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Trail North

One of the ways modern BC was shaped: Ken Mather looks at the Fraser River cattle market from 1858 to 1860.

Trails are the most enduring memorials of human occupation. Long before stone monuments were created, pathways throughout the world were being worn into hardness by human feet.

Travellers along the stretch of Highway 97 from Brewster, Washington, to Kamloops, BC, may not know that they are travelling a route as old as humankind’s presence in the region. In fact, this north–south valley, a natural corridor linking the two major river systems that drain the Interior Plateau, has served as transportation route for tens of thousands of years.

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from Trail North: The Okanagan Trail of 1858–1868 and Its Origins in British Columbia and Washington by Ken Mather.

The thousands of miners who rushed to the lower Fraser River in the spring of 1858 ushered in a new era in the Pacific Northwest, on both the British and American sides of the border.

To the British, the gold rush represented an opportunity to solidify their hold on their territory in the Pacific, and to the Americans, it was seen as an opportunity for a new market for the produce of the State of Oregon and Washington Territory.

The cattlemen seeking new outlets for their surplus cattle lost no time in responding to the new market on the Fraser River. By the middle of July 1858, hundreds of head of cattle were being driven from the Rogue River Valley, the Umpqua River Valley, and the southern Willamette Valley through Oregon City to the new mines.

The Dalles, within a day’s journey from Portland, became a major port and was an outfitting point for those heading to the “upper country,” which at the time referred to the Fraser River north of the Fraser Canyon. Within a few years, new mining areas had opened up on the Clearwater, Powder, and Owyhee Rivers, and in the Boise Basin as well as the Virginia City area of Montana.

Farther up the Columbia, in the Walla Walla Valley near the site of the abandoned Whitman mission and adjacent to the American military post established in 1856, the town of Walla Walla sprang up. It had initially been called Steptoeville, after the US Army colonel Edward Steptoe, who had been defeated at the Battle of Pine Creek in May 1858.

By the end of 1859, according to the report of the Reverend Cushing Eells, the town boasted “ten stores, two hotels, [and] a dozen gambling and drinking saloons.” Eells went on to express the opinion that the area, with its “inexhaustible prairies of the finest grass and its mild climate,” would become “a vast storehouse for untold herds of cattle, sheep and horses” and would soon be “the supplying point for the multitudes that . . . flock every year, from the Willamette and Rogue river valleys and from California, to the Northern mines.”

The Fort Kamloops post journals provide some of the meagre information available on the use of the trail in 1859 by drovers bringing cattle into the mining country. On August 3, the journal noted, “Another band of Cattle on their way to the mines.” In September, it recorded, “A large band of cattle arrived from the Dalls [sic] on their way to the mines. The owner purposes selling some and also settling on the Country”; the following day, “The party with Cattle started this forenoon on their way to Rivier [sic] Bonaparte where they purpose wintering and perhaps settling.”

The cattle brought into British Columbia along the trail were a mix of British shorthorn and Spanish cattle from California via Mexico. William G.R. Hind, Cattle in the Grass, ca. 1864. Watercolour on paper. Image PDP01204, courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

Cattle continued to be driven up the trail until late in the season. On December 1, the journal recorded, “Tonasket arrived from the American Boundary Line Brings 6 head of Cattle.” Customs records show that duty was paid on a total of 499 head of beef cattle in 1859, but given that there was no customs collector until W.G. Cox arrived at Fort Kamloops in June, it is possible that other cattlemen brought cattle in without paying duty.

What is certain is that this small number was the beginning of what was to become a continuous flow over the next nine years.

From Fort Kamloops, drovers did not follow the Brigade Trail up the North Thompson. Some chose to stay on the post-1843 trail on the north side of Kamloops Lake that joined the main trail where it crossed to the north side of the Thompson River, but the vast majority opted to stay on the south side of Kamloops Lake, and then cross the Thompson River.

Cattle were forced to swim across the river at the point where an enterprising former HBC employee, Francois Saveneau, had set up a cable ferry, known as Savona’s Ferry.

After crossing the Thompson, the trail followed the north bank of the river to where it met the Fraser River at Lytton. The trail most often used by drovers heading north branched off and headed north west to the Bonaparte River. This trail followed the Bonaparte before turning northwest to reach the Fraser River at Lillooet.

By August 1859, the Kamloops post journal was reporting, “News from the upper country—miners crossing to Alexandria and Quesnels River & and also some as far as Fort George—Provisions selling at the first mentioned place as follows Flour 50 cts & bacon at $1.50—mines appear to give satisfaction as none are returning.” By the beginning of November, the reports were even more favorable: “Baron, King & others bring favorable reports of the mines of Kennelle [Quesnelle] River—rich dry diggings.”

Joel Palmer, who had reached Alexandria with his provisions and cattle, reported on this region as possessing “the richest gold mines yet discovered in British Columbia” and concluded that “it is confidently believed, by those who operated on the Quenelle and Upper Fraser rivers, that the coming season will disclose an extensive and rich gold field, well rewarding those who may apply themselves to that kind of life.”

By the spring of 1860, large numbers of cattle were being driven over the trail. After being driven to Portland, they were ferried across the Willamette River and driven overland to the Sandy River. There they were either ferried to the Washington shore and driven around the Cascades or boated directly to the portage.

Many herds were taken by boat to The Dalles, but some were started on the long overland trek directly through passes in the Cascade Mountains. From The Dalles, drovers had the choice of two routes to Fort Okanogan before proceeding up the Brigade Trail. The majority of cattle were driven along the south side of the Columbia to the old Fort Walla Walla and then north over the HBC trail through the Grand Coulee to Fort Okanogan.

Even at this early stage, some drovers crossed between the lower and upper Grand Coulee at McEntee Springs (today’s Coulee City) and drove their herds across the prairie in a northwesterly direction, thus bypassing the upper Grand Coulee altogether.

The second, less popular route involved swimming the cattle across the Columbia at The Dalles and then driving them by way of Fort Simcoe, arriving back at the Columbia just above the head of Priest Rapids.

From there, the cattle were driven through Sentinel Gap, along the east bank of the Columbia, into Moses Coulee, at the north end of which the route connected with the other trails down Foster Creek to the Columbia near the mouth of the Okanogan River. A variation of this route, successfully used by drovers between 1860 and 1868, involved crossing the Columbia at The Dalles and remaining on the west side of the river all the way to the mouth of the Okanogan River.

Packers in the Okanagan Valley. Courtesy of Penticton Museum and Archives

Not all the cattle driven into British Columbia were intended for market. Two of the original settlers at the Okanagan Mission (present-day Kelowna), William Peon and John McDougall, went to Oregon and purchased cattle that they drove up the east side of Lake Okanagan to the mission to establish cattle ranches. Customs records for 1860 indicate that a total of 962 head of cattle crossed the border up the Similkameen Trail, where a customs house had been built, or at Osoyoos Lake, where constables were stationed to intercept and charge duty on cattle and freight.

Joel Palmer, who had driven some cattle into British Columbia in 1858 and 1859, began investing heavily in beef cattle in 1860, realizing that a few men could drive a large number of cattle over the trail along with his pack trains. In arranging for their sale, his diary outlines the method of calculating their value: “[T]he average weight of which is to be ascertained by weighing a two year old steer which has been designated—it to be driven to Alexandria, for cutting up; this weight to be the average of all as above enumerated . . .The price of the cattle is fixed at 15 cents per lb. meat . . . 123 [steers, cows, and heifers]. Total weight 56,693, which at 15 [cents per pound] makes $8,503.95.

In the spring of 1860, John J. Jeffries, originally from Alabama, crossed the Columbia at The Dalles and passed through the Yakima Valley on his way north, probably crossing the Columbia again at Priest Rapids.

After successfully selling his cattle, he returned for another herd and headed north with them. The Fort Kamloops post journal reported on October 1, “A large band of cattle arrived from the Dalls (a Mr. Jefferie’s).” Jeffries then returned to the Yakima Valley and purchased herds to winter there. He and his brother, Oliver, were to become major dealers in the British Columbia cattle market.

Another man who was destined to become one of the largest cattle importers to British Columbia arrived on the scene in 1860. Jerome Harper, in partnership with J.H. Parsons, drove cattle all the way from Marysville in California via Klamath Lake to Walla Walla before driving them north to British Columbia.

For the next eight years, Harper continued to bring cattle into the Colony. He and his brother Thaddeus would eventually control the market.

Trail North: The Okanagan Trail of 1858–1868 and Its Origins in British Columbia and Washington (Heritage House 2018). Copyright Ken Mather, 2018.

Ken Mather is the author of four previous books on BC ranching history: Ranch Tales, Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide, Bronc Busters and Hay Sloops, and Buckeroos and Mud Pups. He lives in Armstrong, BC.