During the first 10,000 years of Iowa’s history, native inhabitants hunted, fished, netted, trapped, gathered, plucked, picked, and dug for their food from wild sources. And they were successful even as they adapted to changing landscapes and resources as the ice margins retreated at the end of the Pleistocene and during the early Holocene when prairie spread in fits and starts across the state. Yet, in a small community called Gast Spring adjacent to the Mississippi River in today’s Louisa County, the first tentative steps towards a new lifestyle were being taken almost 3000 years ago. Here archaeologists discovered a conglomeration of charcoal, fire-cracked rock, and the charred remains of plants densely packed in a small, basin-shaped pit almost four feet below the ground surface. Among the plants were squash and goosefoot, probably already domesticated, and the first evidence in the Midwest for cultivated little barley. Iowa farming had begun.
These first farmers of southeastern Iowa had access to a wide array of microenvironments teeming with the resources of upland and tributary valley forests, backwater wetlands, and the Mississippi channel itself. The Government Land Office Survey map of mid-nineteenth century Iowa offers a reasonable view of the upland vegetation at the time Euroamerican settlers arrived. Prairie dominated most of the state with wide swaths of wetlands particularly in the north central region. In contrast, see a modern satellite map showing Iowa’s land cover today. The prairie is almost gone, and wetlands considerably diminished, due to the successful efforts of nineteenth century pioneer farmers who tiled and drained thousands of acres.
Native American societies first domesticated varieties of plants that continue to impact the modern world economy. Some of the earliest plant species brought under cultivation were local weedy and oily seeded varieties, such as marshelder, sunflower and goosefoot. These were largely replaced by the better known and higher yielding tropical cultigens—corn, beans, and squashes—a legacy for later pioneer farmers and stock for early American seed companies.