Girlhood days in the OK

RANCH TALES: story told from Swalwell daughter on what life was like

Over the past few columns I have been looking at the Okanagan Valley’s “first families,” the marriage of white settlers with Native women and their mixed-race families.

One of these families was the Swallwells. George Simpson was born in Philadelphia of Scottish Presbyterian parents and married a Native Okanagan woman.

Their daughter Eliza Jane Swalwell, looked back at her childhood in an account of her “Girlhood Days in the Okanagan.” “I remember this valley when everything was in a wild state, before there was any wagon road and everything had to be brought in by pack-train, and all our dishes were of tin, and we baked bread and pies and roasted meat in a Dutch oven…”

To those children of mixed race families, there was no feeling that they were in some way different. In fact, the vast majority of families in the Okanagan were of this type.

The valley was cattle country in those days of the 1870s and first half of the 1880s and lay unfenced from one end to the other. Eliza recalled the beauty of the valley: “To me it was an exquisite pleasure as a girl to ride over this green and gracious pasture land in the mornings, and to see it stretching before me for miles with the Sand Rose lying scattered on the ground as if a fairy princess had passed that way at dawn and children had strewn flowers in her path, and to see the sunlight on the hills. On such occasions I have sometimes seen things, or rather sensed something, so serene and beautiful that it left me weak and weeping as I sat in the saddle.”

Life was not all fun, though. All the children in these families pitched in to help with the ranch work and girls were not exempt: “Before the arrival of the wagon road everyone had to learn to ride, as it was the only means of getting anywhere, and we girls were all proficient horsewomen. We could round up a band of horses, drive them into a corral, rope the one we wanted and saddle him up as expertly as a man could do it … The two great events of the year were the coming of the cattle buyers in May and September. They usually sent word ahead to let us know they were coming, and then we all got busy, and everyone, girls as well as men, assisted in the round-up. On these occasions we girls felt that we were coming into our own. We could handle a horse about as well as the men, and we could show them that we amounted to something more than a mere nuisance about the place, as they sometimes seemed to think we were.”

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