Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Making Pemmican at the Pembina State Museum: The Food of the Fur Trade

When fresh, pemmican has a waxy, gritty texture and a fatty, beefy flavor. While pemmican can store indefinitely if kept dry, its flavor does not improve with age.

Pemmican is a food made of a mix of dried meat and fat. As George Colpitts notes in his book, Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882, the name came from the Cree word pemigan and means “he makes grease.” The grease came from bone marrow and was mixed with harder fats by Native Americans to produce traditional pemmican, sometimes referred to as sweet pemmican.

Two types of pemmican were commonly made foods. Sweet pemmican consisted of a mixture of more palatable fats, including bone marrow grease and unsaturated fats, which made it softer and more palatable than its more prolific counterpart, trade pemmican. It was prepared with care using the best meat and fat. Dried fruit was sometimes mixed into it. For instance, in the Red River Valley, the highbush cranberry, also known as the Pembina berry, would have been added.

Trade pemmican, by contrast, was a hurriedly mass-produced food made by Euro-American and Métis fur traders from whatever was most accessible. It contained more saturated fats and was thus much harder. It often contained other ingredients such as fur, bits of bone, or even bark, which inadvertently found their way into the mix during processing. Despite its rough and unappealing taste and texture, the calories packed into every pound of pemmican helped to drive the fur trade.

Fur traders first came to Pembina in the 1790s to hunt beavers. By 1804, they switched to hunting bison for meat and making pemmican to feed fur traders who operated in the far north of Canada. The Métis quickly took over the pemmican industry, dominating in the middle 19th century with their annual bison hunts at Pembina and Walhalla, then called St. Joseph. Pemmican was so important to feeding people working and living in the Red River Valley that in 1814 the Pemmican War broke out between competing fur trade companies and their allies when the governor of the British territory of Assinaboia (modern southern Manitoba and the Red River Valley) tried to forbid its export. The pemmican trade, like much of the industrial fur trade, ended when bison herds were hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century, a problem exacerbated in part by intensive bison hunts of the Métis pemmican trade.

Despite reading about pemmican in the accounts of many writers who described it in varying degrees of admiration or derision, I still didn’t know what it tasted or looked like. So I embarked on some experimental archaeology to find out. Having no easy access to bison bones, I made a version of trade pemmican, though I left out the fur and bark. I used beef fat since the butchers near me did not carry bison fat. Though bison was historically the most common meat base, pemmican can be made with the meat and fat of any animal, even wild game or fish.

I started with dried bison, which to me tasted almost flavorless but slightly gamey. Adding some beef fat, the dish tasted like fatty ground beef with only a hint of the bison, but the texture is that of a wax candle mixed with gravel. That may not sound appealing, but at almost 4,000 calories per pound, pemmican couldn’t be beat as a source of shelf-stable nutrition in the 19th century.

Two pounds of raw meat and a ½ pound of suet. The meat will reduce to a quarter of its weight when dried, leaving ½ pound of dried meat and ½ pound of suet for 1 pound of pemmican.

If you are up for an adventure and want to make your own pemmican, you’ll need only two or three ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of raw meat (bison or beef), as lean as can be found
  • ½ pound of suet or fat (bison or beef)
  • 1 cup of finely chopped dried fruit (optional)

Begin by cutting the meat into strips as thin as possible. Cut against the grain to make the meat dry faster and easier to pulverize later. Lay the cuts of meat on a wire rack. Place the rack on a baking sheet to catch any errant fat drips.

Cut against the grain to dry the meat faster and make it easier to grind.

Set your oven to the lowest possible temperature—for me that was 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the tray of meat in the oven for 10 to 12 hours. The historical method of drying meat was to hang it outside in the sun for one or two days. The hot sun and prairie winds would desiccate the meat and dry it into jerky. Smoke and fire were sometimes employed to aid the drying process. A more hygienic option is to use an oven or dehydrator.

The dried meat should be brittle and tear apart easily. Place the dried meat in a food processor or blender and use the pulse setting until the meat is mostly ground into a stringy powder; a few remaining small chunks are fine. The longer you process the meat, the finer it will become, which will improve the texture of the final product. If you are including dried fruit, now is the time to mix it thoroughly into your ground meat.

Grind as fine as you wish. Sweet pemmican would have been made with meat pounded into a literal powder. Trade pemmican would have been rougher, which is what I ended up making here.

Next render the fat in a saucepan over medium-low heat. With a metal strainer or spoon, remove any chunks that do not melt so only liquid fat is left. Pour the fat mixture over your ground meat and begin mixing it together with a spoon. Once cool enough to touch without burning your hand, begin mixing by hand to cover everything thoroughly in fat. It is best to wear gloves while mixing. After mixing, but before the fat has set, you may choose to pour your pemmican into a muffin tin or other shaped dish. Let the mixture rest until it has fully hardened.

Pemmican when kept dry has a shelf life measured not in months or years but in decades, though added fruit will shorten it. Historically, pemmican was stored in bags made of bison hide with the seams sewn with rawhide and coated in tallow to keep air and moisture out. A freezer bag or plastic container will suffice to store your pemmican. You may choose to refrigerate your pemmican, but it is not necessary. I made a bag from rabbit fur purchased at the Pembina State Museum store, and my pemmican has kept without refrigeration for over a year. The pemmican is still gritty and a bit unpleasant to my taste buds but completely edible and should remain so for many years.

For added flare, I bought a rabbit fur and sewed it into a pocket to more authentically store my pemmican. You may prefer a plastic freezer bag.

Snail Mail Past: Historical Stationery From the State Archives Inspires Director’s Letterhead

I cannot count all the ways people can send an electronic message to one another these days. Email, text, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Teams, Zoom, Twitter, direct message—the list seems endless. Even the once exalted method of the telephone has receded into a dim, distant place behind these other forms of messaging. People now regularly text me to see if I am able or willing to take a call. While most days I don’t feel particularly old, I fondly remember dial phones and the excitement of coming home to a blinking answering machine light! That all seems like ancient technology to me now.

On a personal level, I rarely see regular mail these days. I get forms and reports for review at the office, but personal mail is mostly just bills and junk punctuated a couple times a year with holiday or birthday cards. Truth is, I have received very few handwritten letters in the mail lately. But when I do get them, I treasure them. Before I came to the State Historical Society, I found that writing to other people the old-fashioned way—with paper, pen, and in cursive—brought me great joy. It turns out that it brought much happiness to the recipients of those letters as well. A couple of my friends confided that the letters meant more to them than I could have imagined.

My letter-writing habit got me thinking about stationery. I often used blank note cards or plain paper. But I wondered if something slightly more personalized might also fit the bill when it came to designing my director’s letterhead. I believe that answers to most of our issues in life can be found by looking back at our history. Most people think of archives as simply a way to source the past, but our State Archives contain thousands of examples of the very best historical graphic design as well. To this end, I asked Sarah Walker, head of reference services, for examples of stationery in our collections. Walker and Lindsay Meidinger, head of archival collections and information management, then served as sounding boards as I sifted through many samples. Just as I had suspected, I was richly rewarded with a plethora of beautiful, artistic, elegant, and professional examples of stationery that made me long for the days past when we communicated with each other by setting pen to paper and writing. TBH, BTW, NGL, those were the days—the days before we communicated primarily in emojis and acronyms! SMH.

A couple of the best examples I found included the stationery of the Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage in Selz, North Dakota. I loved the graphics in this one with the old cars and the color. It just hollers “adventure.” I also liked the work on the Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery and other examples of company stationery that highlighted the organization’s officers. The Bismarck Diamond Jubilee graphic used the original streetscape of historic Bismarck to cleverly cast a shadow of the future Bismarck. What brilliant graphic design and use of color in that one! The steamboat and subtle other nuances in that letterhead caused my gaze to linger. Many businesses’ letterheads contained renderings of their buildings, indicating a great source of pride by the sender in the places they worked.

Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage stationery, circa 1918. SHSND MSS 11354

Stationery made for Bismarck’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1947. SHSND MSS 11354

Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery, 1961. SHSND MSS 11354

After looking at a few of these, Dannie Dzialo, a talented graphic artist who also works in the State Archives, and I sat down to discuss things we liked or didn’t like about the archived stationery. Reference staff also weighed in on what was attractive to them. And then we thought about a few things that are important to me. After some back and forth, Dzialo submitted the finished letterhead, which includes images of the state Capitol and ND Heritage Center & State Museum as well as the names of the agency’s departmental directors, people with whom I am honored and proud to be associated. These elements are mixed with a few others that have deep meaning to me, including, of course, my faithful Labrador retrievers and a steamboat, an expression of my early love of maritime and North Dakota history. 

My new director’s stationery reflects my love of North Dakota history as well as other elements from my past with deep meaning to me.