RANCH TALES: Mud pups of the Interior

There was a call to young men to go to the colonies and spread the obviously superior culture of England

By the 1870s, the British Empire had reached its zenith.

Contemporary maps sported large splashes of red, lending truth to the maxim that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Great Britain’s economy flourished as its empire grew and a large merchant class developed out of the wave of expanding trade and commerce.

John Ruskin cried out to this merchant class in 1870 when he said: “There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused … This is what England must either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on.”

Ruskin’s call to young men to go to the colonies and spread the obviously superior culture of England did not go unheeded.

For many middle-class families whose sons and daughters had received the best education Britain could offer, it was only appropriate that they emigrate to the colonies and establish “the light of civilization” there.

The colonies offered a solution for parents who were looking for a suitable place for their energetic and, at times, unbridled younger sons. Not only would the boys’ energies be put to good use in furthering the cause of Empire, but there was every possibility that they could make a decent life there.

This heady call for England’s “most energetic and worthiest men” did contain some intelligent and pragmatic forethought.

Anxious parents recognized that their sons needed the maximum possible advantage in their new country and that this could be best assured by placing them under the care of someone already familiar with the customs and circumstances of the land. Many parents would contact someone of good reputation who was already established in the colony and arrange for the younger son to be placed in his care and custody until the son could make his own way.

The families considered cattle ranching to be an honourable profession and the ranches of B.C. seemed perfect for the younger sons.  Most often this involved paying the rancher for his time and trouble.

And so, from the 1870s on, there was an influx of well-educated and energetic young men who came at their parents’ expense and stayed to make a life for themselves.

In the Interior, these apprentice ranchers were called “mud pups,” a term that initially expressed disdain from the “real cowboys” who had paid, and continued to pay, their own way through life.

However, so many mud pups stayed on and became hard-working cowboys and successful ranchers that the term lost its negative ring and eventually indicated someone who had arrived under favourable circumstances but who worked as hard as everyone else to make a go of things.

A typical mud pup who came to learn the ranching business and stayed was Robert Cecil Cotton, who came from Hampton Court, England, to the M.G. Drummond Ranch in the Chilcotin in 1897.

After a year and a summer with no pay, he began to earn the grand sum of $25 a month during the winter of 1898.

Like many mud pups, after learning the trade, Cotton returned to England where he obtained enough money to buy the ranch from Drummond and rename it the Cotton Ranch. He operated it until his death in 1954.

Ken Mather is curator emeritus at O’Keefe Ranch and a Spallumcheen-based author.