When gold was discovered in the Klondike, the pioneering cattlemen of the Chilcotin looked at an all-B.C. route and figured that they could make it to the gold fields that way.
The spring of 1898 saw a flurry of activity as a number of Chilcotin ranchers began to assemble herds for the trail north. In fact, when the snows finally disappeared from the shady trails and valleys, there was a scramble to see who would be first on the trail. It was rightly assumed that those who were first to arrive would enjoy the best opportunity to sell their cattle.
The distinction of being the first enterprising cattleman to head his cattle north from the Chilcotin to the Klondike goldfields went to Jim Cornell, a native of Tennessee who had established a ranch above the Chilcotin River near Riske Creek. He headed north with about 100 head of cattle in early May of 1898.
He was joined by Varish “French” Henri, who was born in Ontario and had worked for ranches in the Chilcotin. Henri bought 25 head of cattle with his savings and threw in with Cornell on the long trip north.
Cornell and Henri were closely followed by Jerry Gravelle with 100 head of cattle, Norman Lee with 200 head and Johnny Harris with another 200 head. Predictably, there was a keen sense of competition between those in charge of the various drives.
Not only was there a push to be first to the good overnighting areas, but the first herds over the trail rapidly depleted the grazing along the way, leaving little for the ones following behind. This lack of good forage was further complicated by the mud that the hundreds of gold seekers with horses and mules who were also on the trail churned up along the way.
The usual daily routine was to get up early and start the cattle before the sun was too strong, leaving the cook to pack up camp and push the pack train forward. Spare saddle horses were driven on ahead of the cattle, with the wrangler being responsible for finding a good feeding ground for the noon stop.
The pack train and cook would pass the drive during the day and push on to locate a good spot to overnight. As the trail provided few good places for camping, sometimes the cook and pack train would go too far for a normal day’s travel by the herd, leaving Lee and the others to do their best for a camp spot.
By early September, Jim Cornell and “French” Henri, who had made better time with their smaller herd, had reached Telegraph Creek, still some 1,290 kilometers from Dawson City.
They decided not to go any further. They had spotted an opportunity to take advantage of the steady flow of hungry men along this trail to the goldfields and had no need to continue on their arduous journey. Cornell took over a butcher shop previously owned by Dominic Burns, brother of the famous Pat Burns, and sold his fresh beef for 75 cents a pound.
Both Cornell and Henri were making a tidy profit on their cattle but the demand was not great enough for Lee to call a halt to his cattle drive.
He proceeded on his way and his epic drive was to become a legend in the B.C. cattle industry.
Ken Mather is curator emeritus at O’Keefe Ranch.