top of page
  • Writer's pictureJud Parker

A Complete History of Beef Jerky

Beef jerky is one of America's favorite snacks, but few people know that the history of beef jerky is strongly rooted in our tradition too. Early records of this delicious snack date back to the 1500s, when it was first discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors. At the time, native Americans had already mastered the art of drying fresh meats for later consumption.

The History of Beef Jerky

The term "jerky" has a fascinating history, but there's one key factor that eventually led to its evolution in time: a South American tribe called the Quechua. Make no mistake, the Quechua weren't necessarily the people who invented the jerky process; they were simply one of the first tribes that were studied on this by early Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.

If you think about it, the name "jerky" is quite bizarre, and that's because it doesn't have any direct ties with the English language. Instead, the way we refer to our delicious dried meats today has to do with something that the Quechua referred to during their process: ch'arki, which means "to burn (meat)." Surely, the Spanish must have been startled by this.

the original charqui from south america
The original "charqui" from South America!

Without thinking twice about it, the Conquistadors picked up the term, referring to it as charqui for lack of a better translation. And soon enough, the Spanish were producing more dried meats than anyone who had set foot in the Americas by that time. This allowed them to gain a significant advantage during the decades of war and battles that followed in history.

As they moved their way into North America, the Spanish brought charqui along with them, only to realize that North Americans were doing the exact same thing! Having played such an important role in defining what this process was, the Spanish started mentioning it to native Americans as well which, funnily enough, had a completely different accent compared to the Quechua. That's how charqui became jerky to them.

The History of Processing Jerky

There are two major processes that led to modern beef jerky: one is the traditional method discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors, and one is the results of pemmican; a concentrated mixture of meat and fruits used by North American tribes. With a more balanced flavor profile, the latter was a favorite among early American settlers.

The basics of the process remained similar in both cases. First, you had to hunt an animal which could provide you with lean meats. This could be an alpaca or llama in South America, but also a buffalo, elk, or deer in North America. With their boned, defatted meat, you'd then proceed to cut the meat into slices, pounding it thin and rubbing it with salt.

sun drying meat to make beef jerky
Sun drying meat to achieve jerky.

That process of taking meat and thinning it to the point where it could be chewed on easily is the defining factor of beef jerky. The other big factor is the drying process. There's nothing obvious about how the Quechua dried their meats; in fact, it took the Spanish a long time to master their art and make jerky a beneficial, nutritional asset to use for years to come.

Fire was used to smoke the meat strips, removing water and making for a compact blend. When a fire wasn't the most practical choice, the meat was dried. The end result was always the same though: hard, brittle meat that was portable and easy to consume. The Spanish were ecstatic regarding the discovery as it allowed them to solve their food problem.

Why Beef Jerky Became So Popular

image of some beef jerky on a table
Dried meat wouldn't spoil so fast; that's why it became popular!

It might surprise you to know that jerky became historically popular in the 1500s for the same exact reasons that it is popular today. The result of the drying process was a high-protein, low fat, nutritional strip of meat that provided the Spanish Conquistadors with enough energy to continue their journey into the Americas and conquer as much territory as possible.

The key factor that made jerky so popular in history? It wouldn't spoil! It was so easy for the Spanish to carry their jerky around without it going bad, that it made them more and more dependent on the product. Anywhere they would go, animals could be hunted, and the process could be applied at any time. That's what made beef jerky extremely popular way back in the day.

Jerky Consumption in The New World

The word that the Spanish had brought this valuable product into North America quickly spread to reach traders, merchants, explorers, and people who valued its highly nutritional but easy-to-consume traits. Settlers and early Americans would hunt and cook along the way, making it "easy" for them to access food when other products were largely missing.

Jerky consumption exploded during this historical period. Soon enough, a traditional process for how to produce jerky was born. In the 1600s, the word jerky was written on a document for the first time ever. The product made it clear that you could produce nutritional food without sacrificing on preserving or taste. It gave generations of Americans readily available energy.

However, the more time went by, the more people grew annoyed with the dry taste of unprocessed beef jerky. Even berries and dried fruits weren't enough to bring out the meat's flavor… So they started adding spices! A simple addition that led to widespread consumption. These spiced products were the ancestors of modern flavors.

Beef Jerky During The 19th and 20th Centuries

What made beef jerky historically great makes beef jerky great even today. That's exactly why the industrial revolution led to the mass production of the delicious snacks that we all know and love. But let's backtrack in history to a time when mass-production processes weren't a thing yet: a time when cowboys and cowgirls were still around.

historic image of cowboy with cows
Historically, cowboys used to carry beef jerky with them while working.

In the early 1800s, cowboys were used to carrying beef jerky or salted meat along while moving cattle from pasture to pasture. It gave them a nutritious snack to chew on during the long hours that they had to work, and it was generally a pleasurable experience. This was at a time in America when jerky was fully understood and produced with various types of meat.

In fact, after the declaration of independence, jerky became more of a pleasure food than a war and survival food. For the longest time, the snack had a reputation for allowing the conquering of new territories without people starving or dying of diseases related to spoiled food, which were very common at the time. After, that use case declined more and more.

Which leads us back to the industrial era! Since beef jerky was already seen as a product that was catered more towards consumers rather than soldiers, companies in the late 1800s saw the opportunity to make a lot of money out of mass-producing the product for the first time ever. And—as we all know—they weren't wrong in thinking that way!

At the end of the 19th century, jerky products saw a massive increase in popularity, and some of the biggest names in the industry were born. But once again, jerky proved itself immensely valuable during two of the most horrific tragedies in human history: WWI and WWII. During the war, jerky was used in so-called C-Rations for American troops.

How We Consume Beef Jerky Today

If you had a doubt that beef jerky wasn't American, now you have none. Jerky is the essence of American culture: the way settlers used it to provide long-lasting energy as they explored uncharted territories; the way it was developed and crafted onto American ground; and the way it's grown into a massive industry. These are all key factors that led up to our days.

beef prepared for the drying process
Modern beef jerky preparation.

But how do we consume beef jerky today? Do we have different habits compared to our ancestors? These questions are better answered in a separate post, but—there is more to discover. If you're interested in learning the nutritional values of modern beef jerky, check out the science behind our lean beef. We provide all the data that you need at a glance.

At Liberty Cattle, we strongly believe in the pure qualities of our jerky. Unlike many other companies that mass produce their products (and, therefore, their cattle), we aim to provide you with a product that's 100% organic and nutritious. How? By breeding our cattle in a way that is respectful of their environment. Learn more about our cattle here!

Did we miss something? Did you find a pesky typo that we couldn't see? Maybe you want to add your own take to the amazing history of beef jerky and how it came to be. Well, now is the time! Leave a comment below and reach out to us! We're happy to read and go through every single thought. If you're interested in buying jerky instead, check it out in our store.


bottom of page