A Locavore in 1877: Indigenous Foods in G.M. Dawson Journals 1877-78
The word locavore, meaning a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food was invented in 2005 by Jessica Prentice and declared the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2007[i]
For the Indigenous Peoples of BC, the definition borders on irrelevant. Over thousands of years, they developed agricultural and hunting methods that used and maintained “local” resources. The explorer / surveyor, George Dawson tapped into Indigenous food knowledge in his travels to the Southern Interior of BC and Haida Gwaii in 1877-1878. His journals documented his observations of natural and cultivated food sources. Dawson’s records serve as a guide to available food that provided daily nourishment for him and his crews.
Dawson began his 1877 travels in Kamloops[ii]. On June 14, on the trail to Similkameen[iii], he noted “thickets of salmon berry” and “abundant white flowering raspberry” (p. 326). On July 31, he was in the area of Shuswap Lake and noted “a wonderful profusion of berries.”
The black berried haw[thorn], some bunches now ripe – service berry – rather over ripe, berry of the large white flowering raspberry in great profusion. Wild cherries coloured but not quite ripe (Choke cherries nearly ripe in some places) Mahonia. Red berried Vaccinum (likely red huckleberry), Black berried raspberry. Pigeon berry – ripe. Also sarsaparilla berries ripe. (Cole & Lockner, 1989, p. 363)
On August 4 and 5, he was in the area of the Salmon River, near present day Sicamous[iv]. On the evening of August 4, he reported: “Rigged up a fishing rod and succeeded in catching several good sized fish of the pseudo-white fish kind, of which a couple came in well for supper” (p. 366). The next day he reported that in the evening “I shot eight fine Mallard ducks, which will constitute a pleasant relief from the monotony of bacon” (p. 366). A common meal at the time was bacon, beans, bannock and tea; bacon being one food that travellers believed could be carried for a period of time without deteriorating. Later on September 14 he noted: “Tried fishing in the lake but without success and having had no luck with the gun, confined to our regular diet of bacon” (p. 400).
On August 6, Dawson noted that several indigenous families were camping nearby present day Mara Lake and that “They are now spearing by torchlight in the mouth of Eagle River, a species of small salmon, which [they] assure me does not go to or come from the Sea, but is now ascending from the lake to spawn – Perhaps a land locked variety of one of the smaller species of Salmon of this Coast” (p. 367). Cole and Lockner note the fish were likely Kokanee.
Dawson learned from fishing methods he observed and noted on August 26 near Cherry Creek (near Kamloops) “Tried blasting for fish this evening, but killed a lot of very small whitefish only” (p. 382).
Dawson documented the food crops that people were growing in the various areas he visited. He reported on S.W. Heyes’ attempts at Princeton[v] and noted “all sorts of vegetables and garden stuff, including potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, squashes, beans, etc”, as well as gooseberries and asparagus were growing (p. 399).
In 1878, Dawson spent his summer on Haida Gwaii [vi]where he experienced coastal seafood and was introduced to gull eggs. On June 13 he noted: “Stopped at several gull populated rocks and deprived them of their eggs, which – those of them which were not half hatched – made an agreeable addition to our supper” (p. 451). Gull eggs appear to become almost a staple food for Dawson. On June 21, he again noted: “Visited a couple of rocks en route today from which a few gulls eggs – very acceptable at supper – were obtained” (p. 455).
Later on August 4, he noted other food sources that included codfish and mackerel. He saw both taken to Skidegate where there was a fishery established. He noted that the mackerel were a distinct species, different from those on the east coast. He noted that the mackerel were apparently abundant and “from them the Indians make a grease which serves them instead of oolichan oil” (p. 488). He also noted that the indigenous people were cultivating potatoes, “well grown, mealy and nearly ripe on Aug. 2” (p. 489).
In later August, near Masset, Dawson observed,
Many thickets of Crab apple fringing the shores on the Masset lakes much fruit on them not yet ripe. Told that next month ripen. Then collected, boiled, allowed to remain covered with water till mid winter when gone over, stalks etc. removed and the whole mixed with oolachen grease in sufficient quantity forming a delicious pabulum…. (p. 307).
Dawson described two runs of salmon. One was of a small fish with bright red flesh and very good. The run usually began in mid-July and lasted for about one month. Dawson assumed these were sockeyes that he had observed in the Fraser. The second run was about mid August of larger silver salmon, likely pink salmon. They were large and easily caught and constituted the main salmon harvest of the indigenous people. The run lasted until about January. He noted that trout were also found in most of the streams, and potatoes and barley were being grown.
Through his careful observations, George Dawson provides an historical window into past food practices that are relevant to current concerns on many levels.
Cole, Douglas & Lockner, Bradley (Eds.) (1989). The journals of George M. Dawson: British Columbia, 1875-1878, volume II, 1877-78. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
[i] Prentice describes her thought process that resulted in the word “locavore” in the following article: https://www.chelseagreen.com/2008/locavore-the-origin-of-the-word-of-the-year/