Peaches in North America before Columbus

some recent research by Yuri Kuchinsky



 

This subject has not been considered very often by mainstream scholars of North American history. And yet it emerges quite clearly from recent research that, way before the Europeans arrived, the Native North Americans in what is now US and Canada had already been expert agriculturalists, who cultivated a large variety of fruit trees. Their fruit gardens were often very large, consisting of hundreds and thousands of trees.

Even now, there are quite a few places in the US that bear the name "Indian Orchard" (the towns by this name in Massachusetts, and in Pennsylvania are best known, but there are also quite a few other smaller places, such in the Town of Guilford, Connecticut; the "Old Indian Orchard", in Vigo County, Indiana; "Indian orchards" in Onondaga County, New York, etc.). It seems like there are still quite a few "old Indian orchards" that can be found all over the US and Canada; a search on "old Indian orchard" brings in quite a few results.

These names and places still remain, often only in the memory of the oldtimers and of the local historians, but it seems like nobody wants to see the larger significance of all that... The larger significance of all that seems to have vanished in the old Memory Hole.

In any case, here's some interesting material about all that. This is the material about the peaches. It created quite a furious discussion in Usenet at the time but, typically, there was a lot more heat there than light. The usual deniers of the Native American creativity were there in full force.


Message ID:

X2QJ8.51$UA6.29633564@news.nnrp.ca

 From: Yuri Kuchinsky (yuku@clio.trends.ca)
 Subject: Native American Peaches (updated) 
 Newsgroups: sci.archaeology, sci.anthropology,
 sci.misc, sci.skeptic
 Date: 2002-05-31 12:14:39 PST 


Greetings all,

This is an updated version of my article about the Native American 
Peaches. It was originally posted on May 10. Some small errors were 
corrected, and some more information was added up based on the 
discussion that followed.

Best,

Yuri.

===========

NATIVE AMERICAN PEACHES

According to our standard reference books, peaches (Prunus Persica) were 
unknown in America before Columbus, and were introduced to the east 
coast of N America by the Spanish or French in 1560s. But the details of 
this introduction are not really known very well, and remain extremely 
sketchy. These seem like mostly surmises at this point.

So is there yet another way to see the history of peach in N America? I 
surely think there is. After all, please consider that, already in 1683, 
William Penn wrote from Philadelphia that all Indian plantations 
included peaches of good quality,

http://www.huntington.org/BotanicalDiv/Timeline.html

[Unfortunately, there's a mistake in this online compendium of 
historical references from the Huntington Botanical Gardens, because 
this date is given wrongly there as "1663".]

Here's what William Penn actually wrote in his letter dated 16 August 
1683 (as posted originally by J. Gibson),

"Here are also Peaches, and very good, and in great quantities, not an 
Indian Plantation without them ... one may have them by Bushels for 
little; they make a pleasant Drink and I think not inferior to any Peach 
you have in England, except the true Newington."

This really seems a little too early for these peaches to have come from 
the recent English settlers. Thus, already on this basis, it seems 
probable that peaches were precolumbian in America. 

But even more importantly, Penn writes quite casually, and without any 
surprise, about numerous "Indian Plantations" that he probably saw with 
his own eyes. This can only mean one thing, the local Indians already 
had extensive fruit orchards before the Europeans arrived to this part 
of the US. Unfortunately, it seems like our modern anthropologists 
haven't yet read about this important very early historical witness, and 
they still persist in assuming rather arrogantly that the Indians could 
not have been sophisticated enough to possess such fruit orchards...


WILD PEACHES IN AMERICA

But also, according to the above online source, peaches were already 
attested as growing wild _in the woods_ in Carolina before 1682! (In his 
1682 _Carolina, or a Description of the Present State of that Country_, 
Thomas Ashe stated, "the Peach Tree in incredible numbers grows wild." 
(De Wolf in Punch 1992)).

And not only in Carolina. According to the account supplied for us by 
Thomas Rudyard, Deputy Governor of the Province of New Jersey in 
1682-1683, at the same rather early date, peaches were also growing wild 
in New Jersey, as well! According to Rudyard, they were "plentiful in 
the woods nearby",

http://www.geocities.com/pchslc/earlyacquackanonk.html


THE VIEWS OF EARLY AMERICAN BOTANISTS

But even more important is the opinion of early American botanists in 
regard to peaches. In fact, about 200 years ago, it was still a common 
opinion among them that peaches were native to N America! And I think 
they were probably right... These early botanists based their opinion on 
the two facts very well known to them. 

1. The abundant distribution of wild peaches in America. They are found 
growing wild in the forest all over the place, and holding their own 
very well against all other trees.

2. Wide genetic diversity (i.e. plant diversity within species) of the 
American peaches, including as cultivated by Native Americans.

For example, John Banister, a noted American botanist, wrote already in 
1680s that, in Virginia, 

"Peaches and Nectarines I believe to be Spontaneous ... for the Indians 
have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we ..."

http://www.monticello.org/chp/peach.html

(It is quite clear that these comments by Banister were based on what he 
heard from the Native Americans about the origin of their peaches, that 
he found so unusual. There's little doubt that the Natives told him that 
they had these peaches from time immemorial.)

So this great diversity of peaches in N America tends to indicate quite 
strongly that they were a traditional crop with the Native Americans 
long before Columbus. 

Thus, there are two strong arguments here. First, the wide prevalence of 
wild peaches all over the US and southern Canada is very important to 
take into consideration. 

[It is interesting in this regard to see the listing for peaches in the 
following US government database,

http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=PRPE3

They list peach distribution all over the US, although it's not clear if 
these are all wild peaches. Of course, in their wisdom, the creators of 
this website think that the peach was introduced to the US 
post-Columbus, which now looks highly doubtful.]

Surely it's not so very likely that any agricultural crop that would 
have been presumably "introduced by the Europeans" only in late 16th 
century would have already spread with such "lightning speed" so far and 
wide that, in the 17th century, it was already growing wild in the 
forests all over the place -- often a thousand miles or more from where 
it was presumably introduced. Such a scenario really does sound rather 
fantastic...

And when we further take into consideration the very wide genetic 
diversity, and the superior quality of the peaches as grown by Native 
Americans in the 17th century, this makes it extremely unlikely that the 
Natives borrowed their peaches from any recent European settlers.

Regards,

Yuri.

PS. In regard to what William Penn wrote from Pennsylvania, it's 
interesting that the same letter as cited above also includes the 
following comment from him re the Indian peaches that he saw with his 
own eyes,

"but whether [these peaches were] naturally here at first, I know 
not..."

So this seems to indicate that, even back in 1683, early European 
settlers were already asking these same questions about where the 
Indians got their unusual peach-trees. But now, it seems like we can 
answer these questions in the affirmative, and say that, indeed, the 
Indians had these peaches long before Columbus.

Yuri Kuchinsky  -=O=- http://www.trends.ca/~yuku

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they
contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and
lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an
amazing degree   ===   Bishop Diego de Landa on his dealings with 
the Mayans.


Go to Yuri's Ancient American Fruit Trees Research.

Go to Yuri's Ancient Travellers Page.