Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Agriculture of the North American Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information consult the page at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians ]



An opinion long prevailed in the minds of the people that the Indians N. of Mexico were, previous to and at the time Europeans began to settle that part of the continent, virtually nomads, having no fixed abodes, and hence practising agriculture to a very limited extent. Why this opinion has been entertained by the masses, who have learned it from tales and traditions of Indian life and warfare as they have been since the establishment of European colonies, can be readily understood, but why writers who have had access to the older records should thus speak of them is not easily explained, when these records, speaking of the temperate regions, almost without exception notice the fact that the Indians were generally found, from the border of the western plains to the Atlantic, dwelling in settled villages and cultivating the soil. De Soto found all the tribes that he visited, from the Florida peninsula to the western part of Arkansas , cultivating maize and various other food plants. The early voyagers found the same thing true along the Atlantic from Florida to Massachusetts . Capt. John Smith and his Jamestown colony, indeed all the early colonies, depended at first very largely for subsistence on the products of Indian cultivation. Jacques Cartier, the first European who ascended the St. Lawrence, found the Indians of Hochelaga ( Montreal id.) cultivating the soil. "They have," he remarks, "good and large fields of corn." Champlain and other early French explorers testify to the large reliance of the Iroquois on the cultivation of the soil for subsistence. La Salle and his companions observed the Indians of Illinois, and thence southward along the Mississippi , cultivating and to a large extent subsisting on maize.


Sagard, an eyewitness of what he reports, says, in speaking of the agriculture of the Hurons in 1623-26, that they dug a round place at every 2 feet or less, where they planted in the month of May in each hole nine or ten grains of corn which they had previously selected, culled, and soaked for several days in water. And every year they thus planted their corn in the same places or spots, which they renovated with their small wooden shovels. He indicates the height of the corn by the statement that he lost his way quicker in these fields than in the prairies or forests ( Hist. du Canada , I, 265-266, 1636, repr. 1866).


Indian corn, the great American cereal, "was found in cultivation from the southern extremity of Chile to the 50th parallel of N. latitude." (Brinton, Myths of the New World , 22, 1868). "All the nations who inhabit from the sea as far as the Illinois, and even farther, carefully cultivate the maize corn, which they make their principal subsistence" (Du Pratz, Hist. La ., II, 239, 1763). "The whole of the tribes situated, in the Mississippi valley, in Ohio and the lakes reaching on both sides of the Alleghenies, quite to Massachusetts and other parts of New England, cultivated Indian corn. It was the staple product" (Schoolcraft, Ind. Tribes, I, 80, 1851).


The great length of the period previous to the discovery during which maize had been in cultivation is proved by its differentiation into varieties, of which there were four in Virginia; by the fact that charred corn and impressions of corn on burnt clay have been found in the mounds and in the ruins of prehistoric pueblos in the S. W.; by the Delaware tradition; and by the fact that the builders of the oldest mounds must have been tillers of the soil.


Some idea of the extent of the cultivation of maize by some of the tribes may be gained from the following estimates: The amount of corn (probably in the ear) of the Iroquois destroyed by Denonville in 1687 was estimated at 1,000,000 bushels (Charlevoix, Hist. Nouv. Fr ., II, 355, 1744; also Doc. Hist. N. Y ., I, 238, 1849). According to Tonti, who accompanied the expedition, they were engaged seven days in cutting up the corn of 4 villages. Gen. Sullivan, in his expedition into the Iroquois country, destroyed 160,000 bushels of corn and cut down the Indian orchards; in one orchard alone 1,500 apple trees were destroyed ( Hist. N. Y. During the Revolutionary War , II, 334, 1879). Gen. Wayne, writing from Grand Glaize in 1794, says: "The margins of these beautiful rivers - the Miami of the Lake and the Au Glaize - appear like one continuous village for a number of miles, both above and below this place; nor have I ever before beheld such immense fields of corn in any part of America from Canada to Florida" (Manypenny, Ind. Wards , 84, 1880).


If we are indebted to the Indians for maize, without which the peopling of America would probably have been delayed for a century; it is also from them that the whites learned the methods of planting, storing, and using it. The ordinary corncribs, set on posts, are copies of those in use among the Indians, which Lawson described in 1701 ( Hist. Car ., 35, repr. 1860).


Beans, squashes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tobacco, gourds, and the sunflower were also cultivated to some extent, especially in what are now the southern states. According to Beverly ( Hist. Va . , 125-128, 1722), the Indians had two varieties of sweet potatoes. Marquette , speaking of the Illinois Indians, says that in addition to maize, "they also sow beans and melons, which are excellent, especially those with a red seed. Their squashes are not of the best; they dry them in the sun to eat in the winter and spring" ( Voy. and Discov ., in French, Hist. Coll. La ., IV, 33,1852).

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 10-11. Consult the entry under agriculture at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College