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Unit 3: Set 6: Section 1: Scurvy in the Frontier Army - Indian Gardens

Intro | Frontier Scout | Wales | Trobriand | Surgeon Reports | Marsh | Indian Gardens

Though soldiers and officers stationed at Army posts throughout the West often met and worked with Indians, these encounters did not always lead to understanding and the exchange of important information. Indians often faced food shortages during a particularly long winter, or after a dry and unproductive summer, but they seemed to have avoided scurvy during the years when the Army was becoming established on the northern Great Plains. Assistant Surgeon W. H. Gardner noted in his 1869 report from Fort Abercrombie that Indians did not have scurvy, and though he knew that they ate wild fruits, he could not understand how these fruits could be available in late winter in quantities sufficient to prevent disease.

What the Army surgeons did not understand was that American Indians had long before established foodways that prevented starvation and vitamin deficiency diseases. In central Dakota, the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa had gardened for centuries, raising corn, squash, and beans to supplement wild vegetables and bison meat. They dried the vegetables and stored them in underground caches for use in late winter.

Nomadic tribes usually did not have gardens, but gathered wild fruits and vegetables which they dried and stored, or mixed with animal fat and dried meat to make pemmican. Pemmican contained nutrients and calories necessary for subsistence, and the fat served as a preservative. Gardening (or horticultural) tribes also traded surplus crops to nomadic hunting tribes and occasionally supplied the Army with corn.

Cache Pit
Surplus vegetables were stored in underground
cache pits like this one constructed in 1912 by
Buffalo Bird Woman. The grass lining and dirt walls
and top kept the dried vegetables clean and
ready to re-hydrate. 0086-0437
Woman with String of Prairie Turnips
This woman has a string of prairie turnips (Psoralea
esculenta). Indian women and children gathered
wild vegetables and fruits from the prairies. If not
eaten fresh, the vegetables and fruits were dried
and stored for winter use. 0086-0391

Indian Woman Hoeing
This woman of one of the Three Affiliated Tribes is
demonstrating traditional gardening methods. Her
hoe is made of a bison scapula (shoulder blade)
that is tied to a pole with leather straps. You can
see squash and corn plants growing behind her.
This photo was taken in 1914, but the methods
she is using would have been in use when
Trobriand was at Fort Stevenson. 0086-0281
Indian Woman Stringing Squash
Owl Woman is drying squash which had been
sliced into rings. In winter, these dried pieces of
squash (high in vitamin C) will be added to soups
and other dishes. This photograph was made in
1916, but the method of drying squash would
have been similar to that of 1870. 0086-0340

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