Native American Agriculture in Virginia:
Part II - After the Arrival of Corn
Corn is not the only latecomer to gardens in Eastern North America.
Beans and some variants of squash (more similar to modern pump-
kins, rather than the already-domesticated variety similar to modern
crookneck squash) were introduced from Mexico. Beans, corn, and
the pumpkin variety of squash arrived in the Eastern United States
long after those crops had been domesticated initially in Central and
South America, and long after Native Americans in the east had al-
ready developed agriculture using native species. However, some
major crops domesticated in Central/South America in pre-colonial
times (such as potatoes, tomatoes, chile peppers, peanuts, and cotton)
never made it to Virginia until Europeans brought them to Virginia.
The domesticated turkey also was imported to Virginia from the
Southwestern US and Mexico, through an unusual path. In the 1500's,
Europeans sailing home across the Atlantic Ocean brought the domes-
ticated turkey from Mexico and/or the southwestern United States to
Spain. Farmers in Turkey obtained birds from Spain, and were very
successful in raising the domesticated fowl. Traders introduced the
domesticated fowl to other European nations - who named the bird
after the source they knew, Turkey. The "turkey" is native to Virginia,
but the domesticated variety with extra breast meat arrived via the
Colorado Plateau/Central America, Turkey, and then England before
crossing back across the Atlantic Ocean to be raised in large quanti-
ties in the Shenandoah Valley today.
Agriculture in Eastern North America was the result of initial domest-
ication of wild plants in the eastern half of North America, followed by
the diffusion of additional crops from Mexico. The English colonists
saw Algonquians tribes in the Chesapeake Bay planting corns, beans,
and squash, but all three were probably imported into Virginia after
1,000 A.D. It is reasonable to assume that the Native Americans in
Virginia were exposed to corn, beans, and a different variety of squash
after the occupants of the Mississippi River watershed incorporated
those new plants into their agricultural practices. The Appalachian
Mountains may have been a barrier to cultural diffusion from the west,
just as they slowed European settlement from moving from the Pied-
mont to the Ohio River valley.
Corn cultivation was introduced into Virginia from what today we call the Midwestern United States. Seeds may have been provided by trade, or new cultivation techniques may have come through intermarriage with residents
in the Ohio or Tennessee river valleys. There is no evidence to suggest any
quick introduction of corn cultivation into Virginia through direct migra-
tion of corn-growing people coming all he way from Mexico. The seeds
and the expertise migrated from Central America to Virginia, but not the
corn-growing Mexican farmers.
The corn that was grown in Virginia when John Smith arrived in 1607 was different from the original domesticated variety. The primary grain of the
Virginia natives - corn - had been domesticated for several thousand years
before a variety was developed that was productive in Virginia's climate.
Corn was not domesticated originally in eastern North America, especially
not in Virginia. Converting a wild species of grass into corn occurred in southwestern Mexico, when the wild grass teosinte was domesticated per-
haps 9,000 years ago (at roughly the same time wheat and barley were domesticated from other wild grasses in what is now Iraq).
Wild teosinte is dramatically different from modern corn, which requires
human intervention to release modern corn kernels from the husk (so mod-
ern corn is clearly the result of human activitty). Scientists continue to argue
about what species/subspecies was the original source. Genetic evidence
suggests the debate may be coming to a close, with the ancestor of modern
corn coming from a form of teosinte that was domesticated in the Balsas
River drainage north of Alcapulco, Mexico.
The corn grown originally in Mexico was adapted to the climate there.
Seeds carried directly from Mexico to Virginia 9,000 years ago would not
have thrived in a northern latitude where daylight was longer in the sum-
mer, and the growing season between frosts was shorter. The long delay
between the arrival of domesticated corn in the Mississippi River Valley,
until corn became the dominant food crop centuries later, may reflect the
time required for genetic variation to occur.
Fortunately for the early farmers, the corn genome has a high percentage
of transposable elements (transposons, or "jumping genes") that permit
rapid genetic change. Ultimately, Native American farmers and natural
selection created a form of corn that was adapted to the shorter growing
season in higher latitudes. Linguistic evidence also suggests that many
centuries of farming were required before a strain of corn emerged that
was adapted to the climate, and farming corn became common in what is
now the American Mid-West and Eastern United States.
The variety of corn adapted Virginia stimulated a population explosion in
the Mississippi Valley about 1,100 years ago (900 A.D.). One impact of
the change in lifestyle is that trade of stone tools/shell between Middle
Atlantic and Ohio River Valley groups declined. It is possible that as agri-
culture made groups more self-sufficient in food, there was a reduced need
for specialty items imported from outside the region to provide elevated
status to key individuals. Perhaps control over stockpiles of corn became
sufficient to define leadership roles.
Even after adopting the Mexican food crops, however, many Virginian
tribes still lived as semi-nomadic bands rather than settled full-time into
towns. Hunting and fishing in the summer and winter, but returning in the
fall to harvest bottomlands planted in the spring, was an effective lifestyle
for several thousand years until the arrival of Europeans disrupted the pat-
In Tidewater, where the available protein from the Chesapeake Bay estuary
was particularly accessible, a town site might be occupied for several sea-
sons while the natives harvested nearby beds of oysters, caught crabs and
fish, and hunted deer. Once the easy pickings were gone, however, the
structures that identified a site as a town might be moved, and the site not reoccupied for a period of time. Intermittent migrations, rather than living
in permanent settlements with concentrations of human and animal waste,
also reduced the risks of disease.
By the arrival of John Smith, the original Virginians had evolved through
several separate cultures. There were perhaps 50,000 Native Americans in
the state, when the Europeans arrived. The societies reflected increasing
social complexity, with religious and political rulers able to affect larger
numbers of tribes, but different sections of Virginia evolved at different
rates. The Southwestern part of Virginia, in particular, adopted ceramics
much later than the coastal Virginians, suggesting migration and trade
through the seafood-rich Tidewater may have introduced new ideas into
Virginia via the Coastal Plain initially.
Cultivation of beans occurred after Mexican squash and corn agriculture
had been adopted. Based on what the Europeans saw in the 16th and 17th
Century, the earliest Virginia farmers planted the three crops together. The
squash covers the ground, shading out weeds. The corn grows high, and
the beans grow up the cornstalk. One benefit of the beans is their ability
to add nitrogen to the soil. Clearing patches of woods was not a simple
task for a society with just stone points and bone tools, though fire was
also available to the natives as well.
Adoption of agriculture was not an overnight process, with a complete commitment to farmed food. When the English colonists arrived in 1607,
hunting and gathering remained essential to the Powhatan tribes as well
as farming. Native Americans were growing sunflowers, corn, and other
crops - but agriculture provided only a portion of the food required each
year. Hunting and gathering continued, as it had for 10,000-years. Native Americans farmed various species at the time of contact with Europeans,
but they also relied heavily on the seasonally-predictable wild fare avail-
able from a rich local forest environment.
The Native Americans that greeted the English were thin in part because
food supply was still unreliable. Perhaps life in Virginia 400 years ago
was not as "nasty, brutish, and short" as in the Paleoindian period - but
famine was a real possibility. William Strachey, an early colonist, com-
mented on how the Native Americans fed themselves - and how their
bodies responded to the annual food supply, by growing thin when food
About their howses they have commonly square plotts of cleered
grownd, which serve them for gardens, some one hundred, some
two hundred foote square, wherein they sowe their tobacco, pum-
pons [pumpkins], and a fruit like unto a musk million, but less and
worse, which they call macock gourds, and such like, which fruets
increase exceedingly, and ripen in the beginning of July, and con-
tynue until September; they plant also the field apple, the maracock,
a wyld fruit like a kind of pomegranette, which increaseth infinitelye,
and ripens in August, contynuing untill the end of October, when all
the other fruicts be gathered, but they sowe nether herb, flower, nor
any other kynd of fruit.
They neither ympale for deare, nor breed cattlle, nor bring up tame
poultry, albeit they have great stoore of turkies, nor keepe birds,
squirrells, nor tame patridges, swan, duck, nor goose. In March and
April they live much upon their weeres [traps used to catch fish] and
feed on fish, turkies, and squirrells; and then, as also sometymes in
May, they plant their fields annd sett their corn, and live after those
months most of acrons [acorns], walnutts, chesnutts, chechinquarnins
[a form of wild grain], and fish; but, to mend their dyett, some dis-
perse themselves in small companeys, and live upon such beasts as
they can kyll with their bows and arrows, upon crabbs, oysters, land-
tortoyses, strawberryes, mulberries, and such like. In June, July, and
August they feed upon the roots of tockohow [tuckahoe, or the arrow
arum plant that grows in wetlands], berries, grownd nutts, fish, and
greene wheate [corn], and sometyme uppon a greene serpent, or
greene snake, of which our people likewise use to eate.
It is strange to see how their bodies alter with their dyett; even as the
deare and wild beasts they seem fatt and leane, strong and weake.
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