The Haudenosaunee were well known for agricultural skill. Partly due to the practice of planting crops like corn, beans and squash, sometimes known as the three sisters, together to encourage growth. These three foods, grown together, made up a large portion of the Haudenosaunee diet. The versatility of the corn itself provided a variety of choices. Corn was often ground in a mortar and pestle type instrument consisting of a hollowed out stump to make a wooden mortar and a large, rounded pestle made of wood. Depending on the amount of corn needing to be ground people could work in teams on either side of the stump.
One common dish among the Haudenosaunee was succotash, a stew type meal combining green unripe corn which is scraped from the cob into the pot and combined with unripe beans which had nearly been cooked.
Other dishes were a combination of the three sisters, corn bread, corn soup and a variety of other soups and stews using vegetables and/or beans grown in the fields and a variety of meats from hunting expeditions. Maple syrup and berries were also added as sweeteners to dishes or to water as a beverage.
Foods could also be gathered from the forests and Haudenosaunee women often went in search of mushrooms, berries, roots and shoots and even certain barks which could be used in soup. During hunting expeditions even the men would keep an eye out for certain edibles that could be brought back with them. Nuts were often brought back and included in breads. Among some of the nuts eaten were hickory, walnut, butternut, hazelnut, beechnut, chestnut and acorns. Root plants like wild potato were often used in stews.
Alongside agriculture and gathering, hunting provided many types of meats to be used in various dishes. Deer, bear, beaver, muskrat, rabbits and many types of squirrel were all used in some form or other. Fowl like wild ducks, geese, owls, partridge, quail and woodcock were often boiled until half done and then roasted. Owls are said to be tasty and the oil produced while cooking is saved for use as a medicine. Even reptiles were sometimes eaten including bullfrog and the leopard frog. One of the most common foods was fish which was often gathered in the spring. Fish were often boiled and then fried or added to soups. Eels were also caught and dried or fried.
Food was generally boiled though meats were usually baked or roasted by placing the meat in the ashes. There weren’t many utensils and families usually had spoons just for dishing out food. Foods were eaten with the hands out of bowls made from carved wood or bent bark.
Agriculture among the Haudenosaunee was communal with the men active in clearing the fields by removing trees and brush and the women planting and tending to the fields.
Preparation of the fields began in late March with the men using a combination of controlled fires and stone axes to bring down the trunks and clear the fields. Stumps were uprooted and other brush was burned before hoeing could begin.
Labour of the women was leisurely with groups of women working at a comfortable pace as they arranged seed beds, planted, hoed and harvested. Slaves, or prisoners of war who had not yet been adopted, were also put to work in the fields though the work was hardly a hardship. Children also participated by guarding newly sewn fields and early sprouts from pests like birds, squirrels and raccoons.
All field tending was handled in a rotation with crews planting a few hills in one field and then rotating onto another field to plant some more and continuing in this pattern until each field had a few hills started before returning to the first field.
Seed preparation was also an interesting process as they were often soaked in water or “medicine” before being planted. These “medicines”, found growing on flat lands near streams, were often Phragmites communis (common reed) or Hystrix patula (bottle brush grass). These were believed to aid in germination. Soaking the corn and other seeds was beneficial when planted in elevated drier hills. Hoeing was done with stone hoes or suitable sections of elk antler. After contact and the introduction of European tools metal hoes were used but were prized tool.
After European contact new crops were introduced to the Haudenosaunee and they began growing things like sunflowers, artichokes, beets, carrots, peas, onions, turnips, cabbages, apples and peaches. Tobacco was grown for smoking and ceremonial purposes and was often tended to by the men in the community.
Fields were grouped close to the houses and could be anywhere from ten to several hundred acres depending on the community size. Each household lived upon what they hunted, or caught while fishing and from their crops. Any uncleared area was available for anyone to use for as long as they wished. Because the Haudenosaunee took great pride in their agricultural practices, a common way for enemies to punish them was to destroy their crops or stores.
Storage of crops was within and outside the long house. Seed corn was left on the cob hanging on braided strands of husk and hung from the rafters of the long house until just before planting. Elm bark containers held dried foods above sleeping bunks to keep them readily available. The Haudenosaunee also used a pit type of storage where they kept their food underground with low oxygen levels to prevent spoiling. Pits three to six feet deep were lined with gravel and sand and then bark or bluestem grass. These pits could hold up to ten bushels of food. Hemlock bark covered the pits opening which was then covered over with soil.
As well as agriculture, hunting was one of the main methods of procuring food for Haudenosaunee people. The traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee people provided ample opportunity for hunting and trapping with its many forests, mountains and marshy flatland.
Hunting could take men away from their families for extended periods while they hunted in groups of six to 12 men. Using a V-shaped formation the groups would often march through the forest driving deer and other animals towards another group of hunters who waited with bows or spears. Deer was one of the most sought after prey as the Haudenosaunee used everything from venison for food, hides for clothing and antlers and bones for tools.
Another method of hunting was to set traps. Hemp was used and tied onto bent saplings that snapped up and immobilized the animals.
Fishing was also an integral part of men’s life and a made up much of the Haudenosaunee people’s diet. The lakes, rivers and streams provided the men with bass, trout, whitefish, sturgeon and perch. Nets and spears brought in the greatest amount but they also used hooks and lines to catch the fish.
Arrows and spears were often made of chert which is commonly called flint. Flint can be found in sedimentary rock across New York State and can be shaped using other rocks. It is brittle and breaks easy leaving sharp edges which are perfect for arrow points. These blades were also often inserted into handles made of wood, bone or antler and used as knives.