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Red River: First Farmers

Aboriginal people pioneered grain growing

More on the Red River:
Red River:
The Passageway to the prairies

Bison Hunters:
How the Métis dominated the bison hunt

Red River Colony:
A brave experiment in westward expansion

Dig at the Forks:
Unearthing Winnipeg's Human Heritage

Duff's Ditch:
A Drain for the flood plain

First Farmers:
Aboriginal people pioneered grain growing

Fish Tales:
Chasing catfish to track the river's health

Just Plains Folks:
Winnipeg welcomes the world

Trails to Rails:
Railways replace wagon routes

Prairie Sea:
The Great Flood of 1950

Economic exchanges among First Nations

Louis Riel leads the Red River Rebellion

Wagons West:
Red River carts tracked the grasslands

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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