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northeastern woodlands bark house


An Introduction to
North America's Native People

Northeast Woodlands Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
The Northern Iroquois | Reading Assignment | Resources




The Indian peoples of the Northeastern woodlands were the storybook Indians - "skulking" through the "dark forest primeval," plying the many lakes in birch-bark canoes, saving the Pilgrims at Plymouth, trading furs for guns with the Europeans, and bequeathing to the English language such words as tomahwak, papoose, squaw, powwow, sachem, and wigwam. In no other region of native North America were the cultures of its aboriginal inhabitants more disrupted by the Europeans than in the Woodlands. It was here that the myths to legitimatize English conquests were constructed, and it was here that the wholesale appropriation of the resources of the native peoples began: trees and fur-bearing mammals, fish, and of course the land itself. One of the most pervasive myths, and one which has made its way into numerous tellings is that of the "skulking Indians" living in "primeval forests." Neither of these images is true. Indians didn't skulk and the forests were hardly primeval. Indians moved about their world as all people did and the forests they inhabited were far from primeval, in that they had been home to Indians for more than 12,000 years. And during those 12 millennia, the Indians had remade the forests through a variety of environmental management techniques, including the use of fire.

The Northeast Woodlands includes what is now New England, the Atlantic states as far south as Virginia, the Ohio valley, the Great Lakes, and Canadian territory about 100 miles north of Lake Erie and Ontario. It is a region cold in winter, with deep snows, and often hot in summer. On the east the primary rivers are the St. Lawrence, Hudson, Potomac and Delaware, which drain the Appalachian mountains; on the west the Ohio and its tributaries are the most important rivers.

In the northern region, from Lake Superior to northern New England and Maritime Canada, grow forests of deciduous and coniferous trees, including spuce, pine, birch, beech, oak, maples, hickory, elm, basswood, and ash. It was from these trees that the native people made an enormous variety of tools: houses, containers, canoes, bows and arrows, ritual and subsistence equipment. From some of the trees came foods: nuts and fruits. The forests also were the habitat of much of the game hunted by the native peoples: bear, wolf, fox, moose, deer, along with numerous smaller game animals and birds. From the lakes women and men took fish of several kinds while along the ocean shores shellfish in uncountable numbers were regularly harvested. Numerous wild foods were harvested in a seasonal cycle: rice, maple sap, berries, nuts, onions, yellow waterlily roots. Many nations, in addition to acquiring food by hunting, fishing, trapping, and collecting, also practiced horticulture, cultivating maize (corn), several types of beans and squash, and, in some areas, tobacco.

There is much variation in landform, drainage, climate, vegetation, and availability of natural resouces--all of which contributed to differences in the cultures of the various native societies which inhabited the region. Just prior to sustained European colonization there existed several sub-cultural regions, each reflecting a somewhat specialized ecological adaptation. The Wisconsin-Minnesota region had a twofold economic dependence: a northern sector which made use of the wild rice (Zazania sp.), essentially a gathered product but sowed broadcast in the northern lakes and marshes; a second sector, which was agricultural, stretched to the border of central Lake Michigan.

The eastern Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie), along with upstate New York and the central St. Lawrence Valley, was another sub-cultural region, and home to a number of Iroquoian-speaking nations. In this sub-region the people engaged in maize horticulture, along with hunting, trapping, fishing, and harvesting wild vegetable foods.

A third area was the Atlantic coastal region, an area many scholars long considered the epitomy of classic Woodland culture. The nations of the northern coast, such as the Micmac and Malecite, were not farmers, although their neighbors the Abnaki raised maize. The nations living along the central coast, such as the Penobscot, Pennacook, Mahican, and Massachusett, practiced a modified mazie horticulture.

Historical Overview

Before the Europeans

The earliest evidence for humans in the northeastern woodlands comes from SUCH AND SUCH A PLACE and dates to about SO MANY YEARS AGO. The first people into this region hunted both large and medium sized animals, as well as taking advantage of easily harvested and processed plant foods. Beginning about 10,000 years ago they began shifting to smaller animals as well as increasing their reliance on plant foods, exploiting many local environments (coastlines, rivers, lakes, forests). By 4,000 years ago people in several parts of the eastern woodlands began to cultivate both native and introduced plants they found useful as food sources.

Around 3,000 years ago, groups in the northeast began to: erect mounds of earth, usually over burials; make pottery; and intensify their use of certain plant species. These three features of woodland life marked the start of the Woodland Tradition, which lasted until the coming of the Europeans. Then around 1,200 to 2,000 years ago the central american cultigen maize was added to the list of cultivated plants.

After the Europeans
Earliest record of European contact with peoples of the northeastern woodlands occurred sometime between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries when Norsemen from Greenland and possibly Basque and Breton fishers from Spain and France visited the vast fishing banks off the eastern coast of North America. By the end of the fifteetn century, French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese fishers and explorers had made contact with the Woodland Indians. They were quickly followed by Swedish and Dutch explorers, traders, and settlers all seeking to take Woodland resources: fish, furs, lumber, and slaves. Thus, the indigenous people of the northeastern culture area have been in contact with Europeans and their descendants, the Ameropeans, and in most cases they experienced extraordinary disruption.

The first permanent European settlement was established in 1607 by the English, led by John Smith. The colony, called Jamestown, was located on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in what is now Virginia. Motives for European colonization varied from place to place and through time.

Defining Features

Eastern Algonquian-speaking nations

Abenaki, Delaware, Mahican, Malecite, Massachuset, Micmac, Montauk, Narraganset, Pennacook, Pequot, Wampanoag

Central Algonquian-speaking nations

Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Menominee - originally inhabiting the forested regions

Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Illinois Shawnee, Piankashaw, Prairie Potawatomi - originally inhabiting the prairie regions

Iroquoian-speaking nations

Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuse, Huron, Erie, Susquehannock, Neutral

The Northern Iroquois

The Northern Iroquois is the label given to those Iroquois-speaking nations whom the English and French encountered in what is now northern New York State: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk (and later the Tuscarora). All were primarily dependent on horticulture and lived in quasi-permanent, often palisaded villages located near the growing fields. People lived in multi-family dwellings known as longhouses, vaulted structures up to 200 feet long, constructed of curved sapling framework and covered with thick peices of bark. The interior was divided into a number of two-room sections each with its own fire-place around which a single family resided. Up to 25 people might live in a longhouse, all members of a matrilineage (a groups of people all of whom claim descent from a common known ancestor and trace that descent only through the females). A typical village was made up of several to many longhouses, along with a sweatlodge. Because the Iroquois practiced slash-and-burn, or shifting, cultivation, when the soils of the fields near the village had been exhausted, it was necessary to move the village to areas where the soils had been replenished. This generally happened every ten to 15 years.

During spring the fields were cleared and planted, while summer was devoted to tending the crops, and late summer and early fall saw the harvesting. Fall also was a time of communal deer hunts--parties of men, sometimes accompanied by women, left the villages and set up temporary camps at various spots in hunting territories.

Assigned Readings From the Texts


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Cultures Areas
Arctic | Subarctic | Northwest Coast

Plateau | California | Great Basin
Southwest | Plains
Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands

Updated: 09 Mar 2000