Find a big buffalo bull. Shoot it. Remove the entrails and skin it. Cut off all the lean meat. Reserve some fat. Then slice the meat into thin strips and dry it on a rack or over a fire until it is crisp and brittle. Next pound it with a rock until it turns into a fluffy sort of powder. Melt an equal volume of animal fat and stir it into the powder.
You have now transformed the food value of a bull buffalo into a 90-pound bag of pemmican. This was the 18th Century answer to the power bar. And this concoction could keep for decades.
“Well… great,” you say, “but why would I want to make pemmican?” You wouldn’t, but the plains Indians of the 18th Century made it to trade to the fur companies for European goods like wool blankets, copper cook pots and glass beads to name a few. The North West Fur Company traded for pemmican which it used as a compact food source for the Voyageurs – French-Canadians who paddled canoes loaded with trade goods or fur in a network that stretched from Montreal to the Rocky Mountains, and north to Hudson Bay.
The North West Fur Company collected tons of pemmican each year to power their canoe network which covered a large portion of North America.
In 1785, most freight and human beings moved upon and at the speed of a horse. But this was in civilized areas, where trails and roads of a sort existed. In the great woods of the Northwest, people and goods moved at the speed of a river’s current or as fast as a canoe could be paddled.
The paddle from Montreal to Grand Portage – where the Pigeon River joins Lake Superior – is at least 1,100 miles. The Voyageurs made the round trip in 14 to 16 weeks, paddling at between 40 and 50 strokes per minute, 14 hours a day, and singing whenever spirits flagged, the going got rough or when they just felt like singing.
They were a tough lot, and because space was limited even in a 40 foot canoe, they could not stand taller than about five-foot four. Each voyageur was expected to carry two 90-pound packs of supplies or fur bales over the various portages along the route – and the canoe.
Paddling distances were measured in pipes – how far they could travel between smoke breaks, or about one hour. So a particular lake might be three-pipes long. Here’s what one retired voyageur had to say about his life:
I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!
This brings us – at last – to Grand Portage National Monument on the North Shore of Lake Superior, just south of the Canadian border. Here they have replicated part of the old fort and stockade maintained by the North West Fur Company in the later part of the 18th Century and into the 19th. This was the geographic middle of the grand fur enterprise, and the destination for our Voyageurs from Montreal.
It was at this fort that the voyageurs from the west arrived with canoe-loads of furs and those from the east with supplies and trade goods. Rendezvous! French for Donnybrook!
At today’s replica fort, the Great Hall and Kitchen are reproduced, along with a garden and bread oven. There is also a large building where they build birch-bark canoes in the style and using methods of the period.
What makes this reproduction realistic – at least for me – are the docents, dressed in period costume who are able to speak with some knowledge of furs, beaver felt, trade goods and cuisine of the period.
The docent in the kitchen had a stew going in a pot – and had baked bread and cookies the day before. The oven was still warm, after more than 24 hours had passed since the fire was swept out and replaced by loaves of bread. It was easy to imagine this same man, in the same kitchen 200 or more years ago. Easy for me anyway.
Alas – for the Voyageurs at least — the fur trade began to slow as demand for beaver-felt hats waned all across Europe. By 1824 or thereabouts it all but disappeared. Why?
If you can imagine the train of events from live beaver in the Northwest of America to hatters in London, and finally onto the head of some swell, you can imagine how much that hat might cost – even with the economies of scale involved. So the hats cost dearly and when a cheaper alternative came along, people snapped them up.
This cheaper alternative was a cardboard hat, covered in silk dyed black. The silk came from Asia. Sound familiar?