The Oneota Culture - Last Prehistoric Culture of the American Midwest

Before the Europeans Came, What Was Life Like in the American Midwest?

Bison Grazing at Antelope Island, Utah
The Oneota relied on a variety of products from bison, this one seen grazing at Antelope Island, Utah. Andrew Smith

The Oneota (also known as western Upper Mississippian) is the name archaeologists have given to the last prehistoric culture (1150-1700 CE) of the American upper midwest. The Oneota lived in villages and camps along tributary streams and rivers of the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. The archaeological remains of Oneota villages are located in the modern states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Immigrants from Cahokia?

The origin of the Oneota people is somewhat of a controversy. Some scholars argue that the Oneota were descendants of the pre-Mississippian Woodland groups who were immigrants from other as-yet-unknown locations, perhaps the Cahokia area. Another group of scholars argues the Oneota were local Late Woodland groups who changed their society as a result of contact with Middle Mississippian technologies and ideologies.

Although there are clear connections in Oneota symbolism to the Mississippian complex of Cahokia, the Oneota sociopolitical organization was widely divergent from that of the complex society at the capital in the American Bottom near St. Louis, Missouri. Oneota groups were mainly independent chiefly societies located on major rivers upstream and far away from Cahokia.

Oneota Characteristics

Over the nearly six hundred years of their (recognized) occupation of the Upper Mississippi region, Oneota people changed their style of living and subsistence patterns and as the Europeans moved into the region, they migrated far to the west. But their cultural identity maintained continuity, based on the presence of a number of artifact types and iconography.

The most commonly recognized artifact of Oneota culture is shell-tempered, globular-shaped ceramic vessels with purposefully smoothed, but not burnished, exteriors. Distinctive point types used by Oneota hunters are small unnotched triangular arrow points called either Fresno or Madison points. Other stone tools connected with Oneota populations include pipestone carved into tablets, pipes and pendants; stone scrapers for buffalo hides, and fishhooks. Bone and shell hoes are indicative of Oneota agriculture, as are the ridged fields found in the early and eastern villages of Wisconsin. Architecture included oval wigwams, multi-family longhouses, and cemeteries organized in sprawling villages on terraces near main rivers.

Some evidence of warfare and violence are seen in the archaeological record; and the evidence of movement west with a maintained connectedness to people back home in the east are indicated by trade goods, including pipestone and hides, and metasedimentary abrasive rocks called paralava (formerly misidentified as volcanic pumice or scoria).

Chronology

  • 1700 cal CE-present day. Historic and modern tribes thought to be descended from Oneota include Ioway, Oto, Ho-Chunk, Missouria, Ponca, and others
  • Protohistoric Oneota (Classic) (1600-1700 cal CE). After direct and indirect contact with French trappers and traders, La Crosse was abandoned, and the people moved westward along the Iowa/Minnesota borders and west following bison herds
  • Middle Oneota (Developmental) (1300-1600 cal CE), Apple River and Red Wing abandoned, expanded outward. Oneota settlements opened at La Crosse, Minnesota, and the central Des Moines River valley (Moingona Phase)
  • Early Oneota (Emergent) (1150-1300 cal CE). Apple River (northwest Illinois) and Red Wing (Minnesota) localities are started, decorative motifs derived from Mississippian Ramey Incised pots

Initial or Emergent Phase Oneota

The earliest villages recognized as Oneota arose about 1150, as diverse and scattered communities along the floodplains, terraces, and bluffs of the rivers, communities that were occupied at least seasonally and perhaps year-round. They were horticulturalists rather than farmers, relying on digging-stick agriculture based on maize and squash, and supplemented by deer, elk, birds, and large fish.

Foods gathered by early Oneota people include several plants that would be eventually domesticated as part of the Eastern North American Neolithic, such as maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), chenopodium (Chenopodium berlandieri), little barley (Hordeum pussilum) and erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum).

They also collected various nuts—hickory, walnut, acorns—and conducted localized hunting of elk and deer and communal longer-distance hunting of bison. There likely was a lot of variation in these early villages, especially with respect to how important maize was in their diets. Some of the largest villages have accretional burial mounds. At least some of the villages had a tribal level of social and political organization. Early emergent Oneota also mined and cold-hammered copper, into objects such as beads, awls, pendants, tinkler cones, and wire.

Development and Classic Period Oneota

Middle Oneota communities apparently intensified their farming efforts, moving into broader valleys and including the preparation of ridged fields, and the use of shell and bison scapula hoes. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) were added to the diet about 1300: now Oneota people had the entire three sisters agricultural complex. Their communities shifted as well, to include larger houses, with multiple families sharing the same longhouse. Longhouses at the Tremaine site in Wisconsin, for example, were 20-27 ft (6-8.5 m) wide and varied in length between 85-213 ft (26-65 m). Mound building ceased entirely and mortuary patterns shifted to the use of cemeteries or burials beneath the floors of the longhouses. Middle Oneota communities mined and worked red pipestone from deposits in southeastern Minnesota.

By the late period, many Oneota people migrated westward. These dispersed Oneota communities displaced the locals in Nebraska, Kansas and adjacent areas of Iowa and Missouri, and thrived on communal bison hunting supplemented with gardening. Bison hunting, assisted by dogs, allowed Oneota to obtain adequate meat, marrow and fat for food, and hides and bones for tools and exchange.

Oneota Archaeological Sites

  • Illinois: Gentlemen Farm, Material Service Quarry, Reeves, Zimmerman, Keeshin Farm, Dixon, Lima Lake, Hoxie Farm
  • Nebraska: Leary site, Glen Elder
  • Iowa: Wever, Flynn, Correctionville, Cherokee, Iowa Great Lakes, Bastian, Milford, Gillett Grove, Blood Run
  • Kansas: Lovewell Reservoir, White Rock, Montana Creek
  • Wisconsin: OT, Tremaine, La Crosse, Pammel Creek, Trempealeau Bay, Carcajou Point, Pipe, Mero, Crescent Bay Hunt Club
  • Minnesota: Red Wing, Blue Earth

Selected Sources

Several good locations on the web for Oneota information include Lance Foster's Ioway Cultural Institute, the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, and the Mississippi Valley Archaeological Center.