Pemmican — The First Power Bar — and Beaver Hats

Pemmican on the hoof.



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.

Birch bark storage bags. Pemmican on the right.

“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.

Explaining… shovel coals from fire and spread out on hearth. Leave an open channel so you can get into the fireplace to tend the fire, turn the roasts and stir the the stew. Now the hearth is your cooking surface as well.

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.

Canoe Shop at Grand Portage National Monument.

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.

Montreal Canoe, shooting rapids. The guy in front — the Avant — was the boss.

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.

Reproduction of Great Hall — right — and kitchen. Grand Portage National Monument.

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!

Beaver fur hats.

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.

Oven behind kitchen, still warm after 24 hours. Garden in background.

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.

North West Fur Company Clerk in the Great Hall.

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.

Fur bales and various furs hanging in the storeroom.

This cheaper alternative was a cardboard hat, covered in silk dyed black. The silk came from Asia. Sound familiar?



Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, North Dakota


View of Little Missouri similar to Roosevelt’s from his porch.

It’s easy to see why Theodore Roosevelt loved his Elkhorn ranch on the Little Missouri River where it meanders through northwestern North Dakota. Today, 130 or so years after TR rode out into the Dakota Bad Lands, his ranch is a part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

On the day we drove out to Elkhorn – about a 90-minute drive over gravel roads from Medora, if you stop for pictures from time to time – we found ourselves completely alone; river, cottonwoods, grass and cliffs exist almost exactly as they must have when Roosevelt lived here.

Antelope are everywhere.

Standing by the Jeep, I felt what TR must have felt. It was like diving deep into a pool, but it wasn’t the water pressing on every part of my body – it was the place. It pressed in through my pores, rode up in my blood stream, infused bone and marrow and finally enveloped my heart. No wonder he chose this place to heal.

Standing by the Jeep…

A slight breeze whiffing through the trees makes the only sound. Our arrival has quieted all creatures that animate this place. I am caught in the grip of a time-warp, oscillating between now and 1884.

Lunch is a tuna sandwich and pretzels eaten while sitting in folding chairs by the side of the Jeep. The beauty of our surroundings inhibits conversation, and in short order the buzz of insects and calls of birds re-emerge from the quiet. Order has returned as the ripples of our presence fade like those from a pebble tossed in a pond, and my oscillations attenuate as the present day regains sway.

Path to Elkhorn Ranch cabin site — many ticks!

6-IMG_4103A short walk – a trail thoughtfully mowed through the tall grass – from the Jeep brings us to the river and the site of Roosevelt’s ranch cabin. The Little Missouri, brownish with silt, wanders northward through the meadow without making a sound. Quiet moving water – a balm for Roosevelt’s wounded spirit. His last sentence, I think, describes his own, deep connection to this spot.

“From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cottonwoods, one looks across sand-bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (What true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand – though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp lines grow indistinct and purple in the afterglow of the sunset.” —— Theodore Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch in Dakota Territory c. 1884 Antlers outside TR's ranch in the Badlands
Porch with rocking chairs and antlers, ca 1884.

Roosevelt had lost his mother and wife on the same day —— February 14, 1884. His mother died from typhoid fever and just hours later his wife lost her battle with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment that had been masked by her pregnancy. Two days before, she had given birth to their daughter. Shattered, Roosevelt headed out west.

“I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me. The grassy, scantily wooded bottoms through which the winding river flows are bound by bare, jagged buttes; their fantastic shapes and sharp, steep edges throw the most curious shadows, under the cloudless glaring sky… “ —— Theodore Roosevelt

Bare, jagged buttes…


A few shallow depressions and foundation cornerstones remain where the ranch house once stood. His first cabin, built on the Maltese Cross ranch – also on the Little Missouri River a few miles distant – is located at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center in Medora, ND.

Corner stone for cabin foundation.

Today the trees are more numerous, and a forest of bushes has grown around the area cleared by Roosevelt and his partners to make cabin and corrals. According to TR:


Elkhorn Ranch sketch
Sketch of original layout.

“The Elkhorn ranch house was built mainly by Sewall and Dow, who, like most men from the Maine woods, were mighty with the ax. I could chop fairly well for an amateur, but I could not do one-third the work they could. One day when we were cutting down the cottonwood trees, to begin our building operations, I heard someone ask Dow what the total cut had been, and Dow not realizing that I was within hearing, answered: ‘Well, Bill cut down fifty-three, I cut forty-nine, and the boss he beavered down seventeen.” —— Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt with Sewell and Dow

If I could —— by some alchemy —— shed 50 years off my life and travel back in time, I would love to join TR and Sewall and Dow on that ranch in 1884. While they are long gone and I have long since passed out of youth and vigor, what seems to me to be timeless in all of this is that place on the Little Missouri and the way it infuses; through the pores, into blood, bone and then heart.

Infuses through pores…

T. Roosevelt standing