Petun Research Institute Research Bulletin #2

October 1996 Charles Garrad
Petun Research Institute (Inc.)
103 Anndale Drive, North York, Ontario M2N 2X3


Experiments are reported concerning the possession and cultivation of tobacco by the Petun- Wyandot Indians in seventeenth century Ontario.


The belief that the "Nation du Petun" (Tobacco Nation) was so-named because the Petun people extensively grew, possessed, smoked and traded tobacco is widespread

Although no reliable contemporary first-hand eye-witness accounts are known to support this belief, it can be reasonably assumed that the Petun people, in common with other similar lroquoian agricultural peoples, grew, possessed and smoked tobacco (genus nicotiana). The frequent finding of remnants of smoking pipes on Petun archaeological sites has been accepted as evidence confirming this belief.

By 1972 it was noted that the bowls of stone (usually limestone) pipes found on Petun archaeological sites were always clean, and showed no evidence of having been used for smoking. A number of clay pipe bowls, by contrast, did show evidence of having been used for smoking, and several bowls contained material which seemed to be residues from use, mixed with other matter presumably acquired during the three and more centuries the artifact was buried We could not ourselves determine conclusively that the residues contained tobacco

In 1973, four Petun clay pipe bowls containing residues as found were taken to the Research Station operated by Agriculture Canada at Delhi, Ontario. During the next several years Dr. Nestor Rosa, Research Scientist at the Centre, with the writer, and colleagues, undertook several experiments intended to determine.

(a) if the pipe bowl residues included tobacco;
(b) the species of any tobacco used;
(c) the nature of any organic additives
(d) if native tobacco nicotiana rustica could be grown successfully from seed-to-seed within the growing season available in the Petun homeland.

The last experiment (d) was not to imply that the tobacco used by the Petun was necessarily of the species rus(ica, although this was probably the case. It is already known that the species tabacum can be grown in the Petun area if the seeds are started early in protected seed-beds and transplanted into the ground after the last frost, and it follows that rustica, needing a shorter growing season, could be similarly grown by this technique. 2

Results of the Experiment

Tests at the Research Station demonstrated that the pipe residues contained tobacco, but could not determine the species of tobacco, nor the proportion of tobacco to other materials in the residues. Planting tests throughout the Petun homeland demonstrated that nicotiana rustica could be suiccessfully grown and matured from seed-to-seed during the available growing season under carefully controlled and specific conditions, which became apparent during the experiment.

Analysis undertaken at the Research Station

It was at the suggestion of the late Lyal Tait, the author of several books on tobacco in Canada, that we first approached the staff of the Research Station at Delhi for assistance in determining if the pipe bowl residues in our possession contained tobacco, and if so, what type of tobacco was represented. We eventually made the acquaintance of Dr. Nestor Rosa; Research Scientist, who not only undertook to analyze the residues, but also provided seed and instructions for the undertaking of planting experiments.

Four pipe bowls containing residuics were supplied to Dr. Rosa, being one each from the Hamilton-Lougheed BbHa-1 0; Graham-Ferguson BcHb-7, Plater-Martin BdHb-1, and Plater- Fleming BdHb~2 archaeological sites. The four sites represent major Petun villages occupied during Glass Bead Period 3 (the period of Jesuit presence, beginning in 1639), the first two to about 1642, the last two until 1650. Dr. Rosa immediately reported that the absence of visible tobacco and the state of deconiposition of the residues would not allow the species of tobacco to be determined, but th at the question of whether the residues contained tobacco of any type could still be addressed by techniques able to detect the presence in the residues of the two major tobacco characteristic alkaloids, nicotine and nornicotine.

The tests were run and indicated the presence in all four samples of the two alkaloids characteristic of tobacco, however the amount of the alkaloids present could not be determined due to the substantial contaminating presence of inorganic soil. The presence of tobacco was confirmed but could not be quantified. No opinion could be reached concerning the possible presence of other non-tobacco organic smokable material, because even when pyrolyzed at 1 ,0000 degree C, the samples so tested reportedly lost very little weight. No separate tests for such material were undertaken because the characteristic chemical marker for each possibility must be known in advance and searched for during the pyrolysis process.

During the experimental testing, a sample of modern tobacco with known nicotine and nornicotine content was pryolyzed, together with two non-Petun archaeological samples. The two major tobacco alkaloids were found in the non-Petun samples, but to a lesser extent, due to greater contamination with sand and other soil material. Dr. Rosa's technical report is attached as an Appendix.

Because the analytic techniques are destructive, only about 3 mg. of each residue was taken for testing. The unused pipe residues were returned to the writer, and remain available for future testing should the need arise.

Dr. Rosa also provided insight into the possible aboriginal tobacco horticultural practices compared with today. Modern commercial tobacco, nicotiana tabacum, requires a growing season that at the latitude of Ontario necessitates greenhouse preparation, transplanting after the last frost, and special fertilizers. In contrast, native tobacco, nicotiana rustica, may be planted as seed and should matuire within the available growing season if planted in well-drained soil with a warm bottom.

Dr. Rosa kindly provided a sufficient suipply of seed of nicotiana rustica to allow several field experiments to be undertaken in early and later germination.

Experimental tobacco horticulture

The nicotiana rustica seeds provided by Dr. Rosa were divided, some for early germination at home for subsequent transplanting after the last frost, and some for planting directly into the ground. Lyle Tait advised that the growth of a seedling can be accelerated by heat and water, or retarded by withholding the water. He speculated that as the absence of light was not a factor, the lack of greenhouses would not have prevented the Petuns from germinating seeds indoors, perhaps in rotten wood, for later transplantation. No record of this practice is known. Dr. Rosa felt this would not be necessary with nicotiana rustica becauise it would grow from seed within the available growing season.

June 1st was fixed as a safe date for the commencement of a frost-free period in the Petun homeland.

Seed was successfully germinated at the writer's home, and the seedlings were transplanted to pre-selected locations at various elevations and soil types in Nottawasaga Township in June 1972. None of the transplanted seedlings survived. They were either crowded out by faster-growing grass, or were presuimably found palatable by some vegetarian rodent. Within several weeks of transplanting, none could even be found. The seeds planted in locations which were not protected from animals and competitive grasses similarly failed to survive.

In view of the total failure of all unprotected plantings, the successful raising of a plant from seed by Jay Allan Blair in the vegetable garden behind the house where he was living in Stayner was hailed as a spectacular success. The garden was carefully maintained free of weeds, and was protectively fenced from stray animal species. It became apparent that weeding and physical protection were essential to successful small-scale tobacco horticulture.

Over the winter 1972-1973 leaves from the plant grown by Jay Blair were lodged in the furnace room belonging to another colleague, Mrs. Helen Hargrave. The leaves were suspended above the furnace in simuilation of a possible long-house drying procedure. With the spring of 1973 came the challenge of finding and convincing an innocent pipe smoker to try the product. The problem was overcome .when William "Bill" Ross, then a student interested in Petun research for his M.A. thesis, appeared, complete with pipe.

The tobacco leaf to be tested was crumbled into small fragments by fingers. Unfortunately, lacking appropriate measuring devices, no precise records were kept at the time of this and subsequent events. In the writer's recollection, the ease with which the leaf crumbled, and the considerable speed with which it burned in Bill Ross' pipe bowi, indicated we had overdried it. We wondered if this was an uncontrollable element in the Petun tobacco curing process, and if so, if it argued for possible supplementation with slower burning non-tobacco organic plant material. Bill, in a letter to the writer dated October 22,1996, has a somewhat different recollection.

"... the tobacco was quite harsh and burned quite hot. It was not the most pleasant to smoke, but was quite strong. I always felt that part of the problem was in the curing of the tobacco. Perhaps time might have made a difference, i.e. if it had been cured for a longer period of time. My other recollection was that it was quite green and did not crumple well. This too, I think, was caused by the length of time of curation. Certainly it was smokable, although harsh to one used to modern cured tobaccos."


The Petuns certainly used, possessed and smoked tobacco, and were capable of growing it in the homeland under controlled conditions.

Nicotiana rustica will grow from seed-to-seed in a single season in the homeland providing the young plants are protected from animals and from competing vegetation.

Early seeding of tobacco in seed-beds, followed by transplantation of seedlings, was not practised.

If the Petuns tempered their tobacco with other organic smokable products to slow combustion, such materials are so entirely consumed during the smoking process that no detectable loss of weight occurs when residues are subjected to great heat. 5


The fact that the Petun could grow their own tobacco does not remove the possibility that they also obtained tobacco in trade, possibly including nicotiana tabacum.

The "garden fences" made of small, closely-spaced stick-moulds fouind at the Sidey Mackay BbHa-6 Site and elsewhere may indicate protected tobacco-growing plots.

Future Research

The possibility exists of testing residues for non-tobacco additives, but the chemical markers to be searched for must be known in advance.

The absence of residues in Petuin pipe bowls made of stone requires verification and explanation. An examination of all available specimens of stone pipes is required to eliminate sampling error.

The writer would appreciate hearing from any Ontario lroquoian specialist who has found smoked tobacco residues in a stone pipe bowl.