Indigenous Food Practices 1875-76

Indigenous Food Practices 1875-76

The careful observations of an early geologist in British Columbia provide a unique window into how BC’s Indigenous peoples lived local and off the land.

My reading has recently taken me to The Journals of George M. Dawson: British Columbia, 1875-1878. The Journals are two volumes edited by Douglas Cole and Bradley Lockner and published in 1989 by University of British Columbia Press.  The journals document Indigenous Food Practices, further explained in an article by the late Hilary Stewart (see link at end of blog).

George Mercer Dawson[i] joined the Geological Survey of Canada in 1875 and was the first geologist to systematically document the geology and natural resources of BC. He recorded much of what he experienced and observed as he travelled through the Chilcotin, Upper Fraser, South Central Interior and Haida Gwaii.

On August 15, 1875, Dawson travelled by stage from Hope to Lytton. He noted that above Yale there were fish curing establishments along the Fraser River wherever there were suitable locations for catching salmon. He observed the Indigenous people busy along the riverbanks “laying up their winter stores.” He described the salmon being caught in a scoop net that the fisher held in the water in a nearly vertical position, moving it to and fro till a salmon was found.

“The fish are cured without salt or smoking, being split and strung up on sticks simply. For the purpose of drying them a scaffold of poles is made, into which to prevent the direct action of the Sun green boughs are woven. Under these the fish hang in long rows. When dry they are stored in Caches in trees and many of these may be seen in the pines along the road, sometimes high up the rocky banks of the hills. A framework of poles supports a little box like erection, perhaps 6 to 10 feet long and not quite so wide, at a considerable height above the ground. To prevent squirrels or other small animals getting at the store, a piece of tin is fixed round the trunk below, spreading downward and outward.” (Cole & Lockner, 1989, p. 55)

On November 29, Dawson journeyed to Burrard Inlet where he observed logging and mill operations, and a method of killing fish by dynamite.

“Cartridge fitted with fuse and after being fired, thrown off wharf. Explosion dull heavy sound, but not much commotion of water, immediately followed by the appearance of thousands of herring and other small fish jumping above the surface. Not in the immediate vicinity of the discharge but in a circle surrounding it and as if trying to escape from it. In a few minutes hundreds of dead fish begin slowly to rise to the surface and can be secured from a boat.” (Cole & Lockner, 1989, p. 116)

On June 20 of 1876, Dawson was in the Chilcotin area and documented his observations of the indigenous women cooking. He observed the women boiling fish heads in pots about a foot square, made of wood about 3/8 inches “ingeniously bent round” (p. 212).

“The boiling accomplished by dropping heated stones into the pot, a pair of tongs composed of a couple of long sticks tied together, being used to lift them. The dry fish have the backbones removed and when crisp, the fins, tails, etc. are broken off and the whole pressed down by the hand so as to pack in a solid mass into the bale.” (Cole & Lockner, 1989, p. 212)

On June 26 while in the Quesnel area, he wrote about the Indigenous use of black moss or lichen growing on the trees, detailing how it was stored and made into cakes  to be used when other food supplies were scarce. He described how elder berries were gathered into “a hole made in the hot ground near the fire, lined with leaves of the skunk cabbage, the berries placed in the hollow and cooked to a sort of pulp” (p. 216).  In early September, he purchased supplies at Ft. Babine and later bought some berry cake to supplement his food supplies. 1876 was an unusually abundant year for service berries (saskatoons) and he observed how they were made into berry cakes:

“Berries boiled or parboiled in kettles, or in a large bark cauldron heated by stones. Juice which runs from them carefully collected. Berries spread out on frames made of thin wood, split up in pieces to about the size of lattices and fixed with bark lashings to form a clue grating of parallel strips. These frames arranged horizontally on stages, below which fire kept smouldering. Gradually dry, and when at right stage, the juice again added and the whole flattened out into cakes 2 feet long, 15 inches wide and ¾ inch thick. These dried on same stages over fire and in sun and then stored for use.” (Cole & Lockner, 1989, p. 252)

Dawson’s thorough and wide-ranging observations are a valuable resource for BC historians.

See the following link to information, drawings and diagrams of Indigenous Food Practices compiled by Hilary Stewart, who was a renowned writer and researcher in BC.

Ancient Food Practices on the West Coast by Hilary Stewart

[i] For more information on the remarkable George Dawson, see


2 Responses to Indigenous Food Practices 1875-76

  1. G MIller April 13, 2019 at 5:16 pm #

    Please provide full citation for the Hilary Stewart article

  2. lpeterat April 13, 2019 at 5:52 pm #

    Stewart, H. (1979). Indian Fishing and Cooking: Ancient Ways on the Pacific Coast. In Art Downs (Ed.). Pioneer Days in British Columbia, volume 4 (pp. 109-113). Surrey: Heritage House.

    note: In 2018 a new 40th Anniversary edition of Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast by Hilary Stewart was published by Douglas & McIntyre and University of Washington Press.

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