RANCH TALES: Greaves tries to corner the cattle market

Joseph Blackbourne Greaves was born in Pudsey, England and came to B.C. in 1864.

Joseph Blackbourne Greaves (pronounced Graves) was born in Pudsey, England and came to B.C. in 1864.

After successfully driving cattle from Oregon to the goldfields, he settled near Savona’s ferry on the Thompson River( so-named by the English drovers pronunciation of Francois Saveneau ‘s name). During the 1870s, when markets for cattle were few in B.C., Greaves regularly drove cattle down the Cariboo road to the head of steamboat navigation at Yale and then to the cities of New Westminster, Victoria and Nanaimo. Victoria’s British Colonist newspaper extoled the cattle as, “fine specimens of that section of the mainland for stock raising.”

But Greaves was looking for greater success. He watched with interest as the Canadian Pacific Railway was being constructed through the Fraser Canyon.

Railway contractor Andrew Onderdonk employed 5,000 men during the summer of 1881 and to feed them, invited tenders for a large and steady supply of fresh beef for the work crews.

Their requirements were so great that only the largest ranches could hope to answer their needs. Not surprisingly, Thaddeus Harper, who, with his brother Jerome, had been a cattleman since the early gold rush years, won the contract.

Harper sold off all his surplus cattle from his massive herds on the Gang Ranch and set about purchasing all the cattle he could from Cariboo and Chilcotin ranchers. Prices for cattle began to move upwards to more than $20 a head and the market for 1882 looked even more promising as railway construction reached its peak.

As the 1882 construction season approached, Greaves saw the potential for controlling the market. In December 1881, he contacted Benjamin Van Volkenburgh, who operated the B.C. Meat Market in Victoria and who had purchased cattle from the Harpers since 1880.

Greaves convinced Van Volkenburgh that, for $80,000, he could purchase enough cattle to control the cattle market in B.C. and guarantee obtaining the contract to supply beef to the CPR work crews for the next several years.

Van Volkenburgh enlisted the support of some of the more wealthy British Columbians, Joseph Pemberton, William Curtis Ward, of the Bank of B.C., Charles W.R. Thomson, of the Victoria Gas Company, and Judge Peter O’Reilly.

The new syndicate, thus formed, agreed to begin quietly purchasing all available cattle through the Thompson and Okanagan districts during the winter of 1881–82.

Greaves, who was responsible for buying cattle, purchased 2200 head in the Nicola Valley early in the new year at $20 to $23 per head.

The cattle were purchased and held on the seller’s ranches until they would be needed.

Then Greaves headed for the Okanagan Valley where his helper, Brock McQueen, a former overlander, had already bought 400 head at Okanagan Mission (later Kelowna).

Greaves wrote to his partners of his intention to “get 30 or 35 Hundred Head of Cattle that will give our Compy (sic) control of the market for this season.”

It was a calculated gamble that could result in the syndicate holding thousands of head of cattle with nowhere to sell them.

In my next column, we will see how they made out.

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