Aboriginal Farming in New England

When the Pilgrims first arrived in New England in 1620, they viewed the area as an undeveloped wilderness. One of their first activities was to rob Indian graves, taking from them, among other things, maize (commonly known as corn). While the Pilgrims relied on the produce from Indian farms-corn, beans, and squash-for their survival they failed to either see or understand the well-developed Indian agriculture which they encountered. In the centuries since the Pilgrims began their invasions, historians, politicians, pundits, and others have been unaware of Indian agriculture.  

Aboriginal New England agriculture was based on corn, beans, gourds, pumpkins, passionflower, Jerusalem artichoke, tobacco, and squash. Beans of many different colors and textures were used in many different ways and were added to many foods. Corn (maize) was a variety known as northern flint which had eight-rowed, multicolored ears.  

Fields were initially cleared by slash-and-burn methods. Fires would be placed around the bases of standing trees which would burn the bark and kill the tree. Later the dead tree would be felled, often knocking down other dead trees as it fell.

Once an area had been cleared, earth mounds or hills were constructed about four or five feet apart. Kernels of corn and beans would then be planted in the mounds. The corn stalks would later be used by the bean vines as a pole. In the spaces between the mounds, the people would plant squash, gourds, and tubers. The squash vines would trail alongside and over the mounds, protecting the roots of the corn plants and preventing weeds from establishing themselves. This type of agriculture did not look orderly to European eyes and thus it was often unseen by them.

In addition, the farming was done by women. Since the English assumed that only men farmed, they didn’t see the farming because it was done by the women. The European invaders assumed that men were inherently more important than women and thus valued only men’s work, or what they perceived as men’s work. In actuality, women contributed as much as three-fourths of the total calories consumed. A single Indian woman, working an acre or two, could raise 25-60 bushels of corn which was enough to provide about half of her family’s caloric needs.

Hoes for preparing the ground and weeding used the shells of horseshoe crabs, clams, the scapulae from deer, or turtle shells. Small huts were often constructed in and around the fields. From these huts, children would watch the fields and scare off any birds which threatened the plants. Among the Narragansett, tamed hawks were also used to frighten the birds away.

In southern New England, planting was timed by the disappearance of the constellation Pleiades from the western horizon and harvesting began with its reappearance in the east. These astronomical observations mark the length of the frost-free season in the area.

In order to keep an accurate measure of the seasons, the people constructed observatories in the form of stone chambers, stone circles, and carefully split boulders which enabled them to view and mark solar events such as solstices. These architectural features, which have often puzzled non-Indians, may have also been used to mark lunar and stellar cycles.

While the aboriginal inhabitants of New England have often been characterized by non-Indians as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they were actually settled agriculturalists. Throughout New England, Indian villages had extensive fields and at least six of the thirteen phases of the lunar calendar were named or described in terms of agricultural schedules. The fields would range from 20 to 200 acres in size.

Over time, agricultural fields lose their fertility. In many areas, the declining fertility would be noticed after 8-10 years, at which time the people would increase fertilization and/or create new fields by burning the woods. After a decade or so, the fields might be abandoned and the people would move a short distance away to establish to new village. This move would be done gradually, often over a period of several years. A few families would move initially and then the others would join them.

Since farming was an important part of the daily life of the people, it should come as no surprise to find that agriculture was also the center of their religious and ceremonial life. Of particular importance was the harvest ceremony (or, better, ceremonies) which involved several days of feasting, dancing, and the giving away of material wealth. Among Native Americans food was seen as communal and was shared freely by all who were in the village.

The Green Corn Ceremony was usually held in August when the first corn ripened. For a period of about two weeks, the community leaders would eat only at night.

The cosmology of the Indian Nations of New England included many different spiritual beings or forces. Unlike the Europeans, they did not rely on one god with multiple personalities, nor did they have a hierarchy of gods and goddesses. The traditional stories tell of forest elves, river elves, fairies, dwarves, and giants. Among the Narragansett, it was an entity called Cautantouwit who sent the first kernels of corn to the people in the ear of a crow and for this reason the Narragansett did not harm crows.  

Indian Farming in Massachusetts

While the English history of the colonization of Massachusetts often characterizes the Indians as nomadic hunters with no claim to the land, it is interesting to note that the first action of the Pilgrims when they landed in 1620 was to rob an Indian grave of the corn offerings which had been left there. Corn, or maize, as most people know, is not something hunted by nomads, but is a domesticated plant. While the first English colonists survived in the beginning on plant foods raised by the Indians, they often failed to see the Indian fields, as they didn’t look like English fields.  

By the time the Europeans arrived on this continent Indian people had three major agricultural crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. Beans of many different colors and textures were used in many different ways and were added to many foods. Corn was a variety known as northern flint which had eight-rowed, multicolored ears.  As with other eastern tribes gourds, strawberries, pumpkins, watermelons, passionflower, Jerusalem artichoke, and tobacco were important crops for the Massachusetts tribes.

Corn had been originally domesticated in Mexico and had diffused to New England by about 2000 years ago. The people at this time already understood agriculture and plant domestication for they had been raising local plants for about a millennium at this time.

Fields were initially cleared by slash-and-burn methods. Fires would be placed around the bases of standing trees which would burn the bark and kill the tree. Later the dead tree would be felled, often knocking down other dead trees as it fell. The clearing was often done by large parties of men and women.

The use of fire as a land management tool involved a carefully controlled ritual process which purified the environment. In order to control the fires and make sure that they didn’t spread into the wetland, Indian people dug ditches. The burning also enriched the land and helped to balance the soil.

The size of the fields varied by region and by the size of the village. A village of 400 people, for example, might clear 350-600 acres for its farms. The fields could generally be used for eight to ten years before there would be a noticeable decline in fertility. After that time the fields would be fertilized with fish and seaweed and/or new fields would be created by burning the woods. Eventually the fields would be abandoned and allowed to go fallow for a generation or so. It was not uncommon for a village to move after 15 to 20 years in order to be closer to the new fields.

Once an area had been cleared, earth mounds or hills were constructed about four or five feet apart. Kernels of corn and beans would then be planted in the mounds. The corn stalks would later be used by the bean vines as a pole. In the spaces between the mounds, the people would plant squash, gourds, and tubers. The squash vines would trail alongside and over the mounds, protecting the roots of the corn plants and preventing weeds from establishing themselves.

Indian agriculture was not the orderly expression of human domination over nature which was found in European landscapes. The fields which had been carefully planted by the Indians looked like a wilderness to the English invaders.

Another major difference between Indian and European agriculture involved labor. First, Indian agriculture was less labor intensive. Second, the planting and harvesting was done by the women, who were considered the owners of the foods which they raised.

Hoes for preparing the ground and weeding used the shells of horseshoe crabs, clams, the scapulae from deer, or turtle shells. Small huts were often constructed in and around the fields. From these huts, children would watch the fields and scare off any birds which threatened the plants. Among some tribes, tame hawks were also used to frighten the birds away.

Planting was timed by the disappearance of the constellation Pleiades from the western horizon and harvesting began with its reappearance in the east. These astronomical observations mark the length of the frost-free season in the area.

Once harvested, the crops were stored in large pits lined with bark or mats. The pits were then covered with logs and earth. In some instances, these pits were inside the lodges.

With regard to the efficiency of Indian agriculture in Massachusetts, it is generally estimated that one Indian woman could raise anywhere from 25 to 60 bushels of corn by working an acre or two. This was enough to provide at least half of the annual caloric requirements for a family of five. When corn was combined with the other foods which they raised, women may have contributed as much as three-fourths of a family’s total subsistence needs.  

Corn was prepared in a number of ways, including making hominy of the kernels and making a stew of beans and corn called succotash. Corn meal ground in wooden mortars was boiled or baked in the shape of cakes or round balls. When people travelled, they often carried with them parched cornmeal which could be easily and quickly mixed with water to become a food known as nocake. This was the aboriginal equivalent of fast food.