Who Likes Berries?

Berries weave an interesting thread through the history of western Canada. They entered the story early, an important food source for many living creatures on the prairies, and proved to be essential to the success of the buffalo hunt for Indigenous peoples. Local berries would eventually be welcomed into the diets of most newcomers, and even celebrated with festivals in their name!

One of the staples of the Indigenous diet on the Great Plains was pemmican, “a portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling foodespecially convenient for crossing long distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds. Pemmican is a Cree-Chippewa word meaning fat – appropriate because 50% of pemmican was rendered buffalo fat with 45% lean shredded buffalo meat, and 5% dried and ground berries. As the fur trade spread throughout the Hudson’s Bay watershed, pemmican became a portable food source for traders, voyageurs, and early travelers, too. Today, pemmican is popular as a survival food for hikers, and modern recipes feature all sorts of variations, including vegetarian options (see links below).

Speaking of recipes, a few years back I visited Fort St. James, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post in northern British Columbia. They were passing out samples of Indian ice cream made from soapberries. Soapberries will foam when crushed, but are too bitter to eat by themselves so are usually mixed with something else. The recipe shown below features soapberries, water, and sugar. The berries also possess a number of medicinal qualities, as do many native plant species.

Indian Soapberry Ice cream

Settlers, of course, were familiar with berries, even though they may have been different from the ones in their homelands. Berry patches were located, berries were picked and preserved, eaten with fresh cream, and baked in pies, muffins, etc. St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan celebrates wild blueberries. Why? I’m not sure, but their 30th Annual Wild Blueberry Festival finished up last weekend.

Bear scat w/berriesWho else likes berries? Well, at Fort Pitt I found evidence that the bears probably really like the chokecherries down by the river – as you can see here.

Links:

Photo: Drying meat, Wilderness College

God’s Half Acre at Fort Pitt

In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built Fort Pitt on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River approximately half way between Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton. The fort was originally designed to serve as a pemmican production centre for the company’s boatmen and traders, and to operate as a local trading post within the HBC’s extensive fur trade network. The original fort burned to the ground, not an uncommon fate for the wooden buildings of the time, but was rebuilt in the mid-1870s.

However, by the mid-1870s, these were different times. Fort Pitt had become a regular stop for North Saskatchewan River steamboats, and for overland travelers and traders on the Carlton Trail to Fort Edmonton. The new fort was constructed further back from the river, and was larger than its predecessor. In addition, it became the headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt, played a role in the negotiations for Treaty 6, and was the location of one of the battles of the North-West Resistance.

Battle of Fort Pitt
By The Illustrated London News – Online at Canadian Military Heritage, Department of Defence., Public Domain, Link

It was also no longer a part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly since the HBC had relinquished those rights to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Although the HBC no longer received special trading privileges, it did retain ownership of its trading posts, and a certain amount of reserve lands surrounding each of them. Fort Pitt was destined to burn once again during the North-West Resistance, only to be partially rebuilt, and then, eventually, to be sold by the HBC in 1945 as farm land.

When I visited Fort Pitt Provincial Historic Park last weekend, it was for the role it played in the fur trade and the North-West Resistance. I already knew the fort had not been reconstructed, but that paths, interpretive signage, and the footprint of the former buildings for both forts did exist – and, there was a picnic area, which is where I planned to eat my lunch. What I didn’t know anything about was the gated and palisaded monument to God’s Half Acre.

… As the shadows lengthened into a purple wave,
I gently closed that lonely grave at old Fort Pitt,
And there resolved that these first-comers
Shall have title to that scarce half-acre of sod,
For I will deed it back to God. – R.H. Hougham

In 1945, Robert Henry Hougham (1889-1960) purchased the old HBC reserve lands unaware, until he began to break ground, that the original Fort Pitt cemetery lie just below the sod. The shallow, unmarked graves had had their markers either burned, or removed during the battle in 1885. Hougham set aside half an acre, and erected a cairn to pay his respects. In 1960, he was buried there, as well. With the river on one side, and surrounded on the others by a farm and its fields, this half acre offers the visitor an unexpectedly poetic pause.

God's Half Acre w/ R.H. Hougham