Huckleberry – Huckleberries
Did You Know?
Evidence has been found the the huckleberry actually got its name from a simple mistake. Early American colonist, upon encountering the native American berry, misidentified it as the European blueberry known as the “hurtleberry,” by which name it was called until around 1670 it was corrupted to become know as the “huckleberry.”
The expression “I’ll be your Huckleberry” means just the right person for a given job, and it also means a mark of affection or comradeship to one’s partner or sidekick.
Later, the term came to mean somebody inconsequential. Mark Twain borrowed aspects of this meaning to name his famous character, Huckleberry Finn. His idea, as he told an interviewer in 1895, was to establish that he was a boy “of lower extraction or degree” than Tom Sawyer.
Berries with the name huckleberry can be found throughout the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, but the berry that grows in the high mountains of Montana, called “Vaccinium globulare” are the favorite berry of the people of Montana. Often confused with the blueberry due to its close resemblance, huckleberries are a wild blue-black berry. Although very similar in taste, the big difference is the seeds within the huckleberry that give it a crunchy texture when fresh and its thicker skin. The flavor is a little more tart than blueberries, with an intense blueberry flavor. Huckleberries are not cultivated commercially, so you will have to find them in the wild. Huckleberries can be used interchangeably in most blueberry recipes, so if you find yourself with a huckleberry harvest, just choose a blueberry recipe and give it a whirl. Huckleberry season is normally from June through August.
The huckleberry is a main food source for a wide range of animals including the deer, birds, rodents, insects, and the most well-known – black and grizzly bears. Huckleberries are one of the grizzly bear’s favorite foods, consisting of up to 1/3 of their sustenance. Bears often travel great distances to find them, as the berries are one of their major later summer and fall foods. If you do go huckleberry picking, be aware that you may be in some bear’s favorite patch.
Huckleberries have been a staple of life for Northwest and Rocky Mountain Native American tribes for thousands of years. In the Journals of Lewis and Clark, they wrote of the tribes west of the Rocky Mountains using dried berries extensively in 1806 and 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis on reaching the Shoshone Tribe (also known as the Snake Nation, occupied areas both east and west of the Rocky Mountains) and the Great Divide, 15 August 1805:
“This morning I arose very early and as hungry as a wolf. I had eaten nothing yesterday except one scant meal of the flour and berries, except the dried cakes of berries, which did not appear to satisfy my appetite as they appeared to do those of my Indian friends. I found on inquire of McNeal that we had only about two pounds of flour remaining. This I directed him to divide into two equal parts and to cook the one half this morning in a kind of pudding with the berries as he had done yesterday, and reserve the balance for the evening. On this new-fashioned pudding four of us breakfasted, giving a pretty good allowance also to the chief, who declared it the best thing he had tasted for a long time. .”
Northwest tribes made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them and then mashed them into cakes and wrapped these in leaves or bark for storage.
There are special areas in western Montana that are notorious for huckleberries and have the reputation for producing more berries than any other area.
Between 1900 to 1925 families took working vacations where they traveled into the mountains to pick huckleberry (known as hucks) for the winter. During the 1930s through the 1940s, large camps were set in northern Montana where the fire of 1910 had burned. NOTE: Forest fires can enhance huckleberry habitat by allowing more light onto the forest floor. Also, fires release more nutrients into the soil, producing ashy soils upon which huckleberries thrive. The picking was so great that much of western Montana’s population converged on this area and set up huckleberry camps. The Native Americans on one side of the road, with as many as five hundred tipi lodges, and on the other side of the road would be the encampments of other Montanans. The camps might last a few days, a week, or as much as two months, depending on the crop and the inclinations of the family. It was said the big huckleberry camps had a boomtown atmosphere, much like the gold mining towns of the West. Those years produced boxcar-loads of huckleberries.
Huckleberry outings not only provided settlers with easily available nutritious, but also offered young people a legitimate courting opportunity. Moreover, huckleberry gathering provided a unique opportunity for white settlers to interact with local tribes.
The following is from Montana Historical Society interview transcript with Edna G. Cox McCann on an early settler, Edna McCann of Trout Creek, Montanta:
And then huckleberry season we always would put in, well, we’d make a kind of picnic out of it. We’d take three or four days, get enough huckleberries for winter and make it kind of a picnic out of it too . . . We’d go to Silver Butte, that was a good place for huckleberries then or go up Trout Creek, either place. Y ou know, the Indians that’d come down from the (Flathead) Reservation, there’d be a whole big bunch of them’d come at a time and camp for a week. Up on silver butte picking huckleberries. I always talked to ’em. Always did and i always got along good with them. Always got along good – some of them I would even recognize when they’d come back the next year . . . They had their favorite spots and they camped and not one every bothered anyone else, but the mountains were full of them . . . and that’s something you never see anymore. I don’t know if they even come down after huckleberries anymore. I never see ’em.
The huckleberry has achieved something of a cult following in Montana and some communities even have huckleberry festivals every year. The small northwestern Montana town of Trout Creek has held a Huckleberry Festival for the last 30 years. Trout Creek is the official “Huckleberry Capital of Montana” and home to the premier huckleberry festival in the inland Northwest. Trout Creek was named the official huckleberry capital of Montana in the 1980s. The “Great Burn,” the legendary fire of 1910, scoured much of this region and left prime huckleberry habitat in its wake . Like other shrubs and underbrush, berry bushes thrive when sections of the forest canopy fall to fire or other forces.
A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, by Rebecca T. Richard and Susan J. Alexander, Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-657. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto, 1953.