The 1870s were a time of stagnation for the ranchers of the new province of B.C. as the gold rush activity dwindled and the promised railway connection with the rest of Canada stalled.
Various attempts were made to alleviate the overcrowded ranges of cattle and horses but none more enterprising than the scheme of Adam Ferguson and James Christie. Ferguson, 32 years old, was originally from Scotland and Christie, 20 years old, from Ireland.
The two decided that there ought to be a market for horses in the Red River area, some 2,000 kilometers to the east. They knew that there was a trail up the North Thompson River and through the Yellowhead Pass that avoided the prairies where the Blackfoot Natives still ruled supreme.
The two men rounded up 107 head of wild horses in the hills around Kamloops and, on July 7, 1874 headed up the North Thompson.
Although survey parties for the promised Canadian Pacific Railway had struggled through the Yellowhead Pass as part of their explorations, the trail was seldom used, blocked by deadfall and overgrown with bush, especially on the part that ran from the North Thompson River to Tete Jaune Cache on the headwaters of the Fraser River.
Ferguson and Christie made good time as far as the old Hudson’s Bay Company post of Little Fort, at the mouth of the Clearwater River. From there, the trail deteriorated and eventually disappeared. It was one thing for a man on horseback to navigate the deadfall and bush but driving a herd of wild horses through it was incredibly difficult.
Ferguson and Christie had to chop their way through and progress slowed to a crawl until they reached Tete Jaune Cache.
From there, the Yellowhead Pass itself was open and relatively easy going until they reached Jasper House. The trail from there was every bit as difficult as the one they had already traversed. It passed through 350 kilometers of spruce forest and swamp.
In places, the men had to go ahead with axes to cut a way through the deadfall. Horses sank up to their chests in the mud and swamp and had to be pulled out with ropes or pried out of the mud with poles. They were also confronted with several major river crossings.
The Pembina River, some 160 metres wide, was one of the toughest. They watched with despair as horses lost footing and disappeared into the rapid current, some not to be seen again.
But there remained no other option but to push forward.
By September 26, they had reached Lac St. Anne, a Metis outpost and mission some 50 miles from Fort Edmonton. Of the original 107 horses, there remained 72, most in terrible condition. After resting there for a few days, the men drove the horses on to Fort Edmonton.
Recognizing that the size and strength of the horses surpassed anything on the prairies, the chief factor at the fort purchased the entire band from Ferguson and Christie, saving them driving the horses another 1,350 kilometers further to the Red River.
Adam Ferguson took his hard-earned money and returned to B.C. while Jim Christie went to Montana and purchased more horses to drive into the ranching country around Fort Macleod.
He became the “Pioneer Horseman” of Alberta and settled in the area.
Many B.C. horses were to come to the prairies but none via such a difficult route as these two frontiersmen had taken.
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.