Red River: First Farmers
Aboriginal people pioneered grain growing
In 1832, Anglican missionary William Cockran tried to convert Red River
Natives to Christianity and a life of farming. The plan failed. Cockran
concluded that Natives were ill-suited for farming. Today, archeological
investigations have proved the Anglican missionary to have been wrong.
Several thousand years before the arrival of European immigrants, many Native nations in
North America had developed sophisticated farming methods. Four centuries before Europeans
settled beside the Red River, Native people were agricultural pioneers in the valley.
Recent archaeological digs reveal a thriving Native farming site on the river's east bank
at Lockport, 15 kilometres north of present-day Winnipeg. The origin and identity of this
farming people are unknown.
It made sense to locate farm gardens near the river. Water for crop irrigation and the presence
of fish to balance the diet were two obvious advantages. An added benefit of the Lockport
site was the nutrient-rich layer of new soil left behind by receding flood waters each spring.
Clearing the land of tall, prairie grasses, trees, and brush required the quarrying and
fashioning of stone knives and axes. Wooden digging sticks were used to break up the soil.
Hoes made of wood and the shoulder blade of the bison were used to till the soil.
Corn was planted in small hillocks and arranged in rows one metre apart. Beans, squash,
and flowers may also have been grown. A meal comprised of corn and beans would have provided
Native families with the same complete protein as one containing meat.
By 2,000 years ago, corn was being grown as far east as the Atlantic seaboard and as far
west as the Rocky Mountains. The Native farmers at Lockport developed a strain of corn that
could mature in the typical 100-day growing season near the present-day Canadian border with
the United States Midwest. The adaptation of corn to the long-day, short-season environment
of the Red River Valley - from the plant's original short-day, long-season climate in Central
America - testifies to the selective plant breeding skills of these first farmers.
By 700 years ago, farming techniques had spread throughout the continent. The population
grew, thanks to more stable food supplies. But a severe drought 600 years ago parched the
mid-continent. Many farming communities were forced to relocate to major river valleys where
there was a reliable water supply. Then, 500 years ago, during the so-called Little Ice Age,
summers became much shorter and cooler. With this climatic change, the pendulum swung back
to hunting, fishing and food-gathering as the primary ways to survive. The skills of agriculture
fell into disuse and were virtually forgotten.
Adapted from First Farmers in the Red River Valley,
Historic Resources Branch, Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, 1994.
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