They Fought for Good Fat: An Introduction to the Pemmican War


“Give us the fat!”

Many wars have been fought over food. There were the Salmon Wars, fought for fishing rights on the Rhine River. There are the Steak Wars in Paris, Texas, where chefs compete and raise money for a good cause. And then there is the Pemmican War. 

The story of the war is *almost* as simple as the name implies: people really were fighting over pemmican. Now, it’s in answering the questions of *who* were fighting, and *why* they fought, that the story gets interesting. In this post we’ll meet trappers, settlers, traders, natives, and immigrants, and learn why they fought over the most important food for their ways of life. 

A Good Fat Partnership

Hypothetical question: What would you do if a powerful governor suddenly declared that your career, and the career of most of your countrymen, was illegal? Would you go to war? 

That’s essentially what happened to the Métis (pronounced “may-tee”) people in what is now known as Manitoba, the Red River region of Canada. The Métis were the mixed-race descendants of French explorers and First Nations people, and many of them earned their living by producing and exporting a very special product: Pemmican. 

Hunting bison was risky business. 

The year was 1813. As was their tradition, the Métis rode out in large parties to hunt bison, which were superabundant on the Canadian plains. They slew many of the massive beasts. Then they set about drying the bison meat over smoldering fires, rendering the bison marrow and fat, and mixing it all together in 90-pound bags made of bison rawhide, finally sealed with wax, for the winter. 

The Métis had planned, as they had for years before, to sell much of their pemmican product to the Northwest Company, a British fur-trapping outfit. The Métis and the Northwest Co. had a mutualism, in which each one relied on the other. Without pemmican, the Northwest Co. would be utterly unable to support their far-flung trapping expeditions in the great Canadian West, especially through the cold winters. Thus they were great customers of the Métis, whose livelihood in turn relied on the income from pemmican sales. 

But the partnership was soon to be interrupted by foreign forces, and this interruption would lead to conflict, with dozens dying for the sake of one inimitable food. 

A Colony and Competition

Oddly enough, the roots of the “Pemmican War” that took place in remote Canada stretched all the way back to Scotland. Economic reforms and forced land seizures evicted thousands of Highland Scots, some of whom moved to the newly-founded “Red River Colony” near Lake Winnipeg — right where the Métis pemmican-makers lived and, significantly, on land nominally owned by the massive Hudson’s Bay Company, which was locked in fierce competition with the Northwest Company for control of the Canadian fur trade. 

The new-landed Scots had a difficult go on the bald plains of Manitoba. Agrarian colonies don’t mix particularly well with vast herds of bison. Starvation threatened the settlers. So the colony’s governor sought to control the most reliable food source available: the pemmican. 

We can only speculate as to whether the Hudson’s Bay Co. knew that agrarian Scottish immigrants could disrupt the Métis bison-hunting culture and pemmican trade, and thus disrupt the Northwest Company’s fur expeditions. Perhaps it wasn’t pure altruism that motivated the Hudson’s Bay Co. to grant a portion of their land to the immigrants. Maybe it was a trade war. In any case, it would soon become a blood war. 

Don’t you love a good old map? Near the shores of Lake Winnipeg (Winipic, here) is where the Pemmican War went down.

An Untenable Proclamation

On January 8, 1814, Governor Miles MacDonell of the Red River Colony issued a proclamation that was, in itself, an act of war against the Métis: the Pemmican Proclamation. Basically, the governor declared that no food could be exported from the territory enclosed by the colony. The ostensible reason was to ensure that colonists would have enough food the the following season. 

The governor didn’t even mention pemmican, in the proclamation, but everybody knew that’s what he was referring to. And everybody knew the effect that this would have on two local populations: the Métis and the Northwest Company. The Hudson’s Bay Co, wanting a monopoly on furs — supported the proclamation. The Métis economy, to them, was just collateral damage. Of course, the pemmican makers didn’t see themselves that way. 

An old photo of Governor MacDonell. They sure had cool cameras, back then.

The Battle of Seven Oaks

Now Governor MacDonell and the Hudson’s Bay Co. had to enforce their onerous law. They set up blockades on rivers and roads, blocking passage of Northwest Co. traders and Métis families; they bought up as much pemmican as they could; and they stole what they couldn’t buy. In 1816, a group of Northwest Co. employees and Métis hunters went to steal some pemmican back, but were confronted by Hudson’s Bay and Colony authorities. Thus began the Battle of Seven Oaks. 

Each side of the battle offered a different version of events, but a legal investigation in 1819 determined that the Hudson’s Bay Co. had fired the first shot. After that, they were decimated. The Métis were world-class buffalo hunters, and therefore expert marksmen, and they killed 21 adversaries while losing just one fighter. That’s a powerful ratio. The Hudson’s Bay Co. hightailed it out of the area, and the Métis pemmican was restored. 

The Real Winner of the Pemmican War

Several years later, the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired the Northwest Company, and they let bygones be bygones. They continued to buy pemmican from the Métis, and the food remained the staff of fur-trading life for as long as the industry was active. In fact, pemmican grew in popularity. It was a staple of military rations in several more wars (that were fought with, rather than for pemmican) and Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. 

 It was only after the advent of industrial oils and anti-animal-fat propaganda that people turned away from pemmican. 

Now, thankfully, the winds of change are blowing, ruffling the grass on the ancient prairies, and people are remembering why good fat is so good. People are remembering pemmican, partially because of its role in a brief war on the Canadian frontier. Yes, pemmican won the Pemmican War, because it’s truly worth fighting for. And now, as we begin to enjoy pemmican, again, we increase our own odds of victory in life’s everyday battles, whether they be simply eating healthy, summiting the next peak, or preparing for crisis, pemmican wins.


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