“Voyageurs at Dawn” by Francis Ann Hopkins, 1871. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What voyageurs ate depended mostly on where they were — along the rivers, in the Great Lakes, at their wintering post or back home. 

In the earliest days, Radisson, Champlain, Pond and other French-Canadian explorers and adventurers hunted and fished — and traded with friendly Indians who had extra provisions. However, finding food each day took valuable time and meant they couldn’t travel as far or as quickly.

About 10 food barrels are seen on the middle left of this poster from the Canadian Canoe Museum of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Sponsoring fur trade companies began to supply food for the journey from near Montreal to the rendezvous. In general, canoes were loaded with 2/3 trade goods and 1/3 provisions. Each Montreal canoe carried:

  • 6 hundredweight of biscuit,
  • 2 hundredweight of pork or grease (salt pork),
  • and 3 bushels of peas. *

That supposedly would feed about 10 voyageurs 2 meals a day for up to 6 weeks while they paddled the Ottawa/Mattawa River system in Canada, according to Alexander Mackenzie’s journal.

Was it enough?

Actually, no. Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, the brothers instrumental in the early North West Fur Company, realized that because the peas, salt pork and biscuit weren’t …

“sufficient for their subsistence until they reach winter Quarters, they must and always do, depend on the Natives they occasionally meet on the Road for an Additional supply; and when this fails, which is sometimes the case they are exposed to every misery that it is possible to survive, and equally so in returning from the Interior Country, as in the Spring provisions are generally more Scanty.” (see Podruchny p. 118)

To increase their brigades’ speed, the fur trade provisioners supplied dried peas and salt pork because they were cheap to provide, light to carry and wouldn’t spoil on the voyage.

[* I wondered too if quarts back then and quarts now are the same amount. When I compare the amounts needed and the size of the barrels, they don’t match. It takes 32 quarts to make one bushel now, which is three days’ worth of food for them. Does that mean a smaller measure was used for a quart? Did they bring more peas than this reference shows? I’m working on the mystery.]

Pea soup twice a day??

Iron kettle at Forts Folle Avoine in Danbury, Wisconsin. While in the Ojibwe encampment, the voyageurs would have suspended their cooking pot in a similar way.

Back in the day, nobody had the wide range of meal choices we do now — and nobody complained about their food. Seasonal voyageurs appreciated having breakfast and supper, the only meals they ate, even if was the same meal every day for 6 weeks. But they were shamed for those meals of pork and pea soup — more about that later.

Luckily for the men, pea soup provided quickly usable calories. In order to paddle for 12-14 hours (or portage, which was much harder), voyageurs needed 5,000 calories a day! (That’s more than double the fuel that marathoners need today.) 

How they prepared pea soup

  • In the evening, pour one quart of dried peas per person into a 10-gallon kettle filled with lake water. Add two or three pounds of salt pork and hang it on a tripod over a hot fire. To thicken the soup, crumble four biscuits (similar to hardtack). When the porridge is so thick that a stirring stick will stand upright in it, it’s ready to serve. Bon appetit!

  • After supper, there should be half left over. Simmering the pot on low coals overnight, the cook could add water as needed and more biscuits in the morning.

Grace Lee Nute wrote that after cooking overnight, breakfast was the first meal eaten from the kettle, which was then placed — hot! — into the canoe (p. 31).

Other writers say that brigades packed up early and left their campsite by dawn without eating until a few hours later. When they’d finished the morning meal, they’d rinse the pot — now empty, it was easier to carry on a portage. 

Food researchers since have learned that pea protein is high in arginine, an amino acid that’s a precursor to creatine, which delivers energy to muscles. It boosts iron so it builds muscle mass. It might even curb appetites. So it was a lucky good choice.

Sneered at

Because voyageurs coming from Lachine were provisioned, winterers looked down on them, derisively calling them mangeurs de lard, pork eaters. Winterers, who’d lived in the interior over the most brutal seasons, were responsible for all their own food and often starved. Wikipedia tells more about pork eaters and other kinds of voyageurs.

So what did they eat after they ran out of their provisions? Pemmican and rubabboo. Find out how they taste in my upcoming post.

Final Thoughts:

  • Six weeks of pea soup, morning and night? But it was provided, part of a voyageur’s contract.

    What was eating pea soup and pemmican like? Read “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters” through PayPal. Or the ebook.
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  • The Journals of Alexander Mackenzie: Exploring Across Canada in 1789 and 1793” Narrative Press (Santa Barbara, California, 2001)
  • Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Nebraska Press, (Lincoln and London, 2008)
  • The Voyageur” by Grace Lee Nute. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1987).


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