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"The Red Man's Dixie"

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  • "The Red Man's Dixie"

    This is a title to a chapter used by the historian John Bakeless in his book The Eyes of Discovery (republished by Dover in paperback as America As Seen by Its First Explorers).

    Last time I looked this excellent book was out of print, but it now seems to be around again. Heartily recommended to anyone who's interested in North America pre-contact and shortly afterwards:

    I think the chapter on the Southeast of what's now the United States in pre-Columbian times -- what Bakeless calls "The Red Man's Dixie" -- is particularly interesting.

    This part of the country seems to have been something of a paradise:

    Even without their well-tended crops, the southern Indians could have lived on the natural produce of their forests. A good many excellent foods grew wild. So rich was the country that James Adair ... wrote: "If an Indian were driven out into the extensive woodlands, with only a knife and tomahawk ... it is not to be doubted but he would fatten, even where a wolf would starve."
    I think it interesting that they did farm even though the country, according to Bakeless was rich in game. This suggests to me what several theorists have already said -- that early views of the rise of farming, viz. that people took it up to ensure a reliable and plentiful food supply are probably wrong. People, I think, just don't make these narrow "rational" economic calculations. And that view embodies an anachronism anyway: how would you know, in advance of taking up farming, what the advantages would be anyway?

    I'm inclined to think: if these people liked the crops they knew about and were able grow, and tending them was not too much work, and didn't interfere with their lifestyle, well ... why wouldn't they grow them even if they didn't actually need to?

    The land in the SE was, Bakeless says:

    "richly productive, fertile, and very beautiful ... Elsewhere in North America dining with the Indians could be a nauseating experience ... [but in the South] all their food was 'grateful for a wholesome stomach'."
    He continues:

    ... potatoes and other roots were boiled and roasted. Pumpkins were barbecued ... Persimmons were dried, mashed with parched corn, and baked into cakes, which were served with fat venison or bear's oil, of which a single animal might yield fifteen gallons. ...

    ... grapes hung thickly from the trees. The hungry or thirsty traveler could pick them ... without even leaving his canoe.

    ... in Western Texas food was often scarce. Elsewhere the menace of winter famine, from which the northern tribes were never free, was unknown. Bear fat and walnut oil were stored in calabashes ... the land produced two crops [of maize] a year. ...

    ... Deer were ... common ... Pigeons ... plentiful ...
    It sounds like this abundance bred big people:

    The Timucuas were big ... men--one skeleton unearthed in modern times is said to have been seven feet tall!
    People in the South had so much food they could just give it away:

    ... a Cherokee chief in North Carolina made a gift of seven hundred turkeys [to de Soto]
    The Creeks, according to the Spaniard Ranjel also

    raised "dogs of a small size which do not bark" [probably opposums] ... [which were] "good eating"
    Bakeless, describing de Soto's travels, continues

    Mere sport gave them [the Indians] all they wanted to eat. They shot fish in the water with arrows; speared them with ... cane ... caught them in ... weirs ... poisoned [them]
    There were also wild strawberries. And there was abundance of nuts in season from which the drink powhicora was made.

    So there we are. With such abundant, but natural and unprocessed, food around it's no wonder, perhaps, that in contemporary prints these Indians look big and muscular. Here's an example in a Theodore de Bry engraving:

    I think one might wonder whether the artist has drawn the man to look as he thinks a male figure conventionally should look, drawing on classical models. Certainly, many primitive people do not look as muscular as this in later times when photographs of them have been available. However, maybe that is just how they did look.
    Last edited by Lewis; 04-24-2012, 12:35 PM. Reason: spelling

  • #2
    very interesting...


    • #3
      Interesting stuff. I wonder if the grapes mentioned were muscadines. We used to eat them frequently in Alabama.


      • #4
        Originally posted by Rojo View Post
        Interesting stuff. I wonder if the grapes mentioned were muscadines. We used to eat them frequently in Alabama.
        Bakeless specifically says of the South that "the grapes were like muscadines".

        There seems to have been a lot of grapes in America, vines everywhere. The Vikings referred to the country as Vinland.

        Bakeless says that the English said that the grapes in Virginia were nearly as big as English cherries -- but adds that you have to remember that cultivated varieties of fruits were not as big in those days, so maybe the cherries were somewhat smaller.

        He says one 17th-century writer speaks of clusters of grapes [in Ohio or Illinois?] a foot and a half long hanging from trees.

        The bears fattened up on them and were said to be "luscious" eating. One traveller even speaks of the bear meat as too fat at this time of year.

        There's a lot of interesting information on food scattered throughout the book. The sheer quantity of game in some parts is staggering. You could literally scoop fish out of streams, and they reached sizes that wouldn't been seen later, since they were able to grow for longer. Lewis and Clark at one point had to literally push and shove through deer, like making your way through a crowd, there were so many. Pigeons darkened the sky. (However, I think it's now thought that an explosion in the population of some birds was an artifact of land-clearance by European settlers; and, anyway, it seems the Indians didn't eat birds for whatever reason.) Interestingly, the sheer quantity of game seems to have boggled the minds of European arrivals on the East coast; but within a century or two, as that area got hunted out and over-exploited, the opening up of land further west boggled the minds of Americans who'd grown up in the East all anew.

        In some respects some of the information in the book would have Paleo advocates rubbing their hands in glee but would be a shock to modern fat-phobic people in the U.S./Europe/Australasia -- "the West". People opening up a new area of country found the deer had four inches of fat on them. A bear would yield 15 gallons of oil, which the Indians would flavour with sassafras (in the South) or maple sugar (in the North) and it seems you could collect enough to last from winter to winter.

        And it seems the Indians didn't even have honey, unlike tribal peoples in the Old World:

        Bees brought into the colonies soon escaped ... but as late as 1753 there were none beyond the West branch of the Susquehanna.
        Bakeless says the honey-bees were moving about one hundred miles in advance of the frontier, as that moved. He also says the bears soon learned to use honey for food.

        He wrote the book about 1950. I'd love to see some more recent work on this sort of thing. I guess a lot of what he tells the reader comes from contemporary sources, and that doesn't change. But of course the science has moved on since then: for example, environmental archaeologists must now able to get a clearer idea of what was growing where by analysing the pollen and seed residues and even snail species -- which tell you about the wider environment -- in soil samples from cores.

        As showing that Paleo assumptions might be a little hasty sometimes, the stuff on wild rice is interesting. This was something of a staple for the Menominee and Winnebago. Apparently, there were stands of wild rice that went on for miles. There was so much of it that the animals, wildfowl, and humans couldn't make much of a dent in it. The last year's crop was still standing, by the time the new year's crop was ready. As for harvesting -- well, you just paddled up in a canoe and whacked the stems of the plant. Makes one wonder just how prolific stands of other wild cereals may have been in parts the Old World before populations had expanded right across the available land. Reading that's not going to make me eat grains, for all the obvious reasons, but it's interesting to find out just how prolific one wild cereal could be in uncultivated land.


        • #5
          I love your posts, Lewis. I'll have to get this book, since it is my neck of the woods.
          If I just said LOL, I lied. Do or do not. There is no try.