Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Algonquian Food
Carolina Algonquians in 1584 subsisted on a seasonally determined, environmentally controlled diet. They hunted, gathered, and grew food. On the Outer Banks and the shores of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and the banks of the rivers emptying into them survival required good fortune, specialized knowledge, hard work, and a reckoning of the passage of time.
Historians do not know how Wingina’s people marked time. Likely they identified it like their Algonquian neighbors to the north, the Powhatans, who divided the year into five seasons. According to John Smith, winter was called Popanow, spring Cattapeuk, summer Cohattayough, the earing of their corn Nepinough, and the harvest and the falling of leaves Taguitock. Additionally, they marked shorter passages of time by a year’s succession of full moons. Algonquian people across the Eastern and Northern parts of North American named twelve full moons and, periodically, a thirteenth moon. The Old Farmer’s Almanac provides this identification.
Month Moon Name in English Why the Name
January Wolf Moon Hungry wolf packs howled at night
February Snow Moon Heaviest snowfalls in the middle of winter
March Worm Moon Start of spring as earthworms are eaten by
April Pink Moon An early spring flower called “moss pink”
started to bloom
May Flower Moon Many types of flowers bloom
June Strawberry Moon Strawberries were ready to be picked
July Buck Moon New antlers of buck deer began to form
August Sturgeon Moon Sturgeon, found in the
easily caught at this time
September Harvest Moon Farmers could continue to harvest under
the light of the moon
October Hunter’s Moon Hunters tracked and killed prey by
November Beaver Moon Time to set beaver traps before the swamps
December Cold Moon The cold of winter sets in
Tribal groups related their full moons to specific activities and environmental events. Tribes that inhabited dissimilar areas of
identified their moons differently. For
instance, the Passamaquoddy of the Great Lakes
called January “whirling wind moon.” The
Abenaki of the Northeast called February “makes branches fall in pieces
moon.” The Shawnee of
the Midwest called March “sap moon.” The Cheyenne
of the Great Plains called April the “moon
when the geese lay eggs.” The Cree
called their May moon “frog moon.” The
Choctaw called June “blackberry moon.” The
Comanche called July “hot moon.” The
Passamaquoddy called August’s full moon “feather shedding moon.” The called September “moon when the deer paw the earth.” For the Abenaki, October was “leaf falling
moon.” For the Potawatomi, November was
“moon of the turkey.” The Winnebago called December’s moon “big bear’s moon.” The Powhatans of Virginia had “the moon of
stags,” “the corn moon,” and the first and second “moon of cohonks” – “cohonks”
being the sound made by geese. Nobody
knows what Wingina’s people called their moons because no Englishmen that
visited Omaha ,
not even the meticulous Thomas Harriot, recorded it. Carolina
What did Wingina’s subjects eat and when did they eat it?
“In the late winter and early spring, Wingina’s people lived primarily upon fish.” According to Harriot, there was plenty of sturgeon as well as herring. “Alewives and shad began their run in March, and might have remained available into June. Wingina’s people used weirs to trap fish, but also speared them in the shallows or from their dugout canoes.”
“Different species of fish preferred waters of different salinity and depth, so doing this vital work required an intimate knowledge of the environment” (Oberg 22). Herring could be smoked to last for a considerable length of time.
Because fishing was so vital to their survival, coastal Algonquians were masters of the construction of dugout canoes. “A group of thirty of these canoes was recently discovered in the mud of Lake Phelps (in what is now Pettigrew State Park, north of Lake Mattamuskeet) where they had been stored over the winters between 2400 BC and AD 1400” (Sloan 108).
According to Thomas Harriot, the construction of a dugout canoe began with “the slow patient process of burning through the trunk so as not to damage the main body of the tree. When the tree had fallen, every branch (and, of course, the top) was carefully removed by fire. The tree trunk was then lifted and placed on a stand, made from branches laid between two sets of crossed and tied poles like a saw-horse. The bark was scraped off and the hollowing process begun.” In John White’s painting “sharp shells, conch and scallop we suspect, are shown being used as scrappers, first to remove the bark and then, after fires have been lit in the trunk, to hollow out the interior by scratching at the charred wood, until the whole interior of the tree has been excavated. The wood of the white cedar and the tulip tree was especially suited for this purpose as the inner layers are not necessarily as hard as the outer. The art and craft of making these canoes … was a task for the winter, when leaves were off and the sap was down” (Quinn 194).
“The finished dugout was a long, round-bottomed, thick-walled craft … The biggest canoes were about four feet deep and up to fifty feet long, with a carrying capacity of some forty men. However, most canoes were smaller, with room for between ten and thirty people with baggage.”
Some evidence exists that Algonquians used fire in their canoes to attract fish at night. “… the fire was made [on a raised hearth] at the bow of the canoe, and the canoe was paddled through the shoal water near the shore. The fish which gathered about the canoe were speared” (Rountree 34).
The use of weirs was essential. The purpose of a fish weir is to obstruct the direction that fish swim in shallow, tide-influenced waters and direct them into an enclosure that makes it difficult for them to escape. Thomas Harriot described the
fish weir as “a kind of weir [a
fence-like structure] made of reeds which in that country are very strong [cane
stakes].” John White [in one of his
paintings] “shows [a weir] in detail, with the traps inserted in the long line
of staked obstructions” (Quinn 171). Carolina
“Algonquians also hunted small game during this portion of the year – turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits – and they could harvest crabs and shellfish, the latter in abundance” (Oberg 22).
In May and June the Algonquian natives began planting their fields. “They lived on acorns, walnuts, and fish during these months, along with whatever corn reserves they still had on hand” (Oberg 22). They supplemented their food supply with fish, crabs, oysters, turtles, berries, and meat that they could obtain hunting. It was the leanest time of year. Men and women broke the upper part of the ground to uproot weeds, grasses, and the stubble of cornstalks. After the fields were cleared, the women set about planting corn seeds, beginning in one corner of the plot, poking holes in the ground and inserting four corn seeds in each hole. Corn and beans would be planted up to three times “through mid-June, so that in a good crop year there was ripe corn to eat from August … through October” (Rountree 47). The women would leave about a yard of space between each hole for the planting of beans (their vines would climb corn stalks), squash, and sunflowers.
During the remainder of the summer Wingina’s people “continued to live on fish, shellfish, and small game, as well as the walnuts, acorns, and berries that had been dried and preserved over the course of the year” (Oberg 23). Deer, rabbits, black bear, and waterfowl were hunted. As the crops grew, boys served as live scarecrows. Seated on small, covered scaffolds in the fields, they would shout and wave away hungry predators.
Late summer and early fall was a time of abundance.
“Each cornstalk bore two ears, on the average, with between two hundred and five hundred kernels per ear. The squash ripened from July until September. … When the crops were ready to be harvested, they were gathered into hand baskets and eventually stored in huge baskets in the houses or in storage pits … for later use in cooking” (Rountree 47, 49).
“Food gathered in any season could be prepared in a variety of ways. Food taken on long-distance trips consisted of dried meat, which was eaten” with acorn oil and Indian corn parched and beaten to flour. “Men who journeyed away from home usually expected to live mainly off the game they could shoot … Nuts, berries, oysters, and the juice from green cornstalks were often consumed raw. The cornstalk juice, which was sucked out, was as sweet as cane juice. All other foods were cooked.”
“Oysters, clams, and mussels were roasted; fish were roasted, ungutted and unscaled, either … over a fire or else on a spit.”
“Drying these foods was accomplished simply by placing them farther from the fire. Fish and shellfish alike were smoked as they were dried … The Powhatans dried oysters and mussels by hanging them upon” sinew strings in the smoke. “Shellfish were also boiled in a bisque that was thickened with cornmeal, while fish were frequently boiled in a stew, the broth of which, like the broth of meat stews, was drunk with relish. … Venison could be either dried in smoke or boiled for immediate consumption” (Rountree 50, 51).
The historian David Beers Quinn describes how the cooking pot was constructed and utilized. “The shell tempered clay was coiled from the bottom upward and was shaped as it was built by fabric (string wound around dowels) tools, which left impressions on the pot. At the bottom tip a cap or point of clay was placed to complete its conical shape. The art was in maintaining an evenly balanced structure and then baking the pot upside down on a slow fire. … For cooking purposes the pot was placed on a heap of earth, point (or knob) downward, to keep it from falling over, and then sticks of wood were placed carefully around it so that the heat reached the pot evenly” (Quinn 195). The pot was filled with water, the food items inserted, and the contents brought to a boil.
Sexual division of labor was clear-cut. “In general, men’s responsibilities took them away from the village. Women’s work focused on the village and its surrounding agricultural fields” (Oberg 23). Women made mats, baskets, pots, and mortars, made clothing, pounded corn, made bread, prepared meals, gathered shellfish, and planted and harvested crops. Box sexes worked hard. “Skeletal remains from Late Woodland sites in the Virginia Tidewater indicate that arthritis began to afflict Indians in their thirties, and that their bodies by this age were beginning to wear out. Life expectancy hovered at around thirty-five years. Few women, it seems, lived long enough to experience menopause, and between a fifth and a third of all children died before age five.
Men hunted and fought. Their role as hunters and warriors shaped their identity as men and their relationships with other beings in the Algonquian cosmos. Men killed in order to preserve, protect, and sustain life. While men killed, women created life. They planted, raised, and tended the crops. They gave birth, creating life anew. They raised the children.” The Algonquian world was a “world of balance where every being was supposed to have its place” (Oberg 23-24). How food was obtained was part of that balance.
Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand.
University of Pennsylvania
2008. Print. Philadelphia
Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for
Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. The
Roanoke University of North
Carolina Press, Chapel Hill,
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of
Their Traditional Culture. Virginia Press, 2013. Print. University of Oklahoma
Sloan, Kim. A New World:
First View of .
The America University of North Carolina Press, Chapel
Hill, 2007. Print.