Oppidum Secota (The Town of Secota)

Domesticated Plants in Early Virginia Indian Society

Virginia Indians began domesticating plants to be used as a food source following the Ice Age. As the climate warmed, their lives became less nomadic and the conditions improved for husbanding certain plants—sunflower, knotweed, and little barley at first, and then the so-called three sisters of maize, beans, and squash. Eastern North America is one of ten sites in the world where independent plant domestication occurred, but because of other abundant food sources in the Chesapeake Bay area, maize, or corn, was not widespread until as late as AD 1100. Plant domestication coincided with increasing populations, improved weapons technology, and more complex social and political systems. Already a high-status food among the Indians, maize was held in particularly high regard by the Jamestown colonists, who had never seen it before. Scholars disagree how much of the Indian diet it comprised, but it seems clear that only the highest-ranking of the Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco ate domesticated plants year-round. MORE...


During the Paleo-Indian Period (16,000–8500 BC) and into the beginning of the Archaic Period (8500–1000 BC), Virginia Indians hunted and gathered in the large forests that dominated the landscape. Gradually their lifestyles became more sedentary, and they began to cultivate domesticated plants as a food source. As the climate warmed and rivers created flood plains with nutrient-rich soil, they encouraged wild plants by weeding and replanting seeds. Trash piles also improved the soil, and Indians found them to be ideal spots for gardens. Although there has been some disagreement over the years, scholars largely agree that eastern North America is one of just ten sites worldwide where plants were independently domesticated. (Those who demur argue that domesticated species dispersed northward from Mexico.) The first domesticates included sunflower, cucurbit gourd, knotweed, sumpweed, chenopod, little barley, and maygrass, and together are known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Ironically, the cultivated forms of these species are now mostly extinct, with some still surviving in the wild.

Virginia Indians began domesticating plants at different points in history depending on their region. To the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where other food sources were perhaps more difficult to obtain, domestication happened as early as the Middle Woodland Period (400 BC–AD 900). To the east of the Blue Ridge, in the Piedmont and Tidewater, where fish from the Chesapeake Bay were abundant and travel by canoe made food-gathering easier, domestication came later. Maize was introduced into Virginia in small quantities and at scattered locations sometime after AD 200, and seems to have been widespread by AD 1100. Still, because one in three Virginia summers was dry, its production was limited, likely making it a high-status food. Archaeological findings have suggested that it may have had ceremonial or political significance. Beans and squash, meanwhile, appear to have been domesticated later than maize and begin appearing in archaeological sites that date to the fourteenth century.

In addition to the so-called three sisters (maize, beans, and squash), Virginia Indians cultivated sunflower, tobacco, and bottle gourd. The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is native to the American Southwest, but was domesticated in some areas of eastern North America around 2000 BC for its oily seeds. The colonists describe sunflowers growing in Indian gardens, and archaeologists have found burned sunflower seeds at sites across Virginia dating to the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650). Tobacco was also widely cultivated. Virginia Indians grew a native variety, Nicotiana rustica, and it was smoked both for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. A different species, Nicotiana tabacum, was imported from the West Indies by the English colonists in the seventeenth century. The bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) was grown to be used both as food and as a container. Some of the earliest Indian pottery mimics the shape of the gourd container.

Early colonial accounts, both written and pictorial, suggest that in addition to domesticated crops, a wide range of native plants were encouraged near Indian camps and towns. These likely were wild species but nevertheless intentionally husbanded by people who found them useful or desirable. The maracock, or passion vine (Passiflora incarnata), was one such plant, which the colonist John Smith described as a prolific, garden-grown fruit. Virginia Indians also adopted domesticated plants brought by the colonists. Orchard fruits—especially peaches and apples—and sweet melons were swiftly and successfully incorporated into Indian gardens. The Europeans, however, also brought tough and persistent weeds—dandelions, thistles, plantain, nettles, nightshade, and sedge—that wreaked havoc on the Indians' domesticated plants. They came to America mixed in with hay and grain for livestock and then were deposited in the soil through manure. Some botanists estimate that 258 of the approximately 500 weed species in the United States were imported from Europe.

Warming climate allowed Virginia Indians to lead more sedentary lives, which allowed them to domesticate plants. Domesticating plants, in turn, enabled people to stay in one place for much longer periods of time, which resulted in the development of more complex social and political relationships among Indian groups. Evidence suggests that by the Late Woodland Period, the human population in Virginia had expanded significantly, and that people lived in larger, year-round towns, necessitating organized and relatively complex political alliances. At the same time, the adoption of maize agriculture corresponded with changes in tool and weapon technologies, creation of new pottery styles, and the practice of complex burial rituals.

When the Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607, they were particularly impressed by maize. It was unknown in England, and they referred to it as "corne," their word for wheat or other starchy grains. In their accounts, the colonists note that the Indian diet included domesticated plants for only about half of the year. In order to maximize wild harvests, Indians apparently managed forest landscapes by burning leaves and underbrush, which allowed for easier foraging and hunting. However, there is also evidence that the Indians increased their production of maize in response to English demand. Scholars have estimated, based on field sizes, that anywhere from 40 to 75 percent of the Indians' diet consisted of maize. Arguing for the lower end of that spectrum, the anthropologist Helen Rountree has noted that ordinary Powhatan Indians likely cultivated rather small fields and that only the paramount chief and his subordinate chiefs enjoyed domesticated food year-round. Although the English tried to encourage more farming, Indian men saw this as women's work and refused to cooperate.


Further Reading
Dent, Richard J. Chesapeake Prehistory: Old Traditions, New Directions. New York: Plenum Press, 1995.
Potter, Stephen R. Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Smith, Bruce D. Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Smith, Julian. "How North American Agriculture Began." American Archaeology 12:1 (2008), pp. 19–26.
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First published: April 21, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014