In previous columns, I talked about the “first families” of the Okanagan, that consisted of a white rancher with his native wife and their mixed-race children.
A list of the ranchers who lived with native women reads like a “Who’s Who” of the early ranching community.
Ranchers such as J.C. Haynes, Forbes Vernon and Cornelius O’Keefe, in the Okanagan Valley; along with John Allison and Barrington Price in the nearby Similkameen, all had native wives.
The same was the case in the Cariboo where Herman Otto Bowe, founder of the Alkali Lake ranch, William Pinchbeck at Williams Lake and Louis Antoine Minnaberriet, founder of the Basque Ranch, were all married to native women.
While most of these men chose to live in a common-law relationship with their Indian partners, there were a significant number who made their liaison official with a marriage.
While mixed-race families were the norm in the early British Columbia Interior, over time, the children of these marriages began to feel the brunt of discrimination as “civilization” arrived in the region.
Little is recorded of how these children reacted to the growing bias directed at them. But some of the children of these mixed-race families spoke and wrote of the pride they felt in growing up between two heritages.
Maria Brent, the daughter of Charles Houghton, who founded the Coldstream Ranch, and his Okanagan wife, Sophia, was keen to point out the advantages of the two heritages that she possessed.
She wrote: “they seem to possess a certain mental aloofness, a freedom and independence of judgement which makes them different from the whites, pure blood; and these qualities make for leadership among men.
“The half breed will either live entirely to himself, or, if he takes part in community life at all, he is apt to forge to the front. These men are in a sense ‘well born.’
“They, on the one side of the house at least, have descended from a race of men who for many generations never knew what it was to receive a command from another and feel that they were under compulsion and bound to obey that command.
“Always they were free men, and, they will say, blood will tell.”
To those of them who were able to articulate it, mixed-race children seemed to embody what were seen as the best qualities of both races. Eliza Swalwell observed that: “I do not know whether this responsiveness to certain beautiful aspects of nature comes to me from my Indian mother or from my father’s side.
“It seems to me the whites are too much bound and limited, too enslaved by their written creeds and confessions of faith … Standing as I do between the two races I could never see that intellectually the Indians are not the equals of the whites.
“The Indians are sadly lacking in culture; that is to be seen at a glance, but social grace and refinement are things which can be acquired … Why should any man, whether Indian or white, be commiserated because he sees in the workings of nature manifestations of the Creator? He would be a dolt if he did not.”
Ken Mather is a Spallumcheen author. He can be reached through www.kenmather.com.