What the natives grew
Native horticulture – agriculture implies domesticated
animals, so we usually make that distinction – developed in the
eastern woodlands, probably several thousand years ago with
indigenous crops, crops like sunflower or goosefoot, which may
be familiar to most people. It began to have an immediate
impact on these populations. Once you have a stable food supply,
once you can predict and store surplus, populations begin to
become sedentary, begin to grow.
But probably, the single most important event in native
history is the introduction of maize, Indian corn, into the
eastern woodlands, probably about 2,000 years ago. Populations
skyrocket. We begin to see large villages develop. We begin to
see, for the first time, truly sedentary or permanent villages.
Maize is an amazing crop, not only in terms of its history but
also its impact on native people, colonists and the world today.
A grass called teosinte, seems to be the progenitor of maize.
It’s just a grass that you would pass by, not think twice about
it. Over time, the head of that grass began to be manipulated to
produce larger kernels, larger cob. And, we see that the yield
of maize begins to increase in terms of number of cobs per
plant, number of kernels per cob, size of the kernels, etc.
This crop was introduced to the Southwest probably about 4,000
years ago. It began to make its way into the eastern woodland
where we see it about 2,000 years ago. And, then by about 1,000
years ago, we see it being introduced into the Northeast.
Along the way that trajectory from subtropical or tropical
meso-America to the Northeast, it went through a number of
genetic changes. Most of those changes had to do with yield, but
also most importantly to accommodate the growing conditions as
the plant grew further north. So, you have a tropical plant
that is now one of the most important crops in the eastern
woodlands and in the northern hemispheres around the world
Genetic and morphological changes in that plant allowed it to
grow and mature in 90 to 120 frost-free days. That was a real
key to this, and that process was obviously done by native
women. They were the plant scientists. They were the ones that
understood the crop rotation. They were the ones that made the
selection for certain traits. So, when that crop was finally
introduced into the eastern woodlands it was perfectly suited
after thousands of years of manipulation.
Native horticulture, I think, also has a more lasting legacy
in that corn or maize, today, is probably the single most
important crop around the world. It’s very adaptable and was
adopted by most societies. It provided a food base for the
English when they arrived here in the 17th century.
It continued to be the most important crop in New England
probably through the present day.
Native corn fields were generally hacked, if you will, out of
the forest. The planters would probably first go in and take the
bark off trees to kill them, to let the light in. They would
then burn off the underbrush and create small hills that they
would plant the corn in. The process of hilling would help
establish the roots better and give some stability to the
plants. Also, raising the plant a few inches above the
surrounding ground was critical because corn maize is a tropical
plant and any hint of frost would kill it. By raising the crop
up a little bit, you can buy yourself a couple of extra weeks of
The corn hills would be scattered within a three-quarters of
an acre, perhaps an acre parcel per family. They were
about 3 feet across and three feet apart. Once the corn was
growing they would then plant beans, which would grow up around
the stalk. Then they’d plant squash and pumpkins in the valleys
between the hills both to keep the weeds down and to provide an
The crops, maize beans and squash, are probably the most
critical crops in native horticulture. They are called the
“Three Sisters.” They’re always grown together. They’re always
mentioned together. They’re always consumed together. Maize
alone, beans alone, squash alone would not provide the essential
amino acids to be able to support a population. But when they
come together the three provide the essentials for human
subsistence. And that’s when we begin to see a huge impact on
Natives were subsistence farmers in the sense that they were
not producing a crop for market, although they would certainly
trade corn. Those groups who were producing a large surplus in
areas like the Connecticut Valley for example, might trade that
crop for other commodities to native people to the north who
weren’t able to grow corn because it was just too far northward
to produce the crop.
We see many accounts in European records of native people’s
trading various kinds of foods for other kinds of products. For
example, horticulturists in southern New England would trade
corn to northern hunters for furs, meat, things of that nature.
And that had been going on for obviously thousands of years.
Some native people had particular kinds of plants or crops
that they might trade for different purposes. Some of those
crops were actually provided to sachems who were placing other
groups in the tributary status to them. So, for example, there
are accounts of the Pequots receiving food supplies from
neighboring tribes who were tributary to them to help pursue
their wars or other kinds of tributary functions.
Conflicts over good agricultural land
When the English arrived here – we’re talking Plymouth Colony
in the 1620s – they were searching for a place for their
settlement, which had good agricultural land. They selected
Plymouth as that location for a couple of reasons. One, it had
already been cleared. And the reason it had been cleared is
native people had been farming there for centuries.
When Europeans arrived and began growing crops for their
subsistence, they quickly began to try to produce a surplus so
they could trade it, sell it around the Caribbean and England,
to help diminish their debt. For Europeans, the largest labor
investment in producing an agricultural field was clearing land
and stumping it. If you didn’t have to do that, you were years
ahead in terms of production. The Europeans found fields of good
agricultural land they didn’t have to clear because all the
native people in Massachusetts Bay had died in a great epidemic
of 1617 to 1619.
Now, most of the Europeans probably didn’t have a lot of
knowledge of agricultural production. Many of them were
merchants, although there were some yeomen with them who had
knowledge of farming technology. Also, the crops they brought
over with them weren’t conducive for growing in New England,
with its harsh climate, unpredictable weather. They were
susceptible to a lot of blight and disease. The crop that did
well for them was corn. And, native people they encountered very
early at Plymouth, a gentleman by the name of Squanto in
particular, showed them the best methods for planting corn in
the Indian way. And, the English quickly became dependent on
corn as their major crop.
When the English began a migration out of Massachusetts Bay
and Plymouth Colony into Connecticut, they selected two areas,
the Connecticut River Valley and the Coastal Plain of
Connecticut, because they were where the best agricultural soils
were. The Connecticut Valley was by far then, and is today, one
of the richest agricultural areas probably in the world.
When the English arrived in the Connecticut Valley, they
quickly began to plant maize. What happens over time is that the
native people’s requirement for land for horticulture and for
subsistence hunting and gathering is fundamentally inconsistent
with English land needs for agriculture.
Native people need large areas. The English need smaller
parcels of land for a more intensive form of agriculture because
they have domesticated animals to provide manure. But they also
need large amounts of land, too, not only to grow their own food
crops but also to produce hay and fodder for their domesticated
And the English populations are growing much more quickly than
the native population. And growing population needs land. Within
a generation or two, you begin to see these conflicts develop
between native people and native needs for agriculture, and
English people and English needs for agriculture.
The ultimate reasons for the conflicts between native people
and Europeans was land. While the Pequot War, for example,
wasn’t over land per se, land was an underlying motive. It
certainly was in the minds of the English. A better example of a
conflict that really involved land was King Phillip’s War of
1675-76. That conflict really was over the growing need by the
English for land, the encroachment upon native land on a
consistent basis. And native people recognized that the English
were growing very rapidly and in a very short period of time
their traditional life ways would vanish if they didn’t take
It’s interesting to note that we have this perception that
while the English dramatically changed the landscape when they
arrived, the native people were sort of at one with the
landscape and didn’t alter it that significantly. In fact,
nothing can be farther from the truth.
Both native and English systems of agriculture had an impact,
although a different impact, on the landscape.
The premise is that native people who had been living on this
landscape for at least 12,000 years were the ultimate
ecologists, the ultimate managers, as most horticulturists and
pre-industrial societies, most hunters and gatherers, are. We
have good reason to believe that they began to manage the
forests as early as 8,000 years ago. By managing the forests, I
mean sort of culling unwanted trees and encouraging trees that
produce the crop for them, the nut trees – chestnut, hickory,
egg corn, walnut. There’s archeological evidence that suggest
And we also begin to see a process whereby native people
systematically burn over the forest to encourage secondary
growth for herbaceous plants, which they would eat. These plants
also would be usable by deer.
So what the Europeans encountered on the land was thousands of
years of native use and management of that environment – for
agricultural purposes in the previous 2,000 years and a sort of
forest managing for the previous 6,000 years.
But the Europeans did not perceive it that way. When the
Europeans arrived they saw a landscape that, from their
description, was very park-like, very open. They called them
champion fields, wide open fields much like they saw in England.
They believed they were seeing a “natural landscape.” They saw
patchworks of fields and abandoned fields, fields where
secondary growth plants were coming up because the natives
abandoned their corn field after two or three years because they
didn’t apply fertilizer on a consistent basis.
But in European eyes, this land was unmanaged. It wasn’t
tamed. Native people weren’t building edifices. They weren’t
fencing. They really didn’t own the landscape, from a European
perspective, because they didn’t manipulate it.
When the Europeans come in, they start fencing, bounding.
There’s a different perspective on ownership. Ownership wasn’t
through use as it was in a native perspective, but through a
deed or title. And that dynamic just began to affect both
groups. The English quickly imposed a system of agriculture and
the landscape dramatically changed it.
The Europeans needed to create a surplus to become involved in
a market economy to pay off this process of colonization. Corn,
as well as other forest products tended to be fairly quickly
adopted as a form of currency. You see bushels of corn, for
example, going to the Caribbean and going to England as surplus
foods. The Caribbean trade was largely supported by English
Native and European crops
One of the more interesting things we see about this
English/Native interaction in terms of agriculture/horticulture
was the plants and animals first adopted from the Europeans by
native people. These included pig very early, apple, peach and
root crops, such as beet, radish, parsnip, carrot that we see in
17th century native sites. This was a surprise to
us. Initially we were thinking this may reflect a major
transformation in native horticultural practices. But on close
examination, it really doesn’t reflect dramatic change.
If you look at these species of plants and animals that native
people are adopting from European, they’re very similar to
traditional crops. Pig, for example, basically takes care of
itself in the woods. It sort of runs free, like a small deer.
Apple, peach -- again, no different if you accept the notion
that native people are managing their forest for thousands upon
of years, culling unwanted trees and encouraging wanted trees.
What we’re now finding out about native horticulture is that
it involves a lot more than maize, beans and squash. It also
involves the purposeful cultivation of some root crops and the
encouragement of others in abandoned fields such as yellow
nuts-edge and Indian cucumber – very, very important root crops
to native people. The addition of beet, radish, parsnip, carrot
from the Europeans is no different. It’s just an add-on to an
existing system. And they’re not having to make many
modifications to that system to accommodate the crops.
The English really began to dominate the landscape –
politically, economically, socially, militarily and
agriculturally – after King Philip’s War in the third quarter of
the 17th century. The remaining native communities
after King Philip’s War were on greatly reduced land-base basis.
You have a situation in which these native people are placed in
The Mashantucket Reservation, 2,000 acres in the early 18th
century, was probably adequate to support a relatively small
population of a couple hundred people as long as they had access
to other environments for fishing, hunting, gathering. With the
growing English population after King Phillip’s War, doubling
within a couple of generations, those reservations that were at
one time adequate began to become reduced in size because of
English encroachments. And access to those other environments is
You have a population trying to maintain themselves on these
reservations. What do they do? That’s when we really begin to
see an interesting process of selective adoption of even more
European agricultural technologies. Domesticated animals are
adopted such as cow, more pig, sheep or goat. (We really can’t
tell the difference between sheep or goat in the archeological
record.) But, interestingly enough, we still don’t see the
adoption of European crops such as wheats, ryes, things of that
nature. Although there probably would have been the need of some
kind to sustain a herd of animals.
Even the adoption by native people of European species of
animals was adapted into their own system. For example, they
weren’t keeping herds of dairy cattle. They weren’t producing
cheese or milk or butter. Primarily because they were lactose
intolerant and partly because they still weren’t involved in a
market economy. Instead cattle were being used as a food source.
Goat and sheep were being used primarily as a food source,
probably not as a production of wool or things of that nature.
So we do see more and more of these animals being integrated
into native subsistence practices but in a native way, not a
European way. We’re still looking at the selective adoption with
European animals becoming very important because you can sustain
an animal as a free-ranging animal fairly easily on a small
acreage of land. You don’t have to necessarily grow a lot of hay
and fodder as long as there are relatively few animals and they
can sustain themselves on what was probably was the patchwork of
abandoned fields and secondary growth.
Corn built native community
If you look at traditional native horticulture, it really was
a community enterprise. Yes, women were primarily responsible
for crop production, maintaining the fields, but men would also
be involved in the initial clearing and preparing the land and
during harvest as well, if needed.
The community aspect of native horticulture is reflected, too,
when you look at the native ceremonies and rituals involving
corn. It’s amazing how important this crop is in native life,
native world view, native spirituality, ceremony, ritual. It’s
the underlying basis not only for the subsistence but for a lot
of their ceremony or ritual activity in terms of harvest,
Just as important is to understand its role in life ways, not
only in the colonial period, but today. Corn is an important
crop because it sustained the development of some of the most
important social, political institutions in North America and
South America. The complex societies of Mexico, Peru, middle
America, in the Mississippi Valley were all based on corn
Even today we know that dairy farming in Connecticut used to
be and still is based upon corn. That silage the cows eat
throughout the winter is all corn. And, that crop is exported
throughout the world. It’s still flourishing today – from China
to Africa to Europe, and, of course, in the Americas.