If you’ve watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, you’ll have noticed that Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur-trapper character Hugh Glass eats just about anything as he tries to survive in the wilderness. He scarfs scraps of plants, chomps on raw salmon, sucks out bone marrow from a rotting skeleton, and, most famously, samples raw bison liver. Regarding that last option – as has now been widely publicized – DiCaprio willingly abandoned the jelly-based prop he had been given and bit into the real thing for a more authentic look on camera.
The real-life Hugh Glass and other mountain adventurers have earned their place as some of the toughest folk in American (and indeed, world) history. What sort of food was on their menu?
Here are five things that fur trappers ate:
1. Bison (Buffalo)
‘Buffalo meat tastes much better than beef. The meat of the cows is usually tenderer and fatter than that of the bulls, and particularly deserves the preference in summer, when the bulls are lean and unpalatable.’
So writes Dr F. A. Wislizenus in A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839. Wislizenus was a physician from Germany who moved to America and ended up joining a company of fur traders on the Oregon Trail. His account gives a vivid idea of their lifestyle. Fur trappers worked up quite an appetite thanks to vigorous day-to-day activities and debilitating outdoor conditions. Meat was essential for getting through, and they certainly ate a lot of it. As Wislizenus recounts:
‘Considering the absence of bread, and the traveler’s life in the open air and daily exercise, it is not remarkable that the appetite makes unusual demands, and that people, who formerly were accustomed to eat scarcely a pound of meat daily, can consume eight and ten times as much of fresh buffalo meat, without being gluttons on that account.’
F. A. Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839.
Bison seem to have been the favourite meat source, offering plenty to hungry hunters:
‘From the slain buffalo only the best pieces are taken, namely, the tongue, the ribs, the hump ribs, the meat on either side of the backbone, and the marrow bones, with at times also the liver and kidney. Buffalo tongues are celebrated; in dried condition they are sent by thousands to the States; but the ribs, especially the hump ribs of a fat cow, are much finer. They are usually roasted on the spit, while other parts are better suited for boiling.’
Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839.
Wislizenus adds that fire-roasted bison thigh-bones give ‘the finest marrow that ever tickled a gourmand’s palate’. Why waste?
This large member of the deer family was one alternative to the bison. Wislizenus states that elk meat ‘has in taste most resemblance to beef; but is inferior to buffalo meat’. For trader Charles Larpenteur, it appears to have been a lifesaver:
‘Toward spring  we were in a starving condition, game of all kinds extremely scarce, and men afraid to go out for a hunt. For about six weeks I lived on nothing but jerked elk meat, having some salt but being entirely out of other groceries. There is little substance in elk meat.’
There was clearly enough substance to keep Larpenteur alive – though six weeks of the stuff evidently bored his taste buds to death.
A pair of beavers. Image from Flickr user finchlake2000. All other images in this article have been taken from Pixabay.
Beaver pelts were big business, so it is unsurprising that trappers tucked into beavers. According to Wislizenus, ‘their meat is very palatable’, and ‘the tails, which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies’.
Berries made for portable, high-energy snacks in the wilderness. They could also be a desperate last resort in times of scarcity, as Larpenteur makes known: ‘We remained in camp two days. From this point until we got to the other side of the mountains, game became so scarce that we had to live for two days on such berries and roots as we could find.’
One of the fur trappers’ most dangerous ‘enemies’ also turned out to be a rather nourishing addition to the table. In his Journal of a Trapper, Osborne Russell recalls ‘an elegant supper of Grizzly Bear meat and Mutton nicely stewed and seasoned with pepper and salt which as the mountain phrase goes “is not bad to take” upon an empty Stomach after a hard days riding and climbing over mountains & rocks’.
He also remembers another occasion where bear was prepared, revealing that ‘it took a longer time to cook than any meal I ever saw prepared’, but even so, ‘all pronounced it the best meal they had ever eaten as a matter of course where men had been starving’.
It would probably have been a dark twist on a certain fairy-tale if, while eating, one of the men had complained, ‘This bear is too hot!’ or ‘This bear is too cold!’. By the looks of it, that bear was ‘just right’.