Grand River Michigan Ancient Garden Beds - Plate 6

Early Native American Gardening

What proportion of the prairies of the West may be assigned as falling under the inference of having been abandoned fields, may constitute a subject of general speculation. It appears to be clear that the great area of the prairies proper is independent of that cause. Fire is the evident cause of the denudation of trees and shrubs in a large part of the area between the Rocky and the Allegheny mountains. Water comes in for a share of the denudation in valleys and moist prairies, which may be supposed to be the result of a more recent emergence from its former influence. But there is a third and limited class of prairies, or openings, in the forest regions, which may well be examined with a view to this question. Portions of the western valleys are clearly referable to this class.

We submit evidences of such former cultivation in a paper on the antique garden beds, as they have been called, in Indiana and Michigan, and some remarks on the origin and extent of the cultivation of the sea maize, as drawn from the Indian traditions.

Remains of Antique Garden-Beds

Grand River Michigan Ancient Garden Beds - Plate 6
Grand River Michigan Ancient Garden Beds – Plate 6

The history of man, in his state of dispersion over the globe, is little more than a succession of advances and declensions, producing altered types of barbarism and civilization. In what particular grade of either of these types the Indian race were, on reaching the shores of this continent, is unknown, or to be judged of, chiefly, by their monuments and remains of ancient art and industry. That they, like most of the great Shemitic stock who peopled Asia, had undergone great transitions, rising and falling in the scale of comparative civilization, as they developed themselves in the vast, and, as to their origin, indefinite area of land and ocean stretching between the banks of the Euphrates and the Mississippi, is apparent. They were found, at the discovery of America, as hunters.

With what actual state of knowledge they had reached this continent, or if as nomads or hunters, to what height of civilization any part of them had attained after reaching it, and before the discovery, are questions which would hardly have been asked with respect to tribes in the northern latitudes, had it not been for the mounds, earth-works, and other monumental vestiges, overgrown with forest, which were found on the settlement of the Mississippi Valley. Every disclosure in our antiquities, which tends to shed light on this subject is important; and it is under this view that I submit the accompanying drawings (Plates 6 and 7) of some curious antique garden-beds, or traces of ancient field-husbandry, which appear to denote an ancient period of fixed agriculture in the prairie regions of the West. These vestiges of a state of industry which is far beyond any that is known to have existed among the ancestors of the present Indian tribes, exist chiefly, so far as is known, in the south-western parts of Michigan, and the adjoining districts of Indiana. They extend, so far as observed, over the level and fertile prairie-lands for about one hundred and fifty miles, ranging from the source of the Wabash, and of the west branch of the Miami of the Lakes, to the valleys of the St. Joseph’s, the Kalamazoo, and the Grand River of Michigan. The Indians represent them to extend from the latter point, up the peninsula north to the vicinity of Michillimackinac. They are of various sizes, covering, generally, from twenty to one hundred acres. Some of them are reported to embrace even three hundred acres. As a general fact, they exist in the richest soil, as it is found in the prairies and burr oak plains. In the latter case, trees of the largest kind are scattered over them, but, in the greater number of cases, the preservation of their outlines is due to the prairie-grass, which forms a compact sod over them as firm and lasting as if they were impressed in rock; indeed, it is believed by those who have examined the grass which has preserved the western mounds and earth-works, that the compact prairie sod which covers them is more permanent in its qualities than even the firmest sandstone and limestone of the West, the latter of which are known to crumble and waste, with a marked rapidity, under the combined influence of rain, frost, and other atmospheric phenomena of the climate. As evidence of this, it is asserted that the numerous mounds, embankments, and other forms of western antiquities, are as perfect at this day, where they have not been disturbed by the plough or excavations, as they were on the earliest discovery of the country.

St. Joseph Valley Michigan Garden Beds - Plate 7
St. Joseph Valley Michigan Garden Beds – Plate 7

The annexed drawings (Plates 6 and 7) exhibit plats and sections of these antique beds, from the Grand River and St. Joseph Valleys, of Michigan. They were taken from undisturbed parts of the mixed forests and prairie lands near those primary streams. Those from Grand River, were taken near Thomas Station, in 1827; those from the St. Josephs, from a point near the village of Three Rivers, in 1837. They certainly offer new and unique traits in our antiquities, denoting a species of cultivation in elder times of an unusual kind, but which has been abandoned for centuries. They are called “garden beds,” in common parlance, from the difficulty of assimilating thorn to anything else; though it would be more proper, perhaps, to consider them as the vestiges of ancient field labor. The areas are too large to admit the assumption of their being required for the purposes of ordinary horticulture. Plats of land so extensive as some of these were, laid out for mere gardens or pleasure grounds, would presuppose the existence, at the unknown period of their cultivation, of buildings and satrapies, or chieftaindoms of arbitrary authority over the masses, of which there is no other evidence. The other antiquarian proofs of the region are, indeed, of the simplest and least imposing kind; not embracing large mounds, or the remains of field fortifications unless we are to consider these horticultural labors of the table-prairie lands as having existed contemporaneously with, and as appendant settlements of, the principal ancient defended towns and strong-holds of the Ohio Valley.

The principal points of inquiry are, by whom and at what period were these beds constructed and tilled, and whether by the ancestors of the existing race of Indians, by their predecessors, or by a people possessing a higher degree of fixed civilization? In most of the other antiquarian earth-works, or remains of human labors of the west, we observe no greater degree of art or skill than may be daily attributed to hunter races, who are infringed upon by neighboring tribes, and combine for the purpose of defense against hand-to-hand missiles, such as hilltops surrounded with earthen walls and palisades. But there is, in these enigmatical plats of variously shaped beds, generally consisting of rows, evidence of an amount of fixed industry applied to agriculture, which is entirely opposed to the theory that the laborers were nomads, or hunters.

So far as my knowledge extends, the area of country marked by these evidences of a horticultural population, cover the tract from the headwaters of the Wabash and the Miami of the Lakes, to the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Similar beds are said to extend elsewhere. The beds are of various sizes. Nearly all the lines of each area or sub-area of beds are rectangular and parallel. Others admit of half-circles, and variously curved beds with avenues, and are differently grouped and disposed. The mode of formation indicates two species of culture. The first consists of convex rows, whose arches spring from the same bases in opposite directions, as seen in Figures 1 and 4, Plate 6.

In the other kind, the bases of the convex rows are separated by a path, or plain, as shown in figures 2 and 3, Plate 6.

Both the plain and the convex beds are uniformly of the same width. If the space between the beds is to be viewed as a path, from which to weed or cultivate the convex bed, the idea is opposed by the comparative waste of land denoted by a perfect equality of width in the beds and paths. Besides, there are no such paths in the larger masses of rows, which are wholly convex, but are bounded by avenues or paths at considerable distances. The principal species of culture resembling this arrangement of beds, in modern horticulture, consists of beans, potatoes, and rice; that of celery requires, not a path separating the ridges, but a ditch. Indian corn may have been cultivated in rows. The former and the present mode, as far as we know, was in hills. These antique corn-hills were usually large. They were, as the Iroquois informed me in 1845, three or four times the diameter of the modern hills; a size which resulted from the want of a plough. In consequence of this want, the same hill was mellowed by the scapula or substitute for a hoe, or instrument used for planting, during a succession of years. Thus the corn-hill became large and distinct, and in fact a hillock. This is an explanation, given me while viewing the ancient cornfields, near the Oneida stone, 1 which are now overgrown with forest trees.

These ancient garden-beds of the West may have derived their permanency from the same want of agricultural implements and of horses and cattle to plough the land, and from the practice of reforming and replanting them by hand, in the Indian manner, year after year. In this manner, we may account for one of their most surprising traits, namely, their capacity to have resisted both the action of the elements and the disturbing force of the power of vegetation. 2

Rev. Isaac M Coy cut down, in 1827, an oak tree, on one of the beds (figured in Plate 6, Fig. 2), which measured thirty-eight inches in diameter, at the height of twenty-six inches above the ground, and which denoted three hundred and twenty-five cortical layers. This would, agreeably to admitted principles in the progress of vegetation, give A. D. 1502, as the date of the first annual circle, or cortical ring deposited by the tree. The continent was discovered ten years before this assumed date. Cabot ran down the north Atlantic coast, it is true, five years later, but did not land. Cartier first entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534. But he left no man in the country, during that or the next year, when he ascended the river; and the Indians of whom he inquired respecting the sources of the St. Lawrence, told him that these sources were very remote, that the waters expanded into several large lakes, and that no man had been heard of, who had ever gone to their source. Quebec was founded in 1625. 3 Sir Walter Raleigh sent his first colony to Virginia in 1584, although a colony was not permanently settled till 1610. The Holland States began their first exploratory efforts under Hudson, in the present area of New York, in 1609. Historians have fixed on 1608, as the date of the first effort of the French to colonize Canada. The English Pilgrim Fathers, from Holland, followed the track of Hudson, in 1620, intending, it appears, to enter the great river he had discovered, but landed at Plymouth. 4 From none of these sources could an agricultural population, whose labors appear to have terminated in Indiana and Michigan about 1500, have probably proceeded.

The Spanish element of early American population is equally inadequate, chronologically, to have furnished an off-shoot of population for labors prior to, or near the assumed date of these industrial monuments. Although Vespucio discovered the coast of Paria in 1497, and the extended shores of Brazil and Paraguay in 1503, he landed not a soul on either coast. It was not till 1512 that De Leon discovered Florida. Orijaba first landed on the gulf coasts of Mexico in 1518. Cortez followed him in 1519. The mouth of the Mississippi was passed, in the coast explorations of the gulf, in 1527, late in the autumn; but it was not till 1539 that De Soto penetrated Florida, and reached an interior point on the Mississippi. All this while, we are to suppose, on the foreign hypothesis of the origin of these beds, that the horticultural and agricultural labors of the natives of Indiana and south-western Michigan, the vestiges of which are herein noticed, were carried on by a population which, according to one authority, 5 equaled that of Indiana at the period of the observation. Let it be borne in mind, at the same time, that the French from Canada did not penetrate the area of the great Lakes till 1632, when Sagard reached Lake Huron; nor go into upper Louisiana till 1673, when Marquette entered the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Wisconsin; that La Salle did not visit Illinois till 1678; that the settlement at Bolixi, on the Gulf, was not made till 1699; that Detroit was not founded till 1701, and New Orleans not till 1717. With these data in the mind, the idea of these antique agricultural labors being attributable to either of these modern elements of western population will appear as quite untenable. Besides, both the Spanish and French population, when they first appeared at remote interior points west of the Alleghenies, did not come to undertake agricultural labors at those un-sustained interior points, far less to plant extensive gardens and pleasure-grounds, like those whose vestiges we see in the valleys of the Grand River, Kalamazoo, and Elkheart. De Leon, Cortez, and De Soto came to seek new elements of commerce and trade, and to find treasures in the un-tilled portions of the continent, in its gold and silver, furs and dye-woods, medicinal plants, and other spontaneous productions of the American forests. Agriculture became only an incident in these schemes for discovery and conquest; and was merely resorted to, in the end, to sustain life, and not as furnishing articles of export. But what should induce foreigners to undertake labor on the remote interior tablelands of Indiana and Michigan? Furs and the fur-trade were the only leading source of easy commerce there, and this was not introduced till the first quarter of the sixteenth century.

We are compelled to look to an earlier period for the origin of these agricultural vestiges. It is more probable that they are the results of early cultivation, in some of the leading and more advanced indigenous races who possessed those midland regions between the Mississippi and the Lakes. It was a region, which formerly abounded in game of various sorts; and while a part of the season was employed in hunting, a heavy population, such as the vestiges denote, provided breadstuff’s by the culture of corn, beans, pulse, and various excellent roots, which are known to flourish in these latitudes.

That this people were not advanced beyond the state of semi-agriculturalists appears probable, from the want of any remaining evidences in architecture or temple-worship, such as marked the Mexican and Peruvian races; for, beyond the occurrence of mounds of the minor class, or small tumuli, there are no evidences of their attainment as constructors or builders. The garden-beds, and not the mounds, form, indeed, the most prominent, and by far the most striking and characteristic antiquarian monuments of this district of country. There would seem to have been some connection between these beds and the peculiar class of low imitative mounds, in the form of animals, which mark a very considerable area of the opposite side of Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan is, indeed, remarkable for its protrusion from north to south, for its entire length, into the prairie regions of Indiana and Illinois. It occupies, in truth, a summit; and while its outlet is into Lake Huron north, and thus by the lake chain and the St. Lawrence into the north Atlantic, the Illinois runs south from its immediate head, and finds the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. The ancient garden-beds, and the animal-shaped mounds, the latter of which may be supposed to have been erected to perpetuate the memory of great hunters, who bore the names of the animals imitated, occupy the same latitudes. They constitute some of the best corn latitudes of Michigan and Wisconsin. It is to be borne in mind that the waters of Lake Michigan alone separate these two classes of remains, and that the northern tribes, who are bold and expert canoe-men, find no difficulty in crossing from shore to shore in the calm summer months.

The French found the eastern and southern shores of Lake Michigan in the possession of the Illinois, some of whose descendants still survive in the Peoria and the Kaskaskias, south-west of the Mississippi. These “Illinese” tribes were of the generic stock of the Algonquians, and did not exceed the others in agricultural skill. None of the early writers speak of, or allude to the species of cultivation of which the horticultural beds, under consideration, are the vestiges. The Ottawa, who still inhabit parts of the country, as at Gun Lake, Ottawa Colony, and other places dependent on Grand River, attribute these beds to a people whom they and the united Chippewas call the Mushcodainsug, or Little Prairie Indians. But there is no evidence that this people possessed a higher degree of industry than themselves. The Ottawa did not enter Lake Michigan till after their defeat in the St. Lawrence Valley, along with the other Algonquians, about the middle of the sixteenth century. The trees growing on the beds throughout southern Michigan and Indiana denote clearly that, at that period, the cultivation had been long abandoned. It was evidently of a prior period. It has been seen that it could not have been of European origin, if we confine our view to known or admitted periods of history. It is more reasonable to attribute the labor to races of Indians of an early period, and of a more advanced grade of industry and manners, who were yet, however, to a certain extent, hunters. Are not these beds contemporary vestiges of the epoch of the mound builders, if not interior positions of the people themselves, who have so placed their fortified camps, or hill-seated outposts, as generally to defend their agricultural settlements from the approaches of enemies from the South?

The charm of mystery is so great, that men are apt to be carried away with it, and to seek in the development of unknown or improbable causes for the solution of phenomena, which are often to be found in plainer and more obvious considerations. That this charm has thrown its spell, to some extent, around the topic of our western antiquities, cannot be denied.

  1. This stone, which I visited in 1845, is a boulder of syenite one of the erratic block group.[]
  2. This force is far less in the temperate latitudes than under the equinoxes, where Mr. Stephens represents it as displacing stones in a wall.[]
  3. This was eleven years after the building of Fort Orange, at the present site of Albany, N. Y.[]
  4. Foreign Historical Documents, State Department, Albany, N. Y.[]
  5. Vide letter of Mr. M Coy.[]

History, Ottawa, Peoria,

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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