Art. III. Fur Fort Food — The Pantry of the Northwest, Part I : Country Provisions
'...The men would not be able to work the boats to Cumberland House...was it not for the country provisions they carry down. ' — William Tomison, Hudson Bay Company's head of operations in North America, in a letter to the HBC's John Ballenden, July 29, 1799 (Johnson, 190)
The risk of starvation was always present in the fur trade. It was impossible to bring enough food all the way from London and Montreal to feed the fur trade's labour force at the posts west of Hudson's Bay and Lake Superior. This meant that fur posts had to supply as much of their own food as possible. They did this in a number of ways. They traded for food, especially game and pemmican, with the same Natives that they traded with for furs. They did their own hunting, gathering, and fishing whenever practical. Every fur post established a garden as soon as possible, to grow vegetables in the summer to feed the post throughout the winter. When food got low, they had a number of desperation measures to try.
Even the smallest post had to supply most of its own meat and produce. In the Northwest (north & west of Lake Superior), large and small game animals were almost the only source of meat. Hunters were usually Natives who were hired to supply the post with enough meat to last the winter. Sometimes fur posts had experienced employees who were good hunters, but at other times traders' efforts to hunt for themselves resulted only in scaring away game. Europeans seemed to be more successful at fishing, but even there they got important help from Natives. The winter fishery at Lake Athabasca, Lac Isle à la Crosse, Cumberland Lake, and other lake posts was vital. Fish were caught in nets set under the ice, a task that traders' Native wives often performed (Van Kirk, 58). In warm weather, fish were caught using weirs, set nets, hooks and lines, and sometimes with fish spears or even by angling (Thompson, 54, 56, 58, 63, 107; Henry 34, 42). In one case, a sturgeon was killed with an ax, but that was hardly standard practice! (Henry, 91)
Meat and fish were stored in ice-filled cellars ('glaciers') or in ice houses (Dempsey, 28). Once cold weather set in, raised stages could be build to store meat outside up out of the reach of animals. While travelling one winter, Alexander Henry the Younger improvised an ice cellar . He cut a large hole in the ice of a stream, and filled it with fresh meat. He then cut a small hole in the bottom of the big hole (sort of like a bathtub & drain hole) to let the icy water in to cover the fresh meat & then freeze (Henry 679). Unfortunately, wolves followed Henry's party and were able to eat the meat before the water had a chance to freeze. At the fur posts, when an early thaw came, snow & water were put in the cellar 'to keep the meat froze.' (McGillivray, 52 ; Johnson, 84, 147). In summer and fall, meat was preserved by 'splitting' it (cutting it in thin slices) and drying it in the sun or in front of a fire.
In the warm months, posts grew gardens. Fur post gardens could not be very labour intensive, since there were usually very few people at the posts in the growing season. (Most of the men were on the year's major 'business trip' to Lake Superior or the Bay to bring out the furs and return with trade goods.) Potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, and other root vegetables were favored because they kept well over the winter, unlike tender crops like asparagus that were grown in gardens in the Canadas. Some major posts which could be supplied by ship also had livestock.
There are few specific mentions in fur trade journals of how these vegetables were preserved through the winter. In populated areas, it was usual to store root vegetables in the second storey packed in clean dry sand (Moss & Hoffman, 90). Many fur posts had cellars, but it isn't clear if they served as root cellars or not.
Wild plants were also an important food source. Women & Natives supplied many plant foods ; berries and maple sugar are frequently mentioned in fur post journals as being harvested by women. In northern Ontario and Manitoba, Natives traded wild rice and Indian corn to the Europeans (Mackenzie, 338; Henry, 143).
In times of scarcity, even small game could become vitally important. In Native society, catching small game was often the woman's role. In 1815, Nor'wester George Nelson's Ojibwa wife snared thirty hares and sixteen partridges in one week (Van Kirk, 58-59). Other starvation rations included dogs & horses (Henry, 807-811; Thompson, 47, 95). Sometimes dogs were not even starvation rations, but eaten for variety (Harmon, 29).
The following country provisions are mentioned in contemporary documents. Starred items are documented only in Upper Canada and not in the fur trade (Minhinnick, 14). All other items come from fur trade journals. Food items in boldface were probably major food items, because they are mentioned repeatedly in journals. Underlined food items were mentioned the most often. In the interest of readability, references have been omitted from this list, but an annotated list of ingredients, showing all the references for each food item, is available. Please send your request to Northwest Journal, with a SASE.
Ingredients—Livestock & Farm Animals
Cattle (Grand Portage, York Factory)
Pigs (York Factory, Astoria)
Ingredients—Meat, Game, Fish & Fowl
In addition to meat from domestic animals, almost any kind of large or small game or fish or fowl was eaten. This includes many things we don't think of as game today, such as eagles and swans (against modern game regulations), sturgeon (gone from many of the streams it was found in historically), and duck eggs (gathered by the canoe full while the ducks are flightless in the spring).
Beef (Grand Portage, York Factory)
Beef , salt (Salted buffalo meat was sometimes called salt beef.)
Eggs, Chicken (rare)
Ham (Grand Portage)
Pork (fresh) (Grand Portage, Astoria)
Salt pork (Montreal, Sault Ste. Marie, Grand Portage, Astoria)
Sturgeon (Cumberland House)
Whitefish (Ft. Chipewyan)
Beans, early purple*
Burnet* (a salad herb)
Cabbage, early York
Corn (might be Indian corn, barley, oats, or wheat, but I think it's likely Indian corn)
Peas, green marrowfat*
Potatoes (The potatoes planted at Astoria by the Pacific Fur Co. were described as 'white, with a rough coat, brought from New York' (Henry, 891).)
Ingredients—Wild Plant Foods
Where possible, scientific and common names of the species native to the Northwest have been supplied to aid those readers interested in doing some 'field work' with these foods.
Cherries (Prunus pensylvanica, Pin Cherry, Fire Cherry, or Bird Cherry; P. susquehanae, Eastern Dwarf Cherry; P. besseyi, Western Sand Cherry; P. virginiana, also called P. melanocarpa, Chokecherry)
Corn, Indian (Zea mays)
Cranberry (mat type) (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Bog Cranberry, Northern Mountain-Cranberry))
Cranberry (bush types) (Viburnum edule, also called V. pauciflorum, Low-bush Cranberry, Squashberry, Mooseberry, Arrowhead; V. opulus, also called V. trilobum, High-bush Cranberry)
Currants (Ribes americanum, also called R. floridum, American Black Currant; R. aureum, also called R. longiflorum, Chrysobotrya aurea, Golden Currant, Wax Currant, Squaw Currant; R. glandulosum, Skunk Currant, Skunkberry; R. hudsonianum, Canadian Black Currant; R. lacustre, also called Limnobotrya lacustris, Bristly Black Currant; Ribes laxiflorum, Mountain Currant; R. triste, also called R. rubrum, Red Currant, Swamp Red Currant; R. viscossimum, Sticky Currant)
Gooseberries (can't be preserved-Johnston, 37) (Ribes hirtellum, Wild Gooseberry, Smooth Gooseberry; R. inerme, also called R. vallicola, R. divaricatum, Gooseberry; Ribes oxyacanthoides, also called R. setosum, Grossularia oxyacanthoides, Gooseberry, Canada Gooseberry, Rock Gooseberry; R. cynosbati, Pasture Gooseberry)
Hazelnuts (Corylus cornuta, also called C. rostrata, Beaked Hazelnut, Beaked Filbert; C. americana, American Hazelnut; filberts are European hazelnuts)
Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovalifolium, also called V. chamissonis, Huckleberry, Blueberry)
Whortleberries (Vaccinium scoparium, Grouse-berry, Grouse Whortleberry; V. membranaceum, Big Whortleberry, Tall Bilberry)
Lichens (tripe de Roch)
Maple (for sugar) (Acer spp. )
Plum, Wild (Prunus americana, American Plum; P. nigra, Canada Plum)
Raspberries (Rubus idaeus, also called R. melanolasius, R. strigosus, American Red Raspberry, Wild Red Raspberry; R. arcticus, also called R. acaulis, Dwarf Raspberry; R. pedatus, Running Raspberry, Dwarf Bramble )
Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia, Poire, Petit poire (no native pears in N. America) Shadberry, Shadblow, Serviceberry, Sarviceberry, Sarvis, Juneberry, Missaskatoomina (Cree), okonok (Blackfoot))
Strawberries (can't be preserved-Johnston, 38) (Fragaria vesca, F. americana, Woodland Strawberry ; Fragaria virginiana, Wild Strawberry)
Some Historic Recipes
The following recipes have their roots in fur trade accounts.
Alexander Mackenzie's Corn Pudding
(Alexander Mackenzie gives some rough instructions for the corn pudding used to feed the voyageurs at Grand Portage. I haven't been able to cook it myself, as I can't find dry hominy.)
1 qt hominy corn (also called lye corn—this is dried corn without the hull and germ)
1 gallon water
2 oz melted suet
Boil corn in water ; after it has boiled a while, add suet. Boil 2 hours in total. Add salt before serving, if desired. (Mackenzie, 98)
Prize-Winning Canadian Bouilli
(Bouilli was one of many dishes served to the bourgeois at Astoria's Christmas dinner in 1813 (Henry, 779). The men, on the other hand, were on short rations that Christmas. Bouilli in its most basic form is boiled meat or fowl with vegetables added to the pot toward the end of the cooking time. This recipe won the prize in the main dish category of the Howling Coyote Rendezvous' campfire cooking contest last fall.)
1/4 cup shortening, oil or melted fat
1 5- to 6-lb stewing chicken
1 whole nutmeg or 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
3 tbsp cider vinegar or cognac
Salt, pepper to taste
1/2 tsp thyme
1 lb. salt pork
3 quarts hot water
2 large onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp savory
1 small green cabbage, cut in quarters
10 small carrots, whole
10 small onions, whole
12 new potatoes, whole
2 lbs. yellow or green beans (if in season), tied in small bundles with coarse thread
Sauce for Bouilli
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped chives or green onions
4 tsp cognac or brandy (optional)
Melt fat or heat oil in VERY LARGE pot.(If you aren't sure if your pot will be big enough, make the recipe with a 2- to 3-lb chicken and halve the other ingredients.) Rub outside of chicken with nutmeg and vinegar. Rub inside with salt, pepper, thyme. Brown the chicken in hot fat. Add the salt pork, water, salt, savory, & onions. Bring to a boil, making sure there is enough water to cover the meat. Cover and simmer for 1-2 hours or until the chicken is almost tender. Then add the cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, & yellow or green beans. Return to a boil, cover, and cook 20 to 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. To serve, place the chicken and salt pork in the middle of a warm platter, surrounded with the vegetables. Top with the butter warmed with the parsley and chives. You may also use the cognac or brandy in the sauce if desired, but some people find the strong flavor of the liquor deadens the flavor.
More to Come
In volume 7 of Northwest Journal, I will discuss the food imported from London and Montreal for the Northwest fur trade.
Dempsey, Hugh A. "A History of Rocky Mountain House," in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 6, pp 8-53. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Sites Branch, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development : Ottawa, 1973.
Henry, Alexander (the younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Elliot Coues (ed.) Reprint : Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country : The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800-1816. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Macmillan : Toronto, 1957.
Johnson, Alice M. (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence : Edmonton House 1795-1800, Chesterfield House 1800-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.
Johnston, Alex. Plants and the Blackfoot. Occasional Paper No. 15, Lethbridge Historical Society. Lethbridge Historical Society : Lethbridge, 1987.
Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.
McGillivray, Duncan. The Journal of Duncan M'Gillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794-5. Arthur. S. Morton (ed.) . Reprinted by Ye Galleon Press : Fairfield, Washington, 1989. Originally published by Macmillan : Toronto, 1929.
Minhinnik, Jeanne. At Home in Upper Canada. Boston Mills Press : Erin, Ontario, 1970.
Moss, Kay, and Kathryn Hoffman. The Backcountry Housewife : A Study of Eighteenth-Century Foods. Schiele Museum : Gastonia, North Carolina, 1994.
Thompson, David. Columbia Journals. Barbara Belyea (ed.) McGill-Queen's : Montreal, 1994.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Watson & Dwyer : Winnipeg, 1980.
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