Pemmican is a condensed carnivore food that was popular in the past to trappers and hunters, as well as the Native Americans that made it from bison. One bison could be rendered and chopped and dried down into a 90 pound clump stored in its hide - made of rendered fat mixed with lean dried meat that is pounded into a powder. Pemmican represents the perfect fat:protein ratio and keeps for a long time as the stable saturated fat protects the dried out meat, which, devoid of moisture, cannot rot. It could be left in a cache for years at a time and still be eaten. Wars have been fought over it.
July 22, 1770
A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772
Hearne's group of Indians hunt musk-oxen and turn it into pemmican for traveling. The pemmican is made by pounding the lean meat and then adding boiled fat. When there was plenty to hunt, they would harvest only the tongues, marrow, and fat.
On the seventeenth, we saw many musk-oxen, several of which the Indians killed; when we agreed to stay here a day or two, to dry and pound some of the carcases to take with us. The flesh of any animal, when it is thus prepared, is not only hearty food, but is always ready for use, and at the same time very portable. In most parts of Hudson's Bay it is known by the name of Thew-hagon, but amongst the Northern Indians it is called Achees.
-- July 22 1770.
To prepare meat in this manner, it requires no farther operation than cutting the lean parts of the animal into thin slices, and drying it in the sun, or by a slow fire, till, after beating it between two stones, it is reduced to a coarse powder.
Théwhagon or Yéwuhikun is the Cree name for meat dried and beaten as above, and it is generally known throughout the fur countries as "pounded meat." When fat is plentiful this shredded dry meat is often packed into a sack made of hide, and boiling fat is poured over and into it. This mixture of dried meat and grease is called pemican.
Having prepared as much dried flesh as we could transport, we proceeded to the Northward; and at our departure left a great quantity of meat behind us, which we could neither eat nor carry away. This was not the first time we had so done; and however wasteful it may appear, it is a practice so common among all the Indian tribes, as to be thought nothing of. On the twenty-second, we met several strangers, whom we joined in pursuit of the deer, &c. which were at this time so plentiful, that we got every day a sufficient number for our support, and indeed too frequently killed several merely for the tongues, marrow, and fat.
-- August 30 1770.
After we had been some time in company with those Indians, I found that my guide seemed to hesitate about proceeding any farther; and that he kept pitching his tent backward and forward, from place to place, after the deer, and the rest of the Indians. On my asking him his reason for so doing; he answered, that as the year was too far advanced to admit of our arrival at the Coppermine River that Summer, he thought it more advisable to pass the Winter with some of the Indians then in company, and alleged that there could be no fear of our arriving at that river early in the Summer of one thousand seven hundred and seventy-one. As I could not pretend to contradict him, I was entirely reconciled to his proposal; and accordingly we kept moving to the Westward with the other Indians. In a few days, many others joined us from different quarters; so that by the thirtieth of July we had in all above seventy tents, which did not contain less than six hundred persons. Indeed our encampment at night had the appearance of a small town; and in the morning, when we began to move, the whole ground (at least for a large space all round) seemed to be alive, with men, women, children, and dogs. Though the land was entirely barren, and destitute of every kind of herbage, except wish-a-capucca and moss, yet the deer were so numerous that the Indians not only killed as many as were sufficient for our large number, but often several merely for the skins, marrow, &c. and left the carcases to rot, or to be devoured by the wolves, foxes, and other beasts of prey.
January 4, 1802
The Savage Country
Fur traders of the Nor West company didn't have access to many plant foods, but would use berries, saved flour, and maple sugar to spice up his diet of meat and fish.
The Nor'wester, whose Indian wife cooked for him, soon accustomed himself to the eating habits of the natives; and le could speak with equanimity, if not enthusiasm, of a meal of "five Indian dogs, bear, beaver, mountain cat, and raccoon, boiled in bear's grease and mixed with huckleberries."
In the delicatessen department, so to speak, the Nor'wester had little to choose from, although certain luxury items did appear on his table now and then. He highly esteemed the tail of the beaver, the tongue of the buffalo, and the snout of the moose; and from the Indians he learned to relish the sweet and highly nutritious marrow in roasted buffalo bones.
Most important of his luxuries, perhaps, was the flour he had brought all the weary miles from the Grand Portage. Sometimes he made with it a kind of thick flour-and-pemmican soup called rubbaboo. More often, he fashioned galettes, small unleavened cakes, which he baked in the ashes. When he had chicken or gull eggs, he made up a pudding of some sort, or "fritters," which were probably an approximation of our flapjacks. It can also be assumed that, without yeast, he made sourdough bread whenever his cabin was warm enough to promote its rising. And at the Grand Portage and some of the big Interior posts, he baked proper loaves of bread: there were ovens, for instance, at Rainy Lake House. On the great fete days, flour and a little sugar always accompanied rum as a special treat.
As for fruit, the Nor'wester had none except what he could find growing wild. But these he must have enjoyed greatly; for he always has time especially Alexander Henry to pause in his journal and tell us: "We found an abundance of sand cherries, which were of an excellent favor." or, "Red raspberries are now ripe and very good . . . the panbian is fine and large, and of a beautiful red, but requires the frost to ripen it." He seems, indeed, to have had not only great quantities, but also many varieties of wild fruits and berries to eat fresh or dried, in his pemmican, or with his meat and fish.
In addition to his regular winter provisions, each Partner was allowed certain luxuries: six pounds of tea, four of coffee, four of chocolate. Clerks received a lesser allowance, each according to his rank. The Partners also took biscuits with them, which were invariably so crumbled at the end of the trip that they had to be eaten with a spoon.
Now and then a gourmet among them brought along a hamper of wine; and we have Duncan Cameron writing: "Invited my neighbor to dine with me and gave him good Madeira to drink" . . . and adding ruefully that his neighbor seemed to prefer rum. Alexander Henry once concocted a cordial of Jamaica rum, wild cherries and a few pounds of sugar.
Salt, when he could get it, was used by the trader as a condiment and sometimes to preserve meat, although freezing and drying usually served the latter purpose. At every post, no effort was spared to obtain a supply from some nearby salt pit or saline spring. And so the Nor'wester and his voyageurs maintained their defenses against starvation, and sometimes even feasted on plenty. But what, one wonders, of the children, so numerous at every post? What did their Indian mothers feed them? For a long time, of course, they were nursed at the breast perhaps for two or three years, as was the custom with the tribes. But when the child was weaned, at last, his diet was one that Dr. Spock himself might have approved. As described by John Long, it included a pap made of Indian corn and milk, if it could be obtained; wild rice, pounded fine, boiled and mixed with maple sugar; and the broth of meat or fish. And Wither kind of pap, he adds, was made of a toot called toquo, which was also baked into a kind of zwichack for the infans of the posts.
January 5, 1802
The Savage Country
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 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.
January 3, 1803
The Savage Country
"As in the case of fish, enormous quantities of meat were required to sustain a man who ate only flesh. The daily allowance of buffalo meat at Fort George was eight pounds a man. The Canadian voyageur's appetite for fat meat is insatiable." Meat, fat, and pemmican were hunted and stored for long winters at fur trading camps, but some of them were supplemented with summer harvests or traded wild rice. Some even got fat by eating maple syrup.
Better off were the posts in the buffalo country that subsisted on a fare of juicy steaks, roasts and tongues. As in the case of fish, enormous quantities of meat were required to sustain a man who ate only flesh. The daily allowance of buffalo meat at Fort George was eight pounds a man. The voyageurs who, between them, ate thirty-five whitefish a day would have required forty rabbits to get the same amount of nourishment. Two whole geese were no more than a meal for a man in the northern posts.
The prairie posts were blessed with an almost inexhaustible supply of buffalo meat that delivered itself, so to speak, to their very doors. Hunters sometimes killed entire herds and returned with nothing but the tongues. In seasons of lesser abundance, the whole carcass of the animal was utilized. The hunters cut the meat up into twenty pieces much like our standard cuts of beef for transportation to the post. The choice cuts were the hump and back meat. The tongue generally went to the hunter.
To the trader, settling down with his "family" for the long prairie winter, the sight of tons of fat meat in his icehouse or glacière must have been a comforting one. The size of his store depended on his needs; but Duncan McGillivray gives us an idea of what the average post required. In his glacière were stacked 500 thighs and shoulders the meat of 413 buffalo, weighing almost a quarter of a million pounds. Even in the elder Henry's time, the beef reserves at some of the posts were awe-inspiring. "At Fort des Prairies I remained several days," he wrote, "hospitably entertained by my friends, who covered their tables with the tongues and marrow of wild bulls. The quantity of provisions which I found collected here exceeded everything of which I had previously formed a notion. In one heap I saw fifty tons of beck, so fat that the men could scarcely find a sufficiency of lean."
While the meat of the buffalo made excellent steaks and roasts although not so delicious as those of the moose -it was the fat cuts, especially the long depouilles of back fat, that were most prized. "The Canadian voyageur's appetite for fat meat is insatiable," Franklin observed. And the bourgeois had no less a fondness for the grease and tallow that are mentioned so often and almost as a delicacy in their journals. In this they were following a sound instinct. For, as Vilhjalmur Stefansson and other arctic explorers have often pointed out, a man could live long and well on meat alone provided he got enough fat along with the lean. Without it as the rabbit and fish eaters knew by experience he was likely to become sick, and even to die, from fat starvation.
Hence, the North West Company took good care to satisfy the craving of its men for fat. Thousands of kegs of grease– really buffalo tallow – were put up at the pemmican posts" for the northern departments. In one year at Pembina, Henry kegged up almost two tons of it, and another two tons in the form of pemmican. By the traders it was called "the bread of the pays d'en haut. Henry, incidentally, has left us this list of provisions "destroyed" at his Pembina post in one winter by 17 men, 10 women, 14 children, and 45 dogs:
112 buffalo cows -- 45,000 pounds
34 buffalo bulls -- 18,000 pounds
3 red deer
5 large black bears
4 beavers swans
12 outardes geese
1,150 fish of different kinds
410 pounds of grease
140 pounds of bear meat
325 bushels of potatoes and an assortment of kitchen vegetables
This adds up to about a ton of meat and fish apiece for every man, woman and child in the post; but more interesting, perhaps, is the inclusion of no small quantity of potatoes, and even kitchen vegetables, at the end of the list. Not every post was as fortunate as Pembina in this respect. Only the larger establishments were able to supplement their basic fish and meat diets with potatoes, cereals, and garden truck; but some of them did so on a rather large scale.
Like Bas de la Rivière, with its fields, barns, stables and storehouses, Rainy Lake also had its cultivated fields and domestic animals. And at Pembina, Alexander Henry himself did not do badly as a farmer. In the fall of one year he reported:
The men had gathered the following crops: 1000 bushels potatoes (produce of 21 bushels); 40 bushels turnips; 25 bushels carrots; 20 bushels beets; 20 bushels parsnips; 10 bushels cucumbers; 2 bushels melons; 5 bushels squashes; 10 bushels Indian corn; 200 large heads of cabbage; 300 small and Savoy cabbages. All these vegetables are exclusive of what have been eaten and destroyed since my arrival.
The virgin prairie soil produced not only abundandy, bur spectacularly for Farmer Henry:
I measured an onion, 22 inches in circumference; a carrot is inches long and, at the thick end, 14 inches in circumference; a turnip with its leaves weighed 25 pounds, and the leaves alone weighed 15 pounds.
The North West Company's post at Fond du Lac, on the St. Louis River, kept two horses, a cow, a bull, and a few pigs. The fort at Leech Lake had a garden that produced a thousand bushels of potatoes, thirty of oats, cabbages, carrots. beets, beans, turnips, pumpkins and Indian corn. The Concern had also brought horses to the post, "'even cats and hens."
And how, one might wonder, did the Concern succeed in transporting horses, cows, bulls and other livestock through a roadless wilderness, traversable by only canoe and dog sledge, to forts a thousand miles or more from any civilized settlement? Were they brought out in the Company's small schooners, such as the Otter and the Beaver, to the Grand Portage, and thence over the winter ice to the Interior posts? Were they even carried while young and small, perhaps, in the great canots du maître? Or, had they already been brought to the pays d'en haut by the French, in the earliest days of the fur trade? Peter Pond, writing of his trip up the Fox River, in what is now Wisconsin, says: "I ort to have Menshand that the french at ye Villeg whare we Incampt Rase fine black Cattel & Horses with Sum swine."
It is something to speculate about like so many of the Nor' westers' doings!
In addition to his garden and livestock, there were other ways a trader could vary his diet of straight meat, or fish, or a combination of both. He could, for instance, buy certain items of food from the Indians. Among these, wild rice or, as the traders often called it, wild oats was perhaps the most important. Rainy Lake was the great source of supply Growing in the water to a height of more than eight feet, the rice was harvested by the Indians, who drove their canoes through the rice beds and beat out the grain. In ordinary seasons, Harmon tells us, the North West Company bought from 1200 to 1500 bushels of wild rice from the natives; "and it constitutes a principle article of food at the posts in this vicinity."
Maple sugar, also bought from the Indians, was more than a luxury on the trader's table: it was often an important staple, and sometimes all he had to eat for long periods of time. It was made from the sap of the true and bastard maples, and even a certain variety of birch. The work of gathering the sap and boiling it down was left mostly to the women. In the spring the whole tribe went to the sugar bush, where the men cut wood for the fires and hunted game for food, while the squaws gathered and boiled the sap. The elder Henry describes one sugar-making expedition that produced 1600 pounds of sugar, besides 36 gallons of syrup not counting 300 pounds consumed on the ground. During the whole month in the bush, he tells us, sugar was the principal food. He knew Indians, he adds, who lived wholly on sugar and understandably enough grew fat.
Game was bought from the Indians, or procured by the trader's gun: venison, moose, bear, antelope, as well as ducks, geese, swans, and occasionally their eggs. By the voyageurs, if not always by the bourgeois, dogs were frequently purchased for food. A small dog, of a species specially bred for eating, was regarded as a great delicacy by the Canadians.
January 3, 1805
The Great Fur Land - Life in a Company's Fort
The diets of the people in the Forts in the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic are shown to be mostly fish and red meat, but imported goods such as flour, sugar, vegetables, and fruits are considered rare luxuries. "In many of the extreme Arctic stations the supply of provisions is limited the year round to reindeer-meat, and fish, and not infrequently to the latter alone." However, "the climate favors the consumption of solid food, and, after short residence, the appetite becomes seasoned to the quality of the fare obtainable."
The mess-table has, too, other attractions than those of sociality, and of a more solidly substantial kind. The officers of the forts are all good livers, and, although accustomed to rough it on short allowances of food when necessity requires, take particular care that the home-larder shall be well stocked with all the delicacies and substantials afforded by the surrounding country. The viands are of necessity composed, in the greater part, of the wild game and fish with which the prairies and waters abound. But they are of the choicest kind, and selected from an abundant supply. One gets there the buffalo-hump-tender and juicy; the moose-nose--tremulous and opaque as a vegetable conserve; the finest and most savory waterfowl, and the freshest of fish-all preserved by the power of frost instead of salt. True, the supply of vegetables at many mess-tables is woefully deficient, and a continuous diet of wild meats, like most other things of eternal sameness, is apt to pall upon the appetite. But the list of meats is so extensive, and each requiring a particular mode of cooking that a long time may elapse without a repetition of dishes. Then, too, the climate favors the consumption of solid food, and, after short residence, the appetite becomes seasoned to the quality of the fare obtainable. Bread, as an imported article, is in many instances regarded as quite in the character of a luxury; the few sacks of flour which constitute the annual allowance of each officer being hoarded away by the prudent housewife as carefully as the jams and preserves of her more fortunate sisters. In such cases it is batted into small cakes, one of which is placed beside each plate at meal-time; the size of the cake being so regulated as to afford a single one for each meal of the year. The more common vegetables, such as potatoes and turnips, can be successfully cultivated in some places, and, wherever this occurs, enter largely into the daily menu. Fruits, either fresh or dried, seldom make their appearance upon the table; lack of transportation, also, forbidding the importation of the canned article.
At many of the remote inland posts, however, the daily bill of fare is limited enough, and a winter season seldom passes without the garrison of some isolated station suffering extreme privation. At Jasper and Henry Houses, for example, the officers have been frequently forced to slaughter their horses in order to supplement the meagre supply of provisions. These posts are situated in the very heart of the Rocky Mountains, with the vast region marked "swampy" on the maps separating them from the depot forts. In many of the extreme Arctic stations the supply of provisions is limited the year round to reindeer-meat, and fish, and not infrequently to the latter alone. Under these circumstances, no wonder that the company's officer comes to regard the possession of flour and sugar as among the most essential requisites of life.