Ranch Tales: Early relationships

O'Keefe Ranch curator lays out B.C. Interior's ranching history

The early settlement years of the 1870s saw hundreds of young men take up land in the lush bunchgrass ranges and fertile valleys of the Interior.

They established cattle ranches and settled into their new lives. Loneliness often intruded into their lives as they were usually far away from their nearest neighbour and even farther away from regular mail from home.

Tom Ellis, who settled at the foot of Okanagan Lake in 1865, spoke for many young ranchers when he wrote in his diary, “Have been alone for 10 days and am so tired of this solitude, with nothing to do. I would not mind so much if I had a good book to read.” This loneliness was compounded by the lack of eligible white women on the frontier where, in the more isolated areas, there were about 100 men to every white woman.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many, if not most, of the early ranchers and ranch hands in the Interior took native women to live with them. Far from home and the racist attitudes that prevailed in Victorian times, it was only normal for these men to seek permanent companionship among the native people who were their closest neighbours.

These young women became devoted helpmates, quick to learn the running of a household. Not only did the women prove to be excellent companions for the young men, they also brought with them an extended family that was willing and able to assist in the ranch activities. They adapted quickly to the ways of their husbands but maintained close contacts with their own people and culture.

The native women and the resulting children formed the majority of the population in the pre-railway days and were generally accepted by all.

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.

But as the Interior opened up to more and more settlers, couples in mixed-race relationships began to find themselves in the minority and subject to discrimination.

White ranchers who had not formalized their relationship through marriage were pressured to discard their native concubines. This ugly discrimination that newcomers evinced against the men with a native wife (referred to sneeringly as klootch for the Chinook word for woman).

Inevitably, as more and more white women arrived in the area, the pressure became overwhelming and led to a discreet hiding of the native woman and her children at best or, more frequently, the man would simply reject his native wife and remarry with a white woman.

Unfortunately, this was a common outcome and the children of these families found themselves rejected by both of their races. Rejected by the white community, they often turned to their native relatives on the reserves who treated them with suspicion and disdain.

Boys at least had the advantage of being accepted on the ranches where they were readily employed as cowboys and labourers.

However, many of the rejected children went on to be successful and contributed much to the ranching community of B.C.

Some of the great cowboys of the turn of the century were the offspring of white men and native women.

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.