January 2, 1801
The fur traders of the Nor West Company often faced starvation and hunger and would have to boil animal skins for nourishment. However, when even this was unavailable, they could eat herbs or a rock lichen called tripe de roche. When eaten in excess, it weakened the body and led to violent vomiting and acute spasms of the bowels.
The Savage Country - Rum, Women, and Rations
More difficult than finding a wife in the pays d'en haut to cook one's rations was the problem of obtaining an adequate and dependable supply of food itself. It was one of Henry's problems at Pembina; it was one that extended right up to Headquarters. The vast organization of trading posts, supply systems, and communications known as the North West Company existed, of course, for only one thing: beaver. But you couldn't eat beaver - or, at least, their pelts, or the hats into which they were finally made. And how to feed a thousand-odd men and their families in more than a hundred posts, and on their long wilderness journeys, was one of the Concern's biggest worries.
With the fur trader himself, it wasn't so much a question of how well he ate as of whether he ate at all. He was often on short rations, and the dread of famine hung over every post. Scattered through every trader's journal are such routine phrases as, "We were reduced to eating the parchment bille of our windows." or "We dined on a pair of leather breches." or "We were obliged to take the hair from the bear skins and roast the hide, which tastes like pork."
The eating of one's leather garments , sometimes broiled, sometimes boiled up into a glutinous broth - was so common in times of dire need, in fact, that it received no more than casual mention in the Nor'westers' journals. Thus, W. F Wentzel, writing at his post on the Mackenzie River, said what he and twelve others lived for two months on nothing but dried beaver skins: "We destroyed in order to keep alive upward of three hundred beaver skins besides a few lynx and otter skins . . . We have a meal now and then; at intervals we are still two or three days without anything. All my men are dead of starvation, viz: Louis Le mai dit Poudrier and one of his children, François Pilon and William Henry, my hunter."
Other last resorts in the way of food were the old bones of animals or fish, which were cracked open and boiled; the spawn of fish, beaten up in warm water; and various herbs, low in food value, but capable of sustaining life, such as the often mentioned choux-gras of the prairie. Daniel Harmon tells of subsisting on rosebuds, "a kind of food neither very palatable nor nourishing . . . They are better than nothing, since they would just support life."
But the standard emergency ration of nature, mentioned by the very earliest missionaries and explorers, was a rock lichen called tripe de roche. It was necessary to close one's eyes while eating it, an early father remarks, but it filled the stomach, if nothing else. The elder Henry describes its preparation, "which is done by boiling it down into a mucilage, as thick as the white of an egg."
The distressing results of eating tripe de roche are vividly pictured by the free trader John Long: "Tripe de roche is a weed that grows to rocks, of a spongy nature and very unwholesome, causing violent pains in the bowels, and frequently occasions a flux. I am informed that traders in the Northwest have often experienced this disorder, and some of them in very severe weather have been compelled to eat it for fourteen days successively, which weakened them considerably. When the disorder does not terminate in a flux, it occasions violent vomiting, and sometimes spitting of blood, with acute spasms of the bowels."
Hardly the sort of dish one would care to serve often - yet it was not the last extremity of desperate men. For, as the elder Henry darkly hints, cannibalism was not unknown in the fur country. John Long, anything but a squeamish reporter, again tells of a starving voyageur who killed and ate not only a harmless Indian who had brought him food, but one of his two companions as well. Tricked into a confession of his guilt, he was summarily shot through the head by his bourgeois.