Today, we think of beef jerky in its signature stick form: easy to grab for an afternoon snack or a quick energy boost on the hiking trail. During the Fur Trade era, however, beef jerky often made the difference between eating at all, or going hungry.
Although the concept of drying meat had existed for centuries, it became particularly important to hunters, traders and travelers of the mid-19th century as a way to preserve meat without refrigeration during long journeys.
After removing the most desirable cuts of meat from an animal, hunters would utilize any remaining meat for jerky. This meat would be cut into long strips and then pickled or heavily salted. The strips would then be laid out in the sun to dry into hardened pieces.
Much like our modern jerky, Fur Trade jerky could be packed up easily and taken on the road. For those traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, charting Western territory or hunting, preserved jerky provided necessary protein – without any concern of the meat spoiling.
American Indians were no strangers to this method of meat preservation, and many tribes’ traditional recipes incorporate dried deer and bison as key ingredients. Pemmican served as their portable jerky of choice; pounded, dried meat was combined with chokecherries and tallow fat and then formed into small balls for easy transport. Mexican buffalo hunters, or Ciboleros, also used jerky to sustain their hunting. American merchant Josiah Gregg described a particular Cibolero camp’s meat curing set-up in his notable work, Commerce of the Prairies:
“A line is stretched from corner to corner on each side of a wagon-body, and strung with slices of beef, which remains from day to day till it is sufficiently cured and stacked away. This is done without salt, and yet it very rarely putrifies [sic].”
As common as it was for consumption, it’s no surprise that beef jerky quickly became another product for trade and export during the Fur Trade era. Hundreds of pounds were packed up for sale every year, with the West India islands serving as the most frequent importer.
The next time you pick up a packet of jerky, you’ll surely be reminded of its important role in sustaining the hunters and tradesmen of our country’s past!
Sources: The Encyclopedia of Trade Goods, Vol. 6: Provisions of the Fur Trade, p. 57; Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, p. 33-38.