January 5, 1802
The full importance of pemmican is understood as a vital survival food that could last "through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world." Two pounds of pemmican was worth eight pounds of buffalo meat.
The Savage Country
The Nor' wester on the march was faced with an entirely different problem of food supply. There was remarkably little game along the Northwest Road, and not much else that could be bought from the Indians en route. Once the plains were gained, hunters were sent out to shoot buffalo; but the brigades that continued on to the northern posts could not live off the land; they had to carry their rations with them in already overloaded canoes.
The answer to this problem was lyed corn, wild rice and pemmican. The corn, grown by the Ottawa and Saulteur around Sault Ste. Marie, was processed at Detroit by boiling it in lye water, which removed the outer husk. It was then washed and dried, and was ready for use. One quart of lyed corn called hominy by the Americans was boiled for two hours over a moderate fire in a gallon of water. Soon after it came to a boil, two ounces of melted suet were added. This caused the corn to split open and form "a pretty thick pudding." Alexander Mackenzie maintained that, with a little salt, it was a wholesome, palatable, easily digestible dish. A quart of it, he said, would keep a canoeman going for twenty four hours.
Mackenzie also observed that lyed corn was about the cheapest food the Concern could give its men, a voyageur's daily allowance costing only tenpence. And the elder Henry wryly commented that, since it was fare that nobody but a French-Canadian would put up with, the monopoly of the fur trade was probably in the North West Company's hands forever!
Indian corn and grease possibly supplemented by a few fish, game birds, eggs, and Indian dogs along the way took the brigades as far as Rainy Lake. Here wild rice replaced the corn as far as Lac Winipic. After that, pemmican sustained the western brigades until they reached the buffalo plains and fresh meat; but the northern canoes had to depend on pemmican all the way to their wintering stations. The provisioning of Alexander Henry's canoes, from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan, would be typical:
At 4 P.M. I arrived at Fort Vermilion, having been two months on my voyage from Fort William, with a brigade of I1 canoes, loaded with 28 pieces each, and manned by five men and one woman. Our expenditure of provisions for each canoe during the voyage was: two bags of corn, 1½ bushels each, and 15 pounds of grease, to Lac la Pluie; two bags of wild rice, 1½ bushels each, and 10 pounds of grease to Bas de la Rivière Winipic; four bags of pemmican of go pounds each to serve until we came among the buffalo generally near the Monte, or at farthest the Elbow of the Saskatchewan.
This, in a few words, was the formula that made possible the long voyages of the fur brigades, which must often be accomplished with hairbreadth precision between the spring thaw and the fall freeze-up. The North West Company's network of hundreds of canoe routes and more than a hundred forts, scattered over half the continent, could never have functioned without corn, rice and pemmican. And of the three, pemmican was perhaps the most important.
The Nor westers got the idea, as they did so many, from the Indians. Or perhaps it should be said that Peter Pond dit since he, before anyone else, realized the logistical importance of pemmican and made a systematic use of it. Where the elder Henry and the Frobishers had failed in early attempts to reach the rich Athabasca country, Pond succeeded; and the key to his success is found in his own words: "Provisions, not only for the winter season but for the course of the next summer, must be provided, which is dry'd meat, pounded to a powder and mixed with buffaloes greese, which preserves it in warm seasons." In other words, pemmican.
Almost every trader, from Peter Pond down, described pemmican, and how it was manufactured; but none so well as David Thompson. It was made, he explained, of the lean and fleshy parts of the buffalo, dried, smoked, and pounded fine. In that state, it was called beat meat. To it was added the fat of the buffalo. There were two kinds: that from the inside of the animal, called "hard fat" or grease; and that which lay along the backbone in large flakes and, when melted, resembled butter in softness and sweetness.
The best pemmican, Thompson tells us, was made from twenty pounds each of soft and hard fat, slowly melted together and well mixed with fifty pounds of beat meat. It was stored in bags made of buffalo hide, with the hair on the outside, called taurenut. When they could be obtained, dried berries, and sometimes maple sugar, were mixed with the pemmican. "On the great Plains," Thompson wrote, "there is a shrub bearing a very sweet berry of dark blue color, much sought after. Great quantities are dried by the Natives; in this state the berries are as sweet as the best currants, and as much as possible mixed to make Pemmican."
Properly made and stored, the ninety-pound bags of pemmican would keep for years. Post masters took great pride in the quality of the product they turned out. But sometimes, through nobody's fault, it went sour, and great quantities had to be thrown to the post dogs. Often, as in the case of dried meat, mold formed; but that, the traders cheerfully agreed, only improved the flavor.
Pemmican could be hacked off the piece and eaten in its natural state; or it could be boiled up with corn or rice to make a highly nourishing and not unpalatable kind of stew. Whereas a daily allowance of eight pounds of fresh meat was required to sustain a man, two pounds, or even a pound and a half of pemmican would do. A better emergency ration for men in a cold climate has never been developed. So vital was pemmican indeed to the North West Company's system of communications that a highly specialized organization was set up to make and distribute it. On the prairies were built the famous "pemmican posts" Fort Alexandria, Fort George, Fort Vermilion, Fort de la Montée whose principal business was not pelts but provisions, chiefly pemmican, for the canoe brigades and the hungry posts in the forest belt. Archibald Norman McLeod gives us a glimpse of the activities at Alexandria: "I got the last Pounded meat we have made into Pimican, viz. 30 bags of 90 lb., so that we now have 62 bags of that Species of provisions of the above weight. I likewise got nine kegs filled with grease, or Tallow rather, each keg nett 70 lb."
Looking into his storehouse in January, Duncan McGillivray noted that he had 8000 pounds of pounded meat, with enough fat to make it up into pemmican sufficient, he added, to "answer the expectations of the Gentn. of the Northern Posts, who depend on us for this necessary article* in April, he made his pounded meat and grease into two hundred bags of pemmican.
For one year, 1807-1808, Alexander Henry listed the returns from his four Lower Red River posts as only 60 packs of furs, but 334 bags of pemmican and 48 kegs of grease; a striking statistical sidelight on the importance of beat meat and grease in the economy of the North West Company.
Getting the huge production of pemmican from the prairie posts to where it was needed was a major problem in logistics: and the Nor' westers solved it with their usual flair for organization. Besides the posts that specialized in making pemmican, certain others principally Cumberland House and Fort Bas de la Rivière were established at strategic spots to distribute it. To Cumberland House, at the juncture of the Saskatchewan and the waterways leading to Athabasca, the pemmican posts sent hundreds of taureaux in skin canoes and roughly built boats. And there the vast store of shaggy buffalo-hide bags was rationed out to the Great Northern brigades for the posts in the forest Fort Chipewyan, Fort de I'Isle, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence where the supply of pemmican made of deer and bear meat was both scanty and uncertain. The pemmican from the Red River and Assiniboine posts was distributed from Bas de la Rivière. And later on, Fort Esperance on the Qu'Appelle became the North West Company's chief depot for rushing emergency supplies to posts in distress.
Wherever he was stationed, and however long the march he must make to his wintering grounds, the Nor wester could usually depend on his supply of pemmican to see him to journey's end and, if necessary, through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world. It was often his last defense against the forces of famine that hung, like wolves on the trail of a wounded caribou, about every trading post. And he never spoke of it with anything but respect.