How did Indian tribes who lived inland (before 1492) conceive of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans?

Was it some sort of legend that an endless water existed far to the east or the west? Or were they (indirectly?) in contact with other tribes who had seen such oceans? Or was it a complete mystery to them?


Complex trade networks mean that an inland site like Cahokia nevertheless had access to marine shells for local bead manufacture. And they used a lot of beads.

You cannot generalize about “Indian tribes” in 1492. There was vast diversity of sophistication and participation in trade networks, along with a vast diversity of personal experience.

You might ask yourself “what did the average inland European know about Oceans in 1492?” If you are talking about a resident of Paris, probably a pretty fair conception. If you are talking about a Polish peasant, maybe no clue at all because it was entirely irrelevant.

Point taken. Okay, then, what about the intelligentsia? Tell us about the Native American scientists and geographers.

I think there is such a thing as “general knowledge among Indian tribes.” We might not know everything, might not know anything, but surely there’s a better answer than “who knows?” “Who knows” is kinda what I’m asking.

Might be that in some tribes such knowledge was general (closer to to either shore, I’d suppose) and in others it was more restricted to a few knowledgable tribesmen, and perhaps in other tribes far from shores it was merely rumor and legend, but that’s just logic and reason talking. What I’m asking is if anyone knows more definitively than that. “You can’t generalize” isn’t much of an answer.

I don’t that anyone could know. Do we know how a housemaid in Germany conceptualized the sea in 1491? I am not being facetious. I don’t think we have any idea.

We know that there were large, politically complicated kingdoms from the American Southeast all the way up through Ohio. We know they had vast trade networks were large quantities of goods were moved on a regular basis: it wasn’t like you got imported soapstone or obsidian or ceramics or art once or twice a generation, these things moved consistently. So some people were great travelers. There’s no reason to think the “average” citizen of these inland areas would have known more or less than the average inland citizen in Europe, Asia, or Africa.

Sure, because people who work the land are stupid. They are never interested in ‘irrelevant’ information, and they never gossip or hear any news from anywhere. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

I think you’re greatly underestimating illiterate people and their knowledge of the wider world.

But everyone would have been familiar with Bible stories about oceans and sea voyages, at least.

Okay, and the OP is asking “how much would that likely have been?” Of course, we don’t and can’t know for sure. It’s a speculative question, and a very reasonable one for discussion. So let’s do some guessing and have a discussion.

I’m guessing that in some groups, the family/group member who did a lot of traveling would tell stories to the others about the oceans, mountains, deserts, vast grassy plains, or whatever he (surely he) saw. Probably in Europe, people coming back from the Crusades (or the like) told those stories, too. And some listeners said, “Yeah, baby, I want to go there and see those things!” And others (that would be me), “I think I’ll just stick around here and listen to the travelers’ tales.”

There was a really great program on PBS years ago that talked about how in Europe (and England) the traveling merchants and minstrels would camp out at crossroads and swap tales, sometimes in song, and that was how information got passed around. I can certainly guess that that sort of thing went on in North America, too.

Maybe this should be in IMHO.

My point was that there wasn’t some vast gulf between the peasants in the “civilized’” world and the farmers of North America in 1491.

For medieval Europe, don’t forget pilgrimages! They were very popular, and pilgrims often travelled all over Europe.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,   [strange shores]
To ferne halwes kowthe in sondry londes;   [to foreign shines known in different countries]

I’ve already offered you links to scientific papers that definitively answer the question you asked. Cahokia was pretty much as inland as inland gets in North America, and they had regular trade with the coast.

They also had regular trade and cultural connections over a vast area. There were no “isolated tribes” in that cultural sphere.

And then, one might make the argument that maybe it’s more the Southwestern tribes, desert-dwellers that they were, that wouldn’t be connected. And I’d point out that the Navajo and Apache speak a language originating from the Pacific North-West, and only moved to the desert a few hundred years before Columbus…

I think we have much better written (and dated) records of what the literate folks in Europe knew about foreign oceans in the 1490s, and a much clearer guess as to which parts of that knowledge got passed on to lay people, laborers, peasants and the like. At a guess I’d say that most European peasants knew, or could have known easily, that there was a body of water so large it had never been crossed way to their west, for example. I don’t think the Atlantic was a big secret, no matter how little sophistication or education one had. Some peasants didn’t care at all, sure–it didn’t affect their lives, just as knowledge of Pluto’s orbit doesn’t affect some people today, and they choose not to think about it at all. But we have a pretty good idea of this level of knowledge and ignorance in Europe. Are you claiming it was identical to Indian tribes in the inland continent?

Sorry–having a little trouble downloading your links. From the little I can make out, though, it seems to say that inland tribes used beads–but is there anything (could there be?) in there that says how much they knew, or cared to know, about exactly where the beads came from? That is, just having these valuable objects doesn’t necessarily convey a clear or widespread idea about the ocean, its extent, its length, its impassibility, much less those ideas about two oceans on either side of the continent.

On the context of the posts that wonder how did indigenous people in the lands of America pictured the oceans, it is noticeable that many tribes did picture the original earth as just an ocean in their creation myths.

And when the land was created, it was considered an island or smaller than the big ocean anyhow, meaning that it is likely that communications with other people in ancient times made them aware that they were surrounded by an ocean that was bigger than the lands they inhabited.

You might read some of the accounts of the DeSoto expedition. At contact, the Mississippian culture was vast, complex, and densely populated. Cahokia may have topped put at a population of 40k people, and it wasn’t some isolated city in the midst of barbarians: the while region was a patchwork of kingdoms, each with a capital city where there were elaborate earthworks, public architecture, and palaces. The whole area was connected by maintained roads. The “average” person would have been every bit as a informed as anyone else in a premodern culture.

Were the oceans at all relevant to Native American society in the way they were relevant to European society? European societies traded via ships which sailed the Atlantic even if they didn’t cross it. Did Native Americans do the same? (That’s not my impression, but I’m not an expert or anything.)

There would be a really interesting article on this topic (interesting to me, anyway) by an expert in Indian mythologies, called something like “Indian Beliefs about the Ocean.” I’m sure they’re varied, by tribe and geography, and have surprises (i.e., not strictly correlated by geography). I have no idea, for example, what occupying a given territory meant, especially at the edges of that territory. Did they tend to change slightly, or more than slightly, by decade? By century? Was there a lot of assimilation, or a little? When tribes engaged in commerce, was there much information traded too, and what did tribes make of other tribes’ beliefs? “They’re full of shit”? “They’re wise folks who believe differently than we do”?

There are accounts of huge flotillas on the Mississippi. I don’t know know if we have any accounts of similar things on the ocean
But so much was lost: even by the DeSoto expedition (1530s) , waves of disease were starting, and it was a century after that before we start having other accounts. DeSoto found no gold, and the area was ignored. Mississippian culture was really only glimpsed before it collapsed, and then we spent 300 years bulldozing it after that.

Made beads. From whole whelk shells (And also other artifacts made from the shells like spoons and cups). They knew these shells weren’t from their river. And like I said, their culture extended all the way from the Great Lakes to Florida. You’re postulating a whole lot of isolated groups came up with one unified culture (for the second time in a millennium) without a degree of interaction.