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Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada

Cultural Treasures


Making Pemmican 
How Much Pemmican Did Posts Produce? 
Pemmican as Food

The term pemmican is usually assumed to be based on a Cree phrase – pimii meaning fat or grease and kan meaning prepared. Different sources spell these words slightly differently but all essentially say the same thing. Given the derivation of the word, some experts suggest the term pemmican originally referred to processing marrow fat not what is now known as pemmican. Over time, the preparing of fat and the food that fat was used to make came to have the same name.

Pemmican is obviously a very ancient foodstuff, but it has become particularly associated with the fur trade because it was such a significant part of fur trade operations. This makes it a very good example of the way fur traders borrowed and adapted technology from Aboriginal peoples.

Making Pemmican

There is no single recipe for pemmican (as any quick search of the Internet will show) and forms of pemmican can be made with almost any red meat. Historically, pemmican was made using moose, caribou, and deer meat, as well as the more common buffalo. To make pemmican, strips of red meat were cut (ideally with gristle, bone, ligaments etc. removed) and placed on racks above the glowing embers of a low fire. You do not want to burn or scorch the meat, rather dry and smoke it. The meat had to be periodically turned and moved to ensure complete and even drying. Alternatively, the meat could be dried on racks in the sun and wind. When dehydrated, the meat was resistant to spoiling. If moisture was retained in the meat, it would be prone to spoilage. This meat was essentially the same as modern jerky and could be kept in this state for future use or further processing. This jerky-like meat could be pounded or ground between stones, or later using metal tools, into small shreds. Sometimes this “pounded” or “beat” meat was traded as is, but more often it was turned into pemmican by adding rendered fat.

The addition of rendered fat or “grease” was the key part of making pemmican. The best pemmican by all accounts was made using bone marrow fat (grease) which was produced by breaking and then boiling the leg bones of buffalo, caribou, moose etc. During the fur trade period this could be done using kettles. Earlier it required building boiling pits, or shallow holes in the ground lined with hides and filled with water and bones. Heated rocks were then dropped into the water to make it boil. The boiling water released the fat stored in the bone marrow. The melted fat could then be collected from on top of the water, much like removing fat from a stew or before making a gravy. The other good fat for pemmican making was the back fat taken from along the spine of buffalo. Other types of fat could also rendered in this fashion as well, if needed, but bone marrow fat or back fat were best. Once again, the intent was to remove water (and other impurities) from the fat to prevent spoilage. The fat was then mixed with the shredded, dried meat to make pemmican.

Other materials could be added for flavour. The most common were dried berries such as saskatoons (or cranberries in some areas). More modern versions of pemmican recipes also suggest adding sage and other such herbs, but I don't know if there is any historical evidence for this herb rather than berry flavouring, and most pemmican was not flavoured at all.
The final stage of pemmican production was pouring the heated mixture into buffalo hide bags (usually about 90 lb. or 40 kg.) in capacity. Smaller bags of 45 lb. size also appear in post account books, usually for fine (i.e. better quality) pemmican. The fat in the pemmican then cooled and hardened making the bags of pemmican ideal for shipping and storage. A layer of fat could be poured onto the pemmican to help seal the bags.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, neither fur traders nor Aboriginal peoples had many options for preserving food. At posts, meat was stored in ice houses over the winter, but this wasn't an option for most Aboriginal people. Fur traders also salted provisions, such as the salt geese that were so significant a part of the diet at York Factory and Churchill, but shipping large quantities of salt inland to a place like Rocky Mountain House was not feasible. As a result, drying and smoking food was the only real food preservation method available, and pemmican is an excellent example of their use.

The more carefully pemmican was prepared the longer it would last (incompletely dried meat or poorly rendered fat would shorten the effective “shelf life” of pemmican). Most was probably made to last a season or two at most, but there are accounts of people eating pemmican that was 4 years old and still as good as new. Most, however, would have been eaten within a year of production.

An interesting feature of pemmican production is that it was rarely offered at posts as a trade good. Aboriginal groups did trade fat and pounded or dried meat, leather for pemmican bags, and other raw materials needed in pemmican production but trading pemmican itself was rare. One reason for this was the sheer volume of pemmican that had to be made. To produce hundreds of kilograms of pemmican at a time you needed access to the kettles and mixing troughs that were only available at posts. Aboriginal groups may also have needed all the pemmican they could easily produce for their own use.

How Much Pemmican Did Posts Produce?

To make the pemmican, everyone in the post pitched in pounding dried meat, rendering fat and mixing the two together in wooden troughs. This was usually done in spring before warm weather made any stored meat start to decay. Once started, pemmican production neared near industrial levels. For example, the journal entry for 17 April 1795 for Fort George indicates that 200 bags of pemmican were made that day alone (about 9 tonnes of it). In total, Fort George was expected to produce between 300 and 350 bags of pemmican per year for the brigades in the 1790s. This represented a little more than a third of the total pemmican needs of the North West Company.

North West Company canoes from the North Saskatchewan and Athabasca districts needed 10 or more bags of pemmican per canoe for a trip to Rainy River/Grand Portage and back, since one bag of pemmican fed one canoeman for between 45 and 60 days. In 1806, the North West Company sent 156 canoes inland from Fort William. Not all travelled as far as Rocky Mountain House and Fort Augustus (Edmonton) or the Athabasca district posts, but this meant the company needed well over a thousand bags of pemmican a year just to keep its brigades moving. The Hudson's Bay Company used less pemmican, and produced significantly less at its posts. Nevertheless, the total amount of pemmican needed by both firms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was well over 45 tonnes (or tons) of pemmican per year. After the closure of Fort George and other provision posts lower down the North Saskatchewan River, more and more of the production of pemmican was shifted to Fort Augustus and Rocky Mountain House which were expected to produce most of the pemmican needed by the North West Company.

Pemmican as Food

Pemmican offered a high calorie and very light food supply. A pound of pemmican was considered a replacement for about 3.5 to 4.5 pounds o fresh meat. A daily ration obviously varied from person to person and depending upon their work, but the men working canoes and York boats were allotted roughly 1.5 to 2 lb. of pemmican a day as rations – a phenomenal intact of calories reflecting the rigour of the work.

Small quantities of pemmican would have been eaten at the post, served as a normal part of the rations allocated to post employees. Because of its value as a portable food supply though, this would have been rare. Most pemmican was consumed by men working on the canoe and later York boat brigades. These brigades operated between Rocky Mountain House and Grand Portage/Fort William and Acton House/Rocky Mountain House and Norway House/York Factory. Because Rocky Mountain House produced surpluses of pemmican this pemmican could also be shipped to other posts in both the North West and Hudson's Bay Company's systems.

Pemmican could be eaten more or less as is, but it was more commonly fried (rowshow) or boiled in a stew called rubbiboo (or burgoo by early fur traders). In either case, additional ingredients could be added: flour and vegetables such as wild onions in rubbiboo or fried bannock etc with rowshow. Basically, you ate what was around and available at the time along with the pemmican.