Because Indian agriculture helped provision the trading posts and transport crews, the museum maintains a botanical exhibit of authentic growing Indian crops. The varieties that we zealously perpetuate for the future are the same ones grown for centuries by Indians of the Missouri Valley and now are all but extinct. Oscar H. Will, pioneer Dakota horticulturist, originally obtained most of the seeds directly from the Indians over 125 years ago. Charles Hanson then acquired the seed stock from Will’s son, George.
Among the crops the summertime museum visitor can see are the midget Mandan tobacco that preceded the traders’ carrot of Virginia tobacco, the Assiniboin flint corn that went into the distillery at Ft. Union, and the blue-kernelled “little corn” that James Willard Schultz watched his adopted Blackfoot mother grow on the Montana plains. The museum saves enough of the precious seeds to replant, and any surplus is offered for sale to museum patrons.
The following varieties are available on a limited basis. Each ¼-ounce seed packet costs $5 and may be purchased in the Museum Shop.
Assiniboin Flint Corn
A mixed flint and flour variety, it is one of the smallest varieties of corn and is good for grinding into meal or flour.
Mandan Sweet Corn
The fur traders dried this variety for winter provisions. Seeds were . Presented to Oscar Will by James Holding Eagle, a Mandan in 1907 (80-85 days).
Little Blue Corn
Ears the size of a man’s thumb are borne on leafy stalks from two to three feet tall.
A small, pink-fleshed, and sweet melon. Descendant of small Spanish watermelons brought by traders from St. Louis in the late eighteenth century. Early maturing variety that is easy to grow (80 days).
These are small, dark red, flat bush bean. Great for chili and salads.
It is early, very prolific, oblong, orange, and sweet. Dr. Melvin Gilmore originally collected this from the Omaha Tribe in the early twentieth century and the Oscar Will Seed Company began selling this variety in 1924 (80 days).
This large blue-green squash is the earliest winter squash; it will set fruit and out yield all others under drought conditions (about 90 days).
Mandan Summer Squash
This is the earliest squash and was obtained by Oscar Will from the Mandan Indians. It is a small, round, striped summer squash that will ripen anywhere and is drought resistant (about 50 days).
Mandan Tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis)
The museum continues to grow this species which withstands drought and short seasons. Its product is rank and strong to smoke. Seed was collected by Lewis & Clark and Thomas Jefferson described Mandan tobacco as “a singular species, uncommonly weak & probably suitable for segars.”