JANE MT. PLEASANT: In this section, we're going to talk about New York's first farmers, Iroquois women. I always like to begin talking about this by introducing a myth. Many people believe that at the time of first contact, Northeastern Indians were primarily hunters and gatherers, that if you had come into New York in the 1500s or even 1600s, you would have found a landscape that was predominantly wilderness, and that Indian peoples were living primarily by hunting, fishing, and gathering.
We know that the truth is much different. In fact, Iroquois peoples were very productive, very dynamic, and very experienced farmers. They were agricultural people who lived in agricultural villages. In fact, we know that agricultural products-- corn, beans, and squash, as well as other agricultural foods-- provided more than half of their food needs. We also know that women held the knowledge about plants and plant management, both crop plants and all sorts of the fruit medicinal plants and that women controlled all aspects of agriculture in Iroquois communities.
The roots of Iroquois agriculture actually extend back before corn, beans, and squash. Although we think about corn, beans, and squash as being kind of the defining elements of Iroquois agriculture, it turns out that Iroquois farmers were actually domesticating plants several hundred years before the introduction of corn, beans, and squash. But we do know that by 1350 corn, beans, and squash as a kind of very important triumvirate of plants were firmly established as a polyculture in New York.
We also know that the earliest corn, or maize, growing was happening by 1165. So agriculture and the interrelationship of people and plants in New York goes back almost 1,000 years here in the state.
I'd like to, though, give you a bit of a tour of Iroquois agriculture through the eyes of Europeans. Some of the most detailed records that we have of the descriptions of agriculture at the time of contact and for the first couple of hundred years during the colonial period come through the diaries and the journals of European explorers and military conquerors.
Some of the very first record of Iroquois agriculture, a description of it from a European that I've been able to find is in the journal of Jacques Cartier in 1535. Cartier was a French explorer who came down the St. Lawrence River. And he recorded in his journal that he saw along the banks of the St. Lawrence River village after village. Surrounding these villages were large and extensive fields of corn. In the villages themselves were fairly large-scale and relatively permanent structures for grain storage.
Another explorer, a Dutchman, Arent van Curler, came up the Hudson River about 100 years later in 1634. And, again, in his journal, he described almost an identical scene. Along the banks of the Hudson River, he saw village after village. Surrounding these villages, large fields of corn. In the villages themselves, large structures for the storage of grain.
In 1687, we also have the records of Marquis de Denonville, a French military man who came on an invasion into Western New York. You may remember from your world history that France and England were engaged in almost constant warfare and conflict in Europe in the 1600s. And when they came to North America, they brought that conflict with them.
The Iroquois Confederacy, as a major political entity in the Northeast, immediately got embroiled in that. By and large, the Confederacy sided with Great Britain who were their kind of longtime allies. Denonville, recognizing the very important role that Iroquois agriculture was playing in the Confederacy's ability to support Great Britain, made an attack into Western New York, right around Rochester, Victor, New York, in 1687. He came with the express purpose of destroying Iroquois cornfields.
He recorded in his journal that in a three-day period he and his soldiers destroyed more than a million bushel of corn grain. Now, if you've ever seen a million bushel of grain, you know it's a hell of a lot of corn. There's no way you get that quantity of corn without a very sophisticated social, economic infrastructure that can do it. It requires a great deal of technical knowledge. It requires a social and cultural infrastructure that can harvest, process, and store a great deal of corn. That, I think, gives us a very clear idea that Iroquois agriculture in the late 1600s was not backyard gardeners but rather very extensive acreages of agriculture planted by sophisticated farmers who knew exactly what they were doing.
But some of our most detailed information on what Iroquois agriculture looked like during the colonial period come during John Sullivan's campaign. And, again, if you remember your American history, you'll know that John Sullivan was a general in George Washington's army. Once again, the Confederacy got very much embroiled in the conflict between Great Britain and the American revolutionaries. Four out of the six nations of the Confederacy supported Great Britain in that conflict. And as a result of that, John Sullivan was sent by George Washington into Western New York to once again destroy Iroquois agriculture in order to limit the support that they could give to Great Britain.
Now, this is one of the saddest and darkest periods of Iroquois history. It was a time when there was incredible destruction of Iroquois communities, of Iroquois villages, and cropland. But one of the things that it gives us is a very close and intimate look at what Iroquois agriculture looked like at that time.
Many of the soldiers in Sullivan's army kept diaries and journals. And we have the records of the things that they wrote, their impressions, the things that they saw. And the picture that they give us is one of striking detail, really a very close look at what the area looked like in central New York in the late 1700s.
Here you can see a quote by Daniel Brodhead, who was a sergeant in John Sullivan's army. I find this quote particularly interesting for three basic points. First, there is the recognition by Brodhead that Iroquois farmers were very, very good farmers, that, in fact, the Iroquois agriculturalists were probably better corn growers than their colonial counterparts at the same time. The other thing that's striking to me is the description of the quantity and the extension of Iroquois agriculture. The fact that they were growing fields of corn, 500 acres of corn, other vegetables, fruit crops, as well.
The third thing that I think is important in this quote is that it points out that Iroquois communities, Iroquois people, enjoyed a standard of living that was very high in that it was likely based on the very productive and successful agriculture which they had. Many of the Indians were living in frame houses. There's indications that many of them actually had glass windows. And surely the standard of living that they enjoyed was very much a result of the agriculture that they used.
Iroquois agriculture was profoundly different from anything that the Europeans had seen. At the time of first contact when Europeans first came into North America, they saw an agriculture based on a crop that they had no experience with. Northeastern Indians at that time period were growing corn. And corn is indigenous to the Western hemisphere. At the same time period, European farmers were growing small grains, crops like rye, wheat, oats, barley. So the crop that they saw when they first came was very different.
They had no experience with maize, which was developed by native peoples in Mexico and Guatemala about 5,000 years ago. It first moved south and then north from Mexico up into the Southwest and then certainly we know by about 1100 AD corn was being planted here in New York State.
The other thing, though, besides the plants being different, the major cropping plants, the other thing that was strikingly different was that Iroquois people planted without tillage. They had neither plows nor draft animals. Again, this was in direct contrast to European farmers who used both plows and draft animals.
When the Europeans first came into the Northeast, they left both their animals and their plows at home. But they brought with them their seeds of their small grains. I think we all know from our social studies classes in fourth grade that the first attempts by these European colonists at agriculture consisted of them trying to broadcast by hand these small grains onto unplowed ground. And the result of that was almost a complete crop failure. As a result of that, the Europeans began to look more closely at how the Iroquois were planting their crops and how native peoples were managing to have a very productive agriculture without the use of plows and other implements of tillage.
Today, we would call this system the Three Sisters hill system. It was used by Iroquois communities in the Northeast for more than 400 years. The system itself consists of three crops-- corn, beans, and squash-- that are growing together as a polyculture in hills or mounds. Today, as an agronomist, I can look at this system and recognize that it integrates all of the principles for sound crop and soil management in a very productive and stable cropping system.
I hope you'll stay with me and learn more about the science behind the Three Sisters.
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First Peoples, First Crops provides a new perspective on the fascinating and vitally important role that Iroquois people (Haudenosaunee) have played in the development of agriculture in northeast North America.
Native American woman, the region's first farmers, developed a dynamic cropping system, the Three Sisters, that had enormous impacts on the Iroquois Confederacy and continues to influence Native and non-Native peoples in the 21st Century.
In this room you will learn about the connections between corn growing and the development of the Iroquois Confederacy as well as the science behind the Three Sisters cropping system. You will learn about the origins of corn and its effects on human communities across the globe. The room also provides information on Cornell's American Indian Program and its current efforts to support Native American agriculture in the northeast.
This video is part 3 of 7 in the First Peoples, First Crops series.