The First Farmers
For thousands of years prior to European settlement, Native Americans practiced agriculture in the area now known as Iowa. However, the first known group to reside in Iowa were likely the nomadic, big-game hunters called Paleo-Indians. By piecing together bits of information, archaeologists believe these people roamed Iowa about 12,000 years ago, hunting large mammals. Mammoths, mastodons, caribou and extinct forms of bison were their main source of food and clothing.
Other early inhabitants of Iowa existed primarily as nomads as well, but artifacts indicate that people gradually started settling near rivers as they learned agricultural techniques. Prehistoric people chose to settle by rivers because soils close to the rivers or on river terraces were much easier to farm than upland soils. The rivers also provided the major transportation routes for people and for trade.
There are several Native American cultures that spent some time in Iowa. Arriving from different directions, in different time periods, and settling in various regions, each culture had slightly different tools and methods of farming.
About 2,500 years ago a culture originating in the eastern woodlands of what is now called Ohio and Illinois spread into present-day eastern Iowa. This group, which became known as the Woodlands, practiced a more settled way of life than had been previously experienced in the Iowa region. Their dependence on agriculture required a more settled life, although hunting remained an important occupation to supply food as well as skins for clothing.
It is believed that the Great Oasis people developed from the Woodland culture and existed in Iowa from 900 to 1300 CE Evidence suggests that they occupied villages during the fall, winter and spring. During the summer they may have gone on communal hunts, or perhaps family groups traveled up and down the river to establish small agricultural plots.
Also around this time the Glenwood people lived in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. They lived in small clusters of houses and farmed. They interacted little with other tribes. By 1300 these people disappeared from the Glenwood area. It is believed they moved out of Iowa and merged with other tribes.
The Mill Creek people lived along the Little Sioux River of northwestern Iowa. They relied on hunting and farming to survive. They lived in a group of farming villages that first appeared around 1000 CE The Mill Creek culture grew their crops in a garden area composed of numerous mounds of earth that archaeologists refer to as "ridged fields." The Mill Creek culture remained for several hundred years but had disappeared by the time Europeans arrived. It's possible pressure from nearby Oneota groups or climatic changes that made agriculture unproductive caused them to move elsewhere.
By 900 CE the Oneota inhabited most of the state. They relied on agriculture, plant gathering and hunting for their subsistence. The combination of agriculture and hunting allowed them to establish permanent villages, which they occupied during the agricultural growing season. These early farmers worked the tillable bottomlands along the rivers. Most experts believe that the Ioway Indians, found living in the region during the late 17th century, were descendents of the Oneota.
The crops that were tended by the early inhabitants include many familiar plants. Some of the plants continue to be cultivated, while farmers often do their best to get rid of some of the others that are now considered weeds. Also, just as the farmers of today rotate crops or experiment with entirely new plants, Iowa's earliest farmers were willing to try new things. For example, corn was introduced about 800 CE, but did not become a staple crop until later.
The Woodland people cultivated corn, beans and squash, as well as the native gourds, sumpweed, goosefoot, sunflower, knotweed, little barley, tobacco, mashelder and maygrass. The Great Oasis grew corn, goosefoot, sunflower, little barley, sumpweed, smartweed, wild plum, hackberry and walnut. The Glenwood people domesticated corn, beans, sunflowers, goosefoot, gourds, squash and tobacco. They also cultivated little barley, barnyard grass, knotweed and marshelder. The Mill Creek people grew tobacco and cultivated maize, goosefoot, marshelder and squash. The Oneota grew maize, squash, beans, pigweed and goosefoot.
While most of the native plants needed little special care to thrive, as the early farmers introduced crops such as corn, beans and squash they developed tools to make their cultivation tasks easier. The Great Oasis people made hoes from the shoulder blades of large mammal bones. The Glenwood people developed tools including bone hoes fastened to wooden handles and sickles made from the jawbones of deer. They used manos, a type of millstone, to grind corn and other seeds. Artifacts show the Mill Creek people possessed a wide variety of tools including bone fishhooks, awls, scraping tools, needles, mano, metate and elk horn dribbles. They made large hoes from the scapula (shoulder) of bison and used these to till the ground.
Iowa has a long history rooted in agriculture. Modern farmers follow in the tradition of their ancestors. Even many of Iowa's native peoples knew the value of Iowa's rich soil. These early Iowans didn't know it, but their farming practices set the stage for many generations of farming in the land known as Iowa. They were just the first in a long line of people who thrived as farmers on the rich soils of Iowa.
- The Iowa Heritage: A Guide for Teachers, Iowa Public Television, Johnston, IA.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa Past to Present: The People and the Prairie. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 2002.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.