The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American Native language groups, with tribes originally numbering in the hundreds. Today hundreds of thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples. This grouping consists of peoples that speak Algonquian languages.
Before Europeans came into contact, most Algonquian settlements lived by hunting and fishing, although quite a few supplemented their diet by cultivating corn, beans, squash, and (particularly among the Ojibwe) wild rice.
The Algonquians of New England (who spoke eastern Algonquian) practiced a seasonal economy. The basic social unit was the village of a few hundred people related by a kinship structure. Villages were temporary and mobile. The people moved to locations of greatest natural food supply, often breaking into smaller units or recombining as the circumstances required. This custom resulted in a certain degree of cross-tribal mobility, especially in troubled times.
In warm weather, they constructed light wigwams for portability. In the winter, they erected the more substantial long houses, in which more than one clan could reside. They cached food supplies in more permanent, semi-subterranean structures.
In the spring, when the fish were spawning, the natives left the winter camps to build villages at coastal locations and waterfalls. In March they caught smelt in nets and weirs, moving about in birchbark canoes. In April they netted alewife, sturgeon and salmon. In May they caught cod with hook and line in the ocean; and trout, smelt, striped bass and flounder in the estuaries and streams. Putting out to sea, the men hunted whales, porpoises, walruses and seals. The women and children gathered scallops, mussels, clams and crabs, all the basis of menus in New England today.
From April through October, natives hunted migratory birds and their eggs: Canada geese, brant, mourning doves and others. In July and August they gathered strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and nuts. In September they split into small groups and moved up the streams to the forest. There the men hunted beaver, caribou, moose and white-tailed deer.
In December when the snows began, the people created larger winter camps in sheltered locations, where they built or reconstructed long houses. February and March were lean times. The tribes in southern New England and other northern latitudes had to rely on cached food. Northerners developed a practice of going hungry for several days at a time. Historians hypothesize that this practice kept the population down, according to Liebig’s law. The northerners were food gatherers only.
The southern Algonquians of New England relied predominantly on slash-and-burn agriculture. They cleared fields by burning for one or two years of cultivation, after which the village moved to another location. This is the reason the English found the region relatively cleared and ready for planting. By using various kinds of native corn (maize), beans and squash, southern New England natives were able to improve their diet to such a degree that their population increased and they reached a density of 287 people per square hundred miles, as opposed to 41 in the north.
Even with mobile crop rotation, southern villages were necessarily less mobile than northern. The natives continued their seasonal occupation but tended to move into fixed villages near their lands. They adjusted to the change partially by developing a gender-oriented division of labor. The women cultivated crops and the men fished and hunted.
Scholars estimate that by the year 1600, the indigenous population of New England had reached 70,000–100,000.
At the time of the first European settlements in South America, Algonquian tribes occupied what is now New England, New Jersey, southeastern New York, New Brunswick, much of Canada east of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and were occasionally present in Kentucky. They were most concentrated in the New England region. The homeland of the Algonquian peoples is not known. At the time of the European arrival, the hegemonic Iroquois federation was regularly at war with Algonquian neighbours and forced other tribes out of Iroquois-occupied territories.
For about two centuries, Algonquians provided the main obstacles to the spread of Euro-American settlers, who concluded hundreds of peace treaties with them. Metacomet, Cornstalk, Tecumseh and Pontiac were leaders of Algonquian-speaking nations.
These tribes include Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, and Passamaquoddy. The Abenaki tribe is located in Maine and eastern Quebec. These tribes practiced some agriculture. The Maliseet of Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick, and the Mi'kmaq tribes of the Canadian Maritime provinces lived primarily on fishing. Further north are the Betsiamites, Atikamekw, Algonkin and Montagnais/Naskapi (Innu). The Beothuk people of Newfoundland are also believed to have been Algonquians, but their last known speaker died in the early 19th century. Few records of their language or culture remain.
Ojibwe/Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and a variety of Cree groups lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Western Ontario and the Canadian Prairies. The Arapaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne are indigenous to the Great Plains.
The Shawnee, Illiniwek, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, and Sac and Fox, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe and later known as the Meskwaki Indians lived throughout the present-day Midwest of the United States. Many were displaced over great distances through Indian removal west of the Mississippi River, to what is now Oklahoma.
Europeans devised tribal names to identify individual groups of Algonquian peoples and their languages that were often inaccurate or misleading in relation to affiliations. Today, intermarriage and close community alliances are common across the Algonquian peoples, making tribal divisions difficult to trace. Their languages are also quite similar. For instance, across Canada, Cree-speaking people may be able to understand each other with little difficulty. The Ojibwe language is close enough to the Western Cree languages to be partially understandable to speakers of the latter.