Always Read the Plaque: John Snow and the Broad Street Pump

I really enjoy reading historical plaques. They are a fascinating way of learning local history, embedded in the built landscape. At the very least, they’re an interesting insight into the history that locals are invested in commemorating.

On my recent trip to the United Kingdom, I had the pleasure of being introduced to one of the people who work at the historic Fairfax House in York (sadly, closed for cleaning while I was in the city). However, he recommended I visit one little York monument in particular, and I’m so glad I followed his advice because it commemorates a fascinating event in the history of medicine in a very evocative way. Aside from the little round blue York Civic Trust Plaque and an explanatory interpretive panel, there was this simple monument:

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John Snow was born in York (hence, why this monument is in York and not in London) but became known later in life for 1) being the anesthetist to Queen Victoria when she first started using anesthetics during childbirth and 2) proving to health professionals and the public that cholera was waterborne. During an epidemic of the disease in London in the 1850s, he made a map of where all of the dead had once lived, and discovered that what they had in common was that they all drank water from the same pump. The water from the Broad Street pump actually had a reputation for being very clear and sweet tasting, so it was very counter-intuitive that it was the cause of the outbreak, particularly as the miasma theory of disease was the dominant way of explaining how maladies spread. By removing the pump handle, he stopped the spread of the cholera epidemic. That event is what is commemorated with this simple statue.

If you would like to know more about John Snow stopping illness in its tracks and how to shift the mindsets of people when it comes to health issues, definitely read Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map: the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. And as always, when you encounter them, read the plaque.

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200 Years of Time Travel: the Beamish Open-Air Museum

Beamish is an immense open-air living history museum in the North of England. I had the great pleasure to be driven there by a friend of mine from York and spent a gleeful day exploring the many buildings of the site. I visited in mid-January 2018, on a Saturday, and was shocked and pleased at both the number of visitors and costumed staff in what I would traditionally consider the off-season for such sites. Beamish makes a strong case for the potential to have these sites open year round, if the demand is there! Beamish portrays several different time periods, all separated by some distance along a road. Each is its own self-contained little village or manor house. They are: a house, church, and grounds from the 1820s; a village of coal miners in the early 1900s; a prosperous town in the 1910s; and a farm community in the 1940s – the home front of the Second World War. The site is very good at providing an immersive experience and evoking the feeling of Northern England during the time periods they portray.

Overall, I was very impressed by the depth of knowledge their costumed interpreters had, and they inhabited their spaces as historical figures would, going about their daily tasks, including unpleasant ones like scrubbing tables. It didn’t feel like they were lying in wait for visitors to show up. They were almost always embroiled in a particular task when I encountered them, really providing an immersive experience for me as a visitor. I heard costumed staff interpret in many different character styles.  Some were entirely first person, fully in-character, such as a dentist in the 1910s who explained the latest in anesthetic breakthroughs to me. Others were in third person (“this is where coal workers would live in 1900…”), providing clear but interesting information about the site. I was very interested to hear where buildings had originally come from, for example, and how many were deconstructed and rebuilt stone by stone in their new location. Other interpreters used a mix of the two styles, breaking character if necessary, or employing hypotheticals such as “I would have used a machine like this to…” There was an excellent mix and I was always learning something new! Interpreters really do bring sites like Beamish alive.

There were quite a few small restaurants throughout the site, so we had no difficulty satisfying our Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and finding a place to eat. My friend and I ate lunch at the British Kitchen (in the 1940s), which I am given to understand would have been a typical type of establishment during that decade. They really worked the wartime rationing theme, something I find a fascinating part of British history at that time that didn’t have as strong an impact on Canadian history during the same decade. Plus, their food was absolutely delicious and not too pricey! (Also, I as a Canadian didn’t know that Bovril wasn’t just a base for a broth or sauce but can actually be drunk as a hot beef flavoured drink?) We also had a pint of locally brewed beer at a pub called the Sun Inn, which is a fully functioning bar in their 1910s street. I love that their eating establishments also provided an immersive visitor experience, serving food and drink roughly equivalent to that served in the time periods they represented. Why go for generic hot dogs and hamburgers when you can use restaurants to reinforce the themes and aesthetic of your historic site?

Beamish is a large site. There is a ring road that goes around to the different time periods, but it can take 10 or 15 minutes to walk from place to place. In the summertime, I am told there is a steam train, which wasn’t running when I was there in January. However, even in winter there were historical double-decker busses and streetcars running very frequently for visitors to use. There was no additional cost on top of admission to use historical public transit on site. Also, there are great views of the different historical buildings from the top of these amazing vehicles.

One of the things I was super impressed by at Beamish was that they have their artifact storage space open to the public. Highlights for me include an iron lung, used by polio patients! They’re also currently gathering artifacts from the 1950s for an additional area of the site currently being developed and not yet open to the public. I suppose I’ll have to return in a few years to learn more about the 1950s!

In many respects, there were elements of Beamish that reminded me strongly of the narratives we tell in historic sites in North America, such as the hardships of the past (though minus the typical new world pioneer narratives), feelings of community, and changing technologies and social mores through time. A lot of the daily activities portrayed on site were not unexpected, though they were handled expertly by the costumed staff: handicrafts like rug making and quilting, cooking in wood burning stoves, and caring for livestock. Many artifacts, too, were familiar to me from my time as a historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park. But one of the things I’d never seen before at any other historic site are gigantic cheese presses. I found several of them at Beamish and I’m not entirely sure what they’re for. Something to do with the cheese making process? I imagine that they’re the kind of artifacts that do survive the centuries relatively intact, being large in size and solid in construction.

A man stands between two irregular curved posts forming a gate over a path.
This odd-looking gate outside Eston Church in the 1820s area may be made from a whale’s jawbone. One of many fascinating things to see at Beamish!

Even though my friend and I arrived only 10 minutes after the park opened in the morning and stayed until just before closing time, I feel we only got a brief overview of the site. I think it would take several days to truly explore and get a real sense of the place. If you find yourself in Northern England, I highly recommend you step into the past and visit Beamish.

Further Reading

Canada 150 Roadtrip: Walking in the Past in Yoho National Park

Parks Canada manages both national parks and national historic sites. Often people, even employees of Parks Canada, think of there being a strong division between the two: some sites are all about nature, other sites are all about history. Biologists and ecologists work in national parks and historians work for historic sites and never the twain shall meet. However, national historic sites have natural conservation issues, and of course national parks do have a history. For all that people like to talk about the “untouched wilderness” of national parks, framing their photographs to exclude the hundreds of tourists that surround them, these natural spaces have had a human presence for generations – longer than they’ve been national parks, often by thousands of years. I’m particularly interested in signs of past historical events in “natural” landscapes. That’s why I was delighted to learn of Yoho National Park’s Walk-In-The-Past trail.

You can access it from the Kicking Horse Campground. Depending on how quickly you walk and how long you linger to contemplate the past, it takes about an hour and a half to hike. You can pick up a nifty self-guided pamphlet from the visitor centre in the town of Field and read more about the history of the place as you pass numbered signs.

The first section of the trail follows a path used by railroad workers over 100 years ago as they travelled from camp to their worksite up the mountain. The path crosses over a modern train track at about the halfway point. You walk along a section that was originally cleared for an old rail line – dangerously steep for the time but fairly gentle by the standards of mountain hikes. (My friend and I had huffed and puffed our way up the Iceline Trail the day before, so that was our point of reference.)  Evidence of coal dust left behind by the steam engines is still visible in the dirt along the path.

The final stop at the top of this hill is an old steam engine. Interestingly, it’s gage is actually narrower than all of the train tracks that exist in the valley and could never run on them; it was in fact a smaller train used to haul rocks away as they were digging the now famous spiral tunnels. Its rusting hulk is an interesting and physical reminder of the valley’s not so distant past.

Canada 150 Roadtrip: Fort Saskatchewan Heritage Precinct 

The City of Fort Saskatchewan is just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and was founded as an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the 1870s. The NWMP are the precursors to the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. Fort Saskatchewan recently built a historical reconstruction of its original fort and I had the good fortune to visit it this evening. The museum display panels inside the stables of the fort are well-researched, well-written, and well-designed. You cannot access the site without a guide present, but when you do get the chance the fort is well worth it! The charming and knowledgeable interpretive guide Sally Scott showed us around and spoke to us of daily life in the fort, as well as one of the infamous people imprisoned there.

Further Reading

That Time When Bison Kept Knocking Out Telecommunications in the West

A large group of female bison and calves stand in a grassy field.

Well into the nineteenth century, massive bison herds of 100,000 or more individuals roamed across North America. They were an important force upon the ecosystems around them: wallowing, grazing, and popping their way across the landscape. There are lakes dotted across the west with names like “Chip Lake” or “Buffalo Lake” – warnings on European maps not to water your horses there as bison had passed through and fouled it with dung. I read one account of a railway company that had two locomotives derailed by bison in one week. They were a force to be reckoned with individually (a bull bison can weigh as much as a small car) and in large numbers they were nigh unstoppable. 

One particular account from Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (page 266) struck me as particularly crazy:

“Buffalo shed their heavy coats in the spring and they assist the process by rubbing against anything handy. With few trees on the prairie, erratics, large free-standing rocks left by the glaciers, became favourite rubbing sites and many were worn smooth by the attention of thousands of buffalo over the years. When telegraph poles were first placed across the plains, the buffalo were delighted, but the poles tended to give way when leaned into by 680-kg (1,500-lb) animals. The telegraph companies, not amused at losing miles of line, countered by installing bradawls, sharp pointed spikes intended to discourage buffalo rubbing. It was a mistake, as reported in a Kansas newspaper:

For the first time they came to scratch sure of a sensation in their thick hides that thrilled them from horn to tail. They would go fifteen miles to find a bradawl. They fought huge battles around the poles containing them, and the victor would proudly climb the mountainous heap of rump and hump of the fallen and scratch himself into bliss until the bradawl broke, or the pole came down. There has been no demand for bradawls from the Kansas region since the first invoice.”

This stubborn bull bison is just shedding his winter fur and needs a good scratching post. Photographed at Elk Island National Park in May 2017.

Faux-Naturel: Constructed Natural Landscapes in Paris

The last time I was in Paris, I had about three hours to kill one morning before I caught a train to Normandy. I asked a friend of mine, an American ex-pat living in Paris, what he’d recommend I do for that time. I only  had until 11am or so – not enough to embroil myself in a museum, really. His suggestion? The Buttes Chaumont Park. 

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Map of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, late 19th century. Image courtesy of the Gallica archive. 

I’d never heard of it. I was honestly a bit skeptical, but as a Canadian who works outdoors for a living out in nature the crowds of Paris had been getting to me a bit, so I thought I’d give this park a try. It was an excellent decision, because after about a fifteen minute ride on the metro and a ten minutes’ walk, I encountered this dramatic landscape in the middle of Paris:

I spent a delightful few hours discovering view after dramatic view. There were crags and canyons, bridges four or five stories tall, statues of nature spirits, brightly coloured holly, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the famous Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in the distance. However, for all its “natural” grandeur, this park is an entirely man-made landscape.

There was a helpful small but unstaffed museum that told me the history of this place. (This history- and nature-loving nerd always appreciates interpretive panels!)

It was once an old gypsum quarry outside of town. In fact, the park gets its name because the gypsum underneath apparently made the earth unsuitable for farming: “chaumont” = “mont chauve”, or bald hill, devoid of plants. At the height of the gypsum mining, the quarry’s galleries were 45 metres high. For many years, the place was used as a dumping ground for garbage and dead horses.

 

By the 1860s, the city of Paris was changing. Hausmann was famously widening boulevards, but Emperor Napoleon III was also ordering the creation of new inner city parks.  The Buttes Chaumont Park was created at this time from the remains of the old quarry. They retained 6 of the dramatic cliffs as the base of the park, then constructed a faux-Roman temple at the top of one of them and a tall bridge to take visitors there. The park was opened on April 1st, 1867, at the time of the Paris Universal Exhibition.

 

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Panoramic view of the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, taken in 1867. Image from the Portail des Bibliothèques Municipales Specialisées.

Trolling through archival photographs at Gallica, a lot of the photos emphasize the heights of the dramatic landscape. What does that more than photographing a famous parachutist jumping off its tallest bridge in 1925?

This park with its dramatic, history-filled landscapes is celebrating its 150th anniversary in April, 2017. Now is the perfect time to visit!

Further Resources

 

Read the Plaque: Off the Beaten Track in Elk Island

Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)

Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.

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It tells an interesting point of history:  the plaque marks the spot of a cabin staffed by the first fire warden in the area, William Henry Stephens. (No mention that there were in fact two wardens at the time – the other man was a Lakota-Sioux man named “Black Jack” Sanderson.)

The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail.  I think bison see it more often than people do.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.

Want to know where to find this plaque? See the map on this entry of ReadThePlaque.com.

Further Resources

 

Victorian Etiquette Corner: How To Ride Your Bicycle Like a Lady

The late Victorian era saw the rise of the bicycle. They were easy to use, relatively cheap, encouraged physical exercise, and allowed women to do crazy things like get out of the house and go farther afield without necessarily being escorted by men. The early history of the bicycle is entwined with the history of modern feminism, encouraging health, autonomy, and a simplification of cumbersome clothing. As Susan B. Anthony famously said in 1896:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

Of course, with social change, comes  people made uncomfortable by that social change. Etiquette manuals had a lot to say about bicycles and how to use them in a refined, well-bred way. Some advice was practical, other recommendations were outright bizarre, and many often translated into limiting a woman’s ability to use the bicycle to its full potential.

LAC Mabel Williams with bicycle at 54 Main Street, residence of James Ballantyne July 1898
A classy Victorian lady and her bicycle. Mabel Williams with bicycle at 54 Main Street, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

The first thing a cyclist should understand is how to talk about what they’re doing. According to Maud Cooke (“The Well-Known and Popular Author”, as she is described on her title page), in her book Social Etiquette (1896):

“It is distinctly understood in the first place that ‘cycling’ is the correct word; the up-to-date woman dares not speak of bicycling nor of wheeling.”(343)

Chaperones for lady cyclists are important, Cooke says. If you don’t have a chaperone who can ride a bicycle, train one up yourself!

“Neither must a married woman ride alone; failing a male escort, she is followed by a groom or a maid. A woman is very fortunate if among her men or women servants, one knows how to ride a bicycle. Ladies occasionally go to the expense of having a servant trained in the art.”(344)

Cooke also tells her readers to make good use of male relations:

“If one possesses such a commodity as a brother or a husband, he can always be made useful on a cycling excursion. Never is a man better able to show for what purpose he was made than upon such occasions. . . .  he must always be on the alert to assist his fair companion in every way in his power – he must be clever enough to repair any slight damage to her machine which may occur en route, he must assist her in mounting and dismounting, pick her up if she has a tumble, and make himself generally useful and incidentally ornamental and agreeable.

He rides at her left in order to give her the more guarded place, as the rule of the road in meeting other cyclers is the same as that for a carriage, to turn to the right. In England, the reverse is the case.”(344)

Norman and Adam Ballantye with bicycles at 54 Main Street. James and Lilly Ballantyne are at left of photo. April 1897 LAC
Look at these gentlemen cyclers, not helping out their lady friends! Norman and Adam Ballantye with bicycles at 54 Main Street. James and Lilly Ballantyne are at left of photo. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. 

And don’t you dare ring your bell too much.

“Society. . . frowns upon constant ringing of the bell – that will do for the vulgar herd who delight in the noise.”(345)

Cooke’s strangest piece of advice to me is this whole discussion of having women cyclists dragged along behind male cyclists on rubber towropes:

“Very gallant escorts use a towrope when accompanying a lady on a wheeling spin. These are managed in various ways; one consists of an India-rubber door-spring just strong enough to stretch a little with the strain, and about six feet of shade cord. One end is attached to the lady’s wheel at the lamp bracket or brake rod by a spring swivel, and the other end is hooked to the escort’s handle bar in such a way that he can set it free in a moment, if necessary. When he has finished towing he drops back to the lady’s side, hanging the loose end of the cord over her shoulder, to be ready for the next hill. A gentle pull that is a bagatelle to a strong rider is of great assistance to a week one up hill or against a strong wind.”(345-6)

Wait, I tell a lie. Here’s Cooke’s advice for scaring off stray dogs that like to chase you when you ride your bicycle past them:

For Protection Against Dogs. Every bicyclist in the land will rise up and call the inventor of the ammonia gun for dogs blessed. Nothing is more annoying to the rider than to have a mongrel dog barking at his pedals and scurrying across his pathway in such close proximity to the front wheel as to be a constant reminder of a possible ‘header.’ The gun is calculated to make an annoying dog sneeze and sniff away all future ambitions to investigate the pace of a rider. It is said to be a perfect instrument in every way. The advantages enumerated for it are: Positively will not leak; has no springs to press or caps to remove, and will shoot for five to twelve times from fifteen to thirty feet with one loading.”(346)

Well, I am glad that these guns can be used up to five to twelve times! I am also intrigued by this little bit of cycling slang: apparently tumbling head over heels is called a “header.”

Finally, here is Cooke’s long list of “Don’ts for Cyclers”:

 

In summary: sit up straight, don’t look ridiculous, still come to church, don’t get in anybody’s way, don’t trust directions from working class folks, dress modestly, and follow the law.

I do note that vintage lady cyclists were charmingly called “bloomers”! If we don’t want to bring back ammonia guns to scare off dogs or rubber towropes to go up hills, we can still bring the classy Victorian cycling looks back into style.

Resources

This post is dedicated to Renée and Lauren, who recognized me at the Flying Canoe Festival in Edmonton last month and made me feel momentarily internet famous.

The Missionary Who Carried Kittens In His Pockets

There are many places that bear Reverend Robert Rundle’s name in Western Canada. There’s Mount Rundle in Banff National Park, Robert Rundle Elementary School in the city of St. Albert, Rundle Park in the city of Edmonton, and many more. Rundle was a well-known Weslyan Protestant missionary who ministered to the Cree, Blackfoot, and others in what is now Alberta. He travelled thousands of kilometres by horse and by boat, and while he didn’t always get along with his interpreters or contemporaries, he did have an impact on the West. At one time, however, Rundle was nearly killed because he kept kittens in his coat pockets.

The kittens are not a metaphor.

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Postcard of Mount Rundle in Banff, circa 1920 – one of the many places named after Robert Rundle in Canada. PC007657. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

According to his own writings, on his journey West by York Boat in 1846, he picked up a cat at Fort Edmonton. As it later turned out, this cat was pregnant.

“Mind horrified this evening in consequence of my little cat having had kittens! May the Lord pardon me if I did wrong in taking her,” Rundle wrote.

Chief Factor John Rowand, who was also on this journey, was unimpressed and refused to take responsibility for the cat so Rundle carried her on horseback after they left the canoes. Another one of Rundle’s travelling companions, the artist Paul Kane, described what happened next:

“[Rundle] had with him a favourite cat which he had brought with him in the canoes from Edmonton, being afraid to leave her behind him, as there was some danger of her being eaten during his absence. This cat was the object of a good deal of amusement among the party, of great curiosity amongst the Indians, and of a good deal of anxiety and trouble to its kind master.

Mr. Rowand, myself, and Mr. Rundell [sic], having determined to proceed to Edmonton on horseback . . . we procured horses and a guide and, on the morning of the 12th September, we arose early for our start. The Indians had collected in numbers round the fort to see us off, and shake hands with us, a practice which they seem to have taken a particular fancy for. No sooner had we mounted our rather skittish animals than the Indians crowded around, and Mr. Rundell, who was rather a favourite amongst them, came in for a large share of their attentions, which seemed to be rather annoying to his horse. His cat he had tied to the pummel of his saddle by a string, about four feet long, round her neck, and had her safely, as he thought, concealed in the breast of his capote. She, however, did not relish the plunging of the horse, and made a spring out, utterly astonishing the Indians, who could not conceive where she had come from. The string brought her up against the horse’s legs, which she immediately attacked. The horse now became furious, kicking violently, and at last threw Mr. Rundell over his head, but fortunately without much injury. All present were convulsed with laughter, to which the Indians added screeching and yelling as an accompaniment, rendering the whole scene indescribably ludicrous. Puss’s life was saved by the string breaking; but we left her behind for the men to bring in the boats, evidently to the regret of her master, notwithstanding the hearty laugh which we had had at his expense.”

– Paul Kane, Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America (1859).

John Rowand described later that even after Rundle had been thrown from his horse, he was most concerned about his cat: “When my friend was thrown God knows how far, he never thought of his danger, only calling out, I hope my poor cat is not killed.”

It’s these little details about historical figures that I love to hear about. It gives them a humanity and motivations that I can understand and empathize with. Charged with a sacred mission and travelling half a world away to a region where few spoke his language and few cared about his religion, Rundle was determined enough of a cat lover to bring along a stray cuddly feline – almost to his undoing.

Resources

Pemmican Production During the Fur Trade: 100 lb Bags of Protein – and More!

Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.

What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.

Postcard 2477 Indian drying meat, Loon Lake, Sask.. c1940.peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC002477.html
Drying meat (possibly for pemmican) at Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, circa 1940. Postcard 2477.  Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:

“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”

Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.

Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis buffalo hunt, circa 1920s, by Jeffries. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2015-10-13T21%3A52%3A53Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=2834709&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng
Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis bison hunt, circa 1920s, by Charles William Jefferys. Image via Library and Archives Canada.

While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:

“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”

  • Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.

Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.

“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….

The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”

  •  Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.

I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.

Resources