Pecan

Carya illinoensis (Wangenheim) K. Koch
Juglandaceae (Walnut Family)

Pecan is a large tree that produces an abundant crop of thin-shelled nuts. Valued for centuries by Native Americans, pecans today comprise one of the most important commercial nut crops in North America. The pecan stands of coastal Texas were a focal point of Native American subsistence and a regular stop on the seasonal rounds of these hunters and gatherers.  The trees also provided food for the European settlers along the coast.

Pecan grows well in deep soils along streams in east and central Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers into Illinois, Kentucky, and southern Indiana. The creek and river terraces of southern Texas house thousands of acres of native pecan trees. The pecan stands of southern Texas were a focal point of Native American subsistence and a regular stop on the seasonal rounds of these hunters and gatherers.

However, there is a catch to relying on pecans as a seasonal or winter food staple. Stands of pecans produce on a biennial cycle, alternating each year between a low-yield harvest and a high-yield harvest. This variation in productivity had an impact on the people who depended on pecans for a source of fat and calories.

Archeological occurrences. Even though the trees are distributed throughout southern and eastern Texas, pecan is seldom recovered from archeological sites on the Edwards Plateau, the South Texas Plains, or the Coastal Plains of Texas. There are three reasons why pecan is not often recovered from archeological sites. First, very few archeological studies have been conducted in areas where pecan stands are the densest, particularly on the lower reaches of the major rivers in Texas. Because it doesn't need to be processed using fire, pecan is probably under-represented in botanical assemblages because it is seldom accidentally charred. Only charred plant remains survive in open archeological sites that are more than a few hundred years old. Finally, pecan may be an uncommon part of the archeological record because pecan shells are thin and relatively delicate.

I am not aware of pecan from any prehistoric sites on the coast. The one coastal historic site from which pecan was recovered is the Belle, La Salle’s ill-fated ship that came to rest in Matagorda Bay. Here pecan shell fragments and one whole pecan were recovered from the ship.  Although pecans are not mentioned by name in the expedition journals, Foster (1998:159) notes that the French did not distinguish between walnuts and pecans.  During his visit to tribes on the Arkansas River, Joutel refers to several kinds of nuts, ". . . one kind that is smaller; it is shaped almost like an acorn with a rather tender shell (Foster 1998:270)." This is most likely a reference to pecan, but the sighting is far from the Texas coast. Espinosa also noted the presence of thin-shelled nuts in Caddo Country during visits to the region (Hatcher 1927). The expedition members established the settlement on Garcitas Creek in the summer of 1685 and the Belle was not wrecked until February 1686. Pecan trees produce in October-November, and apparently the settlers took advantage of this crop, bringing some onto the Belle before its demise.  

Hall (2000) has argued that large pecan crops may have been a focus for human occupation during Late Archaic (about 2000 years ago) times. He notes that the fatty acid content of pecans would have been an extremely important addition to the Native American diet.  Huebner and Boutton (1992) conducted a stable carbon isotope analysis of human bones from an Archaic cemetery near the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, and concluded that the diet was based on C-3 resources, primarily nuts and deer.  If the population was eating nuts in this area, by far the largest crop would have been pecan.  The trade items in the burials reflected a large network that reached into the Oachita Mountains of Arkansas and perhaps into Alabama and Florida (Hall 2000).  The pecan groves may have been a key resource that allowed for population growth on the Texas coastal plain.

Food. The meat of each nut is rich in vegetable oil. Unlike our diet, fat was comparatively scarce in Native American diets. Pecans are a highly valued food resource, as they have been for thousands of years. The meat of each nut is rich in vegetable oil or fat. Pecans are a high energy food source, and 100 g of pecan nut meat yields about 690 kcal and that portion contains 72% fat, 9.2% protein, 13% carbohydrates, and only 3.5% water. The nut meat is also packed with 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc.

The low water, high energy content of pecans also makes them a compact and readily storable food source. These are qualities that were important to the Native Americans, for they had no pack animals and most other plant food sources required intensive processing before they could be stored. For example, most root foods yield only 40-70 kcal of energy per 100 g, and that portion consists of 80% water, 13% carbohydrates, and less than 0.1% fat. Root foods had to undergo laborious processing to remove the water and concentrate the carbohydrates before they could be stored and eaten.

Pecans are a species of hickory nut, and are closely related to the butternut, mockernut, and black hickory trees. Botanists place all of these trees in the same family as walnuts. The first Old World visitors to see the pecan were not familiar with hickories, for hickories were not native to Europe, but they were very familiar with walnuts. These early explorers called all nuts nueces or nogales, Spanish for walnut and walnut tree, respectively. Interpreting early historic accounts can be difficult because many other species of hickory (Carya), as well as the black walnut (Juglans nigra), grow within the natural range of pecans. However, the pecan is the only tree that produces a thin-shelled, oblong nut. Fortunately many early European travelers provided descriptions or noted locations which likely refer to the distinctive pecan nut.

The first European to observe the use of pecan nuts was Cabeza de Vaca during the early 16th century: "They grind up some little grains with them [the nuts], two months of the year, without eating anything else, and even this they do not have every year, because one year they bear, and the next they do not. They [the nuts] are the size of those of Galicia and the trees are very large and there is a great number of them." (Krieger 2002:189-190). In his account, Cabeza de Vaca uses the Spanish word for walnut (nueces), but the pecan is by far the most abundant nut-bearing tree in the region and the Spanish did not have a word for pecan at that time. He notes that pecan nut production is distinctly biennial, an unusual detail for a traveler to emphasize. The pecan groves encountered by Cabeza de Vaca were probably located on the lower San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers near Goliad (Krieger 2002:190; 39).

About 150 years later, in February of 1684 members of the Mendoza-Lopez expedition encountered pecans along the Middle Concho River and on the Colorado River just below its confluence with the Concho. The whole party gathered nuts, a welcome change in diet because they had been living on meat alone. Obviously the nuts were left over from the fall crop; many or all were on the ground (Wade 2003:106-113).

While traveling through the area from the Medina to the San Marcos Rivers in 1709, Espinosa wrote: "The nuts are so abundant that throughout the land the natives gather them, using them for food the greater part of the year. For this purpose they make holes in the ground where they bury them in large quantities. Not all the nuts are of the same quality, for there are different sizes and the shells of some are softer than others, but all of them are more tasty and palatable than those of Castile, though they are longer and thinner. The Indians are very skillful in shelling them, taking the kernels out whole. Sometimes they thread them on long strings, but ordinarily they keep a supply in small sacks made of leather for the purpose (Tous 1930:9-11)." The description of the nut as "longer and thinner" is a clear reference to a pecan.

Lacking a word for this tasty nut, Europeans eventually borrowed an Indian word and applied it specifically to the pecan. Use of the word pecan appears in historical records during the early 1700s, when the French along the Mississippi River began using the word paccane or pacanes to refer to the nut-bearing trees growing in the region. This word, a generic term for nuts, is believed to be Algonquian. By the late 18th century, the word pacane was widely used in specific reference to the pecan, and in 1779 Thomas Jefferson received seed stock from New Orleans and planted the pecan at Monticello. New Orleans, the great shipping center for the heart of North America, became known for the distinctive pecan nut, considered by then a great delicacy.

There are not many modern ethnographic records that document pecan as a Native American food source, because most modern ethnographies were conducted in areas outside of the natural range of the pecan. However, the Comanche ate pecans fresh, or stored them without further processing for winter use. Native wild pecan trees are plentiful in the rich valleys of the Comanche country and southward, and the nuts were prized by the Indians. Likewise, the Plains Apache had knowledge of the pecan and used it as a snack food, but preferred black walnut. This is probably because pecans did not grow in the historic range of pecan, but instead were relocated to southeastern Oklahoma in relatively recent times (Jordan 2008)

Medicine. A few medicinal applications have also been noted. The Comanche ground up pecan leaves and applied them to the skin as a poultice for treating ringworm. The Kiowa utilized pecan bark in a decoction that was administered to patients suffering from tuberculosis.

Other uses. The Plains Apache used pecan wood for implement handles, including waling canes, hoes, and even a bow for a child.  However, they noted that the wood rotted quickly and preferred other types for tent pegs.  The wood produced a good bed of coals when used as fuel (Jordan 2008).

References

Carlson, Gustav G. and Volney H. Jones
1940    Some Notes on Uses of Plants by the Comanche Indians.  Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 25:517-542.

Dering, J. Philip
1977 Baker Cave plant macrofossil report. Unpublished manuscript on file with the Baker Cave Project, Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.

Foster, William C. , ed.
1998 The La Salle Expedition to Texas: The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684-1687.  Ed. by William C. Foster and translated by Johanna S. Warren.  University of Texas Press. Austin.

Hall, Grant D.
2000 Pecan Food Potential in Prehistoric North America. Economic Botany 54 (1) pp. 103-112.

Hatcher, Mattie Austin (Translator)
1927 Descriptions of the Tejas or Asinai Indians, 1691-1722.  Southwestern Historical Quarterly 31:150-180.

Jelks, Edward B.
1962 The Kyle Site: A Stratified Central Texas Aspect Site in Hill County, Texas. Archaeology Series 5. Department of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin.

Jordan, Julia A.
2008 Plains Apache Ethnobotany.  University of Oklahoma Press.  Norman, Oklahoma.

Krieger, Alex
2002 We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca Across North America. University of Texas Press. Austin.

Quigg, J. Michael, J. D. Owens, G.D. Smith, and M. Cody
2005 The Varga Site: A Multicomponent, Stratified Campsite in the Canyonlands of Edwards County, Texas [Draft]. Technical Report No. 35319. TRC, Inc. Austin, Texas.

Tous, Gabriel
1930 The Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre Expedition of 1790: Espinosa's Diary. Preliminary Studies of the Texas Catholic Historical Society I(3):1-14.

USDA
2003 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Accessed August 8, 2006.

Vestal, Paul A. and Richard Evans Schultes
1939 The Economic Botany of the Kiowa Indians. Cambridge MA. Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Wade, Maria
2003 The Native Americans of the Texas Edwards Plateau. University of Texas Press. Austin, Texas.

photo of pecan
Pecan tree in early fall loaded with nuts. Stands of pecans produce on a biennial cycle, with productivity varying from high to low from one year to the next.
photo of pecan
Nuts prior to ripening are encased in green hulls.
photo of pecan
A few pecans still hang from these trees along the San Antonio river in this early winter scene. Photo by Susan Dial.