Bison hunt
This is image na-1406-189, Glenbow Archives, and used with their permission. While this is a later bison hunt, those York Factory Express men who took part in the bison hunts on their way down and upriver would have not differed from these men.

Pemmican was not eaten west of the Rocky Mountains, and it was not part of our experience. As a matter of fact, when the men of the York Factory Express, who came from the west side of the Rockies, joined the Saskatchewan Brigades at Edmonton House, their diet changed completely. As I say in the prologue of my book:

More transformations occurred as they reached Edmonton House. At that prairie headquarters the fast-travelling, lightly laden Express party joined the Saskatchewan District’s slow moving brigades that lumbered down the North Saskatchewan River, passing through rolling grasslands. The Express-men had feasted on biscuits, potatoes, and salmon west of the Rockies; now they gorged on pemmican, bison steaks, and whitefish on the east side of the mountains…

Nevertheless, I have a number of descriptions of pemmican from various sources, and I think I will put them all together so that we can enjoy them.

This comes from young James Anderson, who was A.C. Anderson’s son and a twelve year old at Fort Colvile, when he would have seen and, perhaps, eaten, pemmican:

In those days (1848-49) the buffalo still existed in great numbers on the plains of the North West, and we were therefore well supplied with the flesh in a dried state, tongues often dried and salted, and the hides dressed and often painted with fanciful figures. These were used in various ways, for rugs, bedding, etc. — the poorer or worn ones cut up for saddle cloths which were called apichimons. How times have changed; those very hides would now be worth untold value. Pemmican was also obtained from across the mountains and was used for food, either just as it was or boiled up with flour, in which state it was called rub-a-boo [robbibo]. In case my reader does not know what pemmican is, I may explain that it was composed of buffalo meat dried and pounded up, the tallow melted and the whole mixed up and placed hot in a rawhide receptacle about 12 inches across and some twenty-four inches long — two of them making a good horse load. As an improvement, native fruits were sometimes added usually the Service Berry, called by the French Canadian, Poires, and in the Northwest, Saskatoon; even raisins when they were to be had, and an extra fine quality was desired.

James Robert Anderson, “Memoirs,” in author’s personal possession but also two copies in B.C. Archives.

This next description comes from Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins’s book, A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay. He was surgeon aboard one of the London ships to York Factory, but while there he accompanied the Saskatchewan boats west almost all the way to Oxford House. Here is what he wrote about the pemmican that was part of the provisioning for the York boats:

A basket containing buffalo tongues, hams, pork and biscuit was provided for our entertainment, and the men were furnished with as much pemmican, as would serve them for the journey. This is a very useful diet, and consists of buffalo’s suet and tallow melted together, and made stiff by dried buffalo meat grated into it; it is then poured into a bag made of buffalo’s hide sewn up, and capable of holding about a hundred-weight. When wanted for use, a lump is chopped off with a hatchet, and eaten raw. It looks something like very common plum-pudding, and eats a little like a candle flavoured with coarse sand.

What is called gentleman’s, or fine pemmican, is made of buffalo marrow, dried meat, and a kind of black berry (saskatoon berry) which grows in abundance in the woods. At first it is disagreeable from its greasy taste and the marrow melting in the mouth and leaving the meat; but this is soon overcome, and it is then really not at all unpalatable, especially when eaten with sugar.

Good heavens! Who would eat greasy meat with sugar? And we must also remember that this sugar was always demerara, or brown sugar — never white.

Augustus Peers tells us something of the bison hunts at Red River in the 1830s and 1840s — and also how pemmican is made. He was never at the settlement in Red River, so this information came to him from the Red River men who travelled in the Athabasca brigades under Alexis L’Esperance, and in which travelled north:

The vast plains surrounding the [Red River] settlement are well stocked with bison, affording the inhabitants (particularly the French half-castes) ample amusement and profitable sport. In the early part of the summer they collect and set off in large parties with their wives and families, horses and carts, and everything requisite for a lengthened stay on the prairies.

They are obliged to travel in large parties as they are liable to be surprised and cut off by the Sioux Indians who also hunt bison on these plains. Having arrived at the hunting grounds, the wives remain in camp while the hunters, all mounted on horseback, ride pell-mell after the terror-stricken beasts, which rush headlong onward. They soon overtake them, and singling out the fat cows deal death and destruction among them. Guns are generally used in these hunts, although the arrow will do execution. The hunters are very expert in loading these guns. On their right side is slung a powder horn and in their mouths they carry their ball, loading as they ride by merely pouring in an unequal charge of powder, on top of which they drop a ball without any wadding. Riding up alongside of their victim they drop the muzzle of the gun and instantly fire. It often happens, however, that from their careless mode of loading, their guns burst by the ball sliding down the barrel before they can discharge it.

Every hunter, as he kills an animal, marks it by throwing down his cap, or other article, to denote that it belongs to him, and then continues on after the herd, which is generally slaughtered ere the chase is relinquished.

The animals are next skinned and cut up, the carts are brought and the meat, shining with fat, is conveyed to the camp where it is handed over to the women to split in thin slices to cure it by the action of the fire and sun. The worst parts of the animals are dried and then pounded, and this, with an admixture of a proportion of animal fat, is amalgamated together and then put into bags of the half dressed hide, and finally sewed up and allowed to cool. This is the famous food of the voyageurs all over the country, and known by the name of pemmican: the word is Cree and is pronounced “pemi-cin.” From the little care, however, bestowed on its manufacture by these people, it is not good, as they burn both the meat and the grease. The best pemmican is made at the Company’s forts on the Saskatchewan: it is both good and cleanly made and from the care taken in its manufacture it will keep for a long period if placed in a dry place.

Fine pemmican is made by pounding the meat finer, using marrow fat instead of hard grease, and by adding in the mixture berries (poires). [Saskatoon berries].

This sort of provision has rather a forbidding appearance, and a novice has generally to mouth it pretty well before he can muster courage to swallow it. If the reader ever saw a kind of food called graves, grives, or some such name, on which sporting dogs are sometimes fed, he will be able to tell what this celebrated pemmican looks like. It is however, excellent food, and a man will make a good long tramp in a day without feeling hungry after a breakfast of it.

It is interesting that in writing the history of the west side of the Rocky Mountains, I never had to know much about pemmican. As I say, in The York Factory Express:

On the west side of the Rockies, the men packed biscuit, dried salmon, and potatoes, and the gentlemen purchased fresh meat or fish from the First Nations on their way upriver. Sometimes they traded for edible roots, such as camas. They could not easily locate game in the heavily forested country west of the Rockies, as deer were small and hard to find, and moose had not yet moved into the territory.

But east of the Rockies, they ate pemmican. From the same source:

Pemmican was a mix of dried and pounded bison meat, with boiled bison fat and local berries, all stirred together and wrapped in skin casings with the hair still on. This fatty food was packed with calories and fuelled the fur trade east of the Rocky Mountains. the men devoured in enormous quantities. In 1823, John Work commented on the number of 90-pound bags of pemmican his eight hardworking canoe men consumed on their month long journey from York Factory to Ile-à-la-Crosse, on the upper Churchill River north of Cumberland House.

“The men’s provisions were just finished. On leaving York the canoes had 2 bags of Pemican (one of them turned out to be a bag of grease given in mistake) and a bag of flour. At Oxford House a supply of two more bags was got. Then at Norway House a further supply of four bags of Pemican, and at Cumberland five bags more. Two of the bags got at Cumberland was unfit for use and had to be cast away, which leaves eleven bags that have been used in thirty days from York Factory, besides 1/2 bag from McDougald. The men certainly worked hard but they eat as well.

John Work’s Journal, York Factory to Spokane House, A/B/40/W89.1A, BCA

One of the most interesting things I discovered while writing The York Factory Express, is that the HBC men, without fail, spelled pemmican as “pemican.” That was the standard spelling for this food product in the early days.

I hope all of you are doing well through this pandemic, and are not feeling too trapped and alone. I’m fine, enjoying my isolation and getting much work done my two-books-down-the-road book. I am fortunate that all my research was done before all this came along!

And remember, if you wish to pre-order The York Factory Express, you can do it here: Thank you very much!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Pemmican

  1. Judy Banks

    Brilliant, as always….now, how do you feel about researching and discussing the origins of, and vast differences between the oft-confused Scots Bannock, and frybread? Having known pan-baked Bannock since I was a kid in the Great Lakes, I was miffed when I came out to BC to learn that the old-timey French doughnut recipe, deep fried in oil is what is here known as “bannock”…and yet again across the line as “frybread”, which is what we called it in the East. Where did the lines get crossed?
    Cheers, J.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Well, as I know absolutely nothing at all about either, I am not going to comment on it at all — unless, of course, I stumble across a historical document that addresses this. Sorry. Do you want to send me a bannock recipe so I can start this research — I think I actually have the Fort Langley cookbook which will probably have a “bannock” recipe in it (and I remember them cooking in a frying pan).
      You know — I think Augustus Peers talked about this.
      I think you have very high to impossible expectations of me.

  2. Kees van Weel

    I believe that both bannock and frybread use a basic biscuit recipe, often with berries or raisins added. Both are made in a frying pan; the frybread actually fried while the bannock is baked in front of the fire with the pan tilted up to catch the heat. Once the top is nicely done and browning the bannock is turned over to bake the other side. The frybread is turned when the bottom is done.

    Fascinating site; I am learning a lot!


  3. Judy Banks

    This is all true…however, my point of interest is that Bannock came with the Highlanders, and frybread came with the French, and for a time, the Scots found the fried things not at all to their liking, and since they didn’t want to pack cooking oil around, Bannock survived for many years as the preferred staple for them…one St. Andrews man was heard to quip “Ye can tell a Catholic…they fry ever’thin'”.

  4. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    I, too, am learning. I just pulled out my Fort Langley cookbook (which I have owned for twenty years, I think), and found it’s titled “Bannock & Beavertails.” Now, most of the people who worked at Fort Langley were Scottish farmers, as this was an HBC farm and not so much a fur trade post. They have three kinds of Bannock: Savory Bannock, made with baking powder and cooking in a greased frying over medium heat; Trappers Bannock, also cooked in a hot frying pan; and Blacksmith’s Bannock; baked in an oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
    I also printed out a Metis cookbook I found on twitter, and it has a few bannock recipes in it. The footer didn’t print though, so google “Metis cookbook and Guide to Healthy Living,” or buy the book through Metis Centre at NAHO (National Aboriginal Health Organization), Ottawa, Ont. Email or website at Their bannock is placed in a greased cast-iron frying pan and baked until brown, 350 degrees. So is their Red River bannock, and the bannocks they have in the book.
    By the way, on these journeys everyone carried a cast-iron frying pan with them and cooked over the fires.
    Have fun!