Indian Gardens—one more time!

Ok, I should have thought this whole thing through before launching food travel theories. Josephy reminded us years ago, in Indian Heritage of America, 1492 and other places, that about half of present world food crops originated in the Western hemisphere: corn, beans, manioc, chocolate, tobacco—well, food and medicinal/drug crops. And we all know from fourth grade Thanksgiving programs that corn—Mesoamerican corn—had arrived in New England long before the English!
Diorama of Iroquois Indians tending maize caption, New York State Museum

But it is also true that Indians of what is now the Pacific Northwest were traditionally hunters, gatherers, and fishers, and most of these crops were not found in the region at the time of first white contact, Indians of the region had established economies and food cultures over countless generations before white contact, food cultures built around salmon, game, and readily available roots, bulbs, and berries. Did they have knowledge of corn? And when did tobacco arrive? Did they come through Indian trade routes, or with Delaware and Iroquois who were, by the late eighteenth century, part of the western fur trading business, or were the French and British traders themselves responsible for bringing tobacco, corn, and other domesticated vegetables West?

Friends have gently reminded me of the long association of Indians and gardens, and of the extensive pre-Columbian trade routes in North America. Keith Kirts speculated on crops coming from the Southwest—as horses surely did—before whites came overland. And Ralph Anderson commented that “From the east coast all through the Mississippi country were the remains of the mound-builders, corn and squash and beans gardens…  the agriculture that allowed the concentrated populations. By the time of the invasions of the Northwest… 1815-1820’s the Anishinabe had been gardening with and around the British forts and settlements for nearly 100 years.”
And as mentioned earlier, my mentor Alvin Josephy, and in his wake Charles Mann, in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, have tried to sledge-hammer home the importance of the pre-Columbian development of world food crops in this hemisphere.
These reflections and conversations have taught me that the development of domesticated agriculture in what we now call the Pacific Northwest is a complicated affair. The Spaldings and Whitmans probably have their places in it, but theirs are small roles in the very interesting drama of food and its travels around the globe.


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