruction. Research by Coclanis and Marlow shows that the rice growers were nearly evenly divided between black and white rice growers. 

Although the agricultural census quit recording such small non-commercial levels of production in 1940, that is not positive evidence that no one grew rice anymore. A broad and concerted effort to document inland garden crops of rice just might reveal but a short break in rice growing. For example, to my surprise I recently learned that African-American farmer Snowden Buckner routinely planted a quarter acre of rice along the Salkehatchie Highway in Hampton County into the middle 1950s. [Henry Tuten interview, 1-29-17]

Regardless of race, the dominant place of rice eating — the rice kitchen— and rice growing re-shaped society so that after emancipation both members of the African diaspora and white South Carolinians had rice as part of their agricultural and culinary heritage. That is why they kept growing it for another 70 years or more. 

Rice Production Inland Counties, 1934

29 farms691247652334129
38 acres78215684651997
73 bbl1645632101021012237

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

Over the years between 1865 and 1940, one-time rice growers repeatedly asked themselves whether their economic interests, the lack of civil rights, and the allure of cities in the South or the North amounted to enough of an invitation to migrate from country to town and out of the region altogether. 

Migration certainly meant an end to personal rice production.

A second choice was whether to keep or to let go of the rice kitchen. For those who moved to New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles, some chose to let go of some elements of that rural past and other Americans, white and black, denigrated migrants’ dialects and culinary cultures and encouraged conformity to mass culture. Emory Campbell wrote of the “masking of Gullah culture” both outside the South and even among fellow African Americans when in Savannah.

In some cases shame of being rural in a society promoting urban superiority, a desire to embrace modern lifestyles and move away from the past led to abandonment of rice eating" as some of us will tend to divorce ourselves from rice meals,” Campbell observed, “except an occasional Chinese rice dinner.” [Campbell, 287]

It seems that most African American families in the Lowcountry, however, did keep a rice kitchen and continued to rely on rice as their staple food up to the present day. While a corn-based diet predominated in much of the cotton South, Ben Horry stated that on the plantation where he labored as a slave they “never have much grits…have fine rice.” [Rawick, Supplement, Series 1, Volume 11, 197.]

Likewise, for Gabriel Washington, born into slavery on a rice plantation, gardening included rice that he ate every evening as late as 1939. [Charles Von Ohsen, “Gabriel Washington: Life History” South Carolina Writer’s Project (c-10 SC, Box 2)] Maggie Black, another interviewee, noted the difference between the brown rice pounded on the plantation and the bleached rice she bought in the 1930s, remembering “it wuz mighty sweet rice, honey, mighty sweet rice.” [Rawick, SC 1&2, 59]

Many black families such as Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s maintained their culinary traditions despite migrating out of the Lowcountry. Smart-Gosvenor, born in the Lowcountry, wrote as recently as 1970, “And speaking of rice. I was 16 years old before I knew that everyone didn’t eat rice every day. Us being Geechees, we had rice everyday. When you said what you were eating for dinner, you always assumed that rice was there.” Today the South continues to be a major market for rice and most of the major rice markets are east of the Mississippi River. White families that left the area also kept this link to their heritage. [Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Second ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992). 6,7-10.] 

Similarly, Emory Campbell, born and raised on Hilton Head and long-time leader of Penn Center recalled of growing up that to be Gullah meant he assumed he would always have “an affinity for rice dishes; rice was a part of every dinner meal (…) sometime eaten with okra, ‘matoes, and prawns.” [Emory Campbell in Phillip Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry, 283-4] Alexander Small put his attachment to a rice kitchen in this context: 

Since daddy was a Geechee in the truest sense, no meal could be served without fluffy Carolina long grain rice. (I’d seen him leave the table, refusing to come back, until my mother, who was trying to break the habit, made him some.) [Alexander Smalls and Hettie Jones, Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes From My Southern Revival 3.]

The Great Depression and World War brought many changes — and here I speculate — that the decline in rice cultivation in the 1930s is attributable to multiple causes including seed rice becoming harder to attain, land ownership loss during the depression, the disruption of the war and the economic boom afterward with lots of cheap rice. 

I suspect these factors worked together to bring about the decline. Today though, small rice growing has begun a rebound thanks in no small part to the work of David Shields and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and chefs such as BJ Dennis who value local and heritage ingredients and from whom many others of us take our cues about food. 

A Compendium of Traditional Grains of the Coastal South

In 2004 the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation formed to renew the agriculture that gave rise to the rice-centered cuisine of the Lowcountry from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.  The revival of the cereals stood at the center of the work the Foundation undertook — not just the rice, but the biscuit wheat, the whiskey rye, the high-power oats bred for race horses, and meal, sweet, and flint corns. 

We sought the enduring staples — the row crops whose virtues were so profound that they remained in use for generations. In 2004 we did not know what those enduring grains were, aside from Carolina Gold Rice. Research in 19th-century agricultural journals gave us an outline that served as a guide to restoration in 2006-2007. Yet our picture of the full scheme of cereal production did not come into final focus until 2013-14. 

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The Merikins of Trinidad Preserve Upland Bearded Rice

By David S. Shields

John Elliott amid a field of Hill Rice

John Elliott amid a field of Hill Rice

Two hundred years ago a group of southern slaves took up arms against their masters, joining the British Royal Marines in the War of 1812 when promised freedom and land if they enlisted. In 1815 and 1816, the British fulfilled that promise, resettling the black veterans in the hills of southern Trinidad. Each Marine received a grant of 16 acres to improve as he saw fit. They were also granted liberty within the British empire. Deploying themselves across the countryside by Companies, these proud men (and some women) took to calling themselves the Merikins. They took up farming, growing the crops they had cultivated in the American South, particularly those common to the sea islands of Georgia where the Fourth Company had been recruited: rice, maize, benne (low oil landrace sesame), sweet potato, okra, cowpeas, sugar cane, and tanya (Colocasia esculante).

Now — 200 years later—the descendants of these settlers still call themselves Merikins, still grow these staple field and garden crops, indeed, still maintain those seed stocks they brought from the South two centuries ago. The fields around Prince’s Town in southern Trinidad are a remarkable time capsule of Lowcountry culinary plants of two centuries ago, supplemented by African yam, pigeon pea, Toopie Tomboo, and a host of tropical fruits.   

Some of things that the Merikins grow survive in the South as well: the green Home sugarcane, benne, white fleshed sweet potatoes, yellow dent corn, red flint corn, cowpeas, and okra. They also grow things once common on the southern landscape that are now gone. Two were greatly important in the 19th century: the tanya (also called provision plant in Trinidad) and upland bearded rice. 

It is the story of the latter than concerns us here, for upland rices — rice varieties developed for dry cultivation in plantings at elevation instead of water impoundments — were extremely rare in the West in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, only two were known to be in the western hemisphere at the time of the Merikan settlement of Trinidad: one was a short season white rice that came from Cochin China, or Viet Nam, conveyed to South Carolina, Georgia, and the islands of Jamaica and Dominica in the 1770s.  The other was a red bearded rice brought out of West Africa in 1789 by Captain Nathaniel Cutting and planted in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky in the first decades of the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson was the initial distributor of this seed.  

If we are to credit the 1904 report of Rev. Dr. H. H. Morton (Imperial Department of Agriculture of the West Indies), both varieties of upland rice were being grown in the hills settled by the Merikins at the outset of the 20th century. In a survey of rice cultivation he noted, besides the East Indian water grown sorts, “Two varieties large upland rice: twelve weeks rice, and red bearded. This last has a long awn, somewhat like bearded barley, which is very useful in protecting the grain from the attacks of birds.”

In 2016 only the latter rice — the red bearded upland rice with its spiked awn — remains in cultivation on Merikan hill farms. Ethnobotanist Dr. Francis Morean of Arima, Trinidad, has spent the last several years documenting the remaining farmers of “Hill Rice” in Trinidad. Indeed, Dr. Morean has undertaken the cultivation of the rice himself to learn its distinctive growth patterns and its milling and culinary qualities.  

In December 2016 Dr. Morean invited Queen Quet, head of the Gullah Geechee, ethnobotanist Dr. Anthony Pamaplele Richards (University of the West Indies), historians Dr. Jim Tuten (Juniata College), and myself (University of South Carolina & Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation) to Trinidad for a Hill Rice Symposium. Attendees traveled to the Merikan settlement region in south Trinidad, viewed a field of fully grown Hill Rice in situ, and interviewed John Elliot, a Merikan farmer descended (Dr. Morean believes) from one of the Marines recruited from the Georgia Sea Islands, who demonstrated the steps in processing the rice.  In the exchange of information at the Symposium, Dr. Morean indicated that the Merikins introduced rice cultivation to the island; none predated the fields that the settlers planted in 1816-1817. I communicated the backstory of upland rice cultivation in the western hemisphere and surmised that the Hill Rice growing in Trinidad is a variety of Oryza glaberrima originally deriving from the hill country of West Africa, conveyed to America, and grown in the upcountry South from the 1790s until the early 20th century. It vanished from the fields around the time of World War I, but apparently was conveyed to Trinidad in 1816.


West African Bearded Upland Rice in the American South


The story begins with a confusion. Thomas Jefferson hears that upland rice grows in places along the West Coast of Africa. He concludes, on the basis of a third hand report, that rice from Cochin China had been conveyed to Africa and planted there: 

“I first became informed of the existence of a Rice which would grow in uplands without any more water than the common rains, by reading a book of M. de Poyore, who had been Governor of the Isle of France, who mentions it as growing there, and all along the coast of Africa, successively, and having been introduced from Cochin China. I was at the time (1784-85) in France ... When at Havre, on my return from France, I found there Captain Nathaniel Cutting, who was on the ensuing spring to go on a voyage to the coast of Africa. I engaged him to enquire for this.  He was there just after the harvest, procured and sent me a 30 gallon cask of it.”

Jefferson, conscious that growing rice in watery impoundments was attended with disease, (malaria was rife in the Lowcountry), immediately grasped that upland rice would be a healthier alternative to the swamp rices being grown in the United States. Jefferson experimented in France and New York with dry culture rices from Sumatra with modest success. But in 1789 Captain Nathaniel Cutting procured “heavy” red upland rice from "River Denby, about the Latt. 9.° 30' North" near present Conakry in Guinea.” [

Upland landraces of rice remain in cultivation in middle Guinea and Sierra Leone. In recent surveys of genetic resources in West Africa, the upland varieties collected have invariably been belonged to the Oryza glaberrima family indigenous to Africa. [Kayode Abiola Sanni, Daniel D. Tia, David K. Ojo, Ayoni S. Agunbayo, Mouritala Sikirou and N. Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, “Diversity of Rice and Related Wild Species in Africa,” African Rice]. Thirty years ago, upland cultivation of rice remains 60 percent of current rice production in Guinea, but it was less productive that water cultivated Oryza sativa varieties, and is most cultivated by subsistence farmers in the hilly interior of the country. [P. C. Gupta, J. C. O’Toole,  “Upland Rice Distribution,”  Upland Rice: a Global Perspective (International Rice Research Institute, 1986), 7.] Since that assay, the percentage of upland rice has diminished as more productive Asian rice varieties have come to dominate the fields of West Africa. 

So, in all likelihood, Cutting forwarded 30 gallons of O. glaberrima upland rice seed collected in the markets of Conakry. Jefferson grew out some experimentally for three years, but dispatched most southward to persons interested in rice culture: to Ralph Izard of the South Carolina Agricultural Society and to Abraham Baldwin in north Georgia. “I divided it between he Agricultural Society of Charleston, and some private gentlemen in Georgia, recommending it to their care, in the hope which had induced me to obtain it, that if it answered as well as the swamp Rice, it might rid them of that source of their summer disease.  Nothing came of the trials in South Carolina, but being carried into the upper hilly parts of Georgia, it succeeded there perfectly, has spread over the country, and is now commonly cultivated.”  

The indifference toward the rice by planters of South Carolina can best be explained by the fact that it arrived in the wake of the first cultivation of “Gold Seed Rice” (Carolina Gold), during the moment when everyone engaged in planting rice was smitten by that productive and elegant gold-husked grain with remarkable starch quality.

The development of tidal water culture of rice had taken place in South Carolina by 1784. In 1786 Hezekiah Mayham planted the first field of Carolina Gold in Pineville, Berkeley County, South Carolina. By 1790 every planter was desperately seeking Gold Seed. The appearance of another rice — one that could be grown upland — did not excite the big agriculturists who had seen how water culture caused productivity to explode. So Cutting’s germplasm distributed to planters found its was into provision gardens of African slaves, not into the banked fields lining the tidal rivers of the Lowcountry. 

In the area of Georgia around present day Athens the story was different. There were no tidal rivers, no swampy inland bays. Abraham Baldwin welcomed the prospect of growing rice using just the rain for irrigation, arrayed on hill sides, spaced at foot intervals as a garden plant. Even in 1800 is was clear that this was not a commodity rice, for it was not productive enough to compete with tidal grown Carolina Gold; but as a home resource it was more than welcome, and its cultivation spread into North Alabama, North Mississippi, and as far north as Kentucky. 

As Judith Carney has argued, the provision garden is where slaves supplied themselves with nourishment beyond the ration of corn meal and bacon. [Judith Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, 156]  Gold Seed rice was not part of the food allotment, and being a variety that flourished when wet, did not suit dryland patch cultivation. 

Nineteenth-century historians of Lowcountry rice culture noted that African slaves had taken to growing several varieties of rice for their consumption: “Guinea rice, bearded rice, a short grained rice somewhat like barley, and a species of highland rice.” [John Drayton, View of South Carolina (1802), p. 125].  My surmise is that Guinea rice is the red weedy rice that still plagues rice fields in South Carolina, the bearded rice is the sort that circulated in the upland South and also among Lowcountry planters who devalued the seed. The upland variety mentioned I believe is the Cochin short season rice introduced in 1770 to the South and the West Indies. 

In regards to the bearded rice, it is probable that Africans recognized the seed, familiar from the markets of Guinea and Sierra Leone. The barley-like configuration of the pannicles, and the spiked awn of single grains were sufficiently distinctive to make it immediately recognizable to any who had seen it before. As John Drayton attests, upland bearded rice grew in Lowcountry huck patches for provision after 1800, as well as the farms of the southern hills as farm family food. 

Descriptions abound from the agricultural press of the antebellum South of the bearded upland rice. Periodically it would become the focus of cultivation experiments by planters. In 1830, for instance, the Southern Agriculturist featured a number of articles treating the variety. “A Georgian” made a report from a plantation in Savannah of dry cultivating a half bushel of seed on a “low place.” Despite drought conditions, it “grew luxuriantly ... and ... realized sixty bushels of excellent rice, quite equal to the common rice for the table, and if ground fine which can very easily be done, it makes a delicious cake for breakfast” (July 1830, 356-57).

A stronger recommendation was made by the “Black River Planter.” He wrote:

I find the bearded rice heavier and more productive than the white or gold seed.  Many have supposed that it would not do well in tide land, but experience furnishes ample proof that the reverse of this is the fact. Others say it is tasteless and insipid.  I have never been able to discover any difference; nor do I believe there is any.  Another objection is, it will not stand the pestle well. This (if fact) may result from a late harvest, when the rice is too ripe, and would injure any rice in the same way. Another objection is, that there is a spot in the grain which has a chalky appearance, and will injure the sale.  The eye of every grain of rice (so termed,) has the same appearance, and the same objection would apply.  [“Observations on the Bearded Rice,” Southern Agriculturist (Nov., 1830), 578.]

Indeed, the Black River Planter (Dr. Francis Parker) found the only liability with the rice lay in its being more laborious to harvest, and consequently resisted by some African slaves. In its favor, this cultivator cited its taller growth, early maturation, resistance to bird depredation, and greater productivity. Only this last point seems fanciful, perhaps a function of the freakish fertility of the soil along the Black River.

Multiple attestations from growers who cultivated it as a dry culture upland rice indicated that its productivity did not approach that of gold seed rice, or even the old Madagascar white rice that had dominated Lowcountry fields from 1690 to 1790. Nevertheless, it spread throughout the South. It was introduced into cultivation in Louisiana in 1842 [Appleton’s Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events 10 (1871), 458.] When described, it was named variously, either as white bearded rice, referencing the light cream color of the husks on the grain, or red bearded rice, referencing the reddish pericarp coating the rice seed body. Commentators epitomized it thusly, “The grain of this kind is rather larger, and is furnished in its unhulled state with a very long awn of beard — grows well on high land.” [“Rice — History and Statistics,” in J. D. B. DeBow’s The Southern States (1856), 396.] 

There were parts of the South where the bearded rice’s ability to grow in marginal soil became a cause for hope.  An 1824 letter to the American Farmer suggests the excitement it caused in Alabama: “A few years since an impression prevailed, even here, that rice could only be cultivated, to advantage, on that that could be flooded at pleasure. But now rice is fast superceding corn in the poor piny wood lands of this country, and will soon become the provision crop on such lands” [“Mobile, January 20, 1824,” American Farmer 6 (1824), 47.] This farmer’s words were prophetic, for bearded rice would remain a fixture on the landscape of the Alabama uplands until the Civil War.  

Why did it not remain until the present day as a provision crop?  The causes are readily adduced: white Honduran rice after the Civil War became so common and cheap that it did not pay to grow one’s own. Removing the red pericarp (chaff) proved difficult, and if one wanted pure white grains on the plate much of the outer surface of the grain had to be milled off. The spikes that inhibited birds from eating the grain proved inconvenient, indeed hurtful, to harvesters. There were more convenient rices to cultivate, including the other upland rice that came into the South— the short season Cochin rice. 

In sum, bearded upland rice was present in the South throughout the 19th century. While it could have been conveyed to the Lowcountry by the slaves themselves early in the 18th century, it comes to widespread notice after a West African shipment to Jefferson is distributed throughout the Lowcountry by the South Carolina Agricultural Society in 1789 and to the upland South by Abraham Baldwin. After 1802 It is registered by multiple observers as a patch grown provision crop maintained by African slaves working the tidal rice plantations of the coastal Southeast —including those areas from which the 4th company of the British Royal Marines were recruited in 1814. Since rice cultivation in Trinidad began in 1816 by the Merikan settlers, including former inhabitants of the sea islands, the most likely scenario for transmission is that upland bearded rice was taken from the Lowcountry to the Merikan settlement area in the south of Trinidad. The rice no longer survives in the South; it has been preserved and cherished by the Merikan community.


Cochin Short Season White Upland Rice


One variety of upland rice noted by Dr. H. H. Morton a century ago in Trinidad is no longer grown: twelve week rice, a short season upland white rice. This was probably the other upland rice known to have been brought into cultivation in the Lowcountry prior to the departure of the Merikins — Cochin short-seasoned upland rice.  

Reports from Asia spoke of rice culture using specially adapted varieties of rice, planted at spaced intervals in fields, in elevated parts of Indonesia, Cochin China, and Thailand. 

Accounts of Asian upland rice had stimulated a demand throughout the British America for seed that might be planted. The first upland seed to arrive in North America came through the efforts of a supercargo and plant collector for the East India Company at Canton China in the 1770s —John Brodly Blake.  

The Cochin Upland Rice was one of five landraces traditionally cultivated in the hills of Vietnam: Tangi, Bo-lo, Lirnam-bang, Lirandi, and Le-muyo. The last is an early short season rice, ripening in four and a half months and was exclusively dry raised on the uplands. Nineteenth-century observers of rice cultivation in Cochin China observed that upland rice cultivation required more labor and care than aquatic growing. 

“The land must be ploughed three or four times, and all the tuft and lumps well broken up by the harrow. During its growth, it must be weeded two or three times to save the crop from being choked. The seed is sown by hand in the month of May and is harvest in November. It is never reaped, in consequence of the grain not adhering to the ear, but is pulled up by the roots.” [Edward Brown, Cochin China and My Experience of It (London: Charleston Westerton, 1861), 211].

The South Carolina and American General Gazette on Dec. 28, 1771 published the “Travels of a Philosophers” containing a notice that Blake had conveyed to John Ellis of Gray’s Inn in London Cochin upland rice and the tallow tree for distribution in Carolina and the West Indies. “We have the pleasure to inform the public, that by the indefatigable industry of a very curious gentleman at Canton, a sufficient quantity for experiment of the upland rice from Cochin China, so long wished for, has been sent by the Thames Indiaman to his friend in Gray’s Inn, who will take proper care that it is distributed to such persons in our southern colonies as will make a fair trial of this most useful grain.”  

John Ellis held the office of royal agent for West Florida, an administrative post in London superintending the colony’s develop. He communicated the rice to several colonial planter botanists: to his brother Henry Ellis in Jamaica, General Robert Melvill in Dominica, and Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina. A botanist himself, Ellis had published an instruction Directions For Bringing Over Seeds and Plants, from the East-Indies and other Distant Countries in a State of Vegetation (London: L. Davis, 1770), so whatever he communicated had a fair potential for being viable. Despite this, of the parcel shipped to Alexander Garden, a sole grain tillered and grew at his garden at Otranto in Goose Creek, South Carolina.  

Perhaps a word should be said about recipient Robert Melvill. For the period 1765 to 1771 he served as governor of several islands ceded by the French in the West Indies at the close of the Seven Years War. These included the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Tobago. A botanist, he typically spread seed he received around those places he governed. Trinidad was still under Spanish rule during the period of Melvill’s governorship, so it is unlikely that he introduced Cochin rice to Trinidad. It, like bearded rice, probably came from the Lowcountry with the Merikins.  

John Ellis sent seed to botanist Alexander Garden in South Carolina, the foremost natural historian of the 1750s-1770s. Garden had difficulty growing the plant, and a single rice plant germinated. From this solitary survivor, he extracted seed and distributed it to at least three other planters of his network in South Carolina. He also dispensed the Chinese Tallow tree (now an invasive species), the Camphor tree, and two varieties of Indigo, one sky blue, the other deep blue, to supplement the West Indian sourced dye plants that Eliza Lucas Pinckney had brought to the Lowcountry.  But the short-season upland rice that the Merikins brought to Trinidad may not have derived from these Carolina seeds

Cochin rice came into coastal Georgia via another route. John Ellis conveyed seed to Benjamin Franklin when he was in London. Franklin shipped them to horticulturist John Bartram in Pennsylvania on October 17, 1772. Other rice was sent to Noble Jones, proprietor of Some of Wormsloe Plantation outside of Savannah Georgia during the 1780s. Wormsloe was a certain of experiment and seed dispersal in colonial Georgia. Cochin rice made its way through Jones’ network to growers throughout Lowcountry Georgia before the end of the 18th century. 

Conclusion: The Merikins counted two upland rices in their seed stocks at the outset of the 20th century, a short season white and a “red bearded” upland rice. Here I have suggested that the former was the Cochin short season upland rice that John Bordly Blake sent through British America in the 1770s. The latter was the bearded upland rice of West Africa that was once commonly grown in the American South, but vanished there early in the 20th century. Thomas Jefferson prided himself at the time of his death for his part in making upland rice a resource in North America, and the documents cited here show that it was grown both in the southern Piedmont and in the Lowcountry by African Slaves. Indeed, both varieties were shown to be cultivated in Tidewater Georgia, the homeland of the 4th company Merikins who settled southern Trinidad. In the 21st century, the Merikins are the sole preservators of the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere. 

Native Pollinators: Their Value, Diversity, And Conservation

Written by B. Merle Shepard, Ph.D.

Native pollinators are critical to the environment and economy. They contribute to our food security and to the health of our agricultural and natural ecosystems. Nearly 75 percent of all flowering plants exist because of native pollinating species and three out of every four bites of food are brought to you by a pollinating species. Eighty percent of the food species depend on pollination. Worldwide, of the estimated 1,330 crop plants, 1,000 of them rely on pollinators to produce fruits, nuts, vegetables, oilseed, and medicinal crops. Below is a table developed by the National Resources Conservation Services of some of the major crops that are benefited by or depend upon pollination.

Legumes and relatives: Beans, Cowpea, Lima Beans, Lupines, Mung Bean/Green or Golden Gram, Soybean
Vegetables: Artichoke, Asparagus, Beet, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cantaloupes, Carrot, Cauliflower, Celeriac, Celery, Cucumber, Eggplant, Endive, Green Pepper, Leek, Lettuce, Okra, Onion, Parsnip, Pumpkin, Radish, Rutabaga, Squash, Tomato, Turnip, White Gourd
Fruits, berries, and nuts: Almonds, Apple, Apricot, Avocado, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cacao, Cashew, Cherry, Chestnut, Citrus, Coffee, Coconut, Crabapple, Cranberry, Currant, Date, Fig, Gooseberry, Grapes, Guava, Huckleberry, Kiwi, Kolanut, Litchi, Macadamia, Mango, Olive, Papaw, Papaya, Passionfruit, Peach, Pear, Persimmon, Plum, Pomegranate, Raspberry, Strawberry, Tung, Vanilla, Watermelon
Herbs and spices: Allspice, Anise, Black Pepper, Caraway, Cardamom, Chive, Clove, Coriander, Dill, Fennel, Lavender, Mustard, Nutmeg, Parsley, Pimento, Tea, White Pepper
Oils, seeds, and grains: Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Canola, Flax, Oil Palm, Safflower, Sesame, Sunflower
Clover and relatives: Alsike Clover, Arrowleaf Clover, Ball Clover, Berseem Clover, Black Medic/Yellow Trefoil, Cider Milkvetch, Crimson Clover, Lespedeza, Peanut, Persian Clover, Red Clover, Rose Clover, Strawberry Clover, Subterranean Clover, Sweet Clover, Trefoil, Vetch, White Clover
Other: Cotton, Kenaf
From: Natural Resources Conservation Management. Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet No. 34. 2005.

In both natural and agricultural ecosystems, billions of dollars of “ecosystem services” are provided by pollinators. Yet many of both native and cultivated pollinators are in serious decline. This short article will explore diversity of pollinating species, mostly native bees, in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the causes for their decline, and how we might modify the environment to increase their numbers and biodiversity. This, in turn, will increase and improve the pollination services that are essential for sustainable agricultural production and the health of natural ecosystems.

An article in the Carolina Rice Foundation Newsletter for the Fall of 2014, explored the importance of pollinators in heirloom and domestic crops. Although there is a rich diversity of pollinators that includes flies, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, and birds, native bees are by far the most important and essential. However, we are losing our native bees at an alarming rate. Scientists indicate the following causes for the decline in pollinating species: 1) habitat loss, 2) fragmentation of existing habitat, 3) loss of genetic diversity due to fragmentation, 4) pesticides, and 5) diseases brought in by commercially produced bumblebees.

Attracting bees to an area requires that there are adequate sources of food, shelter, and nesting sites. General recommendations include: 1) use local native plants, 2) choose several colors of flowers, 3) plant flowers in clumps, 4) include flowers of different shapes and 4) have a diversity of plants flowering throughout the season.

One particular group of insecticides, the neonicotinoids (“neonics”), is particularly troubling regarding native (and cultivated) bees. Over 50 “over the counter” products contain neonics. Most of these materials are systemic, which means when they are applied to seeds, the materials are translocated by the plant from the seed coat to roots and then to all parts of the plant, and end up in pollen and nectar. Besides the direct effects of these insecticides on bees, there is evidence to suggest that low levels of neonics make bees more susceptible to diseases such as those caused by Nosema sp. Recent studies in the U.K. have strong scientific evidence that neonics are responsible of the serious decline in native bees in that country. 

A recent loss of thousands of honeybees due to aerial spraying of the organophosphate insecticide, Naled, for mosquito control, tells only part of the story.  It is likely that hundreds of species of non-target organisms, particularly pollinating species, were negatively impacted.  This includes many species of native bees and other beneficial organism.  Small, naturally-occurring insect parasitoids, that help to keep pests under control, were no doubt killed along with the cultivated honeybees.  All chemical insecticides should be avoided or care should be taken to use them in a way that is least damaging to bees (and other non-target and beneficial species).

Rusty-patched bumble bee Photo by Johanna James-Heinz

Rusty-patched bumble bee Photo by Johanna James-Heinz

The rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), was once abundant in our area and along the entire eastern seaboard, but during surveys that we carried out in the South Carolina Lowcountry for the past four years, we have not found this species. It is critically endangered existing only in small isolated populations further north, and is likely headed for extinction.

Two-spotted long-horned bee

Two-spotted long-horned bee

Results of ongoing surveys of native bee populations in Coastal South Carolina revealed that the most abundant groups of native pollinating bee species included: The American bumble bee (Bumbus pensylvanicus), Southern plains bumble bee (Bombus fraternus), common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens), the Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica), the Southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans) (See the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation Newsletter, Fall 2014) and the two-spotted long-horned bee (Melissodes bimaculata). We have photo-documented over 90 different pollinating species, so far.

Managing habitat for native bees is critical for their survival and to gain the benefit of the ecosystem services that they bring to us and to the stability of their own ecosystems.

Here is a list of some native plants for pollinators that have been known to grow in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The list was compiled by April Bisner, a member of the native plant society. This list is certainly not all inclusive. There are many more native perennial and annual plants that provide excellent pollen and nectar sources.

The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) along with the Wildlife Habitat Council and the Xerces Society, has developed a list of pollinator friendly practices. The Xerces Society is an excellent source for information about attracting native pollinators (Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011). The Native Plant Society (Charleston) can provide readers with a list of native plants that do well in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The Xerces Society published a fact sheet entitled Southeast Plants for Native Bees by Eric Mader and Matthew Shepherd (

In the past, farmers relied only on native bee pollinators which provided adequate pollination for their crops. With larger, much less diverse farms and “clean” field borders, farmers rely more on domesticated bees. The Xerces Society has provided simple steps that may be taken to protect and enhance native pollinators that are already present on farms and gardens.  A booklet entitled “Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms can be downloaded from the Xerces Society website.