June 1, 1782
The daily allowance of a Man is eight pounds of fish, which is held to be equal to five pounds of meat; almost the only change through the year are hares and grouse, very dry eating ; a few Martens,' a chance Beaver. Lynx' and Porcupine." Vegetables would be acceptable but are not worth the trouble and risk of raising; every person with very few exceptions, enjoys good health, and we neither had, nor required a medical Man.
David Thompson's narrative of his explorations in western America, 1784-1812 / edited by J.B. Tyrrell
When Hudson Bay was discovered, and the first trading settlement made, the Natives were far more numerous than at present. In the year 1782, the small pox' from Canada extended to them, and more than one half of them died; since which although they have no enemies, their country very healthy, yet their numbers increase very slowly. The Musk Rat country, of which I have given the area, may have ninety two families, each of seven souls, giving to each family an area of two hundred and forty eight square miles of hunting grounds; or thirty five square miles to each soul, a very thin population. A recent writer (Ballantyne)° talks of myriads of wild animals; such writers talk at random, they have never counted, nor calculated; the animals are by no means numerous, and only in sufficient numbers to give a tolerable subsistence to the Natives, who are too often obliged to live on very little food, and sometimes all but perish with hunger.
Very few Beaver are to be found, the Bears are not many and all the furr bearing animals an Indian can kill can scarcely furnish himself and family with the bare necessaries of life A strange Idea prevails among these Natives, and also of all the Indians to the Rocky Mountains, though unknown to each other, that when they were numerous, before they were destroyed by the Small Pox all the animals of every species were also very numerous and more so in comparison of the number of Natives than at present; and this was confirmed to me by old Scotchmen in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, and by che Canadians from Canada ; the knowledge of the latter extended over all the interior countries, yet no disorder was known among the animals; the fact was certain, and nothing they knew of could account for it; it might justly be supposed the destruction of Mankind would allow the animals to increase, even to become formidable to the few Natives who survived, but neither the Bison, the Deer, nor the carnivorous animals increased, and as I have already remarked, are no more than sufficient for the subsistence of the Natives and Traders.
The trading Houses over the whole country are situated on the banks of lakes, of at least twenty miles in length by two or three miles in width; and as much larger as may be, as it is only large and deep Lakes that have Fish sufficient to maintain the Trader and his Men, for the Indians at best can only afford a Deer now and then. Some Lakes give only what is called a Fall Fishery. This fishery commences in October and lasts to about Christmas; the fish caught are white fish and pike. Whatever is not required for the day is frozen and laid by in a hoard; and with all care is seldom more than enough for the winter and a fish once frozen loses it's good taste unless kept in that state until it is thrown into the kettle of boiling water. Fish thawed and then boiled are never good; We who pass the winter on fish, and sometimes also the summer, are the best judges, for we have nothing with them, neither butter nor sauces ; and too often not a grain of salt. The best Lakes are those that have a steady fishery; and according to the number and length of the Nets give a certain number of White Fish; throughout the winter. The deep Lakes that have sandy, pebbly beaches, with bottoms of the same may be depended on for a steady fishery.
The Fish on which the Traders place dependance are the White Fish, in such Lakes as I have last described. It is a rich well tasted, nourishing food; but in shoal muddy Lakes it is poor and not well tasted; and when a new trading House is built which is almost every year, every one is anxious to know the quality of the fish it contains for whatever it is they have no other for the winter. These fish vary very much in size and weight, from two to thirteen pounds and each great Lake appears to have a sort peculiar to itself, it is preyed upon by the Pike and Trout; and also the white headed, or bald, Eagle.
The seine is seldom used, it is too heavy and expensive, and useless in winter. The set Net is that which is in constant use; those best made are of holland twine, with a five and a half inch mesh but this mesh must be adapted to the size of the fish and ranges from three to seven inches; the best length is fifty fathoms, the back lines, on which the net is extended and fastened are of small cord; every thing must be neat and fine: Instead of Corks and Leads, small stones are tied to the bottom line with twine at every two fathoms, opposite to each on the upper line, a float of light pine, or cedar wood is tied which keeps the net distended; both in summer and winter the best depth for nets, is three to five fathom water; in shoal water the fish are not so good. In winter the nets being sheltered by the ice, the fishery is more steady, not being disturbed by gales of wind. In some Lakes in Spring and Autumn there are an abundance of grey and red Carp; the former have so very many small bones that only the head and a piece behind it are eaten ; but the red Carp are a good fish though weak food.
The daily allowance of a Man is eight pounds of fish, which is held to be equal to five pounds of meat; almost the only change through the year are hares and grouse, very dry eating ; a few Martens,' a chance Beaver. Lynx' and Porcupine." Vegetables would be acceptable but [are] not worth the trouble and risk of raising, and almost every small trading house is deserted during the summer, or only two men [are] left to take care of the place ; every person with very few exceptions, enjoys good health, and we neither had, nor required a medical Man. Formerly the Beavers were very numerous, the many Lakes and Rivers gave them ample space; and the poor Indian had then only a pointed stick shaped and hardened in the fire, a stone Hatchet, Spear and Arrow heads of the same; thus armed he was weak against the sagacious Beaver, who, on the banks of a Lake, made itself a house of a foot thick, or more; composed of earth and small flat stones, crossed and bound together with pieces of wood; upon which no impression could be made but by fire. But when the arrival of the White People had changed all their weapons from stone to iron and steel, and added the fatal Gun, every animal fell before the Indian; the Bear was no longer dreaded, and the Beaver became a desirable animal for food and clothing, and the furr a valuable article of trade; and as the Beaver is a stationary animal, it could be attacked at any convenient time in all seasons, and thus their numbers soon became reduced. The old Indians, when speaking of their ancestors, wonder how they could live as the Beaver was wiser, and the Bear stronger, than them, and confess, that if they were deprived of the Gun, they could not live by the Bow and Arrow, and must soon perish. The Beaver skin is the standard by which other Furrs are traded; and London prices have very little influence on this value of barter, which is more a matter of expedience and convenience to the Trader and the Native, than of real value. The only Bears of this country, are the small black Bear,' with a chance Yellow Bear, this latter has a fine furr and trades for three Beavers in barter, when full grown. The Black Bear is common and according to size passes for one or two Beavers, the young are often tamed by the Natives, and are harmless and playful, until near full grown, when they become troublesome, and are killed, or sent into the woods; while they can procure roots and berries, they look for nothing else. But in the Spring, when they leave their winter dens, they can get neither the one, nor the other, prowl about, and go to the Rapids where the Carp are spawning; here Bruin lives in plenty; but not content with what it can eat, amuses itself with tossing ashore ten times more than it can devour, each stroke of it's fore paw sending a fish eight or ten yards according to it's size; the fish thus thrown ashore attract the Eagle and the Raven ; the sight of these birds flying about, leads the Indian to the place, and Bruin loses his life and his skin. The meat of the Bear feeding on roots and berries becomes very fat and good, and in this condition it enters it's den for the winter; at the end of which the meat is still good, and has some fat, but the very first meal of fish the taste of the meat is changed for the worse, and soon becomes disagreeable. When a Mahmees Dog, in the winter season has discovered a den, and the Natives go to kill the Bear, on uncovering the top of the den, Bruin is found roused out of it's dormant state, and sitting ready to defend itself; the eldest man now makes a speech to it; reproaching the Bear and all it's race with being the old enemies of Man, killing the children and women, when it was large and strong; but now, since the Manito has made him, small and weak to what he was before, he has all the will, though not the power to be as bad as ever, that he is treacherous and cannot be trusted, that although he has sense he makes bad use of it, and must therefore be killed; parts of the speech have many repetitions to impress it's truth on the Bear, who all the time is grinning and growling, willing to fight, but more willing to escape, until the axe descends on it's head, or [it] is shot; the latter more frequently, as the den is often under the roots of fallen trees, and protected by the branches of the roots. When a Bear thus killed was hauled out of it's den, enquired of the Indian who made the speech, whether he really thought the Bear understood him. He replied, " how can you doubt it, did you not see how ashamed I made him, and how he held down his head;" "He might well hold down his head, when you were flourishing a heavy axe over it, with which you killed him." On this animal they have several superstitions, and he acts a prominent part in many of their tales.