American Indian culture of the Northeast

Hopewellian culture dominated the Northeast region from 200 BCE to 500 CE, where Native American groups began large-scale three-sister farming and republican political projects.


  • Northeastern Native Americans began to rely primarily on agriculture during the Hopewellian period, from 200 BCE to 500 CE.
  • “Three-sister” farming of squash, beans, and corn established more permanent and larger villages throughout the Ohio River Valley.
  • The Iroquois League, an agreement established between five Iroquoian-speaking groups in the late 1300s, curbed intertribal violence.

Geographic and temporal setting: the Hopewellian period

The cultural area of the American Indian Northeast extends from the province of Quebec in modern-day Canada, through the Ohio River Valley, and down to the North Carolina Coast. The Northeastern landscape is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains, which include rolling hills and prominent peaks. Native Americans settled extensively in this area, especially during the Hopewellian period from 200 BCE to 500 CE, primarily due to the temperate climate, accessible waterways, and good farming conditions. The tribes most notably connected to this area include the Algonquians, Iroquois, Susquehannocks, Mohicans, and Hurons, among others.
A map depicting the divide between Iroquois (left) and Algonquian (right) peoples in modern New York. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Common food practices: a shift towards three-sister farming

The Hopewellian period in the Eastern Woodland region spread over the cultural shift from hunting and gathering to budding agricultural systems. Some historians estimate that Native Americans were farming squash in Illinois as early as 5000 BCE. Corn farming spread through trading networks to the Ohio River Valley from the Southwest by 350 BCE. Native peoples tended to their crops carefully and religiously. They soon also began to plant and grow beans. Together, the corn, squash, and beans, became known as the sacred "three sisters,” a term coined by the Iroquois people. According to the Iroquois, the three crops would only thrive if planted close together.
Algonquians retained hunting and gathering as a source of food, while beginning to farm. Women would gather berries and cultivate the corn fields, while men would hunt and occasionally aid in farming. Northeastern American Indians living near the various rivers in the area would fish salmon and collect shellfish, as well. With an abundance of food, Iroquois and Hurons made intricate pottery to store the surplus. They also wove baskets to aid in the farming process.
Iroquois women harvesting the three sisters. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Societal structure: villages and communities

All “three sisters” quickly became cash crops, a crop which was in high demand by Plains and West Coast Indians, who were eager to trade. They received large shells, pearls, copper, and silver in return for the foods. Tribes throughout the region would trade food and commodities with other Northeastern peoples, depending on their area’s niche good. For example, the Susquehannocks of Pennsylvania traded wampum beads for nets and furs from the Hurons of the Great Lakes region.
Native groups in the Northeast generally lived in villages with a few hundred people. Hochelaga, modern-day Montreal, was inhabited by several thousand people and surrounded by extensive corn fields. If they were close to a river and therefore a supply of fish, groups would not rely on their village as much, and live in smaller bands. However, most lived in villages close to their crops. In agricultural Hopewellian societies, men planted and harvested, while women worked in the home, took care of the children, and processed the crops.
Hopewellian culture began the tradition of mound-building, which would extend down to the Southeast into the next century. All throughout the Ohio River Valley, Native Americans built mounds in the earth where they would bury their deceased. Other archaeologists argue that they were intended for ceremonial purposes. Either way, large mounds and animal-shaped earthworks still exist throughout this area today.
Hopewell mounds in modern Ohio, now a part of the Mound City Group National Monument. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Social and religious norms: establishing alliances and democratic principles

As the Northeast became more agricultural, paradoxically, the region became more urbanized. Although we consider agricultural areas less densely populated today, the farming industry required people to begin to live together and create more fortified villages to protect their harvests. They lived in longhouses that would extend up to one hundred feet. Since Algonquians farmed while also maintaining hunting and fishing, they “commuted” from less permanent villages of wigwams. But as certain tribes, like the Iroquois, began having immense farming and thereby trading success, intertribal violence intensified.
A depiction of the traditional Iroquois longhouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Due to trade competition, the Iroquois and Algonquians had an ongoing conflict (into which the French would later insert themselves). In hopes of ending intertribal conflict in upstate New York, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas established the Iroquois League, or the Great League of Peace. Historians disagree about when the League was established, most likely between 1100 and 1400 AD. During this time period, the Iroquoian Indians met for about a year to devise a solution to this cyclic pattern of violence and retribution between tribes.
They devised a system by which each tribe could maintain a level of autonomy over local affairs, but the League would unite over trade policies and diplomacy issues. The Iroquois Confederacy put forth republican principles, and a dual system of federalism, or balancing local and national powers, for the first time on American land. Therefore, many historians argue, the League, which would later become known as the Iroquois Confederacy, was the first American democracy, established at minimum four hundred years before the US Constitution of 1787.

What do you think?

How did agriculture contribute to the condensing of native people in the Northeast?
Make your own hypothesis about why Native American communities constructed mounds. Draw a connection to relevant historical evidence.
How does the Iroquois League resemble the United States of America? What is different and what is the same?
Article written by Rebecca Zimmerman. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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