I found myself wondering, how did our ancestors in landlocked regions find salt? I know. The weird things I wonder about…
It’s easy enough to harvest sea salt from the ocean, but what if you’re settled a thousand miles from the ocean?
I’ve heard explanations that even ancient peoples relied on trade, but I can’t imagine they would have relied exclusively on trade for such a vital resource.
I just can’t believe it. You’re going to settle 1,500 miles from the coast. Literally months of walking, and assume that someone’s going to want what you have bad enough to bring you salt along a trade route.
Maybe. But perhaps that’s why I’m not a pioneer. I’d need to know where to find it inland before I’d venture inland.
Salt is essential for human survival, down to basic cellular functions. It’s also required for many different preservation techniques, especially those that preserve meat without refrigeration. Beyond basic survival, salt is also one of the basic human flavors that we can taste, and it goes a long way to making food not only palatable but pleasurable.
I’m not the only one who’s wondered, and it turns out researchers pieced together 6 different ways native Americans gathered salt.
Harvesting Sea Salt
Extracting salt from seawater is by far the easiest method, but it obviously only works near the sea.
There’s a surprising amount of harvestable salt in seawater, and a single gallon contains just over 1/4 pound of sea salt. It can be extracted by boiling away the water, or by placing it in shallow trays exposed to the sun and allowing the water to evaporate.
In some areas with rocky beaches and shallow tide pools, large salt crystals can be collected daily toward the end of low tide just before the water comes back in, no boiling required.
Extracting Salt from Sand
Sandy inland soils can contain salt deposits, and local tribes would be well aware of prime sources near their homeland. Sand was placed in a basket with very small holes at the bottom and water washed through it. The water was then boiled down like seawater, resulting in salt extracted from deposits inland. Here’s a description of the process from a first-hand account:
“The salt is made along by a river, which, when the water goes down, leaves it upon the sand. As they cannot gather the salt without a large mixture of sand, it is thrown together into certain baskets they have for the purpose, made large at the mouth and small at the bottom. These are set in the air on a ridge-pole; and water being thrown on, vessels are placed under them wherein it may fall; then, being strained and placed on the fire, it is boiled away, leaving salt at the bottom.” (Source)
Harvesting Rock Salt
Those that lived near a rock salt source could travel every year to actually mine out their salt with hand tools. There are many such deposits up and down the east coast, many of which are underground and are not accessible directly. Instead, they feed brine springs where native Americans would travel to gather salt.
Harvesting Salt from Brine Springs & Salt Lakes
Brine springs are by far the most common documented source of salt for native peoples. Salt boiling pots are found in archeological records from tribes throughout the United States. Oral histories tell stories of families continuing this tradition even today.
Every year the family or settler group travels to a salt spring to collect the nearby salt, taking turns tending fires to heat stones that are then placed into clay pots to boil water. Eventually, the salt is scraped from the insides of these pots and stored for a year’s supply. In more modern times, metal pots are used directly over the fire, but the concept is the same.
Salt in Animal Blood
Since many plants contain salts in low concentration, you’d either need to burn a lot of them or eat a lot of them to get enough salt to survive. Herbivores, such as deer, browse the forest and actively seek out salt-rich plants and mineral salt deposits to lick.
That salt accumulates in their tissues and is present in their blood. While there’s not a particularly good way to extract salt from animal blood, consuming it regularly will supply enough salt to keep you healthy in the absence of other sources.
Far from the ocean, animal and plant salt sources tend to be low in iodine, which is one reason commercially made salt is supplemented with iodine. Soils vary in iodine content, and mountainous soils tend to be especially deficient. In those areas, a salt spring or rock salt source is the most reliable for maintaining good health in the absence of commercial salt.
Extracting Salt from Plant Ashes
Explorers also recorded native Americans burning the leaves and roots of certain plants to extract their salts. Very little has been documented about which plants these may have been.
Survivalists today know that boiling hickory roots will result in a black tar-like substance that is full of edible salts. Likewise, wild carrot and parsnip are good boiled salt sources.
Coltsfoot, a common weed, can be burned for salt. The leaves are first dried, and then tightly rolled. They’re lit at one end and slowly burned over a container that catches the ash.
Once the plant matter has burned away, you’re left with the mineral salts accumulated by the plant. Though it takes a significant amount of plant matter to make even a small amount of salt, coltsfoot is a particularly aggressive weed, growing in even the most abused soils, especially in urban or suburban areas and along roadsides.
This method I’m particularly intrigued by. This summer I hope to gather some coltsfoot to burn for salt. It should be easy enough, it grows just about everywhere.
Final Thoughts on Salt for Preservation
In the course of writing this, I learned that using salt to preserve the meat from large animal harvests is a European practice. “The Indians of Eastern North America apparently used salt as a condiment. There is no evidence for salt ever having been used historically for preserving meat or fish, as drying game over a low fire was the standard Southeastern method of preservation.”
I assumed that salt was essential for preserving meat without refrigeration, but the practice of salt-based charcuterie is a regional specialty.
Nonetheless, salt is still tasty and living in a landlocked state, I’m excited to begin looking for our own salt springs and local sources.