A Singular Thirst

Page 4 of 9

Indian Process of Drying "Jerked" Meat on Scaffolds1

Drying Jerky

Photographer unknown

The word jerky is a close phonetic spelling of the Andean Indian word charque, meaning "to pound or beat." It entered EuroAmerican speech in the late seventeenth century, and appeared in print in the first decade of the eighteenth. Jerky is meat cut into slabs approximately a quarter-inch thick, pounded with a stone to express some of the moisture, then hung on racks of slender poles to air-dry in the sun and wind. The slabs of dried meat were packed in skins of buffalo or deer.

The dried slices of meat could be flailed or pounded again with stones until shredded, then mixed with hot tallow or marrow fat and flavored with berries, to make a highly nutritious food that Cree Indians of the Northern Plains called pemmican. One pound of pemmican was said to be equal in food value to four pounds of fresh meat.2 Chunks of it could be eaten cold or mixed with vegetables or roots in a stew. It could be kept for months, or even years if properly stored.

On 24 June 1804 the party stopped at midday to jerk the deer meat they had recently killed. They may have hung it on the rigging of the boats, or else improvised some sort of scaffolding, for they were under way again within a couple of hours. The next few days were clear, probably warm, and windy.

During the winter of 1806 at Fort Clatsop, the mild, moist climate confounded most of their efforts to keep the meat of the elk and deer they shot from spoiling (see "Mind the Meat" in Life at Fort Clatsop), which seriously diminished the health and energy of every man.

After departing from Fort Clatsop in the spring of 1806, the Corps faced the urgency of securing and preserving enough meat to feed themselves between The Dalles and Nez Perce country on the west side of the Bitterroot Mountains. Lewis considered making pemmican, but persistent rain interfered with the drying processes. On the morning of 5 April the captains sent Sergeant Ordway and a few other men to assist Sergeant Pryor in bringing in the meat of four elk that Drewyer and the Field brothers had shot on the third, and which Sergeant Pryor and three men had been sent to dry on scaffolds over fires.

At 1 P. M [on the 5th] the party returned with the meat. …it had been so illy dryed that we feared it would not keep. …we therefore directed it to be cut thinner and redryed over a fire this evening. The deerskins which we have had cased3 for the purpose of containing our dryed meat are not themselves sufficiently dryed for that purpose, we directed them to be dryed by the fire also. . . . the weather has been so damp that there was no possibility of pounding the meat as I wished.

The next morning they secured the dried meat in the prepared skins, loaded the canoes, and continued up the Columbia River.

It was wintertime on the northwest coast, and the weather was typically wet and chilly, although seldom below freezing—ideal for the propagation of bacteria that cause meat to spoil. The elk the hunters shot was often tainted before they could get it back to the fort, and was, Clark complained on 29 December 1805, "extreamly disagreeable to the Smel. as well as the taste."

Back on the plains east of the Rockies, the best recourse had been to "jerk" or "fleece" the fresh meat they didn't eat right away. That solution was problematic at Fort Clatsop. "We have yet seen no ice," the captains remarked on January 3, 1806, "and the weather so warm that we are obliged cure our meat with smoke and fire to save it. …we lost two parsels by depending on the air to preserve it, tho' it was cut in very thin slices and sufficiently exposed to the air."

It's no wonder. Bacteria multiply quickly in meat at or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We don't know what temperatures were like that winter, because their last thermometer had been broken early the preceding September. We do know that between 1961 and 1990 the average daily temperature ranged from a low of 18.3 degrees to a high of 43.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria also thrive in a moist habitat, and although they couldn't measure humidity in the field (the hygrometer would be invented in 1820 by Englishman John Daniell), they knew it was high. "We have not been able to keep anything dry for many days together since we arrived in this neighbourhood," Lewis wrote on January 6, "the humidity of the air has been so excessively great." In fact, today the daily average ranges between 70 and 90 percent saturation from November through March.

Salt, however, liberally massaged into meat, draws moisture to itself; the meat "perspires" and the bacteria die of thirst. The captains allotted eight of the 28 gallons the saltmakers refined for use during the rest of the winter, which should have been sufficient to preserve hundreds of pounds of meat. Yet by late February they had "three days provisions only in store and that of the most inferior dryed Elk a little tainted." It was, Lewis continued sarcastically, "a comfortable prospect for good living."

One reason could have been that the elk had moved too far south and east into the mountains, to get it to the Fort's meat house before it spoiled. Another is that they might have used a large amount of their salt supply to cure hides for clothing and moccasins. Of course, if one could scrape a hide quickly enough and air-dry it thoroughly enough—the latter an unlikely prospect at Fort Clatsop—salting wouldn't have been necessary. In any event, something worked in the long run. Sergeant Gass noted on March 13, ten days before they started for home, that they had made a total of 338 pairs of moccasins, plus a "sufficient quantitity of patch-leather" for each man. We're never told how they managed to cover the rest of their bodies, which apparently they did.

On March 20 Lewis optimistically reported "our salt will be very sufficient to last us to the Missouri where we have a stock in store." But it didn't. They were saltless again by the twentieth of June, except for two quarts that Lewis held in reserve for his anticipated trip up the Marias River, but they still had to make that strenuous trip back across the Bitterroot Mountains, and even in cold weather they would perspire heavily, and their bodies would crave salt.

  • 1. Olin D. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark: 1804-1904 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), 1:150.
  • 2. Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1952), 305.
  • 3. See The American Way, note 12.