Cattle population driven by fur trade efforts

George Simpson was determined to make his fur trade forts west of the Rocky Mountains more self-sufficient

George Simpson, who was Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1820 to 1860, when the company was at the pinnacle of its power, was determined to make his fur trade forts west of the Rocky Mountains more self-sufficient.

With this in mind, he brought cattle from California to Fort Vancouver near the mouth of the Columbia to supplement the few head that had arrived in 1814. His efforts at economy did not stop there. He wanted every fort in the interior to also raise cattle. With this in mind, he arranged to abandon Spokane House and establish a new post in a more suitable situation for agriculture.

He chose a location near the Kettle Falls on the Columbia and laid out the site of a new post, to be called Fort Colvile, after Andrew Colvile, a member of the London Committee. Fort Colvile soon established itself as the most productive agricultural post in the interior.

To oversee the renewed operations in the Columbia District, Simpson chose former North Wester, John McLoughlin, who he placed in charge at Fort Vancouver on March 19, 1825. McLoughlin’s influence over the Columbia District over the next 20 years and his encouragement of the earliest settlers in the Oregon Country, earned him the title, “The Father of Oregon.”

Under his supervision, the cattle herd at Fort Vancouver increased to 200 head by 1829 and to 685 by 1837. As early as 1836, McLoughlin had placed cattle at Fort Okanogan and, further up the Columbia, Fort Colvile had large herds of cattle and pigs. Two years later, Chief Trader at Colvile, Archibald McDonald, wrote to McLoughlin that, “Your three calves are up to 55,” and added that he had acquired some, “St. Louis cows and horses.” This comment is significant, indicating that the small Spanish cattle that had been acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company were being upgraded with the larger British breeds that were being trailed in from the eastern United States.

When the 1841 United States exploring expedition under Charles Wilkes passed through Fort Colvile, an officer recorded that there were 196 head of “fine cattle” at the fort and 35 head of cattle at Fort Okanogan. The expedition’s botanist, WD Brackenridge, noted about the latter fort, “The soil is too poor to admit of anything being done in the farming way by Okanagan but I must say that I never beheld finer cattle in my life than I did there.”

From Fort Okanogan, cattle were driven up the Brigade Trail through the Okanagan Valley to Fort Kamloops.  As early as 1833, the famous naturalist, David Douglas (after whom the Douglas fir is named) traveled with a brigade that included cattle to Fort Kamloops.

These may well have been the first cattle to arrive in what was to become British Columbia. There would be many more to follow them up the trail on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

Ken Mather is a Spallumcheen author. He can be reached through www.kenmather.com.