by Bruce Cherney
Newspapers across North America that received their Christmas gift from Winnipeg in 1902 referred to it as “unique,” “odd,” “original,” “most interesting,” and “a great curiosity.”
After receiving “one of the oddest Christmas gifts,” the Cincinnati Post, described it as being “packed with the care of good dust and inverted with the halo of curiosity that attaches to a sample of volcanic dust from Mt. Pelee (on the island of Martinique, which erupted in 1902, killing 30,000 people) or crumbs of a mummy from the Pyramid of Cheops” (Khufu).
How else could anyone describe a package, the size of a “slim pocketbook,” of pemmican sent as a Christmas present?
It wasn’t the typical buffalo pemmican long associated with aboriginal people and the fur trade in Western Canada, but reindeer pemmican made in the Far North. By the time the “Christmas present from the Manitoba Free Press” reached its final destinations, buffalo, or more correctly bison, which formerly roamed the plains in the millions, had been hunted to near extinction.
Accompanying each small “daintily and attractively put up” canvas bundle was a booklet relating the story of pemmican in the West, and how and where the particular packages were obtained. In addition, the end section of the booklet was filled with statistical information extolling the economic benefits to be derived by investing in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Western Canada.
The motivation behind the gift, according to the Winnipeg newspaper, was that “like Mr. Hearst, who boasted that the New York Journal brought on the Spanish War, the Free Press believes in ‘journalism that does things.’”
The Winnipeg newspaper claimed advertisements used in the past to promote Western Canada, such as letters from successful settlers sent by the Canadian government abroad to attract immigrants, were “primitive.”
“Nowadays we have ‘Professors of Publicity,’ who study the theory and practice of advertising ... and in the long run they are money savers to those who employ them, their fees being but a small percentage on the largely increased business secured through their efforts.”
Apparently, the same “Professors of Publicity,” who advised the Free Press to send out packages of “odorous” pemmican, had played a role in the same newspaper’s 1901 Christmas campaign involving the distribution of small packets of No. 1 hard Manitoba wheat across North America and Britain.
Newspapers from across the continent reporting about the Christmas gift received from the Free Press — snippets published in the January 21, 1903, issue of the local newspaper — were varied in their opinions about the merit of the gifts, but as a unique advertising gimmick, the presents made a strong impression. In addition, the same newspapers recalled receiving the packages of wheat from the Free Press.
The Free Press said the comments provided evidence that the Christmas gift was “an almost priceless advertisement for the resources of Western Canada.”
“This pemmican was specially made at the suggestion of the ‘Winnipeg Free Press,’” wrote the Hartford Courant, “an entertaining newspaper printed in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba ...
“It would not be a successful newspaper in the Canadian Northwest that did not boom its own town. The ‘Free Press’ gives Winnipeg a good lift with three or four pages of statistics.”
The Connecticut-based newspaper went on to say the Free Press “will continue to print the news, to express its opinion, and possibly — the real thing in reindeer pemmican no longer being a novelty — will try its hand at chipping off bits of Pole to send out as Christmas souvenirs of the Far North.”
The Chicago Record-Herald gave the Free Press full credit for being a “persevering advertiser of the attractions of Canada.”
Upon opening its “unique Christmas souvenir” from Winnipeg made by
an “old trapper,” New York-based Printer’s Ink, a well-respected trade magazine, claimed the newspaper was “ a fine daily ... and its odd holiday gift will do much to fix it in the memory of those who buy advertising space.”
The pamphlet accompanying the “odd” gift told how the newspaper had obtained the pemmican. It sent a request to the Hudson’s Bay Company post known as Fort McPherson, about 100 kilometres within the Arctic Circle on the east bank of the Peel River and 121 kilometres (75 miles) south of Inuvik on the present-day Dempster Highway, “to have a quantity of pemmican specially prepared and sent to Winnipeg for the purpose of being put up here in small sacks to be sent out as Christmas remembrances ... This pemmican was prepared by an old trapper who has been for many years in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, and who in his time has made hundreds of pounds of buffalo pemmican.”
With the near-extinction of the buffalo, the old trapper told the newspaper he exclusively used the reindeer meat to make the pemmican.
Although reindeer from Russia had been in Alaska since 1885, there were none in Canada until after the five-year-long “Great Trek,” which, fittingly, began on Christmas Day 1929 and ended in March 1935. Sami (Lapp) herders from Scandinavia drove a herd of 3,442 reindeer from Alaska to Kittigazuit, Northwest Territories, where nearby Reindeer Station was established.
In the end, it was a less than successful venture, as reindeer herding was only adopted by less than 100 Canadian Inuvialuit under the guidance of Sami. In 1969, the station was abandoned and most of the residents moved to Tuktoyaktuk or Inuvik. In 1974, the remaining reindeer herd was sold to Canadian Reindeer Ltd.
Since Siberian domestic reindeer were not native to Canada, the quoted “reindeer” in the Free Press brochure were actually barren lands caribou. But both are from the genus Rangifr tarandus and are part of the Cervide (deer) family. Since the introduction of the reindeer in 1935, the Canadian herd rarely exceeded more than 8,000 head and its DNA has been diluted by freely interbreeding with native caribou.
In Manitoba, woodland caribou are found from Hudson Bay to the east side of Lake Winnipeg in the province’s boreal forest. There are an estimated 15,000 caribou in the northern portion of the province, but only an estimated 1,800 to 3,140 of the mammals in the boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba government). The boreal forest woodland caribou are listed as “threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Manitoba’s boreal woodland caribou populations were listed as threatened under the province’s Endangered Species Act in June 2006.
At the time the Free Press sent its gifts across North America, reindeer had become closely associated with Santa Claus and Christmas through the poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822, which was adapted from an earlier Dutch version (some researchers say plagiarized).
In Manitoba, store advertisements from the turn-of-the-20th-century do not refer to reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, but hauling a toboggan to carry gifts for children. Toboggan is a distinctly Canadian word, derived by French-Canadians from the Algonquian language. The change from a sleigh to a toboggan is easily explained by the proliferation and importance of the method of winter transportation — as well as providing abundant fun for children — in Canada.
What Manitoba children felt about Santa’s reindeer being killed and converted into pemmican is not mentioned by the Free Press. However, the gift was sent to adults and not young children, so its doubtful pre-school tots were aware — unless told by their parents or older siblings — that Cupid and Prancer had been led to the slaughterhouse.
Printer’s Ink did mention that the pemmican was made “not many days march from the headquarters of Santa Claus” at the North Pole.
The Brockville Recorder, wrote: “Little did the reindeer know who contributed the fleshiest strips imagine how he was to pass down into history as an advertiser of the West’s greatest newspaper ...”
The pemmican undertook a lengthy and convoluted journey of nearly 4,600 kilometres before reaching its final destination. It was transported from the Hudson’s Bay Company post down the Peel River to the Mackenzie River, and up the Mackenzie aboard the HBC steamer Wrigley to Great Slave Lake. From there, the cargo travelled across the lake and up Slave River to Fort Smith. From Fort Smith, the HBC steamer Grahame took the pemmican up the Slave River, across Athabaska Lake and up the Athabaska River to Fort McMurray. Flat-bottomed boats transported the pemmican over numerous rapids to Athabaska Landing. It was then unloaded at the landing for an overland journey to Edmonton via dog train (sled). The remainder of the journey was relatively easier, as the pemmican rode aboard a train first from Edmonton to Calgary and then onward to Winnipeg.
Once in Winnipeg, the pemmican was divided into small canvas sacks — not the hides in which buffalo pemmican from bygone years was stored — and sent across North America.
The advertising gimmick’s success relied upon the gift’s uniqueness as well as the “romantic” relationship it had with Western Canada’s early history, which cannot be overstated. The commodity was extremely important to early explorers, fur traders, voyageurs and settlers. Without easily carried compact bags of pemmican, explorers wouldn’t have been able to penetrate Western Canada’s interior, voyageurs wouldn’t have been able to paddle the canoes needed to transport trade goods from the East and furs from the West, the HBC York boat crews wouldn’t have been able to make the journey from posts on the Hudson Bay coast to Fort Garry and beyond, and the Selkirk settlers would have starved to death as they struggled to tame the wild prairie.
In fact, pemmican was so important to the region that a war started after the HBC on January 4, 1814, attempted to exert its control over the supply. The “Pemmican War” began when Red River Governor Miles Macdonell issued the Pemmican Proclamation, prohibiting the export of the staple from the settlement for a year. Although it was meant as a method to keep the Selkirk settlers from starving until a more self-sufficient colony could be firmly established, the adverse reaction to the proclamation by the HBC’s rivals in the fur trade almost ended up obliterating the fledgling settlement.
The proclamation led to open conflict with the North West Company (Nor’Westers), which felt it was proof that the settlement was being created to disrupt and eventually destroy its fur trade routes. During a council in 1815, the Nor’Westers decided their only recourse was to wipe out the colony along the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Métis allies of the Nor’Westers intimidated the settlers with wild gunfire, by burning buildings and raiding their crops, which created a state of near panic at Red River.
In the wake of the intimidation tactics, Nor’Wester Duncan Cameron was able to persuade 133 settlers to accept his offer of safe passage from Red River to Eastern Canada. Just 13 families were left in the colony, and they were driven off on June 25, 1815, taking refuge at Jack River (Norway House) at the north end of Lake Winnipeg.
But they were back at Red River in August, thanks to the encouraging leadership of Colin Robinson. When Robert Semple, the new governor of the settlement, arrived, it was Robinson who convinced the colonists to take the offensive against the Nor’Westers by burning down Fort Gibraltar at The Forks, near present-day Upper Fort Garry. The fort in the shadow of their community was a looming reminder of the hardships imposed upon them by the Nor’Westers. As such, it was a symbol they could readily inflict damage upon to alleviate their pent-up anger.
The Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant, retaliated by looting Brandon House on the Assiniboine River and then proceeded to the Red River Settlement. At Frog Plain (Seven Oaks), the settlers marched out of Fort Douglas (south side of present-day Point Douglas) and unwisely clashed with the Métis. In the unequal Battle of Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816, the experienced and well-armed plains fighters easily prevailed, killing Semple and 20 settlers, while suffering just one fatality.
The animosity only ended when the two rival companies were merged in 1821. With the cessation of conflict, retired fur traders and Métis began to move to the settlement, adding to the population and eventually outnumbering the original Selkirk settlers.
Pemmican remained a staple on the plains and the Far North for decades.
William Gomez da Fonseca, who moved to Winnipeg from Minnesota in 1860, wrote about his journey to Red River, making specific mention of pemmican as the mainstay of people trekking across the prairie. In his account, On the St. Paul Trail in the Sixties, he said when his travelling party stopped: “The kettle was soon simmering ... When the water had boiled in the kettle, the pemmican bag was broached, a quantity of it was stirred into the boiling water, flour and salt were added, and thus resulted the celebrated ‘rubaboo,’ as it was called ... Pemmican cooked in a frying pan, a little grease, pepper, salt, with a trace of onions and potatoes added, consisted this dish (rowschow) to set before a king.”
R.M. Ballatyne in his book, Account of a Journey from York Factory to Norway House in 1845, wrote: “As might be expected, it is not a very delicate dish, but is, nevertheless, exceedingly nutritious; and those who have lived long in the country, particularly the Canadians, are very fond of it. I think, however, that another of their dishes, composed of the same materials, but fried instead of boiled, is much superior to it. They call it richeau (rowschow); it is uncommonly rich and very little will suffice for an ordinary man ...”
The Hartford Courant said pemmican is not made to be pleasant to the palate, “but for the nourishment and warmth of the body under an indefinite number of degrees of frost. How one likes it depends entirely upon the environment ... it is a necessity food, and not a pleasant food, and because of this it is all the more interesting.”
Bishop John McLean was very unkind in his description, telling an audience in London, England, that eating pemmican was similar to chewing on a tallow candle.
Despite the bishop’s aversion, Fonseca said “this important staple, worth thousands of pounds a year to prairie travellers, was so important that the Hudson’s Bay Company could not have carried on its wide and extensive enterprises without it.”
Also critical to the flavour of pemmican were some of the more daring newspapermen who sampled their Christmas gift, which the Free Press urged them to do, as “there is nothing (that) can be said that will begin to make as lasting an impression upon the reader (of the brochure) as an actual test of the contents of the accompanying little sack.”
The Cincinnati Post said,”There was also a defunct atmosphere about the pemmican (it received) that suggested that it, like man, is mortal.”
The newspaper didn’t blame the Free Press for its “defunct” state, but “the moist changeable atmosphere of Southern Ohio,” which caused the pemmican to begin “smelling like a hide, wool and feather warehouse on a sultry evening.”
The Evening Journal of St. Thomas expressed sympathy for early hungry travellers forced to consume the dried pounded meat mixed with animal fat. The Ontario newspaper wrote that “evidently the worst features of pemmican are conveyed to the human intelligence through the nostrils, for it was tried upon a lively dachshund, who stretches his length upon the softest cushions in our home, and had no fatal results. We judge from that fact that pemmican is not poisonous, not withstanding that its smell is deadly. With the disappearance of the buffalo pemmican must go; and for our part the adieus are said with cheerful resignation.”
Before the buffalo disappeared, the Métis organized twice annual hunts that at times included hundreds of Red River carts, another unique feature of the western prairies. Alexander Ross, a fur trader and historian, wrote of an 1840 hunt that employed 1,210 such carts. The hunting party consisted of some 1,600 men, women and children, with 400 men involved in shooting the beasts from horseback.
Hundreds of buffalo were killed during these twice annual hunts during the spring and autumn — 1,375 in 1840, according to Ross — with much of the meat converted into pemmican. The Métis became the primary suppliers of the prairie staple pemmican, and when the buffalo disappeared, the mainstay of their economy also vanished.
To make pemmican, the buffalo meat was first cut into strips and dried in the sun or over a fire. Once dried, it was pounded into a powder using an anvil stone that was struck with a stone hammer — six pounds (2.72 kilograms) of meat could make one pound (0.453 kilograms) of powder, so a 1,200-pound (544.31-kilogram) buffalo yielded 200 pounds (90.72 kilograms) — which was then mixed with hot melted buffalo tallow (fat).
The fat was primarily obtained from the hump and back of the animal. The hump, which could weigh about 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms), according to Charles Mair, who wrote an 1890 paper on the habits and economic value of the American bison, presented in Prince Albert before the Royal Society of Canada, was considered to contain the most tender fat. “The ‘back’ fat, which was rich, but was less delicate, lay immediately beneath the hide, and ran along the backbone,” wrote Mair.
“Marrow-fat was the plain Indian’s butter, and surpassed it in richness if not in flavor. It was prepared by breaking all the bones, and boiling them in water till all their oil was extracted. This was skimmed off, boiled again and clarified, and then poured into buffalo bladders, where it hardened into a rich golden mass which looked exactly like well-made butter.”
The Cree and Blackfoot, who taught the Métis and white traders how to make pemmican, used a mixture of four pounds of melted fat to five pounds of meat. According to most dictionaries, the word pemmican was derived from the Cree word pimihkan (mixing together grease and meat).
The aboriginal mixture, called prairie pemmican, disagreed with the more delicate stomachs of white traders, who came up with their own measurement for a more palatable product.
After being mixed, the pemmican was placed into compact buffalo hide bags, which were sewn up for storage and transportation. When properly stored, pemmican could stay edible for years. The standard weight of a bag filled with pemmican destined for the fur trade was 90 pounds (40.82 kilograms).
The Cree and Blackfoot made pemmican more tasty and nutritious by including saskatoons or blueberries, a practice that was eagerly adopted by others. Since saskatoons were widespread on the plains, these berries were primarily used. Apparently, the Free Press version of pemmican used Zante currants.
Mair said pemmican was first mentioned in 1541 in the narrative of Coronado’s expedition to New Mexico, “and the last bag of it (buffalo pemmican) was probably eaten on the banks of the Saskatchewan (River) in 1882.”
Other versions of pemmican used meat from deer, elk, moose, muskox or fish, as well as the caribou meat that went into the Free Press gift. The other varieties of pemmican were manufactured well into the 20th century in Canada’s Far North. In addition, pemmican, due to its compact size and nutritional value, was carried by Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. The latter wrote in his book, The South Pole, that their pemmican — fish and meat — was made more nutritious by adding vegetables and oatmeal to the mix. It fed both his party and the sled dogs.
In addition to the newspapers, the Free Press sent Christmas pemmican presents to Canadian Senators, Members of Parliament, and prominent people such as bank presidents and William Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The Free Press claimed: “It would be no exaggeration to say that (the results of the distribution) have been easily, in the wide range of interest excited, the most important ever achieved for Canadian (sic: should probably be Canada) by a Canadian newspaper.”
Whatever the Winnipeg newspaper’s claim, there is no doubt each small sack of pemmican was an extremely effective advertising gimmick. It also took a vivid imagination to dream up such a novel scheme to promote the newspaper, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Western Canada.