Northeast Iowa Oneota

Who Were the Oneota

Oneota is the name archaeologists have given to a widespread culture of farming peoples who lived throughout the area known as the Prairie Peninsula in the North American Midwest. Oneota sites have been found in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, South Dakota and Nebraska, and into Manitoba in southern Canada. Archaeological sites representing villages, campsites, and burials are grouped as Oneota on the basis of similar artifacts, house structures, and lifewaysOneota sites are dated between about AD 1000 and 1700. 

Mildred Mott Wedel
Mildred Mott Wedel, an Iowa girl and ethnohistorian, is best known for her efforts to link historic Iowa tribes with Oneota sites in northeast Iowa. Photo courtesy of Hester Davis.

The names of the tribes who lived at the prehistoric villages are unknown to us today, but the sites probably were the homes of ancestors of the IowayOto, Missouri, Ho-Chunk, Omaha, Ponca, Kansa, Osage, and Eastern Dakota tribes. Oneota houses varied in shape and size, from an individual family dwelling with a square or oval plan of 15 feet (5 meters) across, to long houses of 15 x 50 ft (5 x 15 m) and longer for use by several families or the community at large. Oneota groups had summer and winter residences positioned to use available resources. Among their arts they made copper tools and ornaments, wove baskets, and carved elegant stone pipes. 

Oneota warm-season communities were often large, semipermanent villages sited along major rivers. The people grew corn, little barley, marsh elder, squash, sunflower, and tobacco in ridged fields or small hills along the fertile terraces along the rivers. They made hoes from the scapulae of bison and from large freshwater mussel shells, and they made sickles out of deer jaws. They mined copper and possibly lead. They hunted bison, elk, and deer using arrows with triangular points made of stone, metal, and antler; they trapped small mammals and various birds; and they ate fish and turtles. 

Orr Phase Oneota

Subsets of Oneota, called phases, identify apparently related communities or the same communities moving in time or place. A phase might be a group of sites near one another geographically and temporally and that share traits such as sets of decorations on pots, or types of houses, or stone or bone tool forms. In some places, archaeologists have identified "group continuities" of several hundred years in artifact styles and village forms. 

The Orr phase is the name given to Oneota sites which have been identified as early or ancestral Ioway along the Upper Iowa River. Orr phase pots, called Allamakee Trailed, were made of clay mixed with large amounts of burned clam shell and were decorated with a distinctive set of geometric designs. Studies of the distribution of this pot style allow archaeologists to trace the Ioway or related groups throughout the Midwest. 


Green, William (ed).
1995. Oneota Archaeology: Past, Present and Future. Report 20, Office of the State Archaeologist, The University of Iowa, Iowa City.