Though most of us think little of the seasoning we sprinkle on almost everything we eat, salt has played several important roles throughout American history. It was used as currency to pay soldiers in the War of 1812, and it has been an impetus to explore and expand: Speculation about a mountain of salt near the Missouri River was one of the reasons for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the Erie Canal was built to transport large quantities of salt from Syracuse.
From the west coast to the east, salt has been a vital part of American life, and its production is intertwined with the development of the industrialization—not to mention the food history—of America.
Early documents—dating back to 1654—record Native American methods of salt production on the east coast. The Onondaga tribe from New York and the Kanawha of West Virginia made salt by boiling brine from naturally-occurring salt springs and the ocean. In several locations throughout the country, including Utah and California, native solar salt production consisted of harvesting salt deposits along evaporating bodies of salt water. In fact, historians date the origins of salt production in America back to 500 years before the arrival of Europeans.
The indigenous peoples of Eastern North America used salt almost exclusively as a condiment, and there is no historical or oral evidence that salt was used for preserving meat or fish. Drying food over a low fire was the standard method of preservation before contact, which introduced European salt curing.
A good deal of our understanding of native West Coast salt production comes from the journals of Lewis and Clark. When the expedition Corps reached the West Coast, they had run out of salt for preserving their meat, so investigation of the salt harvesting methods was vital to their survival.
In order to make salt, the Corps used rocks to build a furnace (see main photo above) and boiled salt water from the beaches below the mouth of the Columbia River. The local Tillamook Indians provided assistance and the crew eventually left for their return journey with 28 gallons of "excellent, fine, strong & white" salt. Reenactments of this early salt camp still take place on the Oregon Coast in Seaside, Oregon every year.
While Native American salt production relied on bodies of liquid salt water, most modern salt production taps into salt deposits deep underground, the result of the evaporation of oceans over 300 million years ago. This underground “salt supply” stretches from Madison County, New York west to Lake Erie, north to Ontario, Canada, and south through Pennsylvania. Because the North controlled this salt supply in the 1800’s, the lack of salt is thought to be one of the reasons the South lost the Civil War.
To tap into this solid underground ocean, the first large-scale salt quarries appeared during the Civil War in 1862, and the first underground salt mine dates to 1869 (salt mining continues today in much of America and Canada). Through much of the 1800s, waste products from the lumber industry powered salt furnaces in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, and before long highly-processed, “pure” salt made via mechanical evaporation could be found in every kitchen in America.
Recently, increased attention has been paid to the value of traditional methods of salt production. Whereas industrial production of salt has had a devastating effect on lakes and landscapes throughout the country, traditional salt harvesting respects the land and favors the unique qualities of local resources over a pure, homogenized result. These “local” salts are harvested from sea waters off both coasts, and each kind of salt carries distinct minerals, textures, and flavors that make them a perfect expression of American terroir.