Native American economy - North America
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North American Economy

When people first came to North America, maybe about 15,000 BC, they were all hunters and gatherers, and that's what they spent most of their time doing. In California, and along the East Coast, people like the Iroquois gathered acorns and crushed them to make bread. Cree people gathered wild rice from shallow lakes and rivers near the Great Lakes where they lived. Ute people, near the Rocky Mountains (in modern Colorado and Utah), ate mainly wild roots and grass seeds, along with a lot of trout, berries, and meat from wild birds and deer. In the Pacific Northwest, Chinook people fished for salmon.

The first people in North America to start planting and harvesting their own food were probably the Pueblo people living in the Southwest (modern Arizona and New Mexico). They learned how to farm corn and beans and squash from the Aztec people who lived in Mexico, south of them, probably about 2000 BC. But they didn't really settle down and start farming for most of their food until about 100 AD.

Little by little, people began to plant corn and beans in other parts of North America. By about 800 AD, the Mississippians along the Mississippi valley were planting crops. They planted corn and beans and squash, which they called the Three Sisters, all together in the same field. The Cherokee, in the southwest, probably began to plant crops a little later. About 1000 AD, Iroquois people living in the Northeast (modern New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts) began to plant corn - three thousand years after the Pueblo people! But they had already been growing sunflowers for some time, which they had figured out on their own. Iroquois people found (just as you would if you planted corn there today) that it was hard to grow corn in the short summers of the north. Often the frost came and killed the plants before the ears of corn were ready to pick. People had to get the corn to evolve into a type of corn that would get ripe in just three months, before the weather turned cold.

Here's a video of Iroquois people making tools.

There was a lot of trading in canoes up and down the big rivers - the the Columbia and Willamette rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Colorado river in the Southwest, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the Platte and the Snake, in the middle of the continent, and the Hudson river in the Northeast. Traders carried seashells for carving, and furs for blankets, and stone for grindstones, and flint and obsidian for making arrowheads and knives. Even the stone that people used to make hoes for farming was traded from Mississippi all over the midwest, as far north as Illinois. In return, the people of Mississippi got copper from near the Great Lakes for jewelry. The Inuit, along the Arctic circle in the most northern part of North America, sometimes traded with the Algonquin and Blackfoot to their south, and with the Viking settlers of Greenland to their east.

By 1500 AD, when invaders from Spain first landed in Florida, most people in North America were farming most of their food. But other groups, like the Ute people and the Cree and the Chinook, were still gathering most of theirs.

Bibliography and further reading about the Native American economy:

Native American food
American economy after Europeans invaded
More about Native Americans home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 23 April, 2017