The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups. Today, thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples. Historically, the peoples were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior along the St. Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. This grouping consists of the peoples who 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 and squash (the "Three Sisters"). The Ojibwe cultivated wild rice.
The Algonquians of New England (who spoke Eastern Algonquian) practiced a seasonal economy. The basic social unit was the village: a few hundred people related by a clan kinship structure. Villages were temporary and mobile. The people moved to locations of greatest natural food supply, often breaking into smaller units or gathering as the circumstances required. This custom resulted in a certain degree of cross-tribal mobility, especially in troubled times.
In warm weather, they constructed portable wigwams, a type of hut usually with buckskin doors. 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, they 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 100 square miles as opposed to 41 in the north.
Even with mobile crop rotation, southern villages were necessarily less mobile than northern ones. 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 North America, Algonquian tribes occupied what is now New Brunswick, and much of what is now Canada east of the Rocky Mountains; what is now New England, New Jersey, southeastern New York, Delaware and down the Atlantic Coast through the Upper South; and around the Great Lakes in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. They were mostly 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, based in present-day New York and Pennsylvania, was regularly at war with Algonquian neighbours.
The French and later English encountered the Maliseet of present-day Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick; the Abenaki of Quebec, Vermont and New Hampshire; the Mi'kmaq band governments of the Maritime provinces lived primarily on fishing. Further north are the Betsiamite, Atikamekw, Anishinaabe and Montagnais/Naskapi (Innu). The Beothuk people of Newfoundland are also believed to have been Algonquian, but their last known speaker died in the early 19th century. Few records of their language or culture remain.
Colonists in the Massachusetts Bay area first encountered the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac. The Mohegan, Pequot, Pocumtuc, Tunxis, and Narragansett were based in southern New England. The Abenaki tribe was located in northern New England: present-day Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont in what became the United States and eastern Quebec in what became Canada. They had established trading relationships with French colonists who settled along the Atlantic coast and what was later called the St. Lawrence River. The Mohican tribe was located in western New England and in the upper Hudson River Valley (around what was developed by Europeans as Albany, New York). These tribes practiced agriculture, hunting and fishing.
The Lenape, also called Delaware, were (Munsee) and Unami speakers that were in what is now known as the eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, lower Hudson Valley and western Long Island areas in New York. They encountered the European explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in what is now New York Harbor in 1524. By the year 1643 there were roughly thirteen Algonquin tribes living on Long Island, considered by some to be branches of the Pequot: Canarsie, Recouwacky, Matinecock, Merrick, Massapequa, Nissequoge, Secatoag, Seatauket, Patchoag, Poosepatuck (also called Uncachogee), Corchaug, Shinnecock, Manhasset and Montaukett.
Further south were the traditional homes of the Powhatan, a loose group of tribes numbering into the tens of thousands, who were among the first to encounter English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay region. Historic tribes also included the Nanticoke, Wicocomico, Secotan, Chowanoke, Weapemeoc, and Chickahominy peoples.
The French encountered Algonquian peoples in this area through their trade and limited colonization of New France along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The historic peoples of the Illinois Country were the Shawnee, Illiniwek, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, and Sauk and Fox. The latter were also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe, and later known as the Meskwaki Indians, who lived throughout the present-day Midwest of the United States.
During the nineteenth century, many Native Americans from east of the Mississippi River were displaced over great distances through the United States passage and enforcement of Indian removal legislation; they forced the tribes west of the Mississippi River to what they designated as Indian Territory. After the US extinguished Indian land claims, this area was admitted as the state of Oklahoma in the early 20th century.
Ojibwe/Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and a variety of Cree groups lived in Upper Michigan, Western Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian Prairies. The Arapaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne developed as indigenous to the Great Plains.
Algonquian peoples in the present states of Wyoming, Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas were ancestors to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The Gros Ventre are an Algonquian-speaking tribe that migrated to north central Montana.