Did Ben Franklin Really Have a Key Role in Bringing Broomcorn to America?

In the talks I have given about broomcorn I have always mentioned that Benjamin Franklin is often credited with bringing broomcorn to America in the 1700s. This concept is usually presented as fact, but it turns out  that whether this is true or not is actually up for debate.  I introduced you to some of Dr. Sam Moyer’s work in our December 6, 2016 post and he has compiled a great deal of history related to broomcorn and broom making.  His search for the actual source that confirms Franklin’s role in the introduction of Broomcorn in America has produced nothing of substance.  Dr. Moyer reports that the information on this topic is apparently in a 1725 Franklin diary, but he hasn’t found anyone who knows where the diary is.   I have presented Franklin’s role just as most others have, but I think I accidentally have given myself an out.   During these presentations I have tried to add a little humor in the presentations and have said,  “Even if it isn’t true Franklin and Jefferson were a part of the early broomcorn industry in America they are tied to almost every other early American story so it a least sounds correct”.

The following letter reposted with permission from Dr. Sam Moyer  is the response to a 2002 letter he sent inquiring about Ben Franklin’s part in introducing broomcorn to America.

Dear Mr. Moyer,

Your query was forwarded to me by the Friends of Franklin. As to Benjamin Franklin’s role in introducing broomcorn to America, I’d say that he promoted it rather than introduced it. According to a letter that he wrote to his sister, Jane Mecom, on Feb. 21, 1757, he brought the corn from Virginia (where he had travelled in the spring of 1756). He then shared the seed with his family and friends in New England. Here is what he wrote to his sister: “I enclose you some whisk seed; it is a kind of corn good for creatures; it must be planted in hills, like Indian corn. The tops make the best thatch in the world; and of the same are made the whisks you use for velvet. Pray try if it will grow with you. I brought it from Virginia. Give some to Mr. [Samuel] Cooper, some to Mr. [James] Bowdoin.” On March 24, 1757, he wrote to Samuel Ward, “I inclose you some of the Grain called Whisk Corn, or Broom Corn. It must be planted in Hills like Indian Corn, 3 or 4 Grains in a Hill. It looks like Indian Corn when growing, till the Top comes out, of which they make the Whisk Brushes for Velvet, and excellent Brooms. The Grain is good for Bread, and for Fowls, Horses, &. make excellent Thatch. It grows 10 foot high, and I believe must have a little more room than you commonly give your Indian Corn,  but plant it at the same time. When tis ripe, gather it; you may strip the Seed off by Hand, from the Whisk, or your Fowls will pick it off. Give my dear Friend Katy [Catharine Ray, Ward’s sister-in-law] enough of the Tops to make a Whisk for her Mantelet…” If you would like to read these letters in their entirety they are published in vol. 7 of the Yale edition of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard Labaree et al., eds. (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1963).

Sincerely,
Kate M. Ohno
Assistant Editor
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin
Yale University Library
PO Box 208240
New Haven, CT 06520-8240

A follow-up letter from Dr. Moyer  is shown below:

 

August 24, 2004
Karie Diethorn, curator
Independence National Historical Park
143 South 3rd Street
Phila. PA 19106
Dear Ms. Diethorn;
I thank a receptionist at the Franklin court museum for suggesting I write regarding a quest: For many years, I have been searching for the source that gives Ben Franklin credit for introducing broomcorn sorghum to America. 
There are at least three versions of this legend, at least one that can be traced to prior to a book in1876: “Everyone who writes on Broom-corn repeats the story of its introduction by Doctor Franklin, and this treatise would not be complete without it”…

Again, the information is apparently in a 1725 diary that no one seems to be able to locate. (I must admit my first thought is that Ben Gates from the National Treasure movies must certainly be involved in this! Sorry to get off topic 🙂 )  I have learned in my time as an information technologist to be reasonable skeptical about things you read online.  This is another reminder that whether the information we are reviewing is online or not we should always be reasonably skeptical even if we read something over and over again.

 

 

 

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