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The Early Okanagan Cattle Industry

The earliest domestic cattle in the interior arrived from the Columbia Valley in the 1840s, trailed in by the Hudson’s Bay Company and traded among the Okanagan Indians. By 1850, Okanagan Chief Nicola owned a large number of horses and “a good many cattle.” During the Gold Rush, large herds of mixed-breed Texas Longhorn and Durham cattle were driven from the eastern Oregon ranges through the Okanagan on their way to feed the miners of Thompson River, Barkerville and other areas in the Cariboo.

Early residents of Okanagan Mission acquired some of these cattle; ranchers such as August Calmels owned herds of 300 head by 1864. By 1865, most Okanagan districts from Osoyoos to Vernon featured fledgling ranches of 160 to 320 acres on good bottomland. In some districts the early cattlemen were able to exclude the cattle of others from Crown rangeland and operate their ranches as if the ranges were their private holdings. One such “cattleman oligopoly” operated in Lake Country, where the cattle of Thomas Wood, the Postill family, and George W. Simpson dominated the valley floor and adjoining ranges. These men operated private ranches and had little trouble identifying their own animals, introducing improved breeds and rotating their pasturelands. By contrast, Okanagan Mission was home to many more ranches whose cattle mingled on the “open range” with the cattle of their neighbours. These ranchers could not save pastures for seasonal use, overgrazed the ranges, saw no utility in introducing improved breeds and needed annual roundups to separate their cattle for branding or for sale.

Cattle ranching was the major industry in the Okanagan until rail transportation allowed competitive products to be marketed outside the region. By 1900, the large cattle ranches were seen as obstacles to development but not until the first generation of ranchers retired were these large parcels broken up. Changes to the Lake Country economy began about 1908 with the shift to orcharding. Smaller scale cattle ranching survived in marginal places, beyond the reach of irrigation flumes, one example being the V Bar V ranch in Oyama. Other ranchers turned to more intensive operations using silage to finish cattle for a more demanding market.

Cattle Drive east of Duck Lake
Cattle Drive blocks the stagecoach on the Vernon to Mission road at “the Railroad” ca. 1900. Click to enlarge.

For a copy of this photo or other photos in the archives, please contact the Lake Country Museum at 250-766-0111.


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