The potato originated in the Bolivian-Peruvian Andes and was consumed as early as 8,000 years ago. When the Spanish conquerors reached the Andes in the early 1500s, they found the Incas growing potatoes. The Spaniards called them batata because they resembled the sweet potato grown in the West Indies (although the two species are unrelated). The English changed this to "potato".
Spanish explorers brought potatoes to Spain perhaps as early as 1570. At first, Europeans did not know their food value and grew them only as an interesting plant. In 1613 they were shipped from England to Bermuda and from there to Virginia in 1621.
By the end of the 17th century potatoes had become the food staple of the Irish. A scientist, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, dispelled the beliefs of French peasants that potatoes caused leprosy and fevers. Between 1773 and 1789 he wrote books and pamphlets urging potato cultivation. King Louis XVI popularized them by wearing potato flowers in his buttonhole. Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his subjects to plant potatoes as food and cattle feed. By the end of the 18th century the potato was a major crop in continental Europe, particularly in Germany, and in the west of England.
The Irish economy became dependent upon the potato. Their cultivation continued to spread throughout the world during the first four decades of the 19th century. In 1845 and 1846, late blight disease, caused by the oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, virtually destroyed the Irish potato crops. The ensuing famine caused 1 million deaths out of 8 million inhabitants and the exodus of more than 1.5 million out of the country.
Today, more than 85 million tons of potato are produced annually with more than a third coming from developing countries.
The Potato of the Makah Nation Charles R. Brown, USDA/ARS, Prosser, WA
For thousands of years, the Makah Nation has made its home on the Northwest corner of the Olympic peninsula, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, and by the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the north and northeast. Originally there were five distinct villages, but presently most Makah live in and around Neah Bay.
The Makahs grow potatoes in their gardens that have unusual characteristics; they do not resemble modern day varieties of potatoes grown elsewhere in North America. Historical accounts indicate that these potatoes have probably been present in their gardens for many years; just how long is a subject of considerable interest.
Figure 1. Spanish Fort at Nuņez Gaona (Neah Bay) under construction in 1792. Note the freshwater stream flowing through fort grounds. Drawing by Jose Cardero.
Since the potato came to the American colonies with Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 17th century (having made a long geographical and evolutionary journey from its Andean birthplace), it is a virtual certainty that the Makah's potato comes from a different foreign donor. But who first gave them the potato, and where did this one originate? In modern times this potato has come into the commercial market under the name Ozette. Indeed the Makah refer to their potato as the Ozette, from the name of one of the original five villages.
The history of the European contact with native people of the Pacific Northwest after the beginning of the European occupation of the Western Hemisphere is an interesting one. By Papal decree in 1493, the Spanish Empire was to include the entire western shore of the Pacific Ocean. English mariners, however, made landfall at various points along the Pacific coast during the years following this decree. Furthermore English privateers preyed on Spanish shipping, attacking and confiscating valuable trade goods.
The Manila route, taken by Spanish ships, consisted of voyages from the Pacific coast of modern day Mexico to Asia, with the return route to North America often being far to the north. A southward coastal route would then be used to return to Mexico. This route was supposedly secret, but the English eventually learned of it and began lying in wait for the Spanish galleons. Although the alternative route-northward from Mexico along the Pacific coast- was arduous, time consuming, and often unsuccessful due to the unfavorable direction of the prevailing winds in the summer, Spanish expeditions using this route between 1777 and 1795 were successful.
Spanish claims to the coast, mostly in abeyance until this period, came to a head when a Spanish sea captain confiscated property and took English citizens prisoner in 1789. This precipitated an ambiguous Convention between England and Spain that proposed to divide the coast between the two countries. The principal ambiguity was the position of the dividing line between English possession to the north and Spanish possession to the south. As part of Spanish attempt to give a military presence to the argument, a Spanish fort was established and maintained for several months in 1792 at Neah Bay by Salvador Fidalgo (Wagner, 1933; Cutter, 1991). A garden was planted. Apparently a garden had been planted the year before at the Spanish settlement of Nootka Bay, and was reported to contain potatoes among other vegetables, including another new world crop from the Southern Hemisphere, the tomato (Wagner, 1933).
Figure 2. View of Nuņez Gaona (Neah Bay) with Spanish fort in the background, 1792. Drawing by Jose Cardero.
The fort at Neah Bay was abandoned due to the impossibility of maintaining ships at anchor throughout the year in the poorly protected harbor. In the same year (1792), a naturalist named Jose Mariano Moziņo accompanying the expedition of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, listed the Latin binomial names of flora and fauna at several points on Vancouver Island, just across the strait from the Olympic Peninsula. Moziņo's list included Solanum tuberosum, the potato.
James Swan, who lived among the Makah as a schoolteacher in the 1860s, mentioned the potato as a staple of their diet that also included predominantly fish and liberal portions of seal and whale oil (MacDonald, 1972; Swan, 1868). Evidence also exists for the early dissemination of the potato throughout the land bordering the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A Makah term qa wic possibly referred originally to a native root, Sagittaria (Gill, 1983), and various forms of qa wic are found in other native languages of the region.
The Makah potato was collected and placed in the Potato Introduction Station Collection at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin in 1988. There, it was given the name "Swedish Colony" because the collector assumed it was a relict of Swedish immigrant homesteaders that had lived around Ozette Lake in the late nineteenth century.
The potato was also obtained by a commercial seedsman in Idaho (Ronniger's Potato Farm), who marketed it during the 1980s and 1990s as the "Ozette" potato. Interestingly, the Makah were unaware of this commercialization until the year 2000.
In a visit to the Makah in 1990, two USDA/ARS scientists J. Pavek and C. Brown, collected the potato from two gardens in Neah Bay. They met with some of the oldest members of the tribe and heard from them about memories of the potato from their childhoods, near the turn of the century. These collections are presently maintained in tissue culture at the USDA/ARS lab in Prosser.
Representatives of the Makah Nation have expressed an interest in obtaining a better understanding of this potato, long a part of their diet, from the standpoint of its likely origin. Their desire is that members of their nation will play a major role in this exploration and that their own students may participate fully in this process. They have expressed their wish to collaborate in some way with historical, horticultural and genetic experts in the academic community, and in conjunction with the current National Science Foundation Grant.
Cutter, D. C. Malaspina and Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 and 1792. University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1991. p. 160
Gill, S. J. Ethnobotany of the Makah and Ozette people, Olympic Peninsula, Washington (USA). Washington State University, Department of Botany: Pullman, 1983. p. 441.
McDonald, L. Swan Among the Indians. Binford and Mort: Portland1972. p. 233.
Moziņo, J. M. Noticias de Nutka: An account of Nootka Sound in 1792. Translated and edited by I. H. J.W. Engstrand. University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1972. p. 142.
Swan, J. G., "The Indians of Cape Flattery at the entrance to the strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington Territory," in Contributions to Knowledge. Simthsonian Institution: Washington D.C., 1868. (Facsimile Reproduction, 1964.) p. 108.
Wagner, H. R. Spanish explorations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Fine Arts Press: Santa Ana, 1933