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

FROM PRE-HISTORIC TO COLONIAL TIMES (1858)

The Interior Salish people of the Thompson-Okanagan obtained horses from their neighbours to the south in about the middle of the eighteenth century. The coming of the horse significantly changed the culture of the native people by providing them with an animal that could carry humans and supplies and that could be used for food during times of scarcity. The Native people of the Thompson-Okanagan found that the bunchgrass ranges provided excellent forage for horses. Nonetheless the native peoples do not appear to have developed extensive herds of horses, probably because the occasional severe winter killed off large numbers of horses and the shortage of provisions required using the horses for food. Herman Reinhart, who traveled through the region in 1859, wrote that many of the Indians' horses "had died and some had been eaten by the Indians a few years ago when the winter was so long and severe that they had eaten up their provisions and fish . . . "

The Thompson-Okanagan natives also found a ready market for horses with the Hudson's Bay Company which, from 1826 on, used a large number of horses annually to pack trade goods from Fort Okanagan on the Columbia River up through the Okanagan Valley and on to Fort Alexandria on the Fraser. There the horses would exchange their packs of trade goods for bales of furs from the north and begin the return trip to Fort Okanagan where the furs would be loaded on boats to head down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver. In the 1820s and 1830s, the trail proceeded through the Okanagan valley north from Kamloops up the east bank of the North Thompson River to Little Fort and then across to the Fraser River near present-day 100 Mile House. When Fort Kamloops was moved to the west side of the Thompson in 1841, the trail from the Fort went by Copper Creek and Red Lake, along Criss Creek and crossed the Bonaparte River just above Loon Lake where it headed north to Green Lake and on to the Fraser.

As many as 300 horses were used by the fur brigades. These horses were wintered in the area of Fort Kamloops where the bunch grass was plentiful and where adequate protection could be provided by Fort personnel. First of all, the Paul Creek area northeast of Fort Kamloops was used as the main grazing grounds and later, when the Fort was moved across the Thompson, the Tranquille Creek and Lac du Bois meadows were used. To these extensive herds of horses were added a limited number of beef and dairy cattle with the intention of making Fort Kamloops and other inland posts more self-supporting. These cattle flourished on the bunchgrass ranges as long as the winters were relatively mild but the occasional harsh winter was very hard on cattle as they did not possess the same ability as horses to paw through a crust of snow to the dried grasses underneath. In 1855, Fort Kamloops Chief Trader, Paul Fraser, made a complete inventory of stock at the fort, finding 70 horses and 342 mares along with colts and yearlings making a total of 736 animals. When the fur trade monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company was eliminated in 1858 with the forming of the new Colony of British Columbia, the government allocated 600 acres to the Company in the Kamloops area in recognition of its large farming commitments. The Company purchased an additional 2000 acres for hay meadows.

DURING COLONIAL TIMES (1858 TO 1871)

The discovery of gold in what came to be British Columbia can be seen as the inevitable result of the northward thrust of the American mining frontier into the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in California in 1849, prospectors and miners explored the rivers and creeks gradually north and east, with gold being discovered in the Fort Collie district of Washington Territory in 1855. It is now generally acknowledged that the first successful mining of gold in what is now British Columbia took place along the Thompson River downstream from Fort Kamloops in the late 1850s. At that time miners had penetrated into the Thompson-Okanagan from the south, using the Brigade Trail developed during fur trade times. Once word reached the more populated areas of western North America, particularly California, there was a rush to the British territory known as New Caledonia which, largely as a reaction to the influx of Americans, became the new Colony of British Columbia. In the spring of 1858, some 25,000 young men converged on British Columbia. The main entry point into the colony was up the Fraser River, especially since the native people in the inland country of Washington Territory were at war with the U.S. government, making travel along the inland route extremely dangerous.

Gold in paying quantities was found on the lower Fraser River and, for those who were adventurous enough to work their way through the Fraser Canyon, more lucrative deposits of placer gold were found. By 1859, the focus of gold mining activity was above the Fraser canyon and on the creeks and rivers of the Cariboo country. Over the next few years, thousands of men flocked to the Cariboo in search of gold. The need to supply these miners with the necessary provisions was not lost on the Colonial government. Since the Fraser Canyon was virtually impassable for anything larger than a man on foot, the government spent considerable time and money on developing a route by way of Harrison Lake to the goldfields. This route however, was extremely costly to transport supplies on, requiring the transferring of goods from packhorses to paddlewheel boats several times. At the end of the Harrison-Lillooet Trail, the Cariboo Trail proceeded into the heart of the Cariboo.

It was apparent to those familiar with the country that a more efficient route from American territory was along the old Hudson's Bay Company Brigade Trail. This trail, which had been used regularly from 1826 until 1848, started at Fort Okanagan where the Okanagan River emptied into the Columbia River and proceeded through the Okanagan Valley through Fort Kamloops, reaching the Cariboo country without the difficulties of the Fraser Canyon or the Harrison-Lillooet Trail. During the summer of 1858, several parties successfully utilized this overland route and, after a major battle between the various native peoples and the McLaughlin party on the Okanagan River south of the border, a truce, albeit uneasy, existed between the white intruders and the native people. This opened the way for gold seekers and traders to penetrate into the inland country from the south.

Most notable of the travelers by this route was Joel Palmer who, in 1858, set out with thirteen heavily laden wagons pulled by ox teams from Walla Walla on the Snake River. The party, which also consisted of about 200 miners, crossed the Columbia at Fort Okanagan and followed the Brigade Trail to Fort Kamloops, eventually reaching the forks of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. There the trade goods were sold at a profit and the outfit returned to Washington Territory by the same route. For the next three years, Palmer returned with supplies to the gold fields following this route with the intention "to impress upon our people [the people of Oregon] the importance of making efforts to acquire a market in these districts for a portion, at least, of our surplus products." In a lengthy letter to the Oregonian newspaper, published on January 28, 1860, Palmer described the route and the country passed through on the way to the "Upper Frazer and Quenelle Rivers mining districts", the term "Cariboo" to designate the gold region being as yet unheard of. Palmer pointed out:

[The territory] possesses likewise, extensive agricultural districts east of the mountains, which have hitherto been considered by many as barren wastes. The valley of the Okinakane itself is capable of sustaining a population equal to two counties, producing all the fruits and vegetables usual in that latitude. It is well watered and a large portion is timbered. For grazing purposes it is excellent. The Si-mil-ka-meen Valley also contains considerable fine agricultural land and timber.

News of the trail, the excellent grazing along the way and the ready market at the end attracted the interest of the cattlemen of western Oregon. At the time, there was a surplus of beef cattle in the valleys of the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua Rivers of Oregon. These cattle were descendants of those driven over the Oregon Trail from the Mississippi Basin since 1843, including a few purebred shorthorns or Durhams, mixed with "California" cattle, some of which were the small Spanish "black" but not necessarily longhorns. They had prospered in the fertile valleys of Oregon to the point that their numbers far outnumbered the demand. Oregon cattlemen were not blind to the potential market that British Columbia represented. Once they found that their cattle could be successfully wintered in the Yakima, Klickitat and Walla Walla districts before driving them north to the mining areas, they began a major movement of cattle east of the Cascade Mountains. During the spring and summer these cattle were driven north across the border and into British Columbia where the fabulous wealth of the Cariboo was attracting thousands of miners.

During the years from 1858 until 1868 over 22,000 head of cattle crossed the border at Osooyos Lake and were driven up the Brigade Trail into the interior. The Colonial Government of British Columbia was aware of this inland route and its potential for revenue. A customs duty of one dollar per head was established and, in 1859, William George Cox was dispatched to Fort Kamloops to intercept livestock and merchandise and charge appropriate duties. In addition to the duty, Cox was authorized to collect any additional money on top of customs duties that he considered necessary to cover his expenses. Among others, Joel Palmer was outraged:

This mode of assessment gave good grounds to apprehend extortion, for there being no specific amounts designated, and the agent, being ignorant of the number of animals or merchandise to come that way, parties were compelled to submit to whatever sum the avarice of the agent might demand.

In spite of the highly unorthodox costs involved, the Brigade Trail route was readily adopted as the main overland route to the Cariboo gold fields.

The Colonial Government, aware that many of the drovers were taking an alternate route up the Similkameen River and through the Douglas Lake area to avoid paying customs duties at Fort Kamloops, moved William George Cox to the boundary area where he set up a Customs House just across the border at Lake Osooyos. A "Drover's Fee" of $50 for six months was also established for anyone driving cattle into the country. But the government, under the able leadership of James Douglas, an ex-Hudson's Bay Chief Factor, did not want to discourage the importation of beef cattle to feed the hungry miners of the Cariboo. Douglas wrote to Cox in the spring of 1862:

The great number of miners now traveling by Fraser's River towards the Cariboo mines will rapidly consume the small stock of food in the country . . . . It would greatly assist if herds of sheep and cattle could be driven into the mines. Mr. Cox is therefore instructed to encourage as much as possible the importation of sheep and cattle from the Southern Boundary and to be careful not to permit any obstacle to be thrown in the way of persons driving in cattle from the U.S. territory for the purpose of being sent to Cariboo. Two to three thousand head of live cattle driven into the mines would effectually relieve us for the present year and I expect that number of cattle at least.


Competition to control the lucrative beef market in the Cariboo became quite intense. Supply and demand caused considerable fluctuation in prices and cattle in the Cariboo were being sold for prices ranging from $50 a head up to $150 a head. The latter price was realized in the spring of 1862 after a devastating winter in Washington Territory reduced the available cattle there. Obviously a fortune could be made by those who had the cattle available at the right time. In March of 1861, Cox wrote "a Mr. Jeffries is approaching with 800 head [of cattle], I understand and will if possible control the beef market in the upper country. " In order to be first upon the scene in the spring, drovers occupied land in the bunchgrass areas around Fort Kamloops or in the Bonaparte River Valley where they could winter their cattle and hold them until prices were at their best. John J. Jeffries, Ben Snipes and Jerome and Thaddeus Harper, native Virginians, were among the chief importers of cattle who realized that the bunchgrass ranges of British Columbia were excellent grazing grounds. The earliest drovers simply wintered their cattle without pre-empting land, preferring to take advantage of the abundant grass and the lack of government officials to harass them. Along with these drovers who wintered stock in the area were a number of packers who followed the Hudson's Bay Company practice of wintering their horses near Fort Kamloops.

The Fort Kamloops journals for the 1860s indicate the movement of stock through the area and provide some insights into the industry in its early years. From January 1859 until November 1862 William Manson, the Chief Clerk who kept the journal at Fort Kamloops, recorded cattle arriving up from Oregon on a regular basis. The names of the drovers, Colonel Baker, Louis Campbell, [Joseph] Christian, Jerome and Thaddeus Harper, Charles Houghton, John Jeffries, Joel Palmer, and Ben Snipes are recorded as having passed through the Kamloops area.

The Colonial Government was soon made aware of the potential for permanent settlement because of the excellent grasslands that were located in the proximity of the trail. As early as September of 1859, Lieutenant H. Spenser Palmer of the Royal Engineers reported after travelling through the Thompson-Okanagan "Bunchgrass of excellent quality, probably the best known grazing food for cattle and horses, occurs everywhere in great quantities." To encourage land settlement throughout the colony, the Land Ordinance of 1860 provided for the acquisition of 160 acres of land by British citizens for a low price. To discourage speculation, the Ordinance stipulated that the pre-emptor must occupy the land continuously and make improvements to the land. It was not long before land began to be occupied in the bunchgrass ranges by drovers and others who saw the potential for cattle raising.

As many of the cattle drovers were American, they were not able to pre-empt land unless they took out British citizenship. For many, such as Ben Snipes and John Jeffries, this was unacceptable, not only because of their loyalty to their native country but also because they were involved in driving cattle to various mining camps in Idaho and Montana as well as British Columbia. For others, particularly Jerome and Thaddeus Harper, the potential of the unclaimed grasslands was enough for them to take out citizenship and pre-empt land, as did Lewis Campbell, another drover who was destined to become one of the successful ranchers over the next decades.

The early 1860s saw a large number of cattle and sheep drovers take up land along the cattle trail to the Cariboo. Inevitably the first land taken was that along the trail, preferably within a short drive from the Cariboo gold fields. This was primarily because the drovers were looking for an area close to the markets where they could winter or hold their cattle until prices were at their best. The first area to see activity was in the bunchgrass ranges along the Bonaparte River, the last area of ample grazing before the Cariboo. As early as 1859 Lieutenant R.C. Mayne of the Royal Engineers reported "There is much good land along the Bonaparte; the whole being clothed with long grass of which the horses seemed very fond." Joel Palmer commented on the potential of the bunchgrass ranges on the Bonaparte River in his diary for March 24, 1861:

Any person desiring to establish a grazing ranch, containing about 24 square miles, to combine agricultural advantages, would do well to select the following tract: commencing on Bonaparte River, at the mouth of Lacash (Cache) Creek . . . thence following down Bonaparte River to Thompson River, to the mouth of a branch being the first trail from Bonaparte to Kamloops, thence up that branch, crossing the trail to the (Nicaragua) Bluff; thence round the bluff to Lacash Creek, thence down the creek.

As was to be the case throughout the bunchgrass ranges of the Thompson and Okanagan regions, the first settlers were those who knew the countryside through previous experience, such as ex-Hudson's Bay Company employees who had been involved in the fur brigades or drovers who had driven cattle over the trails. As early as 1859, a correspondent for the Victoria Gazette noted the Bonaparte River area as having "the most eligible sites possible for winter ranches." He met two men, Antoine Gregoire and Neil McArthur, who were keeping a herd of 200 mules and horses. Since both of these men had been employed earlier by the Hudson's Bay Company, it is possible that they were still in the employ of the Company. However by 1861, Neil McArthur pre-empted land at Hat Creek on the Bonaparte. Another ex-Hudson's Bay employee, Chief Trader Donald McLean resigned his position and took up land in the area around the same time. Other former Hudson's Bay Company employees to take up land in the bunchgrass ranges along theThompson River were Francois Chapperon, who settled around 1860 on the North Thompson, Samuel Bingham and Robert Todd, who settled a little further upstream in 1864, and Adam Heffley, who took over Bingham's land in 1868.

There were, however, others who took up land because, as part of the British administrative system in the Colony of British Columbia or friends of the same, they saw the potential for the acquisition of large land holdings. As early as 1859, the Cornwall brothers, Clement Francis and Henry Pennant, took up land at the junction of Bonaparte and Thompson Rivers at what they named Ashcroft Manor. In the North Okanagan, Charles Frederick Houghton, late of the 20th Regiment of Foot, and Charles and Forbes George Vernon, sons of Sir John Vernon of Clontarf Castle near Dublin, Ireland were among the first to take up land, probably on a Military Grant. In the South Okanagan, John Carmichael Haynes, another member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who had served as Government Agent, became a major land owner.

The area around Fort Kamloops, because of its proximity to the Fort as a supply centre and because of its central location, saw a number of settlers take up land in the early 1860s. As usual, Hudson's Bay Company employees, as experienced veterans of the country, were quick to take advantage of the availability of land. John Leonard, took up land in 1860 at the mouth of San Poel (later Campbell) Creek; Donald McAulay and John McIver located at Cherry Creek in 1860; William Whitfield Chase settled at the outlet of Shuswap Lake; and Donald Walker settled at Monte Creek in 1865. The attractions of the Kamloops area were also noticed by the major drovers who were bringing cattle into the colony. Jerome and Thaddeus Harper first drove cattle into British Columbia in 1860 and continued to be among the major suppliers to the Cariboo gold fields for the next ten years. In 1862 they started up the Harper Ranch on the north side of the South Thompson, near Kamloops. That same year, Lewis Campbell, another drover, wintered his cattle east of Kamloops on the South Thompson and took up land. In the next few years the ranges around Kamloops were busy with numerous pre-emptions.

Between Kamloops and the Cache Creek area, especially on the south side of Kamloops Lake, the grasslands attracted settlers. First of these was Francois Savona, another former Hudson's Bay employee, who was established by 1858, at which time he set up a ferry to carry would-be miners across the Thompson River at the foot of Kamloops Lake. He filed for pre-emption in 1862, but died shortly thereafter, leaving his wife and her brother, Joseph Bourke to operate the ferry. More interested in land was John Wilson, another major cattle drover, who settled north of the river in 1865 and acquired more land at Eight Mile Creek, farther west, the next year.

Because of its distance from markets , the Okanagan Valley was slower to attract white setters than the areas near the Thompson River. Initial activity centred around the mission established by the Catholic Oblate priests on the east side of Okanagan Lake about halfway up the lake. This was located in an area of extensive bunchgrass and was well-watered by creeks running through and by the lake itself . Among those who took up land at Okanagan Mission in the years from 1859 to 1861 were August Calmels and his partner, Chapius, John McDougall, Eli Lequime, William Pion, Joseph Christian and George W. Simpson. Not long after them, Isadore Boucherie and Frederick Brent took up land north of the Mission. The Mission Fathers also had herds of cattle to supplement the mixed farming that they carried on. The cattle thrived on the bunchgrass and large herds developed. The gold fields of Cherry Creek in the north Okanagan and further north on the Big Bend of the Columbia River provided limited markets for the beef. The report of W.G. Cox, the Government Agent and Gold Commissioner stationed at Rock Creek to the south, written in August of 1862 indicates the subsistence farming that these settlers endured:

There are five occupied farms of 160 acres each. There are 130 acres of cultivated ground of which 68 represent cereals. There are two substantial and excellent dwelling houses, and material on the premises for a third. The settlers are composed of Canadian, Frenchmen, and half-breeds, and all are Roman Catholics, and I am sorry to add, paupers, comparatively speaking, they have not enough funds amongst them to have a flour mill constructed; this is discouraging as their wheat crops look very promising.

In the South Okanagan, Thomas Ellis and J.C. Haynes purchased land in 1865 and started their ranches which were to become immense before long. Not far from them, in the Similkameen area, Roderick McLean another ex-Hudson's Bay Company employee, acquired land in the early 1860s as did Manuel Barcelo. In 1864, Francis Xavier (Frank) Richter drove 42 head of cattle from Oregon and established his ranch south of them on the Similkameen River, again in the excellent bunchgrass ranges on the east side of the river.

In the North Okanagan, settlement was equally slow. In 1861 Luc Girouard constructed a cabin on the site of present-day Vernon but spent his first few years in the area mining on Cherry Creek and did not register a pre-emption until 1867. Charles Houghton and the Vernon brothers, Forbes George and Charles, registered pre-emptions in October 30th, 1863 through Military Grants. In the same year, Francis Jones Barnard arrived in the area looking for suitable land to raise horses for his Barnard's Express. He took up land on the bench to the east of Swan Lake but does not seem to have registered his pre-emption until 1873 when he recorded the then maximum allowable 320 acres.

The most isolated area which contained excellent bunchgrass ranges was the Nicola. Because or its isolation, it saw very little activity during the 1860s. In 1865 Mexican packers Pancho Guiteriez, Raphael Carranzo, Blass Leon and Jesus Garcia, who packed freight on the Cariboo Road, found the extensive bunchgrass ranges around Nicola Lake and used them to winter their packhorses. These packers did not pre-empt land, although Garcia was to settle in 1872 on the Nicola River. It was not until 1868 that the first pre-emptions were registered for the Nicola Lake area. Edwin Dalley and Alexander Robb, who was acting on behalf of John Clapperton, took up land at the foot of Nicola Lake, with the intention of sheep ranching. After disposing of the land to Clapperton, Robb re-located on the east side of the lake at the mouth of Quilchena Creek. Florien and Wheeler Mickle settled north of him and the Moore brothers, Samuel and John, started a ranch at the head of Nicola Lake. The next few years saw additional settlers arrive, all of whom pre-empted on the choice areas where bunchgrass and water were available in abundance.

To the early settlers in the Thompson and Okanagan regions, the bunchgrass resource seemed to be unlimited. Thousands of acres or grasslands covered the valley bottoms and the upland plateaus and, at the higher altitudes and north slopes where the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir predominated, the bunch grass (notably Rough Fescue, Festuca scabrella) could be found in great quantities on the forest floor. The ranchers merely turned their cattle loose on the unfenced ranges and rounded them up when they were needed, when cattle buyers came through their area, or when they were going to drive cattle to distant markets. The virtues of blue bunch wheat grass for grazing cattle, sheep and horses was soon recognized. Dr. Cheadle, who visited the area with Lord Milton in 1863, recorded in his diary "Great nutritiousness of pasturage about Kamloops. Bunchgrass. Cattle brought from all around to winter. Get fat in a very short time." A few days later on the way to Cache Creek, he reported "Fine hills running close to the lake...sparsely timbered, yellow with bunchgrass."

The markets in the 1860s included the Cariboo gold fields primarily but also the smaller gold fields such as the Similkameen, Cherry Creek, Rock Creek or Columbia Big Bend "excitements." Although these smaller gold rushes were relatively short lived and did not attract the number of miners that the Cariboo gold fields did, they served to provide an outlet for the cattle that were being raised in the area. Often more prosperous ranchers would travel through an area and purchase cattle, sheep or horses that they would drive to the Cariboo or other market and re-sell. Other than these markets, which by the end of the 1860s were dwindling rapidly, the ranchers were content to let their herds build up in hopes of the future demand. The prospects of British Columbia joining the Canadian Confederation with the promise of a railway to connect B.C. with eastern Canada, kept the stockmen of the Thompson-Okanagan optimistic that better times were in store for them. They were to be sadly mistaken. The construction of the promised railway was over a decade away and it would be a long time before prosperity would come.



Bunchgrass and beef
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