Tag Archives: food

Backpacking food on the BC gold rush trail

What did gold seekers eat on the way to the gold diggings? In 1862, there weren’t many roadhouses because the Cariboo Waggon Road was just being built. Most of the gold rush miners were backpacking food if they were to survive the long journey from Victoria to the camps in the Cariboo region. Carrying food on one’s back could get really heavy. That’s why compressed, dried vegetables were so appealing – that even stands true for today’s hikers.

advertisement for dried vegetables March 27, 1862

Victoria advertisement for dried vegetables March 27, 1862

This advertisement from the British Colonist reads:

Dried Vegetables. On hand and for sale a few cases of Superior Dried Vegetables.
From their extreme portability, these are very desirable for conveyance to the Mines.
A small case weighing about 100 lbs. only containing nearly 1800 rations. They sold
for a very high price in Cariboo last year. For sale by JANION & GREEN.”

In 1846, a few years before the French Revolution, the head gardener for King Louis-Philippe invented a process by which kiln-dried vegetables, herbs, and fruits could be compressed. It turned out that this invention, which vastly reduced the original weight and bulk of the food, was a valued necessity during the Crimean War (1853-1856) when both British and French troops had to keep well fed and travel at the same time. The vegetables were mixed, dried and compressed under rules laid down by the International Anglo-French Military & Naval Medical Commission. The renowned chef Alexis Soyer was the Chief Inspector of Army Cookery.

Vegetables were cleaned, washed, peeled, sliced and slightly steamed before being dried in kilns and on trays where they exposed to hot dry air. Once dried they were mixed according to the proportions suggested by the military commission:
Potato: 40
Carrot: 30
Cabbage: 10
Turnip: 10
Seasoning herbs (onion, leek, celery, parsley, parsnip, etc): 10

The vegetables were then compressed by machine to one-eighth of their original bulk into molds where they were formed into square slabs almost an inch thick and grooved so they could be divided evenly afterward at the rate of one ounce per ration.

The Hudson’s Bay Company imported compressed dried vegetables especially onions which were considered good for the stomach when made into soup. Also onions were considered a good remedy for those who had drank too much liquor.

fruitpack

1862: Backpacking food on the gold rush trail

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Food of the Fraser Canyon: Salmon Oil and Saskatoon Berries

During their epic journey in 1808, Simon Fraser and his Northwest Company crew were treated to the food of the Fraser Canyon,  including salmon oil and salmon eggs.

Salmon was a major source of fats and oils. How did they extract the salmon oil? This was done by pounding out a rock to form a large hollow. Next, the hollow was heated with hot rocks from a fire. When the hollow was hot enough to boil water, the rocks were removed and replaced with salmon heads. The salmon heads boiled there for a day and then it was allowed to cool down. A yellowish layer formed on top, similar to cream on a milk pan. This was skimmed off. Below that was the salmon oil which was then scooped into salmon skin bottles. All the bones that were left were soft enough to chew. The oil was stored for winter use.

Children would snack on the soft salmon bones from the hole after they had been cooked down.

Simon Fraser also enjoyed salmon eggs, which was considered a delicacy. People buried salmon eggs in the ground in birch bark baskets. They were kept in the ground until early Spring after the ground had thawed. These were often served with dried Saskatoon berries, noted for their sweet flavour.

Dried salmon was sometimes stored in underground cache pits. These cache pits were dug within their winter homes (dome shaped structures with roof entrances) and lined with grass and pine needles. In other places, dried salmon was kept in wooden boxes on raised platforms or in a tree. The boxes had spaces to allow for the wind to circulate around the fish.

Here is a page from my graphic novel in progress: A Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush:

Food of the Fraser Canyon

Food of the Fraser Canyon – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

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Barrels of Beans and Bacon

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the main items to be imported into the colony during the gold rush were barrels of beans and bacon. Beans and bacon were considered food staples back then. As one goldseeker remarked:

“At the inn here we enjoyed what our Yankee companions called a ‘square meal,’ of the generally characteristic fare of the colony, bacon and beans; the latter are abundantly imported in barrels from the States. Here also, after our toilsome march, we indulged in a good wash, the only really cheap comfort obtainable in British Columbia.”

Not only did merchants import kegs of bacon and barrels of beans but also:
crushed sugar
Golden Gate Flour
Hope Butter
Rio Coffee
J & H Lard
Black Tea
Turk’s Island Salt
mats of China Rice
boxes of Macy’s candles
Harvey’s Scotch Whiskey in Puncheons
Holland Gin in Pipes
Champagne Cider in Barrels and Kegs
Edinborough Ale in Stone Jugs or bulk
Bottled Porter
India Pale Ale in pints and quarts
dried apples
hot whiskey punches
barley
bran

Viscount Milton and Dr. Cheadle stayed at J.D. Cusheon’s hotel in the Cariboo district of British Columbia in 1863 at the height of the gold rush:

Our quarters at Cusheon’s Hotel were vile. A blanket spread on the floor of a loft was our bedroom, but the swarms of lice which infested the place and rendered sleep almost impossible, and made us think with regret on the soft turf of the prairie, or a mossy couch in the woods. The fare, limited to beefsteaks, bread and dried apples, was wretchedly cooked and frightfully expensive. Beef was worth fifty cents or two shillings a pound, flour the same, a “drink” of anything except water was half a dollar, nor could the smallest article, even a box of matches, be bought for less than a “quarter” -one shilling. Before we reached Williams Creek we paid a dollar and a quarter, or five shillings, for a single pint bottle of stout.

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Herman Francis Reinhart & the keg of East Boston Syrup

Herman Reinhart - American prospector

Herman Francis Reinhart – Fraser River goldseeker

In April 1851, Herman Francis Reinhart and his brother Charles left their parents’ home in the Midwest with a wagon pulled by a few oxen “for California or Oregon”. During that time, 30,000 people made the trek across the vast expanse of prairie to parts unknown. The mass emigration left behind animals, wheels, and sometimes entire wagons, to the dismay of the Native tribes along the “Oregon Trail” which passed through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada.

“We found lots of wagons left and in one place found 10 or 15 wagons, buggies, or carriages and trunks and boxes of books all strewn around, with all kinds of tools for mining and cooking utensils thrown away…”

The Reinhart brothers had been taught baking by their father and those skills served them well when they reached the west. In between prospecting for gold on the creeks, they worked as bakers and eventually even had their own Bakery Saloon complete with a bowling alley. Their fortunes came and went, however, and gambling for food was not uncommon. Here’s one of his stories:

“In Browntown at night George and I went to a large store, and a man named Barnes and a partner in whipsawing lumber wanted George and I to play them a four-hand game of Euchre for a pound of coffee, or $1.50 worth, whatever we wished to get in goods or groceries per game. I had but three or four dollars left, and George not a cent, but I was satisfied that Barnes and his partner played by signs, and I could post George to beat them, by the signs I could learn him. So I took George and spoke to him a while how to play and we went in and played and we beat them four games in succession at their own game…”

On May 10, 1858, Herman departed from Kerbyville in Oregon and set out for the Fraser River with some gold nuggets, clothing, a sack of flour and a five-gallon keg of East Boston syrup. Because of the flood of prospectors heading north from Washington and Oregon, hostilities broke out when the First Nations tried to slow down and in some cases stop the flow of the goldseekers gripped by the ‘Fraser River fever’. At the Dalles, miners were told they had to travel in ‘companies’ for protection. There were three known organized companies that set out overland from Oregon to the Fraser in 1858. They were captained by Joel Palmer, Archibald McKinlay, and David McLaughlin. Reinhart arrived at the Dalles in June (see “Okanagan Lake Massacre“).

It was rough going and Reinhart’s horse gave out. He got others in the group to carry the keg of syrup and they ended up consuming most of it. In late August, Herman Francis Reinhart and his fellow miners reached “The Fountain” on the Fraser River (a large high bar at the mouth of Fountain Creek about 14 miles above Lillooet).

“There was no flour or groceries of any kind at The Fountain, only what our train had brought in by our packtrain. Major Robertson and a Dalles merchant started a store of groceries, provisions and liquors. Flour sold for $1 to $1.20 per lb., sugar and coffee $1.50 per lb., bacon $2.50 per lb., brandy and whiskey 50 cents per drink or glass…”

“…after six days prospecting we were about a hundred miles from The Fountain, and were about out of provision, … we had to turn back and get to our camp at The Fountain as fast as possible, or we would have to starve, for there was no game to shoot, and in one place we found strawberries just in bloom (in September!). So you can judge the season. We were in about Latitude north 53 or 54th parallel, or about seven or eight degrees north of the forty-ninth parallel of the line between the United States and British Columbia…The first day of starting back toward The Fountain, we run out of provisions, and I traded an old saddlecloth (the half of an empty 50 lb. sack) to an Indian for two dried salmon. He used the old cloth for a legging…”

“…after prospecting a few days longer with no success, we came to the conclusion to strike back to California. I had left good $8 and $10 per day diggings on Sucker Creek, where my brother Charley and my Partner Schertz were working my claim in company with them. So I sold some shirts, drawers, and books such as I could not carry with me. Will Cochran had sold his only horse at The Fountain, so we were both left on foot…”

Reinhart still had his keg of East Boston Syrup which was now almost empty.

“I took out a quart bottle of it to take with us, and I sold the balance, about five quarts, with the keg, for $20 gold piece, my shirts from $3 to $4 apiece, some undershirts and socks and the books-in all, I had some $75 or $80 left. And my breastpin, ring, rifle, pistol and blankets. I bought one pound of bacon for $2.50 of Robertson Company’s store; we had three or four pounds of flour left, and the bottle of syrup. We started with some five or six others for Victoria, right down Fraser River…”

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Stuck in the frozen Fraser River

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ecember 1858 was so cold a sternwheeler got stuck in the frozen Fraser River.

Many gold rush miners who hadn’t reached pay dirt were stuck where they were at camps and bars. A Fraser River correspondent to the Daily Alta California had this to say:

Many who have been at work here for months, are destitute of means not only to lay in their winter stores, but even to buy their daily food. I have never seen so many “strapped” men in any part of the world as here…

The frozen steamer Enterprise

The steamer Enterprise was stuck in the frozen Fraser River

When the steamer Enterprise became stuck in the ice near the mouth of the Harrison River most of the 125 passengers decided to abandon ship and travel by foot. The Victoria Gazette reported that at least two passengers froze to death:

“There being no provisions or accommodations on board for so large a company for any length of time, about 100 of the passengers and one or two of the officers deserted the steamer, determined to make their way into Langley on foot through the woods. Without food – in many instances poorly clad – with snow and ice on the ground, these desperate men commenced their sad journey. For three days they wandered through the woods, shivering, foot-sore, and almost starving, in the rain and through the sleet and ice. In the meantime, the weather had moderated a little, and the rain had softened the ice in the river.

The Enterprise got free again, and ran up and down the river blowing her whistle and firing her guns to attract the attention of those on shore. Here and there she picked up a straggler, who had wandered to the river banks, perhaps to die. On the third day, when about five miles from Langley, she came upon the great majority of passengers, who, feeling it impossible to proceed further, had camped on the bank to wait assistance from the town for which they had sent by four of their hardiest men.

After taking up her passengers, the Enterprise continued on to Langley, where she arrived in a couple of hours…

For those people fortunate enough to make it to Victoria with gold dust in their pockets, they could enjoy a nice meal. The Yates Street Chop House in Victoria advertised their “Christmas Bill of Fare”:

Soups: Oyster, Chicken, Gambo, Mutton Broth

Fish: Boiled Halibut, Boiled Flounder, with Oyster Sauce

Boiled: Ham, Tongue, Chicken, Turkey with butter sauce

Entries:
Oyster pies, Lamb Cutlets, with green peas, Selmes of Ducks, Venison Pastry, Fricassed Chickens

Roasts: Beef, Pork, Mutton, Venison, Turkey, Geese, Chickens.

Vegetables of the season. Pastry and Desserts. Pies assorted. Cakes assorted.

Plum Pudding, Blanc Mange, and Jelly.

 

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Nam Sing and the gambling loan paid in flour

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the first Chinese miners who reached Quesnel in 1861 was Nam Sing. He became known as the one who supplied fresh food to the restaurants of the gold rush towns in the Cariboo.

Nam Sing

Nam Sing

Chow Nam Sing was born in China’s Kaiping County in 1835 and went to California for the gold rush. In 1861 Sing came north to British Columbia and panned for gold up the Fraser River until he reached the junction of the Quesnel River. During times of high water when it wasn’t possible to work his rocker, Sing cleared a small area and tilled the soil with his gold digging shovel on the west bank of the Quesnel River.

He raised a few vegetables for himself and sold the surplus to neighbouring miners using a scow to bring his produce across the river to the townsite. After the peak of the Cariboo gold rush in 1865, Nam Sing turned to vegetable gardening and ranching for a living.

In 1868, Nam Sing was taken to court for his involvement in a gambling debt.

Sing agreed to store sacks of flour for a gambler named Ak Tie who planned to use it to pay off his debt of $280 to businessman Sing Hing. When the time came to repay the loan Ak Tie was short on both money and flour. He was only able to pay most of his creditors 75 cents for every dollar he owed. Sing delivered 30 sacks of flour to Hing who valued it to be only worth $210. Instead of going after Ak Tie, however, Hing sued Nam Sing for the $70, alleging that it was he who had received the loan in the first place.

A witness named San Hing swore in court that he was in the house and saw the plaintiff hand over $280 in bills, “partly red and partly white” to Nam Sing. For his part, Nam Sing denied the debt altogether. The court sided with Hing saying that he had given positive evidence of the loan while Sing had neglected to bring Ak Tie to give his side of the story. In the meantime, the judge allowed Sing’s lawyer to apply for a new trial in order to produce the gambler.

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Donald Fraser and Land Speculation in the BC Gold Rush

When the Fraser River gold rush was underway so was land speculation. One of the least known figures involved in land speculation in the BC Gold Rush was Donald Fraser.

Fraser was born in Scotland and was a classmate of Alexander Grant Dallas, a future son-in-law of Governor James Douglas. Fraser came to Victoria in 1858, whereupon James Douglas appointed him to the Executive Council of Vancouver Island.

The Hudson’s Bay Company thought that if it could entice gold rush miners to come to British Columbia then it would raise the value of land. What they needed was someone to promote the ‘gold diggings’ to the masses abroad.  As a correspondent for the Times of London, Donald Fraser was the ideal candidate to spread this propaganda.

According to Fraser, miners were finding gold without much effort:

The work is not heavy; any ordinary man can do it. The time at work is generally 10 hours. Every man works much or little, according to the dictates of his own sweet will. This independency is one of the chief charms of the miner’s life. Independence and hope make up the sum of his happiness. The cost of living is $1-a-day. To wash 250 buckets of ‘dirt’ is a short day’s work. The bucket is a common wooden water pail, rather small size. Went up to two men at a place by themselves ‘clearing out’ their day’s work. They ‘guessed’ their amalgam was worth $21 to $22.

In the summer of 1858, James Douglas travelled with Donald Fraser to Fort Yale. Here, even Fraser had to admit that the living conditions were primitive. At Hill’s Bar, Fraser found “a gang of miners dining on fried bacon and potatoes cooked à  la Maître d’Hotel, eating out of the frying pan  in which the edibles were prepared, set upon the stump of a tree…”

Fraser also suggested there were stagecoaches on the as yet incomplete wagon road. Many miners were disappointed to discover that they would  have to walk 400 or 500 miles farther carrying a load on their backs.

Not only was Donald Fraser a key political figure, but in a few short years, he became one of the largest land holders on Vancouver Island.

In 1866 Fraser returned to England. In London he joined a group including Gilbert Malcolm Sproat and Alexander Grant Dallas which wielded a lot of political influence. The group opposed the union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia in 1866 and helped to secure the capital of BC at Victoria in 1868.

Stamp_FortYale

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Bitterroot – plant of the Fraser River gold rush

Before the Fraser River gold rush, bitterroot was an important food staple for the indigenous people of the Sheowk’tm (Thompson River). The people of the Thompson River, known as Nlaka’pamux, valued this versatile plant for its roots.

Bitterroot - illustration by Mary E. Eaton

Bitterroot – illustration by Mary E. Eaton

The roots could be eaten raw or cooked, alone or in a mixed dish; they were even steeped as a tea. If the roots were cured for storage, either before or after cooking, it was only a matter of soaking them for a few minutes in warm water to reconstitute and tenderise them before consumption.

Fresh roots were consumed raw or lightly steamed while the dried roots were usually boiled to be eaten alone or added to a variety of souplike stews of which salmon eggs were a common ingredient. As in traditional times, along with other root food vegetables, a favourite but occasional method of cooking bitterroot is to steam it in underground pit ovens.

Bitterroot was also prepared in bannock and dumplings. Their basic recipe called for water, flour, salt and or sugar with any combination of bitterroot, saskatoon berries or other available berry ingredients.

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Oyster Saloons in the gold rush

Olympia oysters, once abundant on the Pacific Coast from California to Vancouver Island, now teeter on the brink of extinction. These small but delicious oysters, measuring only 1 and a half inches, were a delicacy during the California gold rush and oyster saloons popped up all over to satisfy the demand. Soon the Californian coast was stripped of its oyster beds and the miners’ insatiable demand prompted the commercial harvest of Olympia oysters in Puget Sound.

In the mid 1800s, the village of Oysterville began to prosper after Chief Nahcati introduced the town’s founders, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, to oysters. The rich oyster beds of Willapa Bay were soon responsible for Oysterville’s growth, as the town became a major competitor with other oyster companies.

Willard Espy wrote in his memoir of Shoalwater Bay “Oysterville” that “the Puget Sound oyster, known as the Olympia, had a copper taste offensive to refined San Francisco palates. But the same gourmets who rejected the Olympia oysters sang hosannas” to the oysters of Shoalwater Bay.

BritCol18590610_OysterSaloonBy the mid-1850s, oyster saloons had become fashionable once more and gold miners couldn’t get enough of the fishy, saltwater flavour of these small bivalves that could be swallowed whole in a glass of whisky mixed with ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce in a concoction that came to be known as the Oyster Cocktail.

Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon didn’t so much advertise the quality of the oysters as he did the liquor:

“Having lived in Victoria long enough to find that good Malt Liquor is a scarce article, I would respectfully call the attention of the public to the fact that the genuine stuff can be had at my saloon, where can also be found the News from all parts of the civilized world. Call and see me at Duffy’s old place, on Waddington Street, Victoria.”

Steamers came daily to Muddy Bay, Oyster Bay, and Little Skookum to pick up sacks of Olympias. They brought down canoe loads of Olympia oysters down from Comox to the oyster saloons in Victoria. To fill the sacks, oystermen and their families worked at night when the tide was out and the oysters could be raked from the mud flats.

The oysters were forked up into a float which was then poled to the culling house anchored some distance from shore. There the oysters were forked into a sink float, an upside-down float holding two feet of water to keep the oysters fresh.

From the sinkfloat they were forked into a wheelbarrow, rolled into the culling house, up a plank and dumped onto the culling table. All day long, the cullers sorted out the larger oysters, knocking of barnacles, smaller oysters and debris with a culling iron and dropping the marketable oysters into a can, then raking the cullings down the hopper at the edge of the table.

BritCol18591220_Oysters

This advertisement from  Thomas Golden in 1859 promises “Fresh Oysters! Served up in every Style at the Phoenix Saloon. Families supplied at the shortest notice, by the quart or gallon. All orders promptly attended to.”

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Pemmican and Berries in the BC gold rush

What did gold miners eat in the gold rush?  Many brought flour, salt pork and beans, but they soon saw value in the edible plants that were found growing near the trails such as ‘miner’s lettuce’. Vitamin-rich plants were often identified by names in the Chinook trading language. Here are just a few:

salmonberry

salmonberry

Olallie: salmonberry
Amote: wild strawberry
Camas: ‘sweet’ starchy bulb

Miners in the Cariboo gold rush would often stop to eat wild strawberries on their way to the gold diggings. Harry Jones recalled in his diary that he spent almost an afternoon eating his fill of strawberries while some others even became lost in their pursuit of the tasty berry.

Overlanders travelling through the Prairies would have purchased or traded for pemmican. The word ‘pemmican’ comes from the Cree language: pimii ‘fat’ + kan ‘prepared’.

Buffalo meat was dried and then braised over a fire. After, it was laid out on buffalo skin and pounded with stone mallets until it was tenderized. At this stage it was called ‘beat meat’. Bags made of buffalo skin, called taureaux or parflèches by fur traders, were sewn up and half-filled with ‘beat meat’ then buffalo fat was poured into the bag.  Dried berries such as chokecherries, saskatoonberries or golden currants were added.

Each bag was stirred before being sewn tight. Then it was rotated every so often to prevent the fat from settling to the bottom. Pemmican had a long shelf life and the bags even withstood being dumped overboard from a canoe.

‘Rubbaboo’ was a soup made by chopping pemmican, some wild onions, a few roots of prairie turnip and a chunk of salt pork. Some flour could have been added to make it the consistency of a stew.

The name ‘rubbaboo’ was derived from a combination of words from various languages: the Ojibwa and Cree words for soup, ‘nempup’ and ‘apu’; the Alongquin word for the meat that has been pounded (the first stage of the pemmican making process) ‘ruhiggan’; and finally a word from 18th Century naval slang, ‘burgoo’ which referred to oatmeal gruel eaten by sailors.

James Carnegie, who travelled across the Prairies in 1859 wrote about pemmican in his journal which was later published, “Saskatchewan and The Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel.”

Pemmican is most endurable when uncooked. My men used to fry it with grease, sometimes stirring in flour, and making a flabby mess, called ‘rubbaboo’ which I found most uneatable. Carefully made pemmican, such as that flavoured with the Saskootoom berries…or the sheep-pemmican given us by the Rocky Mountain hunters, is nearly good—but, in two senses, a little of it goes a long way.

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