When people first came to North America, maybe about 15,000 BC, they were probably mostly following the fish along the coast, and fishing is what they spent most of their time doing. In California, and along the East Coast, people like the Iroquois also 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 the Olmec people who lived in Mexico, probably about 2000 BC. They learned how to farm corn and beans and squash from people further to their south. Gradually farming spread north to the Pueblo people living in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. But Pueblo people 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 further north. 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, further east, 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 beads and fish-hooks. They carried furs for blankets, and stone for grindstones. They brought 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, traded with the Algonquin and Blackfoot to their south, with Asian traders to their west, and with the Viking settlers of Greenland to their east. By the 1300s, Pueblo people were trading with the Aztec to get bright-colored quetzal bird feathers and cocoa beans.
By 1500 AD, when invaders from Spain first landed in Florida, most people in North America were farming most of their food. But some groups, like the Californians, the Paiute and Ute people, and the Cree and the Chinook, were still gathering most of theirs.