With a final, straining push, the heavy dugout broke from the muddy creek bank and pushed free into the channel. Catching the current, the boat, loaded down with hundreds of pounds of goods and paddled by a dozen oarsmen, sped downstream towards what we today call the Cache River. Behind the boatmen spanned an extensive mining operation, where perhaps hundreds of laborers toiled in the earth, extracting the precious chert—a crystalline type of extremely hard rock—that had put this industrious settlement on the map.
Having reached the mouth of the Cache River, the boat pushed upstream into a still larger river. The crew, working the paddles and poles, slowly made their way north past the bustling streets, residences, and temples of a riverine city. The most striking feature to the men working the oars must have been the impressive edifices of the city’s pyramids rising up against the skyline. Along the banks, the boatmen could see the teaming plazas and marketplaces that held upwards of 40,000 inhabitants, the largest population in the known world. They had pulled into the shore here many times to trade their wares, but this trip, they would push still further upstream, for there were plenty of other settlements hungry for their tools and ready profits for the making.
What they offered was farming equipment, the best in the business, made from the chert rock quarried from beneath the earth. Once miners dug out the rock, artisans living in the surrounding hamlets chiseled it to a fine point, making hoe, spade, and ax heads that eased the strains of clearing and tilling the land, even through the impediments of roots, rocks, and clay. After the craftsmen finished with the tools, boatmen loaded them into long dugouts for shipping up and down the river channels. Merchants and go-betweens would circulate these farm implements far and near, trading for copper, pearls, dried fish, furs, and other luxury goods.
What has just been described could be a scene from Sumer, with ancient Mesopotamian river mariners working their way past the towering ziggurats of Ur to trade their goods further up the Tigris and Euphrates. It could be ancient Egypt, with boatman pushing along the docks of Memphis, on the Nile, to trade further into the African hinterland. It could also be a scene from the Medieval British Isles, with merchants steering their boats past the river cities of London on the Thames or Dublin on the Liffey, to exchange rock and metal that Welsh miners dug from the earth. If I dated the scene at 850 A.D., it may exclude some of these possibilities but it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Such scenes of booming metropoles, industrious mining operations, and extensive trade networks would not necessarily be startling in Eurasia or Africa any time after, say 3000 BC. But let’s place the map dot in the southern Illinois country, and suddenly this scene becomes incomprehensible to some, intriguing to all.
The scene is from the Mill Creek hoe industry of pre-Columbian North America. The settlement and mines rose to prominence starting in 700 A.D. as local residents began digging chert and crafting it into superior hoes. These hoes soon became a tradeable commodity and with the rise of Cahokia, the burgeoning city-state 150 miles upriver from the mouth of the Cache, the people of Mill Creek had a ready market to peddle their products.
It is no hyperbole to describe Cahokia as a bustling metropolis—archaeological records affirm that this population center was probably the largest in the New World north of Mexico and rivaled the cities of Medieval Europe in size. It is estimated that at its peak, it boasted tens of thousands of residential houses and over 120 earthen structures, including pyramids, elevated plazas, and temple sites. This city, a center of the Mississippian culture, thrived between 800 and 1300 A.D.
Likewise, it is no exaggeration to describe the Mill Creek hoe settlement in terms of both an industry and a far-reaching trade network. Mill Creek hoes could be found hundreds of miles in every direction after the industry began to boom, and possession of such tools farther afield set the owners apart and signified “status and power over agricultural distribution” in their towns. Mill Creek hoes are found in Mississippi burial sites, indicating the value and prestige their owners placed on them.
The chert dug from the Mill Creek area quarries was especially hard and sturdy, and the hoes and spades it produced were part of a larger agricultural revolution involving the spread of squash, corn, and beans as major crops. The “three sister crops,” as they have been called, grew interdependently, the corn stalks provided support for the bean vines, which in turn replaced nutrients to the soil, while squash plants provided ground cover that controlled weed growth. The expansion of this farming system required more diligent cultivation as these three crops emerged as the staple diet across much of the mid-continent. Hoeing, planting, and tilling occurred on a larger scale of activity than ever before, leading to a growing demand for high quality farm tools.
Mill Creek hoe distributors out-competed local artisans throughout the Mississippi and Ohio valleys who had been producing local hoes of shell or limestone for centuries. Today, archaeologists have found chert hoes in the lower Louisiana Delta, north to Minnesota and the Great Lakes country, and as far west as the Arkansas river valley. Evidence suggests that local flintknappers in these far-flung regions adjusted to the influx of manufactured chert hoes and spades by learning to repair and sharpen them as necessary. Towns and villages took great care of their prized farm implements by burying them under ground during the winter to guard against theft or harsh weather.
While the example of the Mill Creek hoe industry is notable because of the wide distribution of its product, it was no anomaly in pre-Columbian North American trade networks. Evidence of extensive, even cross-continental trade exists at sites like Cahokia and elsewhere. Southeastern Indian settlements acquired copper from the shores of Lake Superior, peoples of the interior sought pearls from the Gulf of Mexico, and everyone wished to gain the latest piece of knowledge in agricultural practice. An exchange of both goods and ideas flourished in the period between 700 and 1300 A.D., as evidenced by the archaeological record of goods, the spreading of crop patterns, and the growing uniformity of farming practices throughout the continent.
Too often, it is assumed that the first trans-regional trade in the Americas began with the Spanish, Dutch, and French that offered iron goods, gunpowder, and liquor to the peoples of the New World. We think of the exchange of ideas and cross-cultural diplomatic structures in an exclusively Euro-American context. While the lack of written records from pre-Columbian native society passively reinforces these falsehoods, archaeological findings from the past several decades and advances in ethnohistorical analyses belie such assumptions.
This story lacks the detail of similar recordings of the past in manuscripts, painted hieroglyphs, or carved runes, but it is nonetheless an important one to our understanding of American history. Early Euro-Indian interactions and experiences escape full understanding without a recognition of the rich history and culture of the continent prior to European contact. When Spanish explorers first traversed the southeastern regions of North America, they met, traded, and fought with descendants and offshoots of the flourishing Mississippian culture that had dominated the landscape in the time of the Mill Creek hoe industry. They reported Natchez villages with defensive earthworks, palisades, and archaic mound structures. When French voyageurs and Jesuits plied the Mississippi River as late as the 17th century, they witnessed ancient dugout canoes, relics of an age gone by when such craft were used to ship Mill Creek hoes across a continent. As late as the nineteenth century, oral traditions in groups like the Cherokee linked their heritage with earlier Mississippian culture and these larger continental cultural networks.
The Indians that the European powers, and later, citizens of the United States would interact with knew this older world. The American trade networks, agricultural systems, political structures, and cosmology that Europeans would later tap into and eventually exploit were shaped by this pre-Columbian culture. In looking at the importance and wide distribution of Mill Creek farm implements, we can gain at least a glimpse of these larger cultural structures. Just as early Americanists study the Renaissance or the Reformation to understand European mentalities in New World interactions, so too must we all begin to acknowledge the existence and potential influences of those pre-Columbian American cultural systems that shaped native perspectives during their interactions with the European newcomers.
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Cobb, Charles. “An Appraisal of the Role of Mill Creek Chert Hoes in Mississippian Exchange Systems.” Southeastern Archaeology, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter 1989), pp. 79-92.
Cobb, Charles. From Quarry to Cornfield: The Political Economy of the Mississippian Hoe Production, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Pauketat, Paul, and Thomas Emerson ed. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1997.
Richter, Daniel. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.