Alberta’s legendary cowboy heritage has its roots in the rich North Okanagan grasslands.
Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide: Early Ranching in B.C. and Alberta focuses on the vast cattle drives that made their way through the Rockies during the 1800s to meet the growing demand for beef.
“The very first cattle in Calgary, the cattle capital of Canada, came from B.C.,” said Ken Mather, a Spallumcheen author and former O’Keefe Ranch curator.
Much of the livestock was raised in the North Okanagan.
“One of the fellows who drove cattle was Frank O’Keefe, Cornelius O’Keefe’s brother, and another was Charles Ashton, who Ashton Creek is named after.”
This is Mather’s third book on the subject. The others are Buckaroos and Mud Pups and Bronc Busters and Hay Sloops.
Mather says he’s fascinated by the early cowboys and continues to find rich material to write about.
“Nobody had ever told their story before, especially the early cattle drives into B.C. during the gold rush. I was breaking new ground,” he said, adding that the individuals of that era were characters.
“They were bigger than life. They were far from civilization and they developed a real independence. Most were as tough as nails.”
In 1875, Ashton led a herd of cattle through the Crowsnest.
“I have heard him tell on how that trip on the prairies as they rode herd, they were on one night nearly eaten alive with mosquitoes and on the next, they had struck a blizzard that almost froze them in their saddles,” said Ashton’s daughter Minnie in a reminiscence.
While he admits writing can be a challenge, Mather loves spending time looking through archival material. A lot of that comes from years working at Fort Edmonton, Barkerville and O’Keefe Ranch.
“I’ve always been a researcher at heart.”
Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide, published by Heritage House, is currently being distributed to book stores.
Mather will also be signing copies at O’Keefe Ranch on Sunday, and he anticipates the public response will be positive.
“As the Okanagan grows, we’re beginning to realize we have a rich history,” he said.
His next project is to self-publish a collection of the Ranch Tales columns he writes for The Morning Star.