Ethnohistoric Accounts

The following section examines the historic record of aboriginal contact with western chroniclers as it pertains to agricultural practices in the temperate climates of North America. The goal is a recreation of the earliest known planting practices in the Great Lakes, Plains, and Southeast. The evidence is in the form of firsthand (primary) accounts and secondary examinations by scholars that display sufficient knowledge about maize horticulture or aboriginal lifeways. Of particular interest are statements describing the importance of maize, field preparation, planting, cultivation, and harvesting.

The primary sources include the accounts of the French Jesuits and Recollects in New France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the nearly 400 references to corn in Thwaites' (1896-1901) volumes, the relations of Le June (ca. 1635-6), du Peron (ca. 1639), and Rale (ca. 1723) were found to be the most useful. The more detailed accounts of Sagard (1939), Lafitau (1977), Le Clercq (1968), and Lescarbot (1968) were also used. The writings of Bartram (1853, 1928) and Adair (1930) serve as major sources for the Southeast.

First hand observations of aboriginal agriculture are seldom lengthy, even when made by a botanist like Bartram. The accounts need to be supplemented with secondary sources devoted more exclusively to summarizing subsistence activities. The data summaries of Will and Hyde


(1917), Herndon (1967), Parker (1968), and Holder (1970) serve such a purpose. When combined, the historic record provides a pattern of early agricultural practices sufficiently detailed for our purposes. In addition, the observations noted in this chapter are supported by the specific examinations of others (Baker 1974; Ceci 1975; Day 1953; Heidenreich 1971; Minnis 1985; Rutman 1967).

The Importance of Maize

The origins of agriculture, though important, need not be examined here. Anthropologists have concentrated on discovering the earliest evidence of agriculture to such an extent that they often lose sight of the more important issue of agricultural productivity. For this study the question is, "What did agriculture provide its practitioners?" and not "Why did they take up agriculture?" We know that by Mississippian times maize farming was an important aspect of the aboriginal economic system. I would argue that to understand its importance we must look at early accounts of Indian lifeways and, following Harner (1975:125), discard the substantivists' assumption of abundant food resources in North America.

Aboriginal groups suffered from severe food shortages in the winter. Without the capability of long term food preservation, the bounty of the spring and fall seasons could not be utilized when food sources were less accessible in January and February. Parker (1968:64) reports that the Iroquois appetites were small and that they consumed only two meals a day to prepare them for the lean winter months. Le Clercq (1968:110) notes that the Gaspesians did not plant crops being ". . .


convinced that fifteen to twenty lumps of meat, or of fish dried or cured in the smoke, are more than enough to support them for the space of five to six months." He adds that they often were left "fasting" in January and February.

The Seneca referred to their agricultural products as "these sustain us" (Parker 1968:27). This is because plant foods are easier to store for long periods and, if kept dry, grains could last through the winter and into the summer.

As to the singular importance of maize, Le June (Thwaites 1896-1901:10:139,163) observed that an early frost killed the corn leading to famine and a hard winter. He alluded to a function of the Green Corn Harvest when he noted that ". . . the children will cause the ears to be roasted when they are green" (Thwaites 1896-1901:10:163). Adair (1930: 436) referred to corn as "their chief produce, and main dependence". Herndon (1967) recognized that "[corn] was the main dependence of all tribes south of the St. Lawrence River and east of the Mississippi". Bennett (1955:395) estimates that maize constituted 65% of the total caloric intake of southeastern New England groups with meat and fish supplying less than 20%. The number of dishes incorporating maize (Parker 1968) further suggests that maize far outweighs beans and squash as a food resource. As such, we are justified in making the production of maize the essential system to be studied here.

Field Preparation

Field preparation involves the removal of all primary growth prior to initial planting of new ground and the clearing of annual plant


debris from older fields. Most, if not all, trees must be removed and all brush burned prior to planting. Parker (1968:21) describes the process as involving girdling the trees in the spring with the brush being burned the following spring before planting. Any trees left standing at that time would be burned down. Lafitau's (1977:70) 1724 discussion suggests that this process precedes the initial planting by "some years". Adair substantiates that this basic clearing practice was followed in the Southeast:

Now, in the first clearing of their plantations, they only bark the large timber, cut down the saplings and underwood, and burn them in heaps; as the suckers shoot up, they chop them off close by the stump, of which they make fires to deaden the roots, till in time they decay [1930:435].

Similar practices were followed by Plains agriculturalists such as the Arikara, Mandan, Pawnee, and Hidatsa (Will and Hyde 1917:77).

To what extent the horticultural value of burning was understood, is difficult to ascertain. Most observers were struck by the absence of any form of fertilizing. Reverend Gilbert Wilson believed the Hidatsa recognized the value of ashes when they burned the plant debris while noting that they would also remove all horse dung from the fields because "weeds always came up where the dung lay" (cited in Will and Hyde 1917:84). Will and Hyde (1917:79) relate that the practice of spreading brush over the fields prior to burning was only seen as making the ground easier to dig. Sagard (1939:103) notes that the women clear the fields of everything before planting. Thomas Heriot, in 1587, writes that the coastal Indians of Virginia never used "muck, dung, or anything" to "fatten" the soil (cited in Parker 1968:25). He further


notes that all dried debris was piled in heaps to be burned with the ashes seldom spread unless their volume required it.


In those accounts offering information about labor, the post-clearing stages of maize agriculture was carried out by the women of the village (Parker 1968:23; Sagard 1939:103; Will and Hyde 1917:79; Williams 1963:123). The process generally began with the production (on new land) or clearing away of "hillocks" (Lafitau 1977:54). These hills were the result of mounding actions around growing plants to help secure them in the soil (Parker 1968:26). Will and Hyde (1917:79) relate that along the Upper Missouri the hills were dug up and pulverized before planting. Sagard (1939:103) saw them place the seeds in round holes, not hills, a pace apart. Other accounts indicate the seeds were placed directly into hills (Lafitau 1977:54; Lescarbot 1968:195-196).

The number of seeds planted in each hill ranged from three to ten (Lafitau 1977:54; Lescarbot 1968:248-249; Parker 1968:17,25-26; Sagard 1939:92; Thwaites 1896-1901:66:142-143; Will and Hyde 1917:81). The hills were a foot or more in diameter and generally described as being two to three feet apart (Lafitau 1977:54; Lescarbot 1968:248-249; Parker 1968:25-26; Sagard 1939:103; Will and Hyde 1917:79,81). Each row was separated by an area five to six feet wide (Parker 1968:26). In one case the plantings were described as being more densely packed:

[the Indians] plant the corn-hills so close, as to thereby choak up the field. They plant their corn in straight rows, putting five or six grains into one hole, about two inches distant. They cover them with clay in the form of a small hill. Each row is a yard asunder, and in the vacant ground they plant pumpkins, water-melons, marsh


mallows, sunflowers, and sundry sorts of beans and peas, at least two of which yield a large increase [Adair 1930:439].

Champlain (ca. 1605) notes that three to four bean seeds were placed in each hill (cited in Parker 1968:17). Parker (1968:27) says the Seneca planted squash and beans in every seventh hill. Among the Omaha, Fletcher and La Flesche (1911:269) relate that hills alternated between squash and corn. Generally, however, additional plots or the area between rows were planted with squash, pumpkins (citruels), and melons (Adair 1930:436; Parker 1968:90-92). Parker (1968:89-92) notes that the Iroquois planted fourteen types of beans and five types of squash in addition to various varieties of melons.

Along the Upper Missouri River Valley, the Indians recognized that various maize varieties would cross pollinate, so plots of common seed were separated by 60 to 100 yards (Will and Hyde 1917:291). Will and Hyde (1917:69) describe three basic types of maize grown in this region: flint (8, 10, 12 row), flour (8, 10, 12 row), and sweet. Adair (1930: 436) notes three types of corn grown in the Southeast early in the eighteenth century: flint ("hommony-corn"), bread-corn, and a smaller, unidentified variety.

Planting was begun when the danger of a late frost was minimized. This could occur as early as April in Florida (Lescarbot 1968:195-196) and as late as May as far north as Quebec (Parker 1968:17). Most planting seems to have been done in May, although Parker (1968:26) cites Harris on the practice of also planting some in April and June to produce (weather permitting) both early and late harvests. The Iroquois and the Southeastern Indians planted small, personal plots near their


dwelling structures prior to planting the larger, communal fields (Adair 1930:435; Bartram 1928:284; Parker 1968:29).

The popularized (Bennett 1955:375) practice of fertilizing each hill with fish (the Squanto legend) was partially substantiated only once in all the accounts examined. Lescarbot (1968:248-249) speaks of the Armouchiquois, living in the area of modern Boston, using shellfish as fertilizer. Ceci (1975), on the other hand, clearly rejects the notion that this technique was aboriginal in origin (see also Rosthund 1957). She argues that Squanto learned the value of fertilizing during his visits to New World settlements and (ca. 1614) the Old World. Indeed, as she points out, the quantity of fish required at a time of year when food was most needed would have logically been wasteful.


Parker (1968:23) cites Heckewelder as claiming women worked six weeks a year in the fields. Considering that planting and harvesting could take up to two weeks each (Will and Hyde 1917:129) this means that very little time was spent cultivating the fields. For the Iroquois (Parker 1968:29) and Plains farmers (Will and Hyde 1917:82), cultivation involved two hoeings. Parker relates that the first hoeing occurred when the plants were a "span" high. The second, called "hilling up", took place when the plants were knee high. Similarly Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Pawnee performed their second hoeing when the plants were roughly one foot high and just before abandoning the villages for the summer hunt.


Herndon (1967) concludes that only the hills were weeded. Sagard (1939:104) noted that the land was not tilled, only "cleansed of noxious weeds" such that he often got lost in the maze of paths running through the fields. Parker cites Harris on the Iroquois weeding "from time to time" (Parker 1968:26). With the exception of trying to keep rodents and deer from destroying the crop (Lescarbot 1968:248-249), the fields were largely left without additional maintenance.


Generally, the maize harvest was divided into two stages. The first was the Green Corn Harvest of flint and flour maize varieties in early August (Will and Hyde 1971:115). Unripe ears (kernels in the milky stage) would be picked and boiled before being eaten or sun dried (the only way these kernels can be stored). Will and Hyde (1917:143) first recognized that this harvest served as a precaution against total crop destruction later in the year by insects, birds, drought, and raiding parties. By harvesting a portion of the crop early, villages were guaranteed a minimal supply of maize. The remainder of the crop would be harvested later in the fall or continuously as the need arose.

Witnessing this early harvest often confused western observers into thinking the growing season was shorter than it really was. They often state that the crop ripened in two months or early in August (Adair 1930:435; Lescarbot 1968:195-196; Parker 1968:26; Thwaites 1896-1901:67: 142-143). However, the crop required three to four months to ripen (Parker 1968:17; Sagard 1939:104;) with the second stage of the harvest occurring in September and October.


The most detailed description of the harvest is provided by Parker (1968:31-35). The Iroquois would remove the ears from the field for later husking. In some cases the entire plant was taken to the village for processing. The corn was then husked and the ears braided together and hung from the house roofs and centerpost to dry. This braiding technique was also performed by the Huron (Sagard 1939:104) and Plains groups (Will and Hyde 1917:133). Shelled grain was stored in dry, bark casks or in elevated granaries (Parker 1968:31-33). Although in dry areas corn was stored in pits dug along slopes or mounds (Bennett 1955: 376; Cutright 1969:98; Lescarbot 1968:195-196), storage pits were more likely to be used to keep melons and squash (Parker 1968:31-35). Frost-prone melons could even be transplanted into baskets for later harvest (Parker 1968:92).

The harvest was often divided between communal and individual tasks (Bartram 1928:400; Parker 1968:29). As noted above, each village would collectively plant a communal field explicitly divided into family plots. Each family also had the option of growing a small garden which could be harvested at any time (Herndon 1967). The familial plots in the communal field were harvested together as a village-wide activity. Bartram (1928:401) speaks of the Creek practice of providing the King's crib with a portion of each family's harvest. Such a surplus was used for unexpected needs such as depletion of a family's stores, the needs of another village, warparties, and visitors.


Crop Yields and Field Size

Potential crop yields and field size are two very important variables in modeling aboriginal agriculture. Few accounts, however, provide detailed measures of either. In southwestern Ontario, Sagard (1939:103) speaks of the Huron growing two to three years supply of maize for consumption and trade with their northern, Algonkin neighbors. Lescarbot (1968:195-196) suggests that Florida harvests lasted six months. Denonville (cited in Parker 1968:18) writes that an attack on four Seneca villages destroyed, perhaps overestimating, 1,200,000 bushels of old and unharvested corn. Le June's Relation (Thwaites 1896-1901:8:95) claims one Indian had two bins containing 100 to 120 bushels of corn.

Yield potential is related to ear production, field size, and plant density under varying climatic conditions. Will and Hyde (1917:71-74) identified a wide variety of forms within each maize race conducive to differing environmental conditions. Hayden (cited in Will and Hyde 1917:71-72) states that Upper Missouri corn was three to six feet tall with an average height of 4 to 4.5 feet. Ears were generally produced close to the ground with two or more growing further up. Pawnee varieties, growing further south, tended to be taller. Good climate and soil conditions could double the size of Mandan corn over that grown under less than optimal situations.

Specific figures on actual maize yields are more difficult to obtain. Sagard (1939:104) speaks of each plant producing two or three


ears with each ear containing from 100 to over 400 grains. Roger Williams (1963:124) estimated that each Indian woman produced 24 to 60 bushels of corn per year. Using Rutnam's (1967:43) yield estimate of 18 bushels per acre for seventeenth century America, we have 1.3 to 3.3 acres planted by each family.

The only specific data on field size comes from the work of Will and Hyde. The Mandan used a unit of area called a nupka (Will and Hyde 1917:99). It consisted of seven rows of corn with "rows of beans between each two rows of corn, and with no fixed length". They claim the average size was 0.25 acres. Although some fields may have been as large as ten, on average each mature women had a garden of three to four nupkas. Additionally, they (1917:65) cite Dunbar's observation that up to three acres were planted per family, with a mean closer to one. They conclude that Upper Missouri field size ranged between 0.33 and 1.0 acre per person, depending on the population's level of agricultural dependence. Cutright (1969:98) suggests that Arikara plots ranged in size between 0.5 and 2.0 acres depending on the number of wives in the family.

Various census reports provide crude estimates of per capita field size. Will and Hyde's (1917:106) data from the 1878 census of Iowas suggests a mean of 1.4 acres/person. Seven bands of Osage in 1872 had a combined average field size of only 0.3 acres/person (Will and Hyde 1917:107). An eighth band consisting, in part, of "half breeds" used 3.0 acres/person. In 1666, the Puquot Indians in Connecticut were removed to a new area and reimbursed for their land. Records of corn field size for nine individuals showed a range of 0.15 to 2.5


acres/family, averaging 0.85 acres/family (Thomas 1976:11). Prior to their removal, data on agricultural production of eastern Cherokees was compiled into the 1835 census (Bureau of Indian Affairs 1835). Using only those families (n = 36) which indicated no corn was raised as a cash crop, mean estimates of yield per acre (11.4 bu, sd = 8.19), field size (6.6 acres, sd = 4.26), harvest per person (20.1 bu, sd = 18.54), and field size per person (1.25 acres, sd = 2.08) were calculated. Schoolcraft's (1847:32-38) census of the nine Iroquois Reservations produces estimates of an average yield of 21.3 bu/acre (sd = 5.95) and 9.8 bu/person (sd = 4.07) for a society devoting only 39.2% of its fields to maize.

In comparison, English farms in twelfth century Peterborough generally consisted of less than three modern acres (Will and Hyde 1917: 109). The French botanist, F. A. Michaux, observed eight to ten acres planted by large American families along the Ohio River in 1802 (cited in Will and Hyde 1917:108). Rutman (1967:61) reports that, although each Plymouth farmer was capable of cultivating as much as twenty-five acres, few ever did. In each case, these farmers made use of draft animals and plows.


The 1952 survey by the UNESCO Commission on World Land-Use classified shifting cultivation as that type which involves settlement movement rather than merely periodic field changes (i. e. field rotation) (Nye and Greenland 1960:5). Shifting cultivation always involves burning forest or grassland prior to cultivation. Such burned areas have


been referred to by the Old English term of swidden with the process being called slash and burn. However, the transient nature of the process is more accurately represented by the term shifting cultivation or by regional terms like milpa (Central America), chena (Shri Lanka), kaingin (Phillipines), coamile (Mexico), ray (Laos), conuco (Venezuela), and masole (lower Congo) (Nye and Greenland 1960:6, Symons 1978:172). It is my contention that the agricultural cultures living in the temperate climates of North America practiced shifting cultivation. If true, the implications for settlement interpretation would be far reaching (see White 1963).

To support this characterization, note that ethnohistoric accounts substantiate the use of fire to clear fields prior to planting. Secondly, although most accounts are not precise concerning all details of maize production, they often are most explicit about its impact on settlement systems. Soil depletion and firewood exhaustion are clearly seen as causes for village movements.

Sagard, ca. 1632, on the Huron states:

The chief town formerly contained two hundred large lodges, each filled with many households; but of late, on account of lack of wood and because the land began to be exhausted, it has been reduced in size, divided in two, and rebuilt in another more convenient locality . . . . There are certain districts where they move their towns and villages every ten, fifteen, or thirty years, more or less, and they do so only when they find themselves too far away from wood . . . . They move their town or village [also] when in course of time the land is so exhausted that their corn can no longer be grown on it in the usual perfection for lack of manure; because they do not understand cultivating the ground nor putting the seed anywhere else than in the usual holes [Sagard 1939:92-93].

Francois du Peron, ca. 1639, writes of the Huron:


The land, as they do not cultivate it, produces for only ten or twelve years at most; and when the ten years have expired, they are obliged to remove their village to another place [Thwaites 1896-1901:15:153].

In the "Decrees of the Council of Marne respecting the Christian Savages in Canada, April 1, 1716":

. . . on the 7th of November, 1715, Monsieur Begon wrote that Father Cholenec, the missionary of these savages, represented in 1714 to Monsieur The Marquis de Vaudreuil and to him that these savages could no longer remain in their village, because the soil was exhausted and the woods too far away; and that it was absolutely necessary for them to settle elsewhere [Thwaites 1896-1901:67:25].

In 1724 Lafitau, after ten years in Canada, writes:

As the Indians never manure their ground and do not even let it lie fallow, it is soon exhausted (and worn out). Then they are forced to move their villages elsewhere and make new fields in new lands. They are also reduced to this necessity, at least in North American and cold countries, by another more pressing reason for, as the women have to carry firewood to their lodges every day, the longer a village stays in the same place, the farther the distant the wood is so that, after a certain number of years, they can no longer keep up the work of carrying the wood on their shoulders from so far [1977:69-70].

Bartram, ca. 1773, received this answer from a trader in the Creek town of Apalachucha when asked why the Indians "frequently" broke up their towns and settled new ones:

. . . the necessity they were under of having fresh or new strong land for their plantations, and new, convenient and extensive range or hunting ground, which unavoidably forces them into contentions and wars with their confederates and neighboring tribes; to avoid which they had rather move and seek a plentiful and peaceable retreat, even at a distance, than contend with friends and relatives or embroil themselves in destructive wars with their neighbors . . . [1928:315].


As further evidence, Ceci's (1975) examination of northeastern agriculture cites Roger Williams' (1963:119) record of two Indian terms for "planting fields", one meant "worne out" and the other "new ground". She further notes Morgan's contention that the Huron and Iroquois moved their villages every eight to twelve years. Herndon (1967) states that the Indians ". . . practiced a rotation of fields rather than a rotation of crops". In the Plains, Holder recognizes:

The physical size of a village appears to have been limited by the available arable land and wood supplies in the river bottoms. As these resources were depleted the location of the village shifted, following a slow cycle of some fifteen to thirty years [1970:35].

All of this supports the utilization of a shifting agricultural model for aboriginal agriculture (cf. Bennett 1955:373-374) and the necessity of incorporating it into our definition of the Mississippian system. Summarizing, the Eastern North American Indian's agricultural tradition involved the following generalized practices:

  1. Fields were cleared using fire one or more years in advance of the first planting;
  2. Fire was also used to clear old fields prior to planting;
  3. Planting was undertaken after the first sufficient thaw;
  4. Three to ten kernels were placed in hills spaced two to three feet apart in rows up to six feet apart;
  5. No recognized soil fertilization procedure was practiced;
  6. Cultivation involved two minimal hoeings when the plants were roughly six inches and two feet high, respectively;
  7. Harvesting was undertaken in two phases: the first in middle-to-late summer when the kernels were in the milky stage and the


    last in the fall after the grain had completely ripened;

  8. Yield estimates ranged between 10 and 20 bu/acre;
  9. Field sizes ranged between 0.3 and 1.5 acres/person.
The data presented in this chapter serve as the observational basis for defining specific model parameters. The next step involves generalizing the range of procedures used in land preparation, planting, and harvesting in a way suitable for defining the behavioral boundary conditions of the system. At that point, we can specify the essential parameters that directly contribute to defining the production potential of the system and arrive at a dynamic model of system change.