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A Story of Beat Meat (Pemmican)

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1972, Volume 17, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The story behind the fur trade in Manitoba and Western Canada is the story of an epic struggle against formidable odds. After the Hudson's Bay Company had overcome the early problems involved in the shipment of trade goods, supplies, and equipment overseas, and after they had established York Factory as a major base and manufacturing centre, the problems of inland trade and transportation remained to be solved. The taking in of trade goods and material, the operation of supply and maintenance depots at strategic places, and the provision of food for the trip-men on the great waterways of the west and northwest posed major logistical problems.

Of all the problems involved in maintaining a profitable trade, none was of greater concern than the supply of food for the canoemen and boatmen. If they had been required to "live off the land" as they travelled, they might have survived in some places and perished in others. From year to year big game and small game vanished from some areas where formally they had been plentiful, and in some other areas where they had never been plentiful it was folly to hope that a reliable source of food might be found therein. There were other times when but a meagre harvest was garnered from lake and stream. Writing from Eagle Nest, Winnipeg River, in 1860, Robert Pether said of that normally prolific stream, "Our nets yielded not a single fish, just as though a blight had struck the water." In the following year, writing of Lake Winnipeg and its eastern shore, he wrote, "It is certainly a poor country for subsistence - not to depend on fish and rabbits."

In the early days of inland travel, before the hard lesson, eat first, travel later, had been learned, many parties, attempting to live off the land, had to turn back to their bases because they could not obtain enough "human fuel" from hunting and fishing. One particularly attractive route, the Burntwood Chain (through Thompson), had to be abandoned because the canoemen could not find enough game in its marginal woodlands to support them. Later on, when food deposits had been established at Upper Fort Garry, Fort Alexander, Norway House, and Cumberland House, another attempt was made to use this short route to the northwest, the provisioning of the brigades being made from the southern food depots. But when this proved to be too costly, the route was once again abandoned.

The operation of a far-flung transportation system, in a country where the lakes and rivers were open for but five months in the year, posed the constant challenge of moving trade goods and supplies as quickly as possible. The thousands of miles which lay between York Factory and the inland posts in the Athabasca and Mackenzie districts had to be traversed between break up and freeze up. The distance was great; the pace of travel was slow, painfully slow, and any long delay might jeopardise an entire year's operation - and profits.

A northern freight canoe with a crew of six would average little more than 35 miles a day, taking into account the time spent on decharges and portages. Pulling canoes up rapids by long ropes from the shore was a slow and laborious job, and an average pace of a mile an hour was exceptional. Trecking over portages was also slow and heavy work, and 3 miles an hour was considered a good pace. The difficulties are clearly seen in the following observations: "We pulled our canoes up several rapids and carried them over several portages, and during the whole day proceeded only one mile and a quarter ... We could not breast the strong current it was so swift, which made it necessary to haul our canoes along the shore with a line for six days." High winds on the big lakes also played havoc with time. As one trader put it, "We were forced to shelter on Grindstone Point (Lake Winnipeg), and there we stayed for seven long days until the wind dropped and we were able to continue on our way."

So the problem of time was paramount, and the provision of a time-saving food - a concentrated, highly nutritious food, which could be carried in sufficient quantity to sustain a crew from one supply depot to another, was a necessity.

Look at the logistics!

A northern freight canoe could carry 29 "pieces," each weighing 90 lbs. The food allowance of four "pieces," weighing altogether 360 pounds, was taken on board at depots which were usually 500 miles apart. There-fore, a northern canoe with six paddlers, travelling at an average speed of 35 miles a day, would take 15 days to get from one source of supply to another. The total amount of food on board was carefully reckoned in relation to the capacity of the canoe, the distance between supply depots, and the average rate of travel. The daily food allowance per man, the allowance considered necessary to maintain health and energy, was 4 lbs., and the total amount on board, based on this daily ration per man, would last fifteen days. If the trip between supply depots took longer than fifteen days, the ration was cut, or, in extremity, the men went hungry.

What did the canoemen eat? What was their staple diet? Pemmican!

When the voyageurs of the North West Company moved into the prairies in advance of the H.B.C. traders, they found the Cree and the Blackfoot living in relative luxury. They were the sole masters, the resident proprietors, as it were, of the buffalo, and, like the biblical herdsman, "who keepeth careful watch o'er his flock," they too kept careful watch on the movements of the buffalo herds.

After a fashion, the Cree and Blackfoot were profligate hunters. As long as the herds were plentiful, they frequently took no more than the tongue and the bosse, the small tender hump on the shoulders which weighed but a few pounds. The carcass, weighing between 1000 and 1500 pounds, was left to rot in the sun. More often than not, however, the wolves and coyotes, the carrion crows, hawks, and eagles moved in quickly for a providential meal and stripped the meat to the bone.

Another delicacy, the sinew which encased the backbone, was sliced from neck to rump in long unbroken pieces. Then, after being soaked in hot grease, it was hung in the peak of the teepees to be smoked. The voyageurs. like the Indians, were fond of this smoked meat, but they gave it, nonetheless, an unpretentious name - depouille - simply flesh. The traders also liked the tongue.

In the days of the fur trade, these delicacies were avidly sought. They were served with obvious relish at the Factor's table when important visitors were at hand. The tongues, preserved in brine, were shipped to the elite of the trade in Montreal, London and Glasgow, but it was pemmican, the dried and powdered meat of the buffalo, which became the staple food of the fur trade from Rainy Lake to the Rockies.

David Thompson, fur trader and surveyor, who had an easy way with the simple phrase, called pemmican "beat meat," and that's exactly what it was. After the meat had been cut into thin slices, it was punctured all over to let in the wind and the sun, and when it was thoroughly dry, it was pounded between stones until it was reduced to a coarse powder. In the process, six pounds of lean meat became one pound of powdered meat. In other words, all the lean meat stripped from a 1200 pound buffalo yielded little more than 200 pounds of pemmican - the relative equivalent of two trade "pieces."

Finally, the powdered meat was mixed with hot buffalo tallow, the proportion being four pounds of melted fat to five pounds of meat. This native "blend" pleased the Indians' palates and satisfied their tummies, but it was not to the white traders' taste and it did not sit well in their pampered digestive tracts. So they struck a much leaner "trade mix" - one pound of tallow to six pounds of meat - a highly concentrated blend, which was four times as nutritious as fresh meat. Dried berries were sometimes stirred into the mix, and "berry pemmican," both palatable and nourishing, was always in high demand among the white traders. The Indians carried their own pemmican in hide bags of various sizes, but pemmican prepared by them for the fur trade was always packed in 90 pound bags, the standard weight of the "trade piece."

Prairie pemmican, made by the Cree and Blackfoot for their own consumption, always came from the buffalo, and when the making of pemmican for the fur trade became a major "industry," the source was still the buffalo. In the north, however, where the making of pemmican was largely a family affair and never a major factor in the provisioning of the fur brigades, the dried and powdered meat was made from several different animals - deer, elk, moose, caribou, and muskox - and fish. The H.B.C. traders at York Factory and Churchill called this food "Thew-Hagen," but the Chipewyan who made it called it "Achees."

Other names were fixed to pemmican itself and to the various "dishes" made therefrom. A thin soup, made with pemmican and water, was called "Rubaboo," a word which may be from the Red River or "Bungi" dialect, or from the corruption by the English of "Rauchau," the voyageurs' name for a pan-fried mixture of pemmican, flour and water. Pemmican became hard with age, and pieces chipped off the block were chewed "in the raw." There seems to have been no particular name, French or English, for this "hardtack," which was, nonetheless, standard fare when canoes were running behind time and shore lunches were cut off in favor of pushing onward.

Throughout the English fur trade, pemmican was the word used to designate the dried and powdered meat of the buffalo. Its root is sometimes given as "pemmican - the Cree word for lean and fat." There is however no such word as pemmican in the Cree (meaning lean and fat), but close enough phonetically to strike a parallel is the word "pimekan" - fat and pounded dried meat mixed up. On the other hand, Paul Kane, the artist, sought to establish the root in the Cree "pimmi" [pimee] (fat, grease, tallow, oil), and in "kon" meaning fat. He was on base, so to speak, with the first word, but well caught out on the second word, for there is no "kon" in Cree. According to Captain Henry Lefroy, the voyageurs called pemmican "toro" (his spelling) - obviously from the French "taureau" - and that, Dear Reader, to impose an unforgivable witticism, "ain't no bull!"

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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