RANCH TALES: Fort stages first cattle

Ken Mather recounts the story of cattle arriving in the Pacific Northwest for the first time

It was April 23, 1814. There was a buzz among the grizzled North West Company fur traders who were gathered at Fort Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Their company, based in Montreal, had taken possession of the fort from the Pacific Fur Company just a few months before. On the horizon could be seen a sail of the long-awaited ship from London. The arrival of the Isaac Todd not only confirmed the British possession of Fort Astoria and the demise of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. It also meant “the first ship that took any produce of the North West Company’s trade collected on the west side of the Rocky Mountains.”

Even more curious to the Chinook Native people who gathered on the shore, for they had seen sailing ships before, were the animals that the Isaac Todd disembarked when it arrived. There were four strange animals with horns that were unlike anything the Chinooks had ever seen. To the North Westers, the two bulls and two heifers were unremarkable.

Alexander Henry’s journal recorded the event. “At 6.30 a boat with six men landed two young bulls and two heifers brought from San Francisco.” They were the first cattle to arrive in the Pacific Northwest, the first of countless thousands that would graze on the verdant slopes and valleys of Oregon and Washington and eventually the dry bunch grass plains of the B.C. Interior. From this small beginning, would grow an industry that would become part of the economic foundation of the Pacific Northwest.

The “two young bulls and two heifers” that the Isaac Todd had delivered were Spanish “blacks,” the descendants of cattle brought by the Spaniards to Mexico two hundred years before. Whether these first examples of the bovine species survived or were replaced by others purchased in California is unknown.

But by 1817, it was recorded that the traders at Fort George, the new name that the British Navy officers aboard the Isaac Todd had given the former Fort Astoria, “about 12 head of cattle, with some pigs and goats imported here from California.” The report went on to note that “their stock does not increase for want of care, the wolves often carrying off goats and pigs.”

When the Hudson’s Bay Company governor, George Simpson, visited Fort George in 1824, he found that the cattle herd comprised only 17 head of cattle. This would not do. Simpson was intent on ushering in a new era of efficiency and economy in the Columbia district, one where the individual posts would produce their own vegetables and livestock for consumption.

With this in mind, he moved the Hudson’s Bay Company main depot on the Pacific up the Columbia River, opposite and just upriver from the mouth of the Willamette River, where it was better situated to grow and raise its own produce.

Simpson enthused that, at Fort Vancouver, “We selected a beautiful point on the south side … an excellent farm can be made at this place where as much grain and potatoes may be raised as well would feed all the natives of the Columbia and sufficient number of cattle and hogs to supply His Majesty’s Navy with beef and pork.”

The cattle industry in the Pacific Northwest had truly begun.

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