Influence of the Cultivation of the Zea Maize

Search Fold3 for your
Native American Records

Influence of the Cultivation of the Zea Maize on the Condition, History, and Migrations of the Indian Race

The influence of the cultivation of the Zea Maize on the semi-civilization and history of the Indian race of this continent has been very striking. It is impossible to resist this conclusion, in searching into the causes of their dispersion over the continent. We are everywhere met with the fact that those tribes who cultivated corn, and lived in mild and temperate latitudes, reached a state of society, which was denied to the mere hunters. The Indian race, who named the Mississippi Valley at the era of the first planting of the American colonies, were but corn-growers to a limited extent. It was only the labor of females, while the men were completely hunters and periodical nomads. They spent their summers at their corn-fields, and their winters in the wild forests, doing just what their forefathers had done; and the thought of their ancestors having had the skill or industry to raise mounds, or throw up defenses on the apex of hills or at sharp defiles, never occurred to them till questioned on the subject by the whites. They were, it is true, cultivators of the zea maize, so far as has been shown, and also of the tobacco-plant, of certain vines, and of a species of bean, arts which existed pari passu with the hunter state, and which they professed to have known from the remotest times. The tribes of the Carolinas and Virginia, extending along the Atlantic quite into New England, raised large quantities of the corn, or zea maize, and they all relied upon it as one of their fixed means of subsistence. The traditions of even the most northerly tribes traced this grain to the South. That it was of tropical, or of south-western origin; that it extended gradually, and by an ethnographical impulse, into the temperate and northern latitudes, is affirmed by early observation, and is a result which the phenomena of climate à priora determines. The Indian corn will not mature north of latitude 46° 30′, it is not a profitable crop north of 44° 30′, and the tribes who have, from the earliest times, cultivated it, have no traditions that either themselves or their grain had a northern origin. The first tribes, indeed, in passing north from the continental summit of the Mississippi, who look northward on the course of their origin, are the non-corn-raising tribes, the great Athabasca group. These look to the Arctic latitudes, or the north-east coasts of America, by the Unjiga Pass of the Rocky Mountains, as their place of origin; some of them preserve the tradition of their having landed, amid snow and ice, on the bleak and frigid shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The Indian tribes of the United States, who formerly inhabited both sides of the Alleghany Mountains and the whole Mississippi Valley, extending north to the Great Lakes, and reaching south around the northern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, all, so far as known, preserve traditions which point either south, south-west, or due west, as their starting point in the ethnographic chain. With the zea maize they brought and propagated northward the art of pottery. They made cooking pots, porringers, and vessels of coarse clay, tempered with silex. This art extended also quite into the northern parts of New England, and to the banks of Lake Superior, where it ceases. The Indian tribes of the broad, elevated summit of the Rocky Mountains, never raised corn, nor had they the art of pottery. Fremont found no traces of either, till he passed entirely through them, or went into the latitudes of California; De Smet noticed neither, in his missionary journeys between the sources of the Missouri and the northern branch of the Columbia. The Shoshonees, or Snake tribe, who dwell in the arid valleys, about the area of Fort Hall, in the southern pass, boil their fish and the flesh of the few animals of those longitudes, in pots made of osiers, or small roots and fibers dug from the ground.1 On the contrary, the history of the track of migration of all the known tribes of the low and swampy latitudes of the Mississippi Valley and of the Atlantic coasts, is distinctly traced by the fragments of pottery which mark the sites of their ancient villages. Nothing is, indeed, more characteristic of these village sites.

“With these two elements, the arts of raising corn and making pottery, in which they all agree, our American Indians of the corn-yielding latitudes also brought with them the knowledge of the three species of mounds which particularly mark the western longitudes; namely, the tribal mound of augury or oracles, and of high annual oblations, the mound of sepulture, and the village mound of ordinary sacrifice. These were very different in their object and structure, but were sometimes mixed in application, as caprice or necessity might dictate, or the fortunes of war, which gave the conquering tribe the power, might determine. They all arose, and were founded on one fundamental principle and characteristic of the race; namely, their Religion, in which the worship of the sun and moon and various planets stood as types of divinity, and was, more or less, an element of union; and this system of worship appears to have marked all the primordial or first emigrated tribes. It must be recollected, as one of the fundamental points in our antiquities, that the Indian tribes are of an age which is very antique, that they have occupied various parts of the continent not only for centuries, but probably for scores of centuries. An observer, otherwise prone to great sobriety of conclusion, thinks they must have reached the continent soon after the dispersion of mankind.2

A people who require a pile of earth or stones in the shape of a mound, a teocalli or House of God, as the Aztec word imports, though they be otherwise incapable of combined labor, except when religion impels them, may be supposed to have manual skill and means to raise either. The united hand-labor of many, devoted to such an object, would soon accomplish it. There is nothing, indeed, in the magnitude and structure of our western mounds, which a semi-hunter and semi-agricultural population, like that which may be ascribed to the ancestors or Indian predecessors of the existing race, could not have executed; whereas, the interior of these earthy pyramids, even the largest of them, has disclosed nothing beyond a rude state of the arts, or, at best, such arts of pottery and sculpture, shell-work and stone implements, as are acknowledged to belong to the hunter or semi-hunter period. It is these interred evidences of the actual state of the arts, found in the mounds, that denote the mounds themselves to be the work of the semi-hunter races, before they or their descendants had fallen into their lowest state of barbarism, or that type in which they were found by the colonists between 1584 and 1620. There is little to sustain a belief that these ancient works are due to tribes of more fixed and exalted traits of civilization, far less to a people of an expatriated type of civilization, of either an Asiatic or European origin, as several popular writers have, very vaguely and with little severity of investigation, imagined.

It is impossible to discuss, on general principles, the vestiges of the agricultural labors, and curious “garden-beds,” in the forests and prairies of Indiana and Michigan, which have been taken up for examination in this paper, without considering the subject of an antique period of semi-civilization in the West, in all its bearings. Viewed in. its true lights, there appears to be a unity of period and general character in the mounds, the elevated and various earth-works, defenses, hill-tops, ditches and embankments, remains of cultivated fields, the peculiar and low state of the Mechanic arts, the ignorance of the use of metal, and the want of knowledge of the common principles of antique Military science, which are, more or less, evident and conspicuous at the various sites of western antiquities, but which yet stamp a certain character of unity upon all. This coincidence in knowledge and want of knowledge, marking the type of the civilization, is to be traced in the antiquities of the whole area of country from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, extending eastward to the cape of Florida, and northward, both along the Atlantic shores and up the valley of the Mississippi and its great tributaries, till the mingled evidences of it, from both leading tracks of migration, eventually meet, and are to be found in the wide area of the Lakes.

The Aztecs did not, according to their own records the pictorial scrolls reach the Valley of Mexico until A. D. 1090. There are no evidences to be relied on, of inhabitants of earlier date in the Mississippi Valley, who were more elevated in their character than mere roving hunters, and worshipers of geni. Most of the western monuments denote the twelfth century as the period of their abandonment. This is the general period indicated by the growth of the larger forest trees, on mounds and works of art, in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, and in Florida. The Aztecs do not trace their history farther back than to their point of landing on the Pacific; i. e., one hundred and eighty-six years. They trace their migration directly from the north, which would have been correct, generally speaking, had they come, in this migratory movement of one hundred and eighty-six years, from the banks of the river Gila, or any part of the peninsula of California, or the gulf-coast of California, as starting points. They do not profess to have come from the east or northeast, which they must have done, had they reached Mexico from the Mississippi Valley, or the sea-coasts of Florida, Cuba, or the Antilles. . It was a movement taking place, with every probability, in longitudes west of the arid spurs and elevations of the Rocky Mountains, and cannot be supposed to have extended over the wide deserts of sand, without game, grass, or water, intervening between those mountains and the seacoast of Upper California. Such a migration, which was made with great deliberation, building towns and remaining for a series of years at a place, must have disturbed the relations of the Indian tribes, through whose territories they marched, and among whom they roamed, producing lateral migrations, not westward, which would bring them to the shores of the Pacific, whence the Aztecs moved, but towards the east. And when they gained strength enough to overturn the Toltecs and their confederates, still more extensive migratory movements must be supposed to have resulted. Some of these movements tended southward and south-eastward; reaching on one side towards the Pacific, and on the other into Central America and Yucatan, where both the lexicography and the style of building and mode of life denote ancient affiliations. Others would press northward and north-eastward, where temperate latitudes, and forests abounding with game of every species, would furnish strong means of temptation to men of migratory habits. It is most reasonable to suppose, that the ancient population of the Mississippi Valley, and thence, in process of time, of the Atlantic coast and plains south of the great lakes, was thus derived; and if so derived, it would bring with it the zea maize, the bean and vine, and summer fruits a taste which is most remarkable with all our western Indians and the knowledge of making cooking vessels, which all the corn-planting tribes possessed. It is certain that the Aztecs, who, in their pictorial scroll, preserved by Boturini, represent themselves as landing from an island, in a boat moved by paddles, did not travel east two thousand miles across the fruitless waste of the Rocky Mountains, to get into the Mississippi Valley, where some writers have located Aztlan, before they set out northward for Mexico, from this extraordinary position. Nor would they, in such a movement, one more arduous, indeed, than that of the Israelite by Sinai, have found, as they did, tropical fruits.

The fact that the ancient Indian tribes of the Mississippi Valley brought the zea maize with them is almost demonstrative proof that they proceeded from southern or inter-tropical latitudes. This grain was the element of Mexican civilization. They could not have lived in large masses or towns without it; consequently, they could not, without such a fixed means of subsistence, have built the pyramids of Cholula and Chalco, and other like works. Erratic tribes, who once knew the value of this grain, would never relinquish it or forget its mode of culture, however far they migrated. Most of our tribes have invented myths, to denote it as the gift of the Deity to them, and as designed for their subsistence when game failed. The cultivation of large fields of corn would have enabled these tribes to band together, and thus to have it in their power to erect the largest mounds in the West. It is remarkable, indeed, that the most numerous as well as the largest mounds are seated on fertile plains or in rich alluvial valleys, which are the best corn lands West of the Alleghenies.

Assuming, then, that tribes from the Mexican latitudes, in its widest ancient extent, which we may, for convenience, limit to either the Rio Bravo del Norte or even the banks of the Rio Rosco or Red River, furnished the element of the ancient population of the Mississippi Valley, that is, the mound-builders and real authors of the period of agricultural industry denoted by antiquarian evidences, and we have no reason to question their ability or capacity, any more than their strong natural taste, founded on religious habit, to erect the mounds and defenses which have been enigmas in those fertile latitudes for so long a period. That their predecessors in this valley were mere foresters, rovers after game, who had no fixed habitation, and dressed simply in the azian, we may observe from such naked wandering tribes being found by them in their migration through latitudes west of the mountains, where such men are depicted as prisoners, dragged along by the hair of the head, as shown by Baturini’s map, to be sacrificed by their sanguinary priests.

A war between two Indian elements, so diverse of habits, a collision of interests and power between a semi-civilized and barbaric class of tribes, would be the natural result. Temporary attacks, the conflict of whole tribes, and the dreadful retaliations of a people whose rites and practices in the treatment of prisoners were horrible, would in time embroil the whole valley, in all its length and breadth, and bring general combinations of race against race. In this manner the feature of military defenses, whose remains are now mostly overgrown by the forest, would arise. These defenses are all very rude, but peculiar. They appear to have been a native development of the art of strategy. There is nothing of the old world s knowledge apparent here. Hostile tribes fortified the apex of a hill, or threw up rings of earth, or raised plateaus or small mounds in a plain. The ditch was generally within, and not without the wall. It was, in fact, a shelter for men, or native shelter from missiles. The Tlascalan gateway denotes an affinity of military knowledge with the tribes to whom we refer this particular kind of earthwork. Both the races seem to have contented themselves with making the entrance to a fort difficult, and giving the defenders of it the advantage in the use of missiles and forest arms. The small mounds were placed sometimes inside and sometimes outside of the gateways and openings. From these artificial hillocks a hand-to-hand fight, with arrows, spears, and clubs, could be advantageously maintained. The raised areas were evidently the site of more formidable works, and of what might be deemed the temple service of the priests; and these, which appear to be few, embrace the double objects of religion and defense. Such manifestly were the ancient sites of Marietta, Circleville, and Chillicothe, which may be regarded as the chief points of the ancient power in the Ohio Valley.

That there were such general combinations between native tribes of northern and southern races, is denoted, not only by the extension of the art of mound-building over northern latitudes, but also by the traditions of the Iroquois3 and the Lenawpes, who distinctly speak of them, and tell us that, after long struggles, the northern confederacy of tribes prevailed, and overcame or drove off the intruding tribes towards the south.4

Antiquities of the Higher Northern Latitudes of the United States

Much caution is required in recording the traditions of the aborigines; and the difficulty is increased by the extensive multiplication of tribes and bands, who have had the ambition to figure as original people or principals in their respective groups; the frequency with which they have crossed each other s track in the course of their leading migrations; and the often preposterous claims to tribal originality and supremacy which are set up. There are no records of any sort, beyond their rude monuments of earth and stone implements; and even these disappear in proceeding north beyond a certain latitude. Few of the Indians are qualified, by habits of reflection, to state that which is known or has occurred among them in past years; and those who attempt to supply by invention what is wanting in fact, often make a miserable jumble of gross improbabilities. History cannot stoop to preserve this. It must be left as the peculiar province of allegory and mythology. Indeed, their imaginative legends furnish by far the most interesting branch of their oral traditions; and hence this development of the mind of the race will be noticed at large under that head.

In the highest latitudes occupied by the Algonquins, on and north of the Lake Superior basin, we search in vain for any striking objects of antiquity. In the actual basin of Lake Superior, the oldest and most impressive features are those arising from the upheaval of rocks by ancient volcanic forces, or from the extra ordinary effects of lake action, operating upon large areas of the sedimentary rocks, which have been broken up by the waves, and re-deposited on the shore in the form of vast sand dunes. But these disturbing forces belong strictly to the consideration of its geological phenomena. The mining ruins are by far the most important, and will be noticed hereafter. (Vide G.)

There are no artificial mounds, embankments, or barrows in this basin, to denote that the country had been anciently inhabited; and when the inquiry is directed to that part of the continent, which extends northward from its northern shores, this primitive character of the face of the country becomes still more striking. The scanty character of the forest growth, the diminished area of the soil, and the increased surface of bare and exposed rock, impart to the country an air of arid desolation. Ancient seas, of heavy and long continued volume, appear to have dragged along, whether by the aid of ice-fields or not, vast boulders and abraded rocks, which are pitched confusedly into gulfs and depressions of the surface; while the more elevated and denuded portions of the rocks bear, in their polished or scratched superficies, indubitable evidence of this ancient action. The Indian, standing upon these heaps of rock-rubbish, and unable to reach the true causes of the disturbance, is prone to account for appearances as the work of some mythological personage. It is something to affirm that the mound builders, whose works have filled the West with wonder, quite unnecessary wonder, had never extended their sway here. The country appears never to have been fought for, in ancient times, by a semi-civilized or even pseudo-barbaric race. There are but few dart or spearheads. I have not traced remains of the incipient art of pottery, known to the Algonquin and other American stocks, beyond the Straits of Saint Mary, which connect Lakes Huron and Superior; and am inclined to believe that they do not extend, in that longitude, beyond the latitude of 36° 30′. There is a fresh magnificence in the ample area of Lake Superior, which appears to gainsay the former existence and exercise by man of any laws of mechanical or industrial power, beyond the canoe-frame and the war-club. And its storm-beaten and castellated rocks, however imposing, give no proofs that the dust of human antiquity, in its artificial phases, has ever rested on them.

By far the most striking object in the basin of Lake Superior, which had attracted the attention of the early inhabitants, was, evidently, the native copper, which, in the shape of detritus, exists so extensively in that quarter. This metal, which is found also in situ, as part of the product of veins in the trap rock, has been scattered abroad, by geological action, along with the erratic block and diluvial deposits. It is also found to exist, to an uncommon extent, in its original position along with the ores, spars, and vein stones, in both which locations the Indians, who call it Red Iron,1 explored it. They employed it in making various ornaments, implements, and instruments. It was used by them for arm and wrist bands, pyramidal tubes, or dress ornaments, chisels and axes, in all cases, however, having been wrought out exclusively by mere hammering, and brought to its required shapes without the use of the crucible, or the art of soldering. Such is the state of the manufactured article, as found in the gigantic Grave Creek Mound, and in the smaller mounds of the Scioto Valley, and wherever it has been scattered, in early days, through the medium of the ancient Indian exchanges. In every view which has been taken of the subject, the area of the basin of Lake Superior must be regarded as the chief or primary point of this intermediate traffic in native copper; and, so far as we know, it appears to have been in the hands of the Algonquin tribes: at least, those tribes were found here at the opening of the sixteenth century, when these portions, generally, of the (then) territories of New France were first visited.

Having found a latitude beyond which the architectural antiquities of the Mississippi Valley do not apparently reach, it is seen that such antiquities begin to meet the steps of the inquirer as soon as he passes south of this general boundary. They increase, both in frequency and importance, as he proceeds to the respective basins of Lakes Huron and Michigan, and over the plains and through the fertile valleys of the lake and prairie, and Western States, till they are found to extend to, and characterize the whole Mississippi Valley. They are also traced through all the states east and west of that valley, bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, and extending a limited distance from the Floridian peninsula, along the shores of the north Atlantic.

In exchange for the native copper of Lake Superior, and for the brown pipe-stone of the Chippewa River of the Upper Mississippi, and the blood-red pipe-stone of the Coteau des Prairies west of the St. Peters, they received certain admired species of the sea-shells of the Floridian coasts and West Indies, as well as some of the more elaborately and well-sculptured pipes of compact carbonate of lime, graywacke, clay slate, and serpentines, of which admirable specimens, in large quantities, have recently been found by researches made in the inverted-bowl-shaped, or sacrificial mounds of the Ohio Valley, and in the ossuaries of the Lakes. The makers of these may also be supposed to have spread, northward, the various ornamented and artistic burnt-clay pipes of ancient forms and ornaments; and the ovate and circular beads, heart-shaped pendants, and ornamented gorgets, made from the conch, which have received the false name of ivory, or fine bone and horn. The direction of this native exchange of articles appears to have taken a strong current down the line of the Great Lakes, through Lakes Erie and Ontario, along the coasts of the States of Ohio and New York, and into Canada. Specimens of the blood-red pipe-stone, wrought as a neck ornament, and of the conch bead pendants and gorgets, and of the antique short clay pipes, occur, in the ancient Indian burial-grounds, as far east as Onondaga and Oswego, in New York, and to the high country which abounds in such extraordinary sepulchral deposits of human bones and Indian ornaments, about Beverly and the sources of the several small streams which pour their waters into Burlington Bay on the north shores of Lake Ontario. At the latter place I also obtained specimens of the pyrola perversa in an entire state. All these are deemed to be relics of the Ante-Cabotian period. It may be necessary, perhaps, hereafter, to except from this character the antique short ornamented clay pipes named. There are, at present, reasons for believing that however peculiar this species of pottery may appear to the mere American antiquary, its prototype existed, and may be found, as a relic, in France, Holland, or Germany. There is, indeed, something of an Etruscan cast of character about it. Copper axes, stone pestles, fleshing chisels, fragments of earthen kettles and vases, and mortars for pounding corn, and for breaking up the feldspathic and other materials used for tempering the clay of their earthen-ware, occur in almost every portion of the Algonquin and Chippewa territories. There have also been found specimens of the ancient bone needles used by the females in making some of their fabrics. Reference is made to the annexed plates, with descriptions for each of the objects of antiquarian art above mentioned, together with their names and uses, and the time and place of their discovery and disinterment.

In looking back to the ancient period of occupancy of the upper Lakes, there are one or two features in the earlier antiquarian period, which have not, so far as my knowledge extends, received the notice they appear to merit. The first consists of sepulchral trenches or ossuaries, in which the bones of entire villages, it would seem, have been carefully deposited, after the bodies had been previously scaffolded or otherwise disposed of, till the fleshy parts were entirely dissipated, and nothing left but the osteological frame. My attention was first arrested by a deposit of this kind, on one of the islands of Lake Huron, which had been broken into and exposed by action of the waves. This sepulchre had its direction from north to south, whereas all our existing Indian tribes are known to bury their dead east and west. The thigh and leg bones were laid longitudinally. They were very clean and white, as if great care had been originally exercised in separating them from their integuments. The area of the bed may have been about four feet in width and depth, by twenty in length. The trench was not fully explored, but the entire number and quantity of bones of almost every part of the human frame, appeared to be such, that it must have embraced the accumulation of a community for a long time. The oldest Indians, at the neighboring island of Michillimackinac could give no account of it, though frequently interrogated. One of the elder men, who had long exercised the functions of a jossakeed, or Indian seer, suggested that they were probably sepulchers of the Mushkodainsug, or “Mascotins,” as they have been called by the French; a tribe who are mentioned as having formerly occupied this quarter, and who had been at war with them. The term means Little Prairie Indians, and not, as some think, Fire-Indians.5

Recently, aboriginal remains of a very interesting character, including pictographic inscriptions, have been found in the islands of Lake Erie, which appear to throw light on the history of the Indian tribes who formerly inhabited that lake. These remains will be examined, and described in the next volume of this work.


1. Vide N. J. Wyeth, Esq. Doc. Ind. Off. Int. Dept.
2. Vide Mr. Gallatin. Am. Eth. Trans. Vol. I.
3. Vide Notes on the Iroquois; also, Cusic.  American Philosophical Transactions, Vol. I.
4. Miskopewabik.
5. The Chippewa word for Prairie has the radix for fire, Shkoda, in it. Perhaps prairies were anciently called fire-plains, from their periodical burnings.


MLA Source Citation:

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860. Web. 16 December 2014. - Last updated on Jan 12th, 2013


Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.

Connect With Us!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!