Indian Housing Fad in the 1600s

American Indians Housing before the Europeans

When the first Europeans stepped into the New World, the housing Crisis for the Native American Indians began. Unlike the Indians of the movies with there small Teepees, the average Indian lived in a village or town, comparable to many of the rural towns in Europe or Northern Asia. The kind of structure the Indian family lived in largely depended on whether the diet was seasonal/nomadic which required a less permanent structure or agrarian which is better supported by a more permanent structure.

In 1620, when my ancestor arrived at Black Rock on what is now Scarborough, Maine’s town beach the housing crisis for Native Americans began. By this time European had begun to move westward from Southern coast inland. In a few years diseases from Europeans landing in the northeast would add to the plague.

Conflicts that pitted native peoples against their neighbors would further destroy much of the culture. These conflicts were both between the immigrants and between tribes. In this process, much of the knowledge of how the people lived would be lost to lore and myth.

As a youth in Bangor, Maine; I went to a scout show with a friend, Steven, a Native Penobscot Indian. At the show, one troop had provided a large map with small paper teepees were the local tribes were located. There were twenty seven different tribes around the place where Bangor was build. Several showed migratory paths to the sea and some stationary. This might indicate that perhaps separate tribes would choose separate buildings to fit their lifestyles.

As young and impressionable eleven year old boys we just figured they moved there teepees around using horses.

It came as quite a surprise to find that most of the native peoples lived in well organized stable communities with sound economic bases. They even built towns with wooden building and traded along well established routes.

Imagine, if you will, traveling through the villages in 1620’s if you can. Perhaps as a building inspector on a trip to see if the native peoples were building to code.

First inspections would be on the North East coast in what would later become Canada.

The first village inspection is of a light fishing lodge in a coastal encampment. The construction is of light weight in nature using smaller trees for the frame. The lodge has a sticks and birch paper covering. It has a small hole for smoke. It is anchored by poles imbedded in the sandy ground. Outside this rustic lodge are drying racks for fish. As a summer dwelling you pass the lodge as adequate for temporary dwelling only. You are impressed with the efficient use of materials. The construction is sound and because of the materials used the wood will be returned to the natural environment in the coming winter.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter in Summer from rain and sun.
One room with a cooking area centrally located. (lot of squash, beans and corn)
Holds six to eight people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood and bark. (vines,bone and hide possible)
Waterproof in rain, but not built to manage high winds.

The second house is further down the coast and a bit inland. Not far from where you landed. Here in a sizable village, surrounded with a barricade you are to inspect a familiy’s new lodge.

These buildings would be fairly roomy, single room structures with a hole in the roof over the fire pit. You would be amazed at the efficient manner in which the tribe builds each new lodge. With no written blue print, the tribe parcels out jobs and follows a plan memorized in detail. Not a single ounce of unnecessary labor is used in bring down the trees and shaping the components as the make of the new lodge is laid out on the ground. Post holes are dug with sharp rocks and sticks. Perhaps the ground is first softened with techniques developed through the years.

You walk the boundary of the house as the Posts are sunk. You watch as the neatly laid out components are fitted together with grooves and indentations. As the one story lodge is raised, he is amazed at the craftsmanship among the tribe’s tradesmen as they cut and fit each individual piece. Occasionally you sees a young boy attempting to follow the example of the more experienced. You watch as the boy is carefully instructed in the tried and true method for making his pieces so they will fit properly.

When the lodge is complete, builder you marvels how much it is like the peg built cottages you have seen in Europe.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area centrally located.
Holds eight to twelve people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood with cedar posts set in the ground.
Built to manage most weather conditions including high winds.

Traveling South and West into modern day New York you find large villages of the Iroquois Nation. In these fortified wooden cities you see rows of long rectangular lodges built to a slightly different and larger model than on the present day Maine Coast.
The construction is very similar except the lodges are about forty feet in length.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area located under a hole in the roof.
Holds at least twenty people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood with cedar posts set in the ground.
Well built to manage most weather conditions and winds.

As you travel further to the South you start to see lodges with thatched roofs. These lodges will organized in permanent villages. One day in the distant future these villages will all be gone. The lodges will be replaced by a wooden and thatch structure called a Wichi as the last of the tribes are hunted by the army. At least during your visit you see many permanent dwellings organized in villages. Just as in the North you would see hunters preparing temporary shelters as they left their villages for hunting trips.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain and sun.
One room with a cooking area located under a hole in the roof.
Holds at six to ten people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood and thatch roofing.
Well built to manage most weather conditions and winds

Moving North and West, you come across lodges of thatch and of animal skins. The villages would still be permanent or semi-permanent in nature. The skins vary from roughly treated to ornate with ready designs. These mid continent villages are large and appear w quite permanent. Your inspection shows the workmanship to be comparable to some rural areas in Europe.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area located under a hole in the roof.
Holds at six to ten people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood and thatch roofing.
Well built to manage most weather conditions and winds

Finally you go far enough West to see your first teepee. You have reached the Great Plains. Here, for very practical reasons, the natives have developed technology that lets them follow the great herds of plains animals. Wooden houses would have been impractical and houses of hides only would not have been very easy to set up. They have engineered houses with sturdy wooden pole frames and light weight outer shells of hides. They have also developed tools and cooking equipment which is light and practical. The basic teepees are fairly large, much like the shelter nomad in Mongolia were living in at the same time.

You might have found a tribe that has horses, though not all the Plains Indians had acquired horses by this time.

It is the building construction you are interested in. You get lucky and you arrive the day the tribe is striking camp. Starting the evening before many of the food stuffs and essential are gathered together and packed in clay pots and hinds as may be the best selection. You notice the clay pots have markings that do not match the tribe’s markings. You have seen you first sign of trading with other cultures.

You watch in the morning as the families remove everything within the teepee and then begin disassembling it. In minutes they have removed all the hides and rolled them into neat bundles. Then the poles come down to be laid together and bound into a litter. Within a few hours the village is packed up and the shelters have become the moving vans for all the village necessities.

Several evenings later, a runner reaches the tribe to tell of a herd of animals. The tribe begins the process of setting up anew. All the stores and hides are removed from the litters. Then the litters are disassembled and reassembled to form the outline of the teepee. Next you watch in amazement as the families refit the hides to the exterior. Within a few hours the village looks like it has always been there.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area located under a hole in the roof.
Holds eight to ten people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is posts and hides.
Well built to manage most weather conditions.
Note: exceptional wind may pose a risk to these structures.

Continuing southwest, you come across a Pueblo village. Here he sees technology that is more advanced than any you have seen. There is no way you could believe that in the next century all the people of the village will be gone. Dead from diseases that would only give you a few days of discomfort.

Using a combination of lumber and of a cement like material, the natives have created great buildings much like those in Southern Spain. In soon villages you see building stories tall in some locations. In most locations the building are lower but equally well built. You are amazed at the well designed flat room structures. You notice how, like the teepees, these structures keep out the heat of day and hold it in at night.

The people are craftsmen, artist, jewelers and traders. The buildings are organized both for living and for defense.

The villages are very permanent. Some look like they have been there for centuries. You get to see the construct of a new building. As it goes up you see the craftsmen weave wooden posts to hold roofs in place. In this arid place you wonder where the wood comes from. There is something strange about the construction. The houses have no doors. You quickly learn that the people have learned to place the entrance on the roof. This keeps out predators and unwanted guests.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area.
Holds variable people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors. (may use containers inside)
Construction is wood and adobe.
Well built to manage any weather conditions.
Note: enter through the roof via ladder.

You go on to see many other structures. Most would be similar to wood framed houses you saw in the east. It is amazing how similar the building technology is. In addition you also see a lot of earth covered and sub-terrain houses as you move northwestward.

You decide to inspect on of the earth covered houses on a hot blistering day. You move from a high 90 degree day into a cool 60 something as you pass through the doorway. You can smell the scent of cool earth as you enter. The single room is large with the floor covered with furs. There is a cooking fire on one side. The owner tells you she prefers to keep one side of the lodge cool to store foods. The entry way has a skin covering to keep out breezes and unwanted elements.

The interior shows the structure has a wooden shell. One this shell many layers of sod matt and earth have been laid. The sod layers overlap each other, making the roof water proof. The roof has a slight pitch to allow very heavy rain to run off without eroding the roof. It reminds you of the Bavaria houses that are common in the farming regions.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area.
Holds four to eight people without over crowding.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors.
Construction is wood and sod. (hides for doorway)
Well built to manage all weather conditions.
Note: Is naturally air conditioned (which hasn’t been invented yet)

Finally you come to you last inspection, before taking a Russian fishing boat back to Europe. You go so far north that you come upon the Eskimos. You are introduced to houses built of ice and snow. The technology amazes you. Who would have though that you would have met people who knew how to build building using arches and keystones. You watch as the villagers cut blocks of snow and stack them using a temporary frame as the snow stones go together. You are thinking to yourself that you are going to freeze to death if you have to sleep in that thing. In only a few hours they make you a guest shelter of snow. The entry way is recessed into the ice so that the entry is below the lowest blocks of snow. Inside there is a small fire in the center. The floor is covered with hides covered in long fur. You brave the night there only to find that you were quite comfortable. You notice that the water you left out last night did not freeze.

You realize that although it is made of snow and igloo will hold the heat. You also learn that the igloo breaths. As long as you don’t get the inside too hot and create a layer of ice on the inside, air will pass through the layers of snow.

As you hear foot steps on the roof as children play king of the igloo, you learn that the building is extremely strong. (if left along for at least a night) You are very impressed with the speed with which this sturdy, cold weather shelter has gone up.

The inspection results: Suitable for shelter year round from rain, snow, wind and sun.
One room with a cooking area in center.
Holds one to many people depending on size.
Sanitation facilities are outdoors. (which can be very cold)
Construction is primarily snow. (animal hide for doorway)
Well built to manage very cold weather conditions.
Note: Is naturally refrigerated(also hasn’t been invented yet)

Now it would be time for you to board an imaginary ship for Russia to inspect the homes of many peoples living in comparable conditions across Asia and Europe. Like the Indians, they lived in houses of wood, thatch, sod, adobe, animal skins and even snow at the same time the original illegal aliens chose to seek a new life in America.

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