BUNCHGRASS ECOSYSTEMS AND THE EARLY CATTLE INDUSTRY
IN THE THOMPSON-OKANAGAN

THE OPEN RANGE ERA (1871 - 1885)

The terms that were offered to the people of British Columbia as inducement to join the Canadian Confederation stipulated that, within two years, the Dominion would commence the construction of a railway, to connect British Columbia with the eastern provinces, which would be complete within ten years. In return for the projected railway, British Columbia would be expected to grant "in trust" a twenty mile wide belt on either side of the proposed line, for which it would receive $100,000 per annum in perpetuity. The promise of this railway, which was to be begun so quickly, virtually guaranteed the acceptance by British Columbians of the Canadian offer. Ranchers in the Thompson-Okanagan, who had watched their markets in the Cariboo goldfields dwindle to almost nothing in the previous few years, saw the railway as the answer to their dreams. Not only would the construction of the railway require huge quantities of beef and other produce to feed its workers, but the completed railway would provide access to the markets in eastern Canada.

The ranchers watched with interest as surveyors traveled the mountain passes of British Columbia in search of the best route for the new railway. Benjamin Baltzy, who was attached to one of the initial exploring parties in 1871, provides a glimpse of the area at that time:

14 August - Passing into the Northwestern side of the Cascade range, we find sage brush growing abundantly, and also considerable bunchgrass. The latter is very nutritious food for animals, and they thrive upon it very well, even if it is dried by the hot season . . . . From Cook's Ferry to Savona Ferry, the country is principally barren, sandy, mountainous, hilly, and thickly covered with sage brush and bunchgrass, and is upon the whole very uninviting.

A few attempts at farming have been made, most of them, especially along the Fraser and up the Thompson as far as to within eight miles of Bonaparte River have been abandoned. A few farms are now in operation near Bonaparte, and between this and Kamloops with varied success. All the success depends upon the facility they may have for irrigating land. Without irrigation nothing would grow, and there seems to be but a few places where it can practicably be brought about . . . [near Kamloops]. A few desirable ranches or farms can also be seen along the river valleys, but all the verdure is produced by irrigation.

As can be gathered from the above quotation, the settlers in the area were involved primarily in mixed farming, not being able to make a living through raising cattle in post-gold rush British Columbia. It is also interesting to see that many of the farms and ranches along the Cariboo Road had also been abandoned by the 1870s, once the Cariboo gold rush was over. There is also another interesting overtone in what Baltzy wrote. His mention of the "barren, sandy" country "thickly covered with sage brush and bunchgrass" and his consistent mention of sage brush before bunchgrass suggests that the once grass covered hills were giving way to sage brush. This impression is further confirmed by other references from Baltzy, who noted "Here at Bonaparte there are scarcely any trees. Here and there a dwarf pine may be seen, but principally sandy hills, covered more or less with wild sage, and bunchgrass." Further along, near Savona's Ferry, he noted "...the whole of the country here a dry, sandy mould, sparsely covered with sage brush and more or less bunchgrass."

Sandford Fleming, the engineer in charge of construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), was in charge of the surveys and his survey party was greeted with pleasure as it traveled through the Kamloops area. Reverend George M. Grant, who traveled through the Rocky Mountains and down the North Thompson with the party, reported on September 29, 1873:

Turtle soup out of a gold spoon is meager fare compared to Kamloops beef. After a few samples at breakfast, we were willing to subscribe to all that has ever been said in favour of bunchgrass as feed for the cattle of kings . . . . The hills in the neighbourhood have the clean cultivated park-like appearance that we noted yesterday; and several farms on the flats, at the junction of the two branches [of the Thompson] gave look of life and field work to which, as well as the universal soft mellow colouring imparted by the bunch grass, our eyes had long been unaccustomed.

But Grant's favourable comments were somewhat modified when he passed through the Ashcroft area two days later. He also noted a great deterioration of the bunchgrass resource.

It is little better than a vast sand and gravel pit, bounded by broken hills, bald and arid except on a few summits that support a scanty growth of scrub pines. The cattle have eaten off all the bunchgrass within three or four miles of the road, and a poor substitute for it chiefly in the shape of a bluish weed or shrub, called sage grass or sage bush [sic] has taken its place.

What Grant was seeing was the inevitable result of constant grazing on the delicate bunchgrass for an extended period. The fact that this was most evident near the road confirms that cattle being driven over the trail were the cause of the overgrazing and not cattle from established ranches. Two years later, botanist Professor John Macoun noted as he traveled between Ashcroft and Cache Creek:

The benches near the river are altogether bare, except for a few bunches of grass and the Artimisia frigida [sage brush] which on all the interior plains . . . replaces bunchgrass when it has been eaten down. The extreme bareness of the lower benches near the road arises, I believe, from the fact of the grass having been completely killed out by the traveling stock.

The extreme susceptibility of bunchgrass was being realized by ranchers throughout the Thompson-Okanagan. The gradual deterioration of the grasslands was happening at a time when markets for Thompson-Okanagan cattle were practically non-existent. The ranchers who were within a reasonable distance from the growing coastal market of New Westminster, from where cattle could be shipped to Victoria and Nanaimo, were able to dispose of a portion of their herd. The two main trails that were used were the Dewdney Trail, which connected the South Okanagan to Hope, and the trail over the Coquihalla. Both of these routes were extremely rocky and not ideal for the safe driving of cattle. In response to the situation, the ranchers of the Thompson-Okanagan were desperate for more satisfactory transportation. A petition dated March 1874 submitted to the Provincial Government read as follows:

The undersigned settlers of the Kamloops, Okanagan, Nicola and Cache Creek Valleys, beg to petition Your Honour, for the construction of a road from the south end of the Nicola Forks, up the Coldwater Valley to the summit of the Coquihalla, thence down the Coquihalla to Fort Hope. The distressed condition of the stock raisers of the district, owing to their having no outlet by which they can drive to the now almost only beef market in the Province, together with the fact that the cattle ranges are becoming overstocked and destroyed, we trust will induce you to make some efforts for our relief.

The petition, signed by most of the ranchers of the Thompson-Okanagan, reflects the unhappy state of affairs that prevailed in the early 1870s as the promised railway seemed to recede into the distant future. In response to the petition, the provincial government sent exploring expeditions to investigate three possible routes to the coast from the Nicola: one via the Coquihalla Pass, one south via Princeton and then over the Dewdeney Trail to Hope, and one via the Otter Valley which joined the Dewdeney Trail east of Princeton. Even though the trail via the Coquihalla was extremely rough going, Robert Bevan, Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, decided to utilize it because it was the most direct route. Work started on a six foot wide trail which was completed in 1876.

The plight of the settlers in the interior was not greatly improved during the 1870s in spite of relaxed land regulations that had been in effect since the passing of the Land Ordinance of 1870. The amount of land that could be pre-empted was doubled east of the Cascades to 320 acres; additional surveyed lands could be purchased for one dollar an acre; and genuine pre-emptors could lease any amount of Crown land which was not pre-empted or surveyed for the purpose of pasturing cattle or horses. The pre-emptor had to stock the land within six months with a maximum number of animals that was to be determined by the Land Commissioner. A list of the pastoral leases granted in 1873 provides an overview of the principal stockmen of the region.

The ability to lease pasture lands gave a decided advantage to those ranchers who had arrived during the 1860s and developed extensive ranches, especially because of the provision for purchasing additional lands at one dollar an acre. But they were handicapped because of the lack of markets to dispose of their cattle, giving them very little free cash to purchase land. Most of the ranchers were struggling to make ends meet. The general decline in prices for cattle throughout the Pacific Northwest, meant that ranchers could not drive their cattle into the United States to market them and the vast prairies of the Canadian west were as yet unsettled.

Most of the ranchers simply could not survive on the marketing of cattle. They were obliged to practise subsistence farming, growing and raising the food that they needed and earning income in any other way they could. Many of the ranchers who had started off packing freight to the goldfields continued to pack freight to the less accessible mining areas of the Kootenays and northern British Columbia. But this practice, which kept the rancher away from his ranch, made it difficult to maintain their operations. Other ranchers, who were located along the wagon road which had been completed from Cache Creek to Okanagan in 1871, opened stopping houses or small stores to supplement their income. This was the case of Jacob Duck at Monte Creek, Cornelius O'Keefe and Thomas Greenhow in the North Okanagan, Eli Lequime at Okanagan Mission; Thomas Ellis at the south end of Okanagan Lake, and J.F. Allison in the Similkameen. Others took advantage of the other natural resources located on their holdings. Charles Petch, north of Kamloops, and A.G. Pemberton, on the South Thompson, operated sawmills. James Guerin, south of Kamloops, found coal on his property and started up a mine and Joseph Allison also was involved in mining. Others saw the potential for additional profits in the grain that was being grown on the well-watered bottomlands. Brock McQueen, who ranched north of Kamloops, operated a threshing outfit that threshed grain for farmers as far away as Spallumcheen. Others operated grist mills to grind the grain. This was the case with William Fortune of Tranquille, near Kamloops as well as Frederick Brent at Okanagan Mission, Barrington Price at Keremeos, the Vernon brothers and Cornelius O'Keefe in the North Okanagan, and others.

Others of the more privileged class were able to secure government positions or to be elected to parliament or the provincial legislature. J.C. Haynes in Osooyos was a Government Agent and later was elected to the Provincial Legislative Assembly. Forbes George Vernon of Okanagan, George Martin of the South Thompson and Preston Bennett, who had settled on the South Thompson and later relocated to Spallumcheen, all served as members of the B.C. Legislative Assembly. Charles Houghton of Okanagan and F.J. Barnard, his neighbour, both were Members of Parliament. The ultimate government position, however, went to Clement F. Cornwall of Ashcroft, who became the Lieutenant Governor in 1881.

By the late 1870s, the ranges of the Thompson-Okanagan were becoming overstocked and the deterioration of the bunchgrass resource accelerated. The most damage to the grassland resource was in the Cache Creek and Ashcroft areas, where grazing had been constant since the early 1860s. The vast stretches of bunchgrass that had greeted the early drovers had virtually disappeared to be replaced by Big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) and other species such as Sandberg's bluegrass (Poa secunda), needle and thread (Stipa comata), and sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), all of which are not only less nutritious but also, as in the case of needle-and-thread, could be injurious to cattle.

The state of the grasslands is evident from contemporary references made by travelers through the Thompson-Okanagan. In 1876 Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada traveled through the area doing his best to placate the irate British Columbians who had long since lost patience waiting for the promised railroad. His wife, Lady Dufferin noted as she passed through Ashcroft:

One carries away from this district the idea of a great sandhill of a yellowish tinge . . . the only crop is bunchgrass. Although is produces such good beef, I can't tell you how many acres it requires to feed a cow, and the animal has quite a walk to take between one tuft of grass and another.

In a similar vein, the editor of the British Colonist newspaper noted in 1881:

These vast rolling plains intersected by wooded heights are covered with the most nutritious of all known grasses which grows in tufts and hence its name as bunchgrass . . . . It has been found, however, that constant feeding summer and winter wear it out . . . . Hence it is that some portions of the great Interior, such as Cache Creek section for instance, the magnificent bunchgrass which 15 or 20 years ago grew two or three feet high is now nearly exterminated.

Ranchers, faced with the deterioration of their ranges and the lack of markets for their increasingly large herds of cattle, allowed their cattle to roam over the countryside on any unclaimed land. Pastoral leases were, in many cases, a formality that was overlooked as ranchers, by common agreement, turned their cattle out on the unfenced grasslands and only rounded them up for branding and to move them to winter range or when they needed them to sell or drive to market. Since cash flow was at a minimum in the late 1870s, few ranchers had the finances to actually buy additional lands, even at the price of one dollar an acre. The summer ranges, consisting of the upland areas used in common by all of the ranchers in a given area, were also showing the effects of extensive grazing and, as long as the land was unclaimed by incoming settlers, was not worth the cost. Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, who spent a great deal of time in the Thompson Okanagan in the late 1870s resolving the issues surrounding Indian Reserves, wrote in his final memorandum:

A few of the settlers who have money have, even at the upset price of $1 per acre, been adding to their holdings by purchasing winter ranges or sheltered places with good herbage for young stock, but nobody will buy a tract of the ordinary summer range at $1.00 per acre in the present prospects of the cattle market. The remedy in the opinion of some is to lower the price of government land so as to induce settlers to buy it, who thus would have an interest in preserving the grass but others say that the effect of this lowering of price would be to throw too much of the pasture lands into the hands of the richer settlers and to spoil the business of the poorer settlers by cutting off pasturage, especially winter pasturage, which they now use but might be unable to purchase.

As it was, ranchers had very little incentive in preserving grasslands, particularly those that had not yet been pre-empted. The open range practice of the ranchers in the Thompson-Okanagan brought about an attitude of "first come first served" as far as the grasslands resource was concerned. The competition for grass was most fierce in the areas where settlement was heavy, such as the Kamloops and Okanagan Mission areas. Because of this competition, the bunchgrass deteriorated more quickly in these areas. As G.M. Sproat pointed out, where ranchers were able to purchase extended amounts of land, they were much more able to carefully conserve the bunchgrass. But the resource was not unlimited and where demand for grazing land was great, there was simply not enough to go around. This left ranchers with the option of buying out adjoining ranches or selling out and moving to less heavily settled areas. Because of these pressures, the late 1870s saw the beginnings of consolidation of individual holdings into large ranches and the settlement of the more remote areas such as the Nicola Valley.

The main markets for cattle from the Thompson-Okanagan was in the New Westminster, Victoria and Nanaimo areas during the 1870s. The more established ranchers in a given area, would purchase cattle from their neighbours and drive them over the Coquihalla or Hope-Princeton trails to the markets. An examination of the arrivals of cattle in New Westminster in 1878 indicates the major cattle shippers and the numbers of cattle shipped. [This table is taken from Thomas, G. (1976).The British Columbia ranching frontier: 1858 - 1896. Unpublished master's thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.]

This list indicates the stockmen who were involved in driving cattle to the lower mainland, not necessarily those who were the major ranchers. Notably absent are John Wilson of Savona, Thaddeus Harper of Kamloops, Eli Lequime of Okanagan Mission, and J.C. Haynes of Osooyos. These stockmen were major landholders and had large herds of cattle but were probably content to sell their cattle to others to drive to market and make the small profits involved.

The above cattle drives took some pressure off the overstocked ranges of the Thompson and Okanagan but two major cattle drives during this period are worthy of note, not just because they removed a large number of cattle from the ranges but also for the distance they covered. In 1876, Thaddeus Harper drove 800 head of cattle from the Kamloops area, intending to reach the railhead at Billings, Montana, from where they could be shipped to Chicago. He drove the cattle down the old trail through the Okanagan Valley, stopping at the O'Keefe Ranch where he picked up an additional 428 head from Cornelius O'Keefe and Thomas Greenhow and probably other Okanagan ranchers. When he reached the United States, he changed his mind, possibly because he heard that Montana Territory was quickly filling up with cattle, and pushed his cattle through to northern Idaho where he wintered them. Some eighteen months after he had started out he arrived in northern California where he was able to sell the cattle at a profit.

A similar drive took place in 1880 when J.B. Greaves, with twenty cowboys, purchased 4000 head of cattle from the Kamloops area and drove them through the Okanagan to Oregon. He eventually got them safely to Cheyanne, Wyoming, from where they were shipped on the Union Pacific Railway to Chicago.

Both of these cattle drives had the effect of relieving some of the pressure on the ranges and providing ranchers with additional income. But at least temporary respite for overstocked ranges was also provided by the severe winter of 1879-80, in which thousands of cattle died in the Thompson-Okanagan. It is estimated that a full quarter of the 9000 cattle in the Nicola Valley perished before early April. This severe winter, and others over the next twenty years, convinced ranchers of the need for large hay stocks to be put up for winter feeding. The cutting and stacking of hay during the summer months became part of the ranching scene that persists to the present day. While this practice increased ranchers' costs through the necessity for workers and equipment, it provided ranchers with the insurance that cattle would have every chance to survive winters where snow and cold limited their chance for survival.

After years of wrangling between the new province of British Columbia and the Canadian government, work commenced on Canadian Pacific Railway on May 14, 1880. The route which had been chosen for the long-awaited railway was via the Kicking Horse Pass and through Kamloops along the Thompson River to the Fraser, right through the heart of the bunchgrass ranges. The first stretch of the railway to be contracted was only from Yale to Savona but the contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, had a reputation for pushing ahead with great engineering projects and the strong financial backing from an American syndicate.

During the construction phase, the large work crew would have to be fed. During the summer of 1881, Andrew Onderdonk expected to employ about 5000 men. In June the CPR invited tenders for the supply of fresh beef to the work crews. The demand was so great that only the largest ranches could consider supplying the needed cattle. That year Thaddeus Harper obtained a contract to supply the construction crews but it became quite obvious to all concerned that the next year would be even better and that all available cattle from the Thompson-Okanagan would be required to supply the market.

At this time Joseph Blackbourne Greaves, who had settled near Savona in the 1860s, saw the potential for controlling the market. In December, Greaves contacted Benjamin Van Volkenburgh, who operated the British Columbia Meat Market in Victoria and who had bought cattle from Thaddeus Harper since 1880. Greaves convinced Van Volkenburgh that, for $80,000, enough cattle could be purchased to control the cattle market in British Columbia and to guarantee obtaining the contract to supply beef to the CPR work crews for the next several years. Van Volkenburgh enlisted the support of Joseph Pemberton, William Curtis Ward of the Bank of British Columbia, Charles W.R. Thompson of the Victoria Gas Company, and Judge Peter O'Reilly.

 

In spite of the efforts of J.B. Greaves and his partners, Thaddeus Harper received the contract to supply beef to the CPR for 1882. Undeterred, the syndicate continued to buy up cattle with the hopes of controlling the market. Harper was successful in supplying beef during 1882 and obtained a renewed contract for 1883. But his supply of cattle could not support the demands of the CPR work crews and in the middle of the 1883 season, the syndicate took over the contract. From then, until the end of railway construction, the syndicate controlled the market and prospered. The syndicate began to look for land, somewhere close to the CPR line on which to hold its vast herds of cattle. By 1883, the syndicate, through J.B. Greaves, had entered into a partnership with Charles M. Beak, who was purchasing land in the bunchgrass range of the Douglas Lake area. The Douglas Lake Cattle Company, soon to be the largest ranch in the British Commonwealth (a title it still holds today), was established.

Throughout the early 1880s, ranchers, seeing their finances buoyed by the rising cattle market and aware of the pressure that the soon-to-be-completed railway would bring on available land, expanded their land holdings as fast as they could. Smaller ranches were bought out and Crown Land was still availble for one dollar an acre. Ranchers in the Thompson-Okanagan, whose holdings during the bleak years of the 1870s had averaged 1000 acres, began to buy up all available range land. The provincial government, cognizant that much of the good, arable land in the bunchgrass ranges was being purchased, passed the Land Act of 1884 which raised the price of agricultural land from one dollar to $2.50 per acre and removed the provision for pastoral leases, leaving "mountainous tracts of land, which are unfit for cultivation and valueless for lumbering purposes" at one dollar per acre. Applications already being processed under the previous Land Act continued to be approved under the previous regulations. Since there had been a scramble for land prior to the passing of the 1884 Act, some 109,959 acres were acquired under this clause, notably by ranchers Thaddeus Harper (12,146 acres), Forbes George Vernon (4,739 acres) and Thomas Greenhow (3,460 acres).

As construction neared completion on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the cattle ranchers of the Thompson-Okanagan were riding high. Their cattle were selling for excellent prices and the resulting revenue was being turned into additional land holdings. The average size of ranches was expanding rapidly, reflecting not only the economic prosperity but also the need for more and more land as the bunchgrass ranges became overgrazed and were unable to support the number of cattle as previously. Ranchers optimistically looked forward to the day when their cattle could be shipped by rail to coastal and eastern markets.



Bunchgrass and beef
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