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

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