In a previous column, I talked about the common practice of early ranchers taking native wives. Until the coming of the railway in 1885, the families of these liaisons formed the majority of the population and were generally accepted by all.
George William Simpson was born in 1823 in Philadelphia of Scottish Presbyterian parents. In his mid-twenties, George was intrigued by the lure of California gold and traveled across the continent to try his hand at gold mining.
He was unsuccessful there and, hearing of gold being discovered in the new British colony of British Columbia, he headed north to try his luck in 1859. For a time he worked for the Harper brothers driving cattle from Oregon to the goldfields but, by 1867 he was in the Okanagan Valley where he eventually raised purebred beef cattle on what was called the Simpson Ranch.
Around 1870, Simpson married an Okanagan woman, Sarah, and they had three children.
The eldest, Eliza Jane, married William Swalwell and later looked back on her early life in an account published in the Okanagan Historical Society’s Eighth Report entitled “Girlhood Days in the Okanagan.”
She wrote how the children of the native women and non-native men, living far from the cities at a time when only the occasional stranger would pass by, enjoyed a life of freedom and a closeness to nature that they would remember with fondness in later years.
“Before the arrival of the wagon road everyone had to learn to ride, as it was the only means of getting anywhere, and we girls were all proficient horsewomen. We could round up a band of horses, drive them into a corral, rope the one we wanted and saddle him up as expertly as a man could do it … The two great events of the year were the coming of the cattle buyers in May and September. They usually sent word ahead to let us know they were coming, and then we all got busy, and everyone, girls as well as men, assisted in the round-up. On these occasions we girls felt that we were coming into our own. We could handle a horse about as well as the men, and we could show them that we amounted to something more than a mere nuisance about the place, as they sometimes seemed to think we were.”
Eliza felt that he children of these mixed-race families seemed to embody what were seen as the best qualities of both races and observed that:
“I do not know whether this responsiveness to certain beautiful aspects of nature comes to me from my Indian mother or from my father’s side … Standing as I do between the two races I could never see that intellectually the Indians are not the equals of the whites. The Indians are sadly lacking in culture; that is to be seen at a glance, but social grace and refinement are things which can be acquired … Why should any man, whether Indian or white, be commiserated because he sees in the workings of nature manifestations of the Creator? He would be a dolt if he did not.”
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.