Where Does the Pumpkin Come From?

pumpkins in the fall


We actually get the word pumpkin from the Greek language. In Greek, the word Pepon actually means large melon. It was gradually changed by first the French, then English, and finally Americans into the word we have now.

Believing to come from the ancient Americas, not only did we get pumpkins but also squash. Is it any wonder we decorate with both of these at Fall Holidays? Although the original pumpkins didn’t look quite the same as the pumpkins we have now. These were more like the crooked neck squash we are familiar with. They were grown along river and creek banks with the sunflowers and beans. This was long before maize was introduced.

Early Pumpkin, Early Corn, Early Beans

corn with three sisters growing underneath

Corn with three sisters squash growing underneath.

They had a squash called the Three Sisters. This squash along with corn and beans grew well together. The corn made the perfect stalk for the beans to run up. The beans gave nitrogen into the soil which nourished the corn. The bean vines helped hold the corn stalks steady on windy days. The squash gave shelter to the roots of the corn because they were shallow. Another benefit of the squash, discouraging weeds and preserving moisture also was a great help to the corn. They were able to live in harmony and take care of each other.

The Indians used to place small fish at the roots of plants to act as fertilizer. The Pilgrims were taught this practice when they came to North America. Isn’t it amazing that we still use similar ideas but just in different forms today?

Early Uses of Pumpkins

pumpkin cooked in the fire

Roasting pumpkin strips over a campfire was a way the Indians had of using them as food a long time before the Europeans ever came here to explore. The early Native Americans also roasted, baked, parched, boiled and even dried pumpkins. The dried ones were able to be stored easier. They were also ground into flour. Like us, they enjoyed eating the pumpkin seeds. But Indians had another use for them, they made them into medicine. Flowers were used in stews.

Not only did they use the pumpkin for food, but they also dried the shells and found many uses for them. They were used as bowls and containers to store their grain, beans, and seeds in. They even took dried strips of pumpkin and wove into mats to use for trading for other items.

It has been told that Columbus brought back pumpkin seeds to Europe. But they weren’t thought good enough to feed humans, only pigs.

Pumpkins and Squash

pumpkins, squash, and indian corn

There is a type of squash called Lakota. It was used by the Sioux Indians as lost long ago. Developing a new type, these squash grew pear-shaped with bright red, orange, and green colors. These colors form a pattern almost like a woven Indian blanket.

Indians not only introduced pumpkins, but also squash to the Pilgrims. They became a nutritious food source for them during the long cold winters. Pumpkins were served at the second Thanksgiving celebration according to documentation.

Early Thanksgiving

early Thanksgiving

What picture pops into your mind when you think of the early Thanksgiving celebrations of the Pilgrims? Perhaps you imagine a Pilgrim woman in her nice starched white apron holding a perfectly made pumpkin pie? Actually, it was much different.

The Pilgrims cut the top off the pumpkins and scooped out the seeds like we do. But then they filled the inside with cream, honey, eggs, and spices. Using the shell as a cooking instrument, they put the top back on and placed it in hot ashes of the fire. When it was done, they took it out from the ashes and scooped out the concoction. It was more like a pudding than a pie.

Without these pumpkins, those early settlers might have starved to death. Here is a poem that tells about how dependent they were on pumpkins:

“For pottage and puddings and custards and pies

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,

If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.”

Pilgrim verse, circa 1633

Other Uses for Pumpkins

Did you know that pumpkins could be used to make beer?  The Pilgrims fermented a combination of persimmons, maple sugar, pumpkins, and hops.  Thus, they drank this mixture of pumpkin beer.

Have you ever heard of a bowl haircut?  Putting a bowl on someone’s head and cutting around the rim of the bowl.  Pilgrims didn’t have access to bowls like we do.  So instead, they had pumpkin haircuts.  People from New England were often called “pumpkinheads” because of this.

So you can see how important a part pumpkins played in the Indians and Pilgrims lives. And how thankful we are to them for providing us with pumpkins so that we too can enjoy them during the fall.

fall bounty

I hope you enjoyed this history of the pumpkin!  Stay tuned as we get closer to Halloween and learn more about Halloween traditions involving pumpkins!



the Holiday Mom