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Clearly the lifestyle of the native peoples of North America was less intensive than that of the European settlers and thus required more land per person. However, theirs was not exclusively a hunter-gatherer culture -- some peoples practiced agriculture fairly extensively. I'd like to know estimates for both the native peoples and the European settlers, especially those on the East Coast of the United States -- how big was the disparity?

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This really misses the point. The natives didn't "need" most of the states of Ohio and Kentucky for food. Most of the region was a buffer zone to keep settlements far from dangerous enemy tribes in Tennessee. Each side hunted in the zone, but didn't settle there. –  Oldcat Nov 12 '14 at 23:11
The answer will be more complicated because AFAIK some native Americans (nad maybe some settlers for part of thetime?) where nomadic or semi nomadic. When you roam thousands of acres, but but only stay in one spot for a few weeks - do you 'need' all that land? –  mart Jan 20 at 7:51

4 Answers 4

This is a great question, since many middle school text books are using this framing. I'm partial to NC: Who own's the land?

The traditional view of European-Indian land deals is that Europeans tricked the Indians, who failed to understand the consequences of their actions....English colonists rarely, if ever, forcibly displaced an Indian village or took land currently being used for agriculture. In fact, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, some colonists encouraged Indians to convert to Christianity, and farm for a living in permanent settlements, and welcomed those who did. Conflicts typically arose when Europeans wanted to settle and farm land on which Indians hunted or that they reserved for future agricultural use.

But yet I checked many online resources and none seem to give figures for the disparity of the intensity of land use, which is being blamed for the conflict. From what I recall, the 17th century Cherokee compared to the Appalachian settlers used about 20 times more land.

Please understand, this figure won't apply to Cherokee in the 18th century onward, due to acculturation of the tribe and a smallpox epidemic that killed roughly half of the population, according to Wikipedia. It also doesn't apply to other tribes or American settler populations. As Duncan points some settlers may have lived in cities, some were yeomen farmers, and some were commercial farmers. For this reasons, it would be interesting to get more figures from more areas and time periods.

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Interesting question! I can't say for actual averages and all, but I can explain how this worked and the factors affecting both people.

I do know that with livestock, open grazing was done, taking them out to what pasture you can find. So probably lots of communal grazing too. But you probably want to know how much land they owned for themselves to crop. That depends. If only supporting your own family, very little is, needed. Say, ten or twenty acres would be plenty, and you can graze where you like. But to produce for the market, it could be anything. However much land they either bought or managed to select, probably based on how much manpower they had to run the farm. That's the Europeans. The settling natives would be in some ways similar, or else the difference would be in their diets. The Europeans brought the old world vegetables and cereals they were used to, as well as many domestic animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry). If you compare maize to wheat, maize is higher yielding in a small area. You need more space to grow wheat for flour. And then there's the matter of supplement animal fodder. Still more land is needed for that. The natives kept few useful domestic animals originally (mostly dogs and some birds), but hunted to supply their meat which eliminates the need for fodder. While Europeans aimed to get most of their variety from their farm itself, the natives tended to mix farming, hunting and gathering to achieve a varied diet. Over time, both people took ideas from each other.

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There was a great deal of diversity in native agricultural practices, even in an area as narrow as "the East Coast." William Cronon estimates that the crop-raising Indians of southern New England maintained 287 persons per hundred square miles, while the nonagricultural natives of Maine sustained populations of 41 persons per hundred square miles.

Of course, there is also a great deal of diversity in the colonists' farming practices, but I assume you're asking about a family farm rather than a plantation using slave labor. In very early 17th century Rhode Island, plots of 5-6 acres were given to families on the assumption that they couldn't cultivate more. However, this underestimates population density because it ignores the commons. Plots of 50-80 acres made you relatively well-off in the Providence area, while along Long Island Sound farms of 200 acres were common (though these might be worked by extended families).

There is some consensus that in New England, around 60 acres of land was needed to support a farm family in comfort, although some of that acreage was likely being used for wood or other purposes:

As an example of farm size, an average farm in Gloucester, located in the northwest corner of Rhode Island, in 1778, had about 9 acres of meadow, 7 of pasture, and 3 to 4 planted to grain. Including the kitchen garden, house and buildings, the improved land of the farm was slightly over 20 acres . . . This represented about one-third of the property, the rest being considered “undeveloped,” typically being a wood lot and/or swamp.

(lots of colonial statistics here)

So how do the densities between Indian and European agricultural communities compare? A family size of 10 is reasonable in colonial America. So from the raw numbers above, we have 10 people per 60 acres versus 287 people per 100 square miles or 64,000 acres. That suggests that European agriculture was around 37 times more intensive than Indian agriculture. As a rough estimate (and one that likely underestimates Indian productivity due to the way the figures were calculated), I wouldn't put too much stock in that exact figure of "37." But there's no doubt that European colonists made more intensive use of the land than did the Indians.

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Farming isn't a matter of what you "require", it's a matter of how much you can get. When you are a farmer, you are always trying to grow more, because the more you can grow, the more you can sell, and the more you sell, the more money you have.

Non-farmers sometimes have nutty ideas like the idea that farmers are some kind of self-reliant hermits who grow their own food, make their own clothes and tools. This is not true. Most of the food farmers eat is grown by other farmers, not themselves. To get meat, vegetables, apples, nails, knives, pottery, cloth, etc, etc, a wheat farmer has to sell his wheat. Likewise, a man who keeps, say, an apple orchard has to sell his apples to get everything else. So, when you are a farmer you are always trying to get more land and grow more.

As for acreage, old-time American farms typically ranged from 50 to 300 acres. Fifty acres was enough to get by with a family. Three hundred is about as big as one guy could manage himself with the help of farmhands. Of course, there were larger plantations, but over 300 acres and you start requiring overseers and other employees, and it turns into a big business, no longer a "family" farm.

Indian farms tended to be much smaller, maybe 2-15 acres, per family/man. The reason for this is that the Indians did not have the capital, tools and draft animals to farm more than that. For example, hitching up a yoke, harness and plow to a draft horse would involve money and technology way beyond the ability of an Indian. You may think, yoke and plow, no big deal, what a simple thing, but you just try to make a yoke and harness yourself and try to use it on a real animal and you will soon find out how complex it is.

Of course, the total amount of Indian farm land was much greater in the beginning than that of the Europeans, but this was because there were a lot more Indians than Englishmen.

How Much Work It Is To Farm

You may need some point of reference of how much work it is to farm the acreages I am talking about above. If you look around in your neighborhood, you may find some women with backyard gardens. Let's say your neighbor has a 30 foot by 15 foot garden. That would be a big garden for most backyards, and if your neighbor has that you will see her working all the time in the summer to keep it in order. A single acre of farmland has 100 times as much area as your neighbor's vegetable garden. ONE HUNDRED times for a single acre. Starting to see how much work it is?

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