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The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups, with tribes originally numbering in the hundreds. Today hundreds of thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples. Historically the peoples were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior along the St. Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. This grouping consists of peoples who speak Algonquian languages.
Before Europeans came into contact, most Algonquian settlements lived by hunting and fishing, although quite a few supplemented their diet by cultivating corn, beans, squash. The Ojibwe cultivated wild rice. In addition, the men hunted and fished as resources were available.
The Algonquians of New England (who spoke Eastern Algonquian) practiced a seasonal economy. The basic social unit was the village: a few hundred people related by a clan kinship structure. Villages were temporary and mobile. The people moved to locations of greatest natural food supply, often breaking into smaller units or recombining as the circumstances required. This custom resulted in a certain degree of cross-tribal mobility, especially in troubled times.
In warm weather, they constructed light wigwams for portability. Wigwams are a type of hut. They usually had buckskin doors. In the winter, they erected the more substantial long houses, in which more than one clan could reside. They cached food supplies in more permanent, semi-subterranean structures.
In the spring, when the fish were spawning, they left the winter camps to build villages at coastal locations and waterfalls. In March they caught smelt in nets and weirs, moving about in birchbark canoes. In April they netted alewife, sturgeon and salmon. In May they caught cod with hook and line in the ocean; and trout, smelt, striped bass and flounder in the estuaries and streams. Putting out to sea, the men hunted whales, porpoises, walruses and seals. The women and children gathered scallops, mussels, clams and crabs, all the basis of menus in New England today.
From April through October, natives hunted migratory birds and their eggs: Canada geese, brant, mourning doves and others. In July and August they gathered strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and nuts. In September they split into small groups and moved up the streams to the forest. There the men hunted beaver, caribou, moose and white-tailed deer.
In December when the snows began, the people created larger winter camps in sheltered locations, where they built or reconstructed long houses. February and March were lean times. The tribes in southern New England and other northern latitudes had to rely on cached food. Northerners developed a practice of going hungry for several days at a time. Historians hypothesize that this practice kept the population down, according to Liebig’s law. The northerners were food gatherers only.
The southern Algonquians of New England relied predominantly on slash-and-burn agriculture. They cleared fields by burning for one or two years of cultivation, after which the village moved to another location. This is the reason the English found the region relatively cleared and ready for planting. By using various kinds of native corn (maize), beans and squash, southern New England natives were able to improve their diet to such a degree that their population increased and they reached a density of 287 people per square hundred miles, as opposed to 41 in the north.
Even with mobile crop rotation, southern villages were necessarily less mobile than northern. The natives continued their seasonal occupation but tended to move into fixed villages near their lands. They adjusted to the change partially by developing a gender-oriented division of labor. The women cultivated crops, and the men fished and hunted.
Scholars estimate that by the year 1600, the indigenous population of New England had reached 70,000–100,000.
At the time of the first European settlements in North America, Algonquian tribes occupied New Brunswick, and much of Canada east of the Rocky Mountains; what is now New England, New Jersey, southeastern New York, and down the Atlantic Coast through the Upper South; and around the Great Lakes in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. They were most concentrated in the New England region. The homeland of the Algonquian peoples is not known. At the time of the European arrival, the hegemonic Iroquois federation, based in present-day New York and Pennsylvania, was regularly at war with Algonquian neighbours. It forced other tribes out of Iroquois-occupied territories.
For about two centuries, Algonquians provided the main obstacles to the spread of Euro-American settlers, who concluded hundreds of peace treaties with them. Metacomet, Powhatan, Cornstalk, Tecumseh and Pontiac were leaders of Algonquian-speaking nations.
The French and later English encountered the Maliseet of present-day Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick; and the Mi'kmaq tribes of the Canadian Maritime provinces lived primarily on fishing. Further north are the Betsiamites, Atikamekw, Algonquin or Anishinabe people and Montagnais/Naskapi (Innu). The Beothuk people of Newfoundland are also believed to have been Algonquian, but their last known speaker died in the early 19th century. Few records of their language or culture remain.
New England area
Colonists in the Massachusetts Bay area first encountered the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac. The Mohegan, Pequot, Pocumtuc, Tunxis, and Narragansett were based in southern New England. The Abenaki tribe is located in Maine and eastern Quebec. These tribes practiced some agriculture.
Mid- and south-Atlantic areas
The Lenape, also called Delaware, were (Munsee and Unami speakers that were in what is now known as the eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, lower Hudson Valley and western Long Island areas in New York. They encountered the European explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in what is now New York Harbor in 1524. Branches of the Pequot occupied eastern Long Island.
Further south were the traditional homes of the Powhatan, a loose group of tribes numbering into the tens of thousands, who were among the first to encounter English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay. Historic tribes also included the Nanticoke, Wicocomico, and Chickahominy peoples.
The French encountered Algonquian peoples in this area through their trade and limited colonization of New France along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The historic peoples were the Shawnee, Illiniwek, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, and Sauk and Fox, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe and later known as the Meskwaki Indians, who lived throughout the present-day Midwest of the United States.
Ojibwe/Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and a variety of Cree groups lived in Upper Michigan, Western Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian Prairies. The Arapaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne developed as indigenous to the Great Plains.
- Stevenson W. Fletcher, Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life 1640-1840 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950), 2, 35-37, 63-65, 124.
- Day, Gordon M. “The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forests.” Ecology, Vol. 34, #2 (April): 329-346.
- New England and New York areas 1580-1800, 1953. Note: The Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe in New Jersey and the Massachuset tribe in Massachusetts used fire in ecosystems
- Russell, Emily W.B. Vegetational Change in Northern New Jersey Since 1500 A.D.: A Palynological, Vegetational and Historical Synthesis, Ph.D. dissertation. New Brunswick, PA: Rutgers University. Author notes on page 8 that Indians often augmented lightning fires. 1979
- Russell, Emily W.B. "Indian Set Fires in the Forests of the Northeastern United States." Ecology, Vol. 64, #1 (Feb): 78 88. 1983a Author found no strong evidence that Indians purposely burned large areas, but they did burn small areas near their habitation sites. Noted that the Lenna Lenape Tribe used fire.
- Gowans, William. "A Brief Description of New York, Formerly Called New Netherlands with the Places Thereunto Adjoining, Likewise a Brief Relation of the Customs of the Indians There." New York, NY: 1670. Reprinted in 1937 by the Facsimile Text Society, Columbia University Press, New York. Notes that the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe in New Jersey used fire in ecosystems.
- [William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England], Hill and Wang, 1983, ISBN 0-8090-0158-6
- Frink, Lisa. (2006) Gender and Hide Production. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-7591-0850-1.
- Cappel, Constance, The Smallpox Genocide of the Odawa Tribe at L'Arbre Croche, 1763: The History of the Odawa People, Edwin Mellen press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7734-5220-6
- Magocsi, Paul Robert (ed.), Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999.
- Moondancer and Strong Woman, A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present, Bauu Press, copyright 2007, ISBN 0-9721349-3-X
- Tooker, William Wallace, The Algonquian Series, Harper, 1901.
Media related to Algonquian peoples at Wikimedia Commons