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Pemmican
Nature Bulletin No. 257-A   February 18, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

PEMMICAN
Somewhere, there should be a monument to Pemmican. This remarkable energy-giving food, borrowed from the Indians, was in great measure responsible for the first crossing of the North American continent, the exploration of the far northwest, and the first successful attempts to reach the North Pole and the South Pole. To the lack of it can be attributed the failure of Scott' s first Antarctic expedition; the almost incredible hardships endured by explorers seeking routes across the Rockies to the Pacific, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-06; and the death of hundreds in the gold rush to the Klondike.

The North West Fur Company was founded in Montreal shortly after the British defeated the French in 1763 and occupied the St. Lawrence River Valley, For 100 years, the Hudson's Bay Company had held a legal monopoly of the fur trade in the vast drainage basin of Hudson Bay. Their "factors" lived in trading posts and, even when traveling, they clung to the costly bulky heavy items of British diet -- porridge, bread and salted meat.

The traders of the new company, led by Peter Pond, a Connecticut Yankee, found a route up the St. Lawrence, through the Great Lakes, and thence to the heart of the unexplored northwest at Lake Athabaska, near the headwaters of two great rivers -- the Peace and the Mackenzie. From the Crees and Chipewyans, Pond learned to make and use pemmican, which he described as "dried meat pounded to a powder and mixed up with buffaloes greese", Alexander Mackenzie spent the winter of 1788-89 with old Peter Pond and, using pemmican as food, went on northward to the Arctic Ocean, traveling the river which now bears his name.

In, 1793, he went down the Peace River to the Pacific Ocean, leaving pemmican buried in caches along the route for his return. That was the first westward crossing of this continent. Eventually, competition between the rival fur companies became so bitter that, in 1814, it flamed into the bloody Pemmican War. In 1821 the two merged and the new Hudson's Bay Company based its remarkable transportation system, covering all of Canada and what is now the northwestern part of the United States, upon the use of canoes and pemmican.

The Indians invented pemmican as a condensed food for long overland journeys and for winters when game was scarce. The lean meat of animals such as buffalo, elk and deer, was cut in thin slices and dried over a slow fire, or by the hot sun, or by freezing. Then it was pounded to shreds between two stones. The pounded meat was mixed with an equal quantity of boiling fat from the suet (inside fat) and from the hump or rump, and packed in bags or baskets. Eaten cold, it is nearly tasteless at first but the flavor develops as it is chewed.

Some Indians added berries or wild cherries, and Mackenzie occasionally boiled it with the tops of wild parsnips. Admiral Peary sometimes added a few raisins but he and his men ate it cold -- one-half pound twice a day. He wrote that it was the only food for Eskimo dogs on a long Polar journey and: "Of all foods I am acquainted with, pemmican is the only one that, under appropriate conditions, a man can eat twice a day for three hundred and sixty-five days in the year and have the last mouthful taste as good as the first.... It is the most satisfying food I know. " Other than pemmican, he carried only tea, condensed milk and hardtack.

Men forced to live solely on salted meats, bread and cereals, suffered and died from scurvy: a disease which results from the lack of Vitamin C. Men who live on pemmican have no scurvy. It is unequaled for compactness, lightness, wholesomeness, palatability and sustaining power.


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