Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cattle Drives in Western Canada, Part 2

Almost anyone will agree that Southern Alberta is the centre of the Canadian Cattle Industry. There is an argument that a couple of ranches west of the mountains are larger than any on the east slope. Those on that east slope can argue that Southern Alberta produces more cattle both for feeding and for market. One argument that can not be denied is that Western Canada’s cattle business did not start off in the Southern Alberta area but in Southern BC.

            In 1869 British Columbia had already spent ten years establishing herds of cattle and horses and farms producing pork, dairy products, oats, barley, wheat and many other items. The land east of the Rocky Mountains had little more than a few garden plots as far east as the Assiniboine and Red Rivers or Fort Gary. (You may know it now as Winnipeg.) The two year old country of Canada had just taken over that vast stretch of land which included the area the former manager (Hudson’s Bay Co.) called Rupert’s Land. It was still the home of all the Hudson’s Bay trading posts that had been there before but the factors of those posts no longer managed or supplied security for anything more than the actual storage and trading areas.

            It is true that being responsible for several hundred thousands of square miles of land is a serious responsibility for a two year old government but that was a small fraction of their worry. They also had several thousand Métis residents who had been the work force that kept the Hudson’s Bay Company operational for several generations but where now French speaking Catholics in a world controlled by English speaking Protestants. They also had a neighbour to the south who was ten times larger by population, even after a devastating Civil War, many of whom believed it was their Manifest Destiny to govern all of North America. Whiskey traders were also bringing in alcohol, much of it lethal and selling it to the natives who, if they didn’t die from the so called “whiskey” itself wound up killing each other in alcohol induced fights or freezing in the snow. Then, the last straw was a drunken battle in the Cypress Hills between a group of wolfers and about three hundred Nakota where 23 of the Indians where killed.

            (This is the battle at the end of the award winning novel “The Englishman’s Boy” by Guy Vanderhaeghe which became the award winning TV mini series with Michael Eisner in the lead role.)

            The Prime Minister, John A. McDonald with a great deal of help from advisers, decided Canada’s North West Territories needed a police force the size of a small army. Eventually this force was formed – after the usual time and money wasting as is associated with any bureaucratic body – and called the North West Mounted Police.

            Despite his demands what John A actually got was a force the size of a small battalion.

            What does this have to do with cattle drives? It meant the immigration of a small body of consumers of beef and relative safety for settlers or more consumers.

In the late summer of 1874 two hundred and seventy former farmers and military men where living and working on the Canadian prairies and they needed to be fed. This doesn’t require a large herd every year but it does require some cattle and if possible a few pigs and chickens.

Those first cattle came from Montana to places like Fort MacLeod, Fort Walsh and Fort Saskatchewan. Most of these were the wild, long horn animals that had been trailed up from Texas during the nine years since the end of the Civil War.

Later it became apparent to commanding officers – Walsh, MacLeod, and many of those under them – that the Blackfoot where not going to receive the meat they had been promised. Though they didn’t have clearance or the money a few extra cattle where added to the herds from the south and, along with some trapping and hunting the Blackfoot people managed to survive.

When in 1876 Sitting Bull’s people came north of the 49th parallel after the Battle of Little Big Horn, money was found for a few more cattle.  Not enough to feed both the Lakota and the Blackfoot but, with a little special management, enough to avoid embarrassment for government people and enough to avoid an Indian war.

Feeding the various native tribes was a problem that continued for most of those last years of the nineteenth century. As a small example, George and Edward Maunsell had 103 head of cattle delivered to Southern Alberta in June, 1879 to start a ranch. In the fall of that year when the local ranchers completed their roundup the Maunsells (who had participated in the roundup) found they had 54 head. The Blackfoot, Cree, Assiniboine and Lakota managed to survive but relations between these people, the ranchers and the Mounties took a very long time to recover even though it was the “toffs” in Ottawa that created the antagonism.

Having heard of the arrival of the Mounted Police on the plains a man named John Shaw, along with Frank O’Keefe and Charles Ashton took two hundred cows and a hundred eighty seven steers through the North Kootney Pass. They arrived in Morley, North West Territories in August 1875 but there was little sale for their cattle since supply had already been received from Montana. Shaw rode north to see if there was sale for his beef at Fort Edmonton (Hudson’s Bay) or Fort Saskatchewan (NWM Police) but those sites had also been supplied by animals from the south.

There were several bringing cattle up from Montana in those early years most notably George Emerson and Tom Lynch. The foundation for these animals was the Texas longhorn but in the 1870s they where beginning to be bread with heavier animals from Oregon.

During the fall and winter a great deal of building took place a short distance from Morley where John Shaw had returned after his unsuccessful trip north. The Mounted Police built a new post, the Hudson’s Bay Company expanded their post and I.G Baker of Fort Benton built a post. Next to the Police post was the T.C Power & Brother store, Harry Taylor’s billiard hall and some Métis cabins.

This new NWMP post which had been named Fort Brisebois after the Officer Commanding the detachment was renamed by Assistant Commissioner Irvine at the suggestion of Colonel Macleod.  Thus in the spring of 1876 John Shaw, having completed a sale to the NWMP through an agent finally began delivering his BC cattle, the first herd to be sold in Calgary. The name of the post came from Calgary House on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. The first cattle in Canada’s premier “cow-town” came from the Chilcotin and Okanogan countries in B.C.

What really increased the cattle business was the railroad reaching into the plains. In 1881 the Canadian government opened large areas for ranching leases. These ranches, usually were of several thousand acres and supplied with financing from Eastern Canada, the US or England. A few years later the Homestead Act was instituted and the large ranches gained neighbours of 160 to 640 acres.

Going back a couple of years and a couple of paragraphs, many of the cattle that came in to stock these new ranches where driven by George Emerson and Tom Lynch. In both 1779 and 1880 they brought 1000 head in from Montana, selling many of them to the growing number of settlers around the Fort Macleod area but also building up herds for themselves.  In 1883 a herd of 3000 head for the newly formed North West Cattle Company and in ’84 another 2000 head.

It will be evident that the few men mentioned are not the only ones who brought cattle into the North West Territories during these years. By 1884 when the Transcontinental Railway was working its way up the foothills and into the mountains the range was already overstocked and full of many thousands of cattle.

In 1885 the Mounties went east to join the Canadian Militia in putting down the Riel Rebellion.

The three member nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy hunkered down on their reserves to ensure the white men didn’t think they where involved with the Métis and Cree fighting that war. While attempting to stay out of sight they began entertaining the idea of raising cattle along with the horses. They still had a few of each despite their living conditions and within a few years managed to acquire the government loan of bulls to build those herds.

During the years from the US Civil War (1865) until 1886 millions of cattle had been moved around on the surface of North America. Several of those millions had wound up in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Several hundred thousand had become the foundation of herds in those areas that are now the states of Montana (1889), Wyoming (1890), and the Dakotas (1889) and through the usual forces of nature became millions.

The same forces where pressuring the Canadian cattle industry. Every year the price for beef would fall a little in the east and every year a little more money was demanded of those raising cattle. In the case of the large “combines” with several thousand cattle the demand was from the ranch owners in offices on Wall Street, Young Street or Fleet Street. In the case of the small operators the cash demands where from bankers and suppliers. Consequently on ranches from Fort Edmonton to El Paso the land was overgrazed.

During the winter of 1886 – ’87 nature solved the overgrazing problem. The most severe winter in many years that surprised everyone but the oldest trappers and natives killed thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, Wapiti, moose, deer and many other animals. Some of the smaller farmers who managed time to cut some hay and didn’t have many animals in the first place only lost 20% of their animals. Some of the larger ranches lost 80% and a couple even more. An estimated average for losses in Western North America that winter is 75%. It was the beginning of the end of the open range.


            Next time, I’ll mention some horses.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cattle Drives in Western Canada, Part 1

Many movies and perhaps a hundred times as many novels have been made about the cattle that were moved from Texas to Kansas and Montana. It doesn’t take a great deal of contemplation to understand that the fifteen years of these cattle drives resulted in dramatic changes for all segments of society from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. Some may not realize that these drives had an effect on all inhabited areas of North America, perhaps not at the time but a very short time afterward. Therefore the number of movies and novels and those still thinking and talking about it a hundred and thirty years after the fact is understandable.

There have been other historical and important movements of livestock that have been almost forgotten. Some of these took place in small numbers before the intrusion of European settlers, most notably by those of the Iroquois or Seminole Confederations and for other peoples who’s DNA has been absorbed by other peoples and, as a nation, no longer exist. It would take a very big book to document all of the livestock management from turkeys through to today so for this posting I’ll just go back to the mid 1800s.

Besides, the late 19th century is where most of my stories take place so that’s where most of my research has been centred.

Most agree that the first wagon train of immigrants heading to the west coast of what is now the United States did so in 1836. They where headed in the general direction of Fort Astoria which was started by what had been a group of “free trappers” operating in competition to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Trading Company and eventually formed the American Fur Company. The Lewis and Clark expedition commissioned by Thomas Jefferson made the trip in 1804 several decades after the first trapper.

No, the first wagon trains did not go to California because in 1836 it was still part of Mexico. It would not become part of the United States until 1848 and the end of the Mexican-American War.

The immigrants to Oregon took with them Shorthorn Cattle and milk cows. By the start of the US Civil War these cattle, along with the Mexican and Spanish cattle in California (not to be confused with the wild Texas cattle descendant from the same stock) had grown into large herds that the owners couldn’t sell.

A great many things happened between 1836 and the Civil War but for the purposes of this article it all began in 1858. That year some Indian trappers brought, along with their winter’s catch of fur, a leather pouch of gold into the Hudson’ Bay trading post at Fort Hope.

The rush was on.

In the summer of 1859 the half dozen white trappers in what is now British Columbia where joined, much to their disgust by an estimated 8000 white gold hunters. The gold proved to be very fine and hard to gather. During those first years there were few pack trains operating, wagons where almost useless past Fort Hope and many tons of supplies where carried on some man’s back ... well several men actually. Thus supplies where very expensive and the gold to pay for them was not in great supply. Most of the miners left that fall but the following year more than 10,000 showed up.

It doesn’t take very many lead-footed, clumsy, loud talking, inconsiderate miners to chase the wildlife out of the country. If a miner hasn’t traded his rifle for a gold pan he might be able to hunt for venison but he also might be gone for a week. If he is gone for a week he won’t be collecting any gold and someone might try to jump his claim.

As a side note, not many miners where willing to give up their weapons for any reason particularly during those early years. Despite the advent of Gold Commissioners and Colonial Police appointed by Governor Douglas there were still instances of claim jumping and other thefts. In addition the Indian wars; in 1858 there was the Fraser Canyon War (aka the Thompson River Indian War) and in 1863 the Chilcotin War.  

Miners, if they have gold, will buy beef. Ten thousand miners will buy a great deal of beef. After several weeks eating dandelion greens, bannock and spruce tea they’ll buy thin, stringy beef.

The first small herds of cattle where driven down the Columbia River by land and boat or raft to head of Puget Sound. From there they where loaded on boats and shipped to Fort Victoria and the Lower Fraser. However, that was expensive and a new, cheaper route that could handle greater volume was required.

Several routs where tried and most of them required a drive from the source, the Willamette Valley or California’s Sacramento Valley perhaps, east on the Columbia to The Dalles and then north across the border. There where a half dozen trails each with detours demanded by weather, grass or water conditions but in general most cattle went through the Okanogan Valley to Fort Kamloops. From here the head drover (or buckaroo as they were called in BC) would decide what gold field they would go to, what butcher / packer / meat retailer would buy them or where they would be pastured until the price was better.

From 1858 until 1868 about 22,000 head of cattle crossed the border at the Osoyoos Lake customs station.

            Next time I’ll post a note about the start of the cattle and horse business on the east side of the Rocky Mountains in what was then called the North West Territories.

The primary source for information in this article is the work of Ken Mather. For reading that is both informative and entertaining along with some vitiage pictures check out his “Buckaroos and Mud Pups,” “Bronc Busters and Hay Sloops” or “Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide.” There are another dozen sources that I have read over the years, all of them informative and most still in my collection. But I have found Mather’s work to be well supported by the others and the only ones I have referred too during this writing.
By the way, if you're interested in cowboys and cattle drives you'll probably be interested in western music and cowboy poetry. Check out Tom Cole and Brian Salmond at

Sunday, April 6, 2014

An Excerpt from “Jake’s Justice”

Here is a few pages from a novel I wrote last year and which I’m hoping to see published in 2014. I have three edited but this is the one I would like to do first. The story opens in the spring as Jake comes out of the mountains to sell his furs to the Hudson’ Bay Company. Except for four trips out to sell furs and buy supplies Jake has been hiding in those mountains, mostly from himself, for three years. He expects this trip out to be no more than two weeks long but his plans and his life are about to be changed once again.

 In the west of the 1890s Jake’s wife is raped and murdered, an image from which he attempts to escape and hide. When two thugs attempt to take what little else he has he realizes he must face the past and solve the crime to truly escape the image. To find the killer he will find more surprises.
        The first part of the trip went as Jake had planned; and since it was his fourth trip down to Ft. St. John this was not a particular surprise. It had been a short, mild winter and he was late enough in the season that he saw very little ice, except for a few small pieces melting away from their perches on driftwood where they had been forced by the earlier heavy run off. The water was still high enough that he could avoid portaging, but low enough that he managed to keep the canoe upright with his cargo inside the craft.
       Some stretches of river did create heart pounding moments. Jake was not one to admit it, even to himself, but adrenaline flowed and he worked hard to avoid rocks and whirlpools. Chester, in his assigned space at the front of the canoe, put his chin on the ribbing and his paws over his nose.
      There was just enough light for Jake to shoot the last rapids on the Finlay, and enough dark that he could steer wide around the settlement of Finlay Forks without attracting attention. Everyone stopped at the landing. After a winter in the bush most men wanted company and conversation. Jake wanted neither. He also didn’t want to put up with fur traders trying to deal him out of his pelts for less than top price.
       Two men did see him from the dock as he turned into the Peace River. One was known as Sam Twice. He had been born into the Beaver Nation but was accepted at no lodge, including that of his own family. The other was Martin Prentice, a man who definitely was wanted. He was wanted by the law in both the State of New York and the Province of Ontario. The town police in Winnipeg and Calgary would have also liked to talk to him, but they were not aware he was the one who had committed the crimes.
      In the twilight Sam Twice made a flicking motion with one finger toward the silhouette out on the water. “Him maybe got fur,” he said.
      “I expect he does,” Martin agreed. He took a swig from the jug he held and passed it to Sam. “Perhaps he also has a small poke of gold he’s panned out of streams.”
      “Why him not come in?” Sam asked. He flicked a finger toward the large cabin that served as store, saloon, and hotel as long as one wasn’t too particular about prices, liquor quality, or sleeping on the floor. He took a swig from the jug which the two had purchased at the store. Sam didn’t care about the quality of the refreshment since he had never had anything better.
      “I expect he wants more than half price for his pelts,” Martin replied. “He’ll take them down to Ft. St. John where he’ll get as much as he can get in this country.”
      “Don’ like that man boss that Fort John place,” Sam said. “He marry Beaver girl. She nice girl, one time.”
      Martin looked at Sam a moment. He knew there was much about Sam’s past that he didn’t know, but he didn’t really care. Sam was useful from time to time, and that was all the mattered. “I heard his wife was Cree, but what do I know? I’ve never even seen the woman.”
      Sam grunted, giving Martin no idea what he meant.
      Martin waved toward the silhouette of man and canoe fading into the gathering darkness. “Now, that pilgrim will undoubtedly stop for the night. Tomorrow he’ll go on to Portage Mountain. If we were to float down the river right now we could be at Portage to meet him.”
      “I like maybe stay here an’ drink,” Sam objected. He wasn’t one to hasten toward any effort that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
      “How would you like to have a nice canoe?” Martin asked.
      Sam looked at Martin with hard, cold eyes. “I get canoe an’ you get fur?”
      “No, no,” Martin objected. “We split the furs and you get the canoe. After all, I already have a canoe.”
      Sam nodded several times, then placed the cork in the jug and hit it with the heel of his hand. “We go.”


Peace River, Portage Mountain, British Columbia, 1898
      There was no question about pulling out of the water upriver from Portage Mountain. Even in late August, when the water flow may have dropped several feet, no one in their right mind would try to shoot the Peace Canyon.
      It was mid afternoon of their second day of travel when Jake pulled in to the river bank. Chester jumped out onto dry ground and ran to the nearest aspen where he lifted his leg.
      Pulling the canoe up so the current couldn’t take it, Jake said, “Mighty fine idea, Chester. You’re a smart dog.”
      Jake unloaded his canoe and dragged the craft up onto dry ground. Chester sat on his haunches, looked at the bales of furs and supplies, swung his gaze up the trail, and then looked back at the cargo.
      “We ain’t in a hurry, Chester. We’ll spend the night here. Go see if yuh can find a rabbit.”
      Chester headed off into the bush and Jake collected firewood.
      At the start and end of any portage there are well-used camp areas; and if the trail to more water is long enough, more stopping places along the way. The Portage Mountain trail - a long walk without carrying a pack - was no exception. There were several sites that had been used on the upriver end. Jake chose one of the spots as far back as possible from the trail end and riverbank and started his fire. If there were other travellers, he wanted to avoid company if possible. He didn’t mind carrying a little water.
      While the fire burned down to coals he moved his freight and canoe up to the camp site. Gathering firewood, he noticed a small aspen sapling and cut it with his knife. Back at the fire he skewered a piece of moose meat with the green stick and drove the butt end of the stick into the ground so the meat was suspended over the coals.
      As the meat was heating up to a sizzle he mixed up some bannock batter, wound it around another piece of green stick and propped that over the fire.
      Chester sauntered into camp and dropped to the ground at the edge of firelight.
      “You’re getting lazy, old man,” Jake said. “First smell o’ cookin’ meat an’ you come back.”
      He turned his gaze to the hound and saw the relaxed, satisfied look and the long tongue licking lips.
      “I apologise, old man. I don’t know what you mighta found t’ eat on this pile o’ rocks, but you’ve found somethin’.”
      When he finished eating and washing up, Jake threw a couple of sticks on the fire and propped the canoe up so it would collect and hold the heat for his bed. He propped himself up against a dry log, loaded his pipe and leaned back puffing contentedly.
       "Nothin’ wrong with this, Ches. Nice warm night.”
        Surprised at his master’s good mood, Chester grunted.
        During breakfast the next morning Jake decided to continue taking it easy. Even though the two bundles of furs were not very large he would pack them around the mountain one at a time. The four fresh plews had not been properly treated, but they were dry so he decided to tie them on to one of the bundles. He pulled a bag full of string and sinew from his possibles pack and wrapped the hides in places, cutting the ends of sinew off and putting them back in the bag.
       He was already on the trail when he realized he hadn’t put his knife back in the sheath. He hesitated, decided he would pick it up on the next trip, and started off again.
       He had only taken a few steps when he heard Chester off the trail to his right. There was the beginning of a bark followed by a howl that was abruptly cut off. Jake swung the pack of furs from his shoulders, dropped it to the trail, and stepped into the brush.
      There was blinding pain from the back of his skull. He saw a light as bright as the sun. Then he fell into blackness.