The diet of early New England Indian Tribes

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Posted by Goody Sandy on January 29, 2000 at 14:56:50:


I don't know about horse, but the early Indian tribes of New England made use of a wide choice of edible vegetable, fruit, and medicinal plants; and of the animals, reptiles, and fishes. The methods of preparing and combining foods were of a considerable variety and resulted in a diet diversified and balanced, contributing to a lithe and healthy body, vigorous and with stamina.

The explorers who visited New England shores testify to this, and the English who associated with the natives after colonization comment on the great agility and endurance of the natives. An Indian runner could cover as much as a hundred miles in a single day. One reason lies in the native diet. Long journeys like this required a lightweight but nourishing ration. "Nokehick" or "nokake," a meal from parched corn was the answer.

Beans were used to supplement maize. An acre of beans, it has been calculated, might feed a man for a whole year, but an acre and a half of land is needed for a year's ration of wheat, the European staple. Beans fitted perfectly with the intensive succession and cropping program of the Indian garden.

The produce of cultivated fields - beans, maize, pumpkins, squash, artichokes - formed one sound foundation for the native diet for most of the New England tribes. Fish, fishes, and fowl; supplemented by roots, nuts, fruits, berries, and other food formed the other.

Inland swamps provided a great variety of edible roots and seeds, which according to one bone specialist had much to do with their sound teeth, their firm, resilient bones, and their general good health. The marsh plants that they ate were rich in minerals washed from higher lands. Modern people rely too much on goods grown on upland soils from which the minerals have been leached, and as a result their health suffers. An examination of the teeth in forty aboriginal human jawbones that were dug up in Massachusetts showed few signs of decay.

Nineteenth-century Americans who lived among the Indians commented that while eating the native food, their bodies seemed buoyant and more responsive. One such American recorded in 1870 that it was common knowledge among army men stationed among the Indians in the West, that when confined to the white man's diet, the natives pined away; sometimes dying one after another, as if visited by an epidemic. Among more modern Menomini, the old men believed that their aboriginal diet acted as medicine, and that by eating white man's food they acquired his diseases.

The wealth of nuts New England offered made another tasty and nourishing contribution to fall and winter diets. The quantity an Indian could consume astonished some observers. In deeds of land to the English, one privilege often reserved by the grantors was that of nutting.

All in all, from woods, waters, and cultivated fields, the New England Indian usually ate well and with greater variety than did many North American tribes. Their food contained all essential calories, vitamins, minerals, acids, and trace elements necessary for healthy, enduring bodies and active, ingenious minds. Yet when forced by circumstance - such as the necessity for a swift removal - to go without food, Indians could endure fasting. For despite so many good things to eat, both cultivated and wild and seemingly in abundance, there might be hungry times. On a visit to Chief Massasoit, two Pilgrim emissaries from Plymouth and their Indian hosts went for two or three days with nothing to eat. Missing a few meals did not disturb the natives, but the visitors, to keep body and soul together, finally had to head for home.

The New England Indians, the agricultural tribes at least, commonly had food enough and to spare. More than once their stores of food were used to save the hungry white newcomers from want. Even when cut of from their base of supplies and forced to live off the country, Indians could take care of themselves. One white captive, Mary Rowlandson, attested to this.

She was dragged from her home in the dead of winter amid snow and cold, traveled with her captors through twenty-two stages into Western Massachusetts and southern Vermont then back to central Massachusetts where she was ransomed. It was thought by the English, she said, that "if their Corn were cut down they would starve and die...yet how...strangely did the Lord provide for them; that I did not see (all the time I was among them) one man, woman, or child die with hunger...I can but stand in admiration so see the wonderful power of God, in providing for such a vast number of our Enemies in the Wilderness, where there was nothing to be seen but from hand to mouth."

Some of the modern foods inherited from the Indians are corn bread, chowder and fritters; roast turkey and other local wild game birds and animals of a wide variety; walnuts, chestnuts and hickorynuts; watermelon, grapes, raspberries, cranberries and strawberries; beans - baked, boiled or soup, succotash, and squash; clams - baked, steamed or chowder, cod, crabs, lobsters - baked, boiled or broiled, oysters - raw, escalloped or stewed, and salmon - boiled, broiled or smoked.

Best wishes,
Goody Sandy

Source: "Indian New England Before the Mayflower" by Howard S. Russell

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