RANCH TALES: First families of the Okanagan

Of the early ranchers in the 1860s and 1870s, a significant majority of them had native wives.

Of all the ranchers that settled in the Okanagan Valley in the 1860s and 1870s, a significant majority of them had native wives.

They were aided by the fact that they had a common language to communicate in as everyone spoke the Chinook jargon, the trade language of the Pacific Northwest. While these relationships would be what we now call “common-law,” both rancher and wife looked upon it as a permanent thing.

These young women became devoted helpmates, quick to learn the running of a household. Not only did the women prove to be excellent companions for the young men, they also brought with them an extended family that was willing and able to assist in the ranch activities.

They adapted quickly to the ways of their husbands but maintained close contacts with their own people and culture.

The children of these liaisons formed the vast majority of children in the valley. The first school started at Okanagan Mission (later Kelowna) in 1875, consisted entirely of the children from mixed-race marriages.

The school records show that about 15 Okanagan settlers, most of them ranchers, enrolled their children in this school, often at considerable expense to themselves. Two of its three school trustees, Frederick Brent and William Smithson, had native wives. When geologist, George Mercer Dawson, passed through the valley in 1877, he commented that “there is a school with about 20 scholars (all half-breeds) some of whom we met on the way to the mines, with lunches and books, neatly dressed.”

The second school in the Okanagan was opened in 1884 at Priest’s Valley (Vernon). Once again, two of the three trustees, Edward Tronson and Alfred McNeil, had mixed-race families and almost all of the pupils were from mixed families.

A teacher at the Okanagan Mission school in 1883, reported, “With one exception the pupils are half-breeds, and speak better Chinook and Indian than English and those who have a French father speak French, Indian and Chinook at home and English only at school.” Two years later, residents of the Coldstream Valley formed their own school. Charles Brewer, who wrote to the provincial government to request approval, was married to a native woman and his family, along with that of George Keefer, Stephen Lambert and Vincent Duteau, all who had native wives, supplied 13 of the 14 pupils.

It is safe to say that mixed-race families were the norm in the early Okanagan and generally accepted. But, with the coming of the railroad to B.C. and the influx of white women, things began to change drastically. No longer were the native wives an accepted part of the community and discrimination began to raise its head.

These first families of the Okanagan were looked down upon and the children, once accepted by all, began to feel the sting of being considered inferior simply because of their parentage.

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