Food for Thought – What the Fur Traders Ate

Food was probably never far from the thoughts of the fur traders. Journals and records are full of accounts of problems getting sufficient food. The voyageurs traveling from Montreal were actually called by a name (porkeaters), that described the bland food they relied on during their long journey. Meals for the Montreal Agents and Wintering Partners were a highlight of rendezvous.

18th century cooking, 18th century food
Voyageur Prepares a Meal

Food or the lack of it, was a basic survival issue for fur traders. During the trip to rendezvous food was generally plain and monotonous. The focus was on making progress. Even though they might be traveling through areas rich in game and wild foods, there wasn’t time to stop and take advantage of the local resources. Only rendezvous offered the chance to eat relatively well with some certainty. The brigades from Montreal brought large supplies of special foods to provide a “reward” for the partners and maybe the voyageurs too.

The wintering posts had the chance of offering better food, but they often faced problems in locating sufficient game animals, raising their own garden crops and storing adequate supplies for the winter. Starvation was a reality for all those living in the interior.

These posts not only had a wider variety of foods than the interior posts but provided the diners with an elegance not seen in the interior. The travelers would arrive dirty and hungry from the interior having lived on corn and grease eaten from a communal pot, if they were lucky. The head table of the dining room was set with fine English dinnerware and slender-stemmed wine glasses. There were also wine decanters, napkins, finger bowls, and platters for sweetmeats and fruit.

There might be a wide variety of foods at these posts, however the cooking was usually rather plain. The more elegant menus were found in Montreal. Occasionally a Montreal chef was sent to the post which would add zest to the menus. The provisions might be bread, salt pork, beef, hams, fish venison, butter, peas, Indian corn, potatoes, tea, spirits, wine, and milk. Dishes mentioned in various sources include beaver-tail soup, roast beaver, buffalo tongue and hump, smoked and salted, 30-pound lake trout, roast beef and pork, boiled mutton, pemmican, wild duck and geese, and confectioner’s delicacies.

This was truly a feast for the weary travelers arriving from the interior who might be on the verge of starvation.

The Interior Posts

Traders at the remote fur posts brought some of their food to the interior by canoe. Other foods were gathered from the area near the post. Having a store house of food was particularly important for the winter and early spring to avoid starvation.

Foods shipped into the posts by canoe were: salt pork, wheat flour, corn, cheese, chocolate, condiments, rum and high wine. Permanent posts were able to raise some food. They had gardens and might raise animals, particularly in areas were the wild game had been depleted. Common vegetables grown were: potatoes, cabbage, rutabagas, turnips, onions, beans, peas, beets, carrots, and pumpkins.

The travelers would arrive dirty and hungry from the interior having lived on corn and grease eaten from a communal pot, if they were lucky.

Nearby rivers might be netted for fish. Wild fowl were shot. Sometimes an Indian hunter was hired to help supply the post. Indian women attached to the post would gather wild rice and make maple sugar and grease. Traders bought much of their food supply from the Indians. This included wild game, wild rice, maple sugar, nuts, berries, and fruits.

From archaeological findings and writings of the time we know that white-tailed deer was the most important meat followed by bear and beaver. Actually beaver was considered a delicacy. Wild rice was also one of the most important natural foods. It was not only a staple of the diet but was also a trade item. It was harvested and shipped to the rendezvous site just like furs. A poor summer harvest of wild rice meant poor fur trading for the companies.

Techniques were used to preserve food since it would be needed during the winter and into the spring. Some meat was salted, but this was an expensive process due to the high price of salt. The majority of meat was dried. Some could be frozen during the coldest months. Animal fat, particularly bear grease, were used to encase the dried meat before it was stored in bags. This fat became an important source of vitamins and quick energy. Nuts, berries, and wild rice were dried also. Maple sap was made into sugar and syrup.

A typical meal at one of the interior posts consisted of baked or fried bread, spited or grilled meat and one pot meals such as soups, stews, and wild rice.

Food of the Voyageur

The Montreal voyageurs of the east ate a diet of corn mush, pea soup, and pork fat. But buffalo was a staple diet for the voyageurs of the interior. Fur posts on the northern plains harvested huge quantities of buffalo with the help of the Indians. Tons of pemmican were made from the buffalo meat.

Pemmican is a high energy food developed by the Indians. It can be transported easily and lasts for many months. Although most pemmican was made from buffalo occasionally moose and caribou were used. After the meat was dried, it was pounded into a fine texture. Then it was mixed with animal fat and at times berries. This created a high calorie, high nutrition food for the travelers.

The pemmican was packed into buffalo-hide sacks weighing about 90 pounds each. The bags were sent to posts along the central waterways were they could be picked up by the voyageurs. Four such sacks of pemmican could carry the voyageurs about 500 miles to the next post where they could pick up their next ration.

Pemmican could be broken from a large chunk and eaten. Sometimes it was made into a stew called rubbaboo. A mixture of flour, water, and maple sugar was boiled in a large kettle. To this were added chunks of pemmican. After this cooked for a while it formed a porridge-type stew which was a welcome break from the plain pemmican.

Pemmican Recipe

Other recipes and information about food in Early America can be found in the Buckskinner Cookbook at Coon & Crockett.

Pemmican is still considered a “survival” food for those who travel into wilderness areas. However, modern tastes would probably consider it less than great and of questionable value in a “healthy diet”. It helps to keep in mind that the fur trade era didn’t have the benefit of modern technology like freeze drying or refrigeration. Voyageurs needed high energy food that would keep and save them from starvation. Taste was a side issue.

If you would like to try making your own pemmican, here are some recipes. Let us know how you liked it.

Basic Pemmican
2 oz. cooked, ground, and dried beef
2 and 1/2 oz. lard or vegetable fat (shortening)
Put the meat in a container lined with plastic film. Melt the fat and let it cool slightly to a gluey consistency. Pour the fat over the meat and let it harden. Wrap airtight and store, preferably in a freezer if you won’t need the pemmican for a while.

Pemmican #2
2 oz. cooked, ground, and dried beef
2 and 1/2 oz. lard or vegetable fat
1 T minced dried onions
Prepare as above.

Pemmican #3
2 oz. cooked, ground, and dried beef
3 oz. lard or vegetable fat
1/2 oz. dried (heat dried) ground berries
Prepare as above.

These recipes come from a book entitled The Complete Light-Pack Camping and Trail Foods Cookbook by Edwin P. Drew. The author suggests shaping the pemmican into bars by packing it into a match box lined with plastic wrap and then removing it when hard. He recommends the use of lard over vegetable shortening because of its superior flavor. He suggests that if you are going to carry other foods along with the pemmican, as is commonly done today, that you carry the pemmican and the berries separately. Lightly salting or peppering the pemmican after it cools will add additional flavor. The pemmican, like all dried foods, should be protected from heat and light. Depending on the ingredients, preparation, and storage conditions the pemmican should last up to 8 months or better. Freezing will definitely extend the life.

Pemmican has a very high food value. Made as the basic recipe above, it has 185 calories, 10 grams of protein, and 15 grams of fat per ounce.

Drying Foods

During the fur trade era food drying was essential to preserve food for the long winter. Food was usually dried by laying it out on a framework of sticks and cloth in the sun. On a warm, but dry day, it would dry fast enough to avoid spoiling. Some types of foods might need some additional preparation before drying.

It is relatively easy to dry meat. You can use a food dryer available at many stores that sell small appliances. You can also dry it in your home oven by setting the oven for the lowest possible setting and leaving the door open a bit. It works best if you can spread some nylon window screening over the oven racks. It can be much easier if you make a simple wooden frame for the screening and set the whole frame on the oven rack.

To make dried ground beef, use extra lean meat. Cook the meat thoroughly and drain off all the fat. Rinse the cooked ground beef in warm water and put it on some paper towels to absorb additional fat. Then spread the meat on the screening.

The drying temperature should be between 100 and 120 degrees. The meat will dry faster if the outside humidity is not too high. It will take longer if it is humid. It will usually take several hours or overnight for the meat to dry thoroughly. The meat will become somewhat darker, hard and even brittle as it dries. When it is well dried, put it in a plastic bag and place it in a freezer until ready to use. It will last a relatively long time in a freezer, but only about a week or two once it is removed (if kept out of the light and in a relatively cool place).

When you add dried ground beef to other food in a pot of hot or boiling water, it will quickly rehydrate. It doesn’t take much water to rehydrate ground beef, so if you are mixing it with other food, you only need to add a small amount of extra water if any. When cooked in water, ground beef becomes soft and regains most of its original texture and appearance. Done well, it may be difficult for someone to tell that it was ever dried.