Manitoba History: Manitoba’s First Farmers
by Catherine Flynn, Parks Canada and
Most people believe that the early pioneer homesteaders, the Selkirk settlers, were Manitobas’s first farmers. However, several centuries before the arrival of the Selkirk settlers, the land was already being worked by Aboriginal or First Nations peoples in various parts of Manitoba.
The presentation of Manitoba’s history has not generally shown Native peoples as farmers; instead, they have been portrayed as nomadic wanderers who resisted the efforts of well-intentioned Europeans who tried to induce them to take up farming and become “civilized”. In Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy, Sarah Carter (1993) has documented in detail how representatives from Indian Affairs first introduced farming to Aboriginal groups, usually at the request of the Native peoples after they had been relocated to reserves, and then proceeded to set up a series of rules which made farming on the reserves an activity destined to fail.
There is, however, well documented evidence for Postcontact maize (corn) horticulture in Manitoba prior to the movement of Aboriginal peoples to reserves. Moodie and Kaye (1969) discuss some of the early accounts of corn growing in Manitoba. They state that the first mention of Native corn horticulture north of the Middle Missouri is made by Alexander Henry in 1805, when he observed the Netley Creek Natives growing corn and potatoes. Later, in 1821, these same people were reputed to have provided the Selkirk settlers with seed. Moodie and Kaye (1969) also report that the Netley Creek Odawas were well aware of the practice of maize growing but did not grow it themselves until they were given the seed in 1805. Following this, garden plots were placed in strategic provisioning locations and, by the 1850s, they had added beans and even melons to their inventory. The practice of gardening quickly caught on with other Woodland Native groups spurred by the demand for provisions by traders.
This example from the fur trade period is the most frequently cited example of the earliest known Native farming in Manitoba. But what of the Precontact period, the vast period of time prior to the fur trade and homestead eras? For information from this period we must turn to the archaeological record and to early historic observations on Native peoples to the south, particularly in the area around the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in what is now the Dakotas and Minnesota.
Archaeologists have documented a long tradition of plant domestication and crop harvesting among the Aboriginal people of North, Central and South America. Corn, one of our own modern staples, was first domesticated in the highlands of Mexico approximately 7000 years ago. This highly adaptable plant was rapidly bred to produce a wide variety of strains which were eventually grown throughout much of Central and North America. Other domesticated crops include a variety of beans and gourds, tobacco, sunflowers, potatoes and numerous indigenous seedy plants such as chenopodium and amaranth. In fact, one of the ironies of modern farming is the effort that is currently invested in eradicating “weeds”, many of which were either domesticated or heavily utilized by Precontact Aboriginal groups and are particularly well-suited to colonizing recently disturbed land.
From its origins in Mexico, the spread of maize throughout this continent was a remarkably rapid process; in fact, it was much more rapid than the spread of agriculture during the European Neolithic (Shay 1990). The very earliest evidence for corn farming north of Mexico dates to approximately A.D. 200 for the American Southwest (Shay 1990) and to A.D. 300 for the southeast (Steponaitis 1986; Watson 1989). By A.D. 1000, maize was well established throughout a large portion of the continent (Arzigan 1987; Benn 1983; Ford 1974; Fowler 1969; Gallagher 1989; Shay 1990) and was being grown as a staple as far north as the Dakotas. In other words, it took less than 1000 years for maize cultivation to spread from Mexico to most of North America!
The speed with which maize was adopted can be partially explained by evidence that shows that maize was a convenient addition to an established complex of indigenous domesticates which developed independently in many places during the Middle and Late Woodland periods (Arzigan 1987; Benn 1983; Gallagher 1989; Steponaitis 1986; Watson 1989). These early horticultural complexes can be seen in the archaeological record as early as 500 B.C. (Watson 1989), and by 200 B.C. the cultivation of a complex of native plants was well established in the central Mississippi Valley (Braun 1987; Struever and Vickery 1973), the northeast (Watson 1989) and north-central United States (Benn 1983).
The complex of indigenous domesticates includes a variety of nutritious seed plants such as pigweed (Amaranthus), lamb’s quarter or goosefoot (Chenopodium), knotweed or smartweed (Polygonum), marshelder (Iva), ragweed (Ambrosia trifida L.), sunflower (Helianthis annua) and others (Benn 1983; Struever and Vickery 1973; Watson 1989). These plants provided much needed oils and carbohydrates to the diet of Native Americans who often relied heavily on lean meat for sustenance.
The development the hardiest variety of native cornNorthern Flint, also known as Harinoso de Ocho or Eastern 8 row, facilitated the final and very rapid spread of maize to the northern reaches of its limit, around the Knife-Heart region of North Dakota. This variety was readily adopted because, among other things, it was (and still is) insect resistant, high yielding, and frost tolerant (Gallagher 1989). In light of these improvements it is interesting to note that in many places maize was not adopted gradually but suddenly and wholesale (Steponaitis 1986).
Between A.D. 400-800 (Benn 1983; Ford 1974; Fowler 1969; Steponaitis 1986; Shay 1990) the adoption of maize was also an important factor in a remarkable series of social, political, and demographic changes all over the central eastern and north central continent. Corn farming corresponds with (but does not necessarily cause) dramatic increases in population density (Brown 1982; Benn 1983; Ford 1974; Fowler 1969; Shay 1990), increased sedentism, movement to larger, localized population centres, new forms of political organization, agricultural intensification in the form of garden plot selection and preparation, and increases in the size, number, and distribution of food storage facilities (Arzigan 1987; Benn 1983; Brown 1987; Ford 1974; Fowler 1969; Gallagher 1989; Shay 1990).
For example, close to the time of the introduction of maize, populations begin to congragate along the major rivers such as the Mississippi. In the north, these rivers include the Missouri, James, and Red River systems (Shay 1990). In eastern North America, the intensive exploitation of local species, followed by the cultivation of introduced plants such as corn, contributed to rapid increases in the human population, a process which ultimately led to the development of large sedentary nations during the period from A.D. 800 until European contact. Large centres such as Cahokia, in what is now East St. Louis, Illinois, epitomized these developments; here, a city of some 30,000 people was governed by wealthy divine rulers. This system was supported by intensive farming in the surrounding fields of the Mississippi valley during the period from A.D. 800 to 1350. The city was surrounded by palisades enclosing numerous earthworks such as the large pyramidal temple mounds, the largest of which was thirty metres (100 feet) high and involved the movement of 22,000,000 cubic feet of soil. This centre influenced cultural developments far beyond its walls and evidence of this Mississippian presence is found over virtually all of midwestem North America including southern Manitoba, so that by A.D. 1000 much of the midwest is ‘Mississippianized’ (Ford 1974). This pattern appears to have spread at the expense of contemporary hunter-gatherers.
Closer to home, intensive cultivation of plants rapidly spread north into Iowa, southern Minnesota and the Dakotas in the period between approximately A.D. 900 to 1000 and continued into the 1800s. The Plains Village Pattern was well established along the Missouri River, southwest Minnesota, western Iowa, and the lower James River by about 1000 A.D. (Kordecki and Gregg 1986) while some aspects of this Plains Village pattern appear somewhat later north and east of the Middle Missouri. Further north on the James and Red rivers in North Dakota, maize makes its appearance between 1200 and 1300 A.D. (Gregg et al. 1986). However, unlike the better known Plains Village Pattern, these areas generally lack evidence for any cultigen other than maize and cultigens such as sunflowers, beans, squash, and tobacco.
When early European explorers and fur traders visited the Dakotas, they reported the sedentary, palisaded villages of the Arikara in South Dakota, and several Mandan, Hidatsa, and Gros Ventre groups along the Missouri River in North Dakota. Other groups such as the Dakota in Minnesota planted some crops even though they were more nomadic, leaving their villages for certain periods of the year to go on annual hunting forays.
The villages along the Missouri were large, long term settlements. Mandan villages, for instance, averaged 90 earth lodge houses but could be as large as 150 houses (Lehmer 1971). These houses averaged thirteen persons per lodge so that an average village would have contained approximately 1200 people; the largest villages would have had as many as 2000 people. These population estimates are larger than those for many modern rural communities. Native farming villages generally lasted for about twenty years, after which the women would seek new sites for the village because near-by sources of firewood and small game had been depleted.
These villages also functioned as major trade centres for the entire Plains. When local Native groups from Manitoba visited these villages, they had opportunities to meet and trade with groups such as the Crow and Shoshoni from the western Plains and the Kiowa from the southern Plains, as well as the various Dakota and Lakota groups from the northeastern Plains (Wood 1972). During the fur trade period, raw hides, finished hides, horses, guns and other European trade goods were being exchanged but field commodities such as corn, beans, squashes, sunflowers and tobacco were also very important.
To the east, all of the groups of the Iroquois confederacy raised large crops of corn, beans and squash, Groups south of the Great Lakes such as the Winnebago of northern Wisconsin did the same.
Given the widespread agricultural developments to the immediate south and east, it should come as no surprise that Native groups living in Manitoba both knew of plant domestication and attempted it. The Mandan and Hidatsa villages along the Missouri River were nearby, only two days travel, even on foot. These villagers were visited regularly by, and traded with, all of the Plains groups including the Nakota (Assiniboin), Plains Cree and Ojibwa who occupied southern Manitoba. Fur trade journals also recoil the Mandan coming up to trade at forts along the Assiniboine River such as Pine Fort (Dick 1975; Tottle 1981) and Fort Ellice (Hamilton 1980) in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Lewis and Clark note that in 1804-05, three bands of Assiniboins and one band of Plains Cree visited the Missouri Villages annually (Moulton 1987).
However, in order to learn of the earliest local agricultural activities we must turn to the archaeological record. Until the late 1980s the Precontact limit of Native horticulture was believed to be in North Dakota (Moodie and Kaye 1969; Nicholson 1990). Although there was some suggestion by Syms (1980) that, according to a combination of ethnohistoric data, climatic data and his own co-influence sphere model, Precontact maize horticulture should have been present in the southwest portion of Manitoba, it was not until 1986 that there was solid evidence for Precontact farming from any archaeological site north of the Dakotas.
The earliest and most outstanding example of Precontact Native farming is found at the Lockport site, located at the foot of the rapids in the modern town of Lockport on the Red River, north of Winnipeg. Here, excavations during the summers from 1984 to 1988 revealed a series of Native occupations spanning at least the last 3000 years. The majority of these occupations reflect expected cultural developments on both the Plains to the west and within the Boreal forest to the east. Near the end of the archaeological sequence, however, is a brief but intense occupation which clearly shows evidence of agricultural activities generally found further to the south. This occupation dates to the early 1400s, approximately 400 years prior to the arrival of the Selkirk settlers!
Excavations at the site were spread over an area some 100 metres square during the course of the five summers. Within the layers of earth, excavators discovered numerous storage pits both shallow and deep, bison scapulae (shoulder blades) used to make blades for gardening hoes, charred corn kernels, charred corn plant parts and ceramic vessels which are not typical of the local wares. The scapula hoes provide evidence that the soil was being worked and the deep storage pits, some over five feet deep and four feet wide at the bottom, indicate considerable time and energy invested in maintaining the site and thus a commitment to a sedentary existence there as well. These people either stayed at the village on a relatively permanent basis or they were present for enough of the year to maintain the crop and live off of the surpluses stored there.
At the present time, we cannot identify the cultural affiliation of the group which inhabited this site. Yet, using the unusual ceramics recovered from there we can determine that this group must have been involved with groups from northern and central Minnesota. These groups probably maintained a core territory around the middle Red River, as well as the James and Cheyenne rivers since the agricultural occupation at Lockport bears a strong resemblance to sites of a similar age found along these rivers. These sites also have large storage pits, bison scapula hoes and evidence of corn along with ceramic vessels decorated with motifs very similar to those found at Lockport. What distinguishes the groups in this area from the Plains Village Mandan and Hidatsa along the Missouri is the fact that they grew only corn whereas the Middle Missouri groups also grew beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco along with corn as part of their horticultural repertoire.
Unfortunately, virtually nothing of these groups is known from the historic period. We must look to the better known Mandan and Hidatsas of the Missouri River who practiced many of the same activities as the Lockport group, such as the use of scapula hoes and large bell-shaped storage pits, to develop an appreciation of these local farmers. The Middle Missouri Plains Villagers, the Minnesota agriculturalists and the Lockport group may all ultimately share a similar origin so this analogy is both useful and valid.
The detailed account of Maxidiwiac or “Buffalo Bird Woman”, an Hidatsa elder, was recorded in the early 1900s and provides an in-depth account of her perceptions of traditional Hidatsa agriculture (Wilson 1987). She tells us that fields were laid out on the unwooded flood plain, near the edge of the river. These fields varied in size but Buffalo Bird Woman’s largest field was 540 feet by 270 feet (3.3 acres or 1.3 hectares). The fields belonged to extended family groups and were managed by the senior women. Various types of corn, beans and squash were grown and different strains were planted in such a way that unwanted cross-pollination and interbreeding were prevented . Women were responsible for much of the soil preparation, planting and weeding, while the mature crops were harvested by the community with some help from the men.
Native farming required a variety of specialized tools since all of the work was done by hand without machinery or draft animals. Hoes were made of a bison scapulae fastened to long wooden handles and there were wooden digging sticks, rakes made from branches or antler, and knives fashioned from sharpened pieces of scapula; as well there were threshing flails and corn-shelling tools. Larger farming tools included special drying racks, hide-walled threshing rooms and the deep, specialized storage pits in evidence at many archaeological sites from this area.
Corn was eaten in a variety of ways both as a mush as well as ripe and dried. Buffalo Bird Woman also tells of the festival held when the green corn was ready to eat. Much of the harvest was stored in dried form, either as loose kernels or whole on the cob in the large storage pits which were lined with bark and grass and well capped to prevent the stored surplus from becoming damp or infested with rodents and insects.
The surplus produce was stored in these large pits and was used throughout the year for food and to trade with the more nomadic, non-agricultural groups such as the Nakota (Assiniboin), Plains Cree, Cheyenne and others for bison meat and hides especially. The Plains Villagers are also known to have traded with early Europeans as well.
There is considerable evidence that the Native farmers had an impressive and intimate knowledge of the land, its limitations, and ingenious ways to circumvent some of these limitations. Clearly, bone tools are not suitable for breaking tough prairie sod and riverine clays. For this reason, garden sites are found on river terraces with light sandy or silty soil. Coincidentally, these soil types also produced the earliest harvests (Moodie and Kaye 1969). It is apparent from the location of these sites that Native farmers were acutely aware of the length of the frost free period so that sites were also selected for micro-climatic variations which maximized the length of the growing season. Where site selection was not sufficient to provide the farmers with what they required, the land could be modified to suit their needs. For instance, in Wisconsin there is archaeological evidence for ridged fields which were used to increase the length of the growing season by first warming the soil earlier in the spring and then creating frost sinks to protect the crops later in the fall. There is no such evidence at Lockport but it is clear the site was selected for its sandy soil. This site would also maximize exposure to the hot afternoon sun since it is located on the east bank of the river.
Moodie and Kaye (1969) also note that the historic choice of Netley Creek for Native garden plots was an exceptionally good one; not only was the soil loose and sandy but it was also well-drained. In addition, there was ample moisture and a longer than average frost free period due to the close proximity of Lake Winnipeg. “Elsewhere in the lower Red River Valley corn was an uncertain crop. The Selkirk settlers, for example, were successful with Mandan varieties only on natural levees along main rivers” (Moodie and Kaye 1969: 528). All of this evidence supports the frequent assertion in the archaeological literature that Natives were acutely aware of the potential advantages and pitfalls of any given garden site and kept these well in mind when locating their plots. Garden site selection was a careful, non-random process and it is no accident that a horticultural site can be found at Lockport, on a strip of sandy soil where, due to the close proximity of a large body of water, the frost free period is probably slightly longer than average.
The archaeological site at Lockport produced numerous storage pits, unusual ceramics (Flynn 1993) and at least a dozen bison scapula hoes (Roberts 1991) which indicate the presence of considerable agricultural activity on site. Unfortunately the site never revealed any evidence of houses or palisades. Therefore it is impossible to ascertain the size of the village or whether it was fortifiedboth of which might have provided valuable clues about the ethnic composition of the village. The other crucial piece of evidence in this equation is the presence of corn kernels and numerous charred pieces of corn plant and cupules (Flynn 1993; Deck and Shay 1992). The corn at Lockport is the hardy Eastern eight row, Northern Flint or Maize de Ocho, the latest and hardiest development in the history of maize domestication. This combination of artifacts, site location, botanical evidence combined with the presence of the deep sub-surface storage features shows that there was definitely some gardening taking place well before any contact with Europeans.
The other area of the province which has produced direct evidence of Precontact Native agricultural activities is in southwestern Manitoba along the Souris River south of the town of Melita. In the early 1970s, Leigh Syms (1974) excavated a bell-shaped storage pit with worked scapula fragments at the Snyder H site near the confluence of Gainsborough Creek and the Souris River. This storage pit, plus at least seven others were located around the uncultivated edges of a large field. The village site was scattered over many acres of the cultivated field. On the field were also the remnants of two large burial mounds, however, fifty years of modem cultivation obliterated any evidence of how many other storage pits might have existed.
This particular village with its storage pits was occupied either during the Protocontact period, i.e. the period when local Native groups were receiving European items through trade but Europeans themselves had not yet set up local establishments to trade directly with the Natives, or it was occupied during the very early fur trade portion of the Postcontact period. An uncorrected radiocarbon date of A.D. 1610 ± 130 combined with the extreme paucity of European trade items establishes the time frame for the Snyder II site, some 200 years more recent than the Lockport site but still well before European efforts to till the land.
The single storage pit that was excavated there provided some interesting insights. The pit had been dug to a depth of 123 centimetres (or 4' 1"). It was bell-shaped with a basal width of 120 centimeters (or 4'). It had been dug through 15 centimeters of loam, 55 centimeters of glacial gravel, and 53 centimeters of dense riverine clay and partially disintegrated shale; these last two layers were extremely difficult to dig even with modern long handled, sharpened round mouth shovels. What effort must have been required by the original excavators of these pits who would have been using tools of bone and stone!
The pit itself initially held an oxygen-hungry, poorly burning fire with three rocks which probably held a pot in place. The pit was then gradually filled in with village debris among which were a series of small ash lenses that were probably the result of hide smoking accomplished by propping the untreated hide over the mouth of the pit. Each of the fires in this pit was extinguished with a layer of fresh gravel.
The Snyder II site village is located on a plain overlooking the two river valleys. It is likely that the gardens or fields would have been on the floodplain of the Gainsborough Creek immediately below the location of the village and storage pits. The importance of these storage pits as evidence of horticultural activities was not acknowledged at that time.
Unfortunately, modem cultivation has destroyed any evidence of village activities such as fields and the original number of storage pits. Given that so much of the countryside in this region is now under cultivation, one cannot help but wonder how much evidence of earlier Native agriculture has been lost.
During the last decade, Bev Nicholson of Brandon University has been conducting extensive archaeological field work in southwestern Manitoba, defining the cultural complexity of Native developments there between approximately A.D. 600 to A.D. 1500 and searching for evidence of local Native horticulture (Nicholson 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996a, 1996b; Nicholson and Kuijt 1990). He has established that Native corn could have been grown locally and that there are particularly suitable niches available such as low, sandy areas along riverbanks.
To date, the direct evidence for such horticultural activities is tantalizing but limited. Among the materials recovered from village/campsites such as the Lowton site near Belmont, the Lovstrom and Jackson sites along the Souris River, and the Jonas site along the Assiniboine River are a couple of broken bison scapulae that may have been hoes, a number of stone hoes which may have been used for horticultural activities or, alternatively, for grubbing wild plants such as prairie turnip. So far, no storage pits nor domesticated plant remains have been recovered.
The local cultural developments, identified as the Vickers culture (in honour of the late Chris Vickers, the father of Manitoba Archaeology), dates to the early 1400s. Nicholson argues that the Native peoples who occupied these sites moved up from the Dakotas where they would have been practicing horticulture. He also argues that the ceramics from this culture indicate on-going contact with the horticultural villages along the Missouri River. Although it is not precisely clear where the people of the “Vickers culture” come from, it is clear that they would certainly have been aware of the concept of plant domestication. It is also not clear, yet, to what degree these people would have locally practiced incipient or regular horticulture.
As we look at the archaeological record, we realize that much of the record has been lost or at least made more difficult to find. For instance, we now need to use sub-surface searching techniques such as proton magnetometer readings in order to locate buried storage pits. Nevertheless, we do know that local Aboriginal peoples were both familiar with the cultivation of numerous plants by their neighbours and trading partners along the Missouri River, its tributaries, and other rivers in the vicinity and that they cultivated fields of their own at various times and in various locations over a 400 year period prior to contact with Europeans.
However, we also know that the local Native groups chose to rely most heavily on the mobile supermarkets of the vast herds of migratory bison that provided most of the essentials for life on the plains in abundant quantities. It was not, therefore, an ignorance of agriculture but an insightful, rational economic decision which prompted them to follow the herds. This way, they did not have to worry about the grasshoppers, plagues, flooding, drought, prairie fires or late spring and early fall frosts which disrupted the agricultural efforts of the early European settlers.
The subsequent tragedy was, of course, that when the bison herds and many of the other natural resources had been decimated, and when the Native people had been confined to small parcels of reserve land, they were often given land which was marginal, and were bureaucratically hampered in their efforts to become effective farmers, and as a result experienced difficulty fending off starvation.
People can develop an appreciation for these early Aboriginal farming activities by reading accounts such as Wilson’s Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden or by visiting the interpretive centre at Lockport. The centre is located near the Lockport bridge on the east bank of the Red River. People can also walk out to the site itself along the river’s edge below the lock and dam. The Manitoba Heritage Council has decided that the theme of Native people as Manitoba’s first farmers is of provincial significance. A plaque commemorating this theme has been erected at the interpretive centre and an excellent booklet, First Farmers of the Red River Valley has been produced by the Historic Resources Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, and is available on request at no charge.
References Cited in Text
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Page revised: 1 February 2020