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Classical America: The East: Northeast

Classical America: The East: Northeast


Early Prehistory: 10,5001600 b.c. Around 10,500 b.c. Paleo-Indians migrated into the present-day northeastern United States. The big-game hunters gave way to hunters and gatherers around 6000 b.c., and slowly over time the hunting-and gathering-cultures diversified and developed according to the limits and the possibilities of the physical environments in which they lived. Between 1600 and 1000 b.c. a hunting-and-gathering society from the South, the Iroquoians, and a hunting-and-gathering society from the West, the Algonquians, drove the original Archaic inhabitants of the Northeast out of the region.

Abenaki: 1600 b.c. to 1600. a.d. The Abenakis were an Algonquian group that lived in present-day Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. They probably situated their settlements adjacent to rivers and lakes, where they fed themselves by hunting deer and bear, by gathering berries and nuts, and by fishing. As a rule they did not practice horticulture, but from time to time, when the weather allowed, they may have cultivated small gardens. Although their language bound the several Abenaki tribes together, there is no evidence that the groups were politically linked. The Abenakis on the coast probably had contact with English or Basque fishermen, but substantive evidence linking them to the European presence in North America is first seen in their use of Old World trade goods in the early 1600s. They incorporated clay pipes and triangular pieces of copper or brass that they cut from kettles and pots and used as projectile points.

Narragansett: 1600 b.c. to 1600 a.d.. The Narragansetts were situated in present-day Rhode Island, and although they too spoke an Algonquian tongue, their way of life was quite different from their Abenaki neighbors to the North. The Narragansetts farmed and lived in villages for much of the year. Also, their political organization united several villages under the leadership of two hereditary sachems, one old and one young. The Narragansetts were quite powerful within the region because they grew surpluses of corn which they traded to northern hunting groups such as the Abenakis for meat which they then traded farther south to various horticultural peoples. Oral history suggests the Vikings may have visited the Narragansetts, but most scholars believe their first contact with Europeans came during Giovanni da Verrazanos voyage in 1524.

Powhatan: 15701600 a.d. One of the southernmost Algonquian societies was the Powhatan confederacy, which was formed by Chief Powhatan in the latter decades of the sixteenth century a.d. Situated in the tidewater regions of Virginia and Maryland, the Powhatans lived in several towns characterized by large, round, bark-covered houses and, frequently, by stockades built for their protection. In winter the inhabitants vacated their towns and dispersed into smaller hunting camps, but the majority of their time was spent inside the walls of their towns. Their technology was comparable to other Woodland groups because they made tools of bone, antler, shell, and wood, but they were also skilled in the cold-hammering of copper into thin sheets that artisans

The Three Sisters

At Roughly the same time that Asians began experimenting with domesticated wheat, Indians in south central Mexico began growing teosinte, a type of grass. Over the next several millennia teosinte began to evolve into a plant similar to modern corn. The breeding experiments led to testing other strands and seeds as well as the development of chili peppers, avocados, cotton, and other plants. For North American Indians, however, corn, beans, and squash were by far the most important native cultigens. Because women were the primary farmers in prehistoric North America, the plants were always associated with the feminine powers of fertility. In fact, the Iroquois called them the Three Sisters. Squash was the first of the Mesoamerican crops to infiltrate North America, and by 1000 b.c. the plant had reached the East. Also known as cucurbits, the squashes were similar to present-day pumpkins and summer squashes. Around 200 b.c. corn and beans had diffused from their ancestral home in Mexico to the Southwest, and by 800 a.d. the new crops had reached the East. How they got into the Indians hands is unknown, but it is reasonable to speculate that the elaborate trade networks that carried obsidian, skins, and other goods back and forth across the Rio Grande also carried a few dried kernels of corn, beans, and squash seeds, and the knowledge of how to plant them. The new crops spread, however, was limited. The cultivation of corn, for example, was restricted to below the so-called corn line that stretches across the United States just below the border with Canada. Above the line the growing season is generally too short to allow for substantial horticulture. As important as the Three Sisters were, it is not surprising that they should figure prominently in Native American mythology. Iroquois oral tradition, for example, relates a story in which the Good Twin who created the earth made corn, but his antagonist, Sky Woman, fixed the kernels so that they had to be parched and ground in a mortar in order to be eaten. The Mississippian Choctaws told that corn had been dropped by a bird from the South and that it had been found by a little girl whose mother told her of the value of the plant. The Cherokees, however, believed corn and beans came from a woman named Selu. Her two sons had killed her, and wherever a drop of her blood fell a corn plant grew. And another historic Mississippian society, the Tunicas, believed beans had been given to a boy by his deceased sister.

The important links between women and plants probably originated in Paleo-Indian times, but as horticulture developed and became more complex, so too did the important roles women played in the subsistence of their societies. Europeans who saw native gardens marveled at how messy they were, at least to European eyes. Accustomed to well-defined rows of crops and fields devoted entirely to one plant, explorers and colonists were bewildered by how natives mixed their plants together. For example, women planted corn in small mounds and around the base of the mound they placed beans and squash seeds. As the corn grew taller the beans spiraled around the cornstalk and rose above the ground. Squash stayed close to the ground, and its broad leaves sheltered the other plants roots from the harsh sun and helped prevent soil erosion. The technique also helped the soil because just as corn leeches nitrogen from the soil, beans fix new nitrogen into it. In terms of diet the plants must also go together. On their own, corn and beans are less nutritious than when combined in the same diet because each plant possesses amino acids that complement the acids of the other. When native peoples relied solely on corn, archaeologists have found that their teeth rotted rather quickly, their bones grew more slowly, and over time their societies diminished in size and vigor. The most typical breed of corn Indians grew is called tropical flint and was characterized by the small size of its ears and the ten to fourteen rows of kernels that covered the ears. The corn we eat today is a hybrid of the original flint corn and a breed called dent corn, which also was developed in Mesoamerica. One of the most striking things about the prehistory of corn is that it virtually disappeared from the archaeological record, save for the Southwest, between 400 and 900 a.d. The gap may be attributable to changes in the climate because corn requires a certain number of days of sunlight and inches of water. When the plant reappeared it was important to many societies, including the Mississippians, the Pueblos, and the Algonquians of the Northeast. Because squash remains are hard to find in archaeological sites, we still have a poor knowledge of the plants importance, but Indians probably ate both the seeds and the flesh of the fruit. The bean varieties Indians ate included kidney beans, pinto beans, green beans, and other kinds that are still with us today.

Sources: R. Douglas Hurt, Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987);

Francis Jennings, The Founders of America (New York: Norton, 1993).

turned into ornamental bands and flat gorgets. Women planted large fields of corn, beans, and squash and provided 25 percent of the Powhatan diet. They grew tobacco for ritual purposes as well. The remainder of the diet came from white-tailed deer, which men hunted by using fire to frighten the animals into open spaces, where archers could fell them. They also fished, hunted small mammals, and gathered shellfish. The Powhatans developed a polity more complex than the sachems to the north. The paramount wereowance or chief, oversaw subchiefs who governed the individual towns of the chiefdom. Copper headbands and ornaments distinguished the chiefly class from commoners, and the accumulation of wealth further distanced the chiefly class from their subjects. Like the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, however, Powhatan leadership was predicated on redistribution, so the chiefs periodically dispensed food, tools, and other items to solidify the ties that bound chiefs and commoners together as one society.

Iroquois: 1600 b.c. to 1600 a.d.. The ancestors of the people we know today as the Iroquois, a people archaeologists call the Frost Island culture, first migrated into the northwestern portion of present-day New York state sometime around 1600 b.c. The Frost Island culture made the shift from nomadic to semipermanent settlements, developed their own ceramic tradition, buried their dead with prestige goods, and became dependent on native plants for much of their subsistence. Around 1000 a.d. the introduction of corn revolutionized their culture and sparked the development of a full-fledged Woodland culture archaeologists call Owasco, which characterized the groups that Europeans recognized as the Five Nationsthe Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayugas. Because of horticulture, over time their populations grew larger, and competition for land grew more intense. In response the Owascans moved their towns from river bottomlands to defensible hilltops around which they built elaborate palisade fortifications. The Owascans also-developed what has come to symbolize the social organization of Five Nations: the longhouse. Built out of wood and bark, the long rectangular dwellings housed many families, all of which belonged to the same clan.


Robert S. Grumet, Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Todays Northeastern United States in the Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995);

Bruce G. Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians: Northeast (Washington, d.c.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

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