WHEN FUR WAS KING
The record of exploration in our valley is confined to white men, for the simple reason that we do not know who first discovered, explored and pioneered Similkameen. The first comers found here no opposing tribes. It may well be that they were a different race, long preceding the red men who peopled the valley when it was discovered by the white fur traders. Like the visible part of an iceberg, the history we know is but a fraction of the whole.
The main strands of Similkameen history since 1813 have been concerned with the fur trade, the search for gold, stock raising, mining, transportation and the growth of community life. Each of these strands has been linked with one or more strands in provincial or dominion history – the fur trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the International Boundary Commission; the search for gold with the Royal Engineers; stock raising with the “winning of the West;” mining with “the making of a province;” transportation with highways, railways and airways; and community life with church and school, and the growth of national consciousness. (BCHQ. April, 1938, pp 67 ff.).
Transportation and communication are twin sisters who have inspired search and discovery throughout the ages. Men had to find a way to unknown destinations, even as Abraham went south to discover the land that was revealed to him as he obeyed the inner voice. They had to keep in touch with those left behind so that later they could follow. The earliest white traders sought lands rich in fur-bearing animals. This led to rivalry and disputes and finally to the marking of the border between two great nations. North of this boundary came the Royal Engineers to open up the country following the discovery of land routes and mineral wealth. They were explorers and discoverers in their own right. Transportation led to map-making, embodying the results of trail, railway and other surveys. The story of exploration is, in part, the history of our valley. For the present, we deal with motives behind exploration.
Political motives led to the delineation of the boundary, and in this connection much exploratory work was done. Within recent years aerial photography has given truer pictures of large areas than was formerly possible. In the exploration of Similkameen one cannot escape a certain element of competition; first, between rival fur companies, then between governments; later, between railways, and finally between prospectors and mining interests. All this has led to intensive search. Many factors have entered into the mapping of Similkameen.
RIVAL FUR COMPANIES
The first white men to come to Okanagan, Similkameen and Tulameen valleys were fur traders, rugged men, representing rival companies. Those were the days when fur was king, and the story of our valley was linked with the larger canvas of Canadian and American history.
There were at least three great rival companies: the Hudson’s Bay Company, organized in 1670; the North West Company founded in 1783, and the Astor (or Pacific) Fur Company which began in 1810.
David Thompson after thirteen years with the Hudson’s Bay Company, joined the Nor-westers. The ambition of his life was to follow the Columbia to the Pacific. This he succeeded in doing in July, 1811, only to discover the Astorians had forestalled him by a few months.
The Pacific Fur Company had been organized by John Jacob Astor of New York. He had visions of a great, trading company that would operate from New York to China, with a central depot near the mouth of the Columbia. The beginning of this future capital was made in 1811. That same year David Stuart established Fort Okanagan, and in September set out for the land of the Shuswaps, following the Okanagan river and lake; then branching to the Thompson River. Here a site was selected for a fort to be called Kamloops. The American flag was the first to fly over it. The fort was built in the autumn of 1812.
The Northwesters were not far behind, Joseph La Roque arrived only to discover that he had been forestalled as Thompson had been at Astoria. But the Northwesters built their fort. In spite of rivalry, there seems to have been little animosity between the servants of the two companies. Probably there was enough trade for both.
The situation changed when the war of 1812 broke out between Britain and America. A British warship was sent to the mouth of the Columbia, and the Astorians were glad to sell out, lock, stock and barrel, to the Northwesters. Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George. In 1821 the two Canadian companies amalgamated under the name of the older Hudson’s Bay Company; and in 1825 the headquarters was moved to what is now Vancouver, Washington.
All went well till the dispute arose over the International boundary. In anticipation of this the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its headquarters to the southern tip of Vancouver Island (Victoria) in 1843. The wisdom of this move was justified by the events of 1846, setting the boundary at the 49th parallel.
The earliest journey by a white man in Similkameen of which we have record was made by Alexander Ross, a clerk in the employ of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Early in January, 1813, Ross left Kamloops bound for Fort Okanagan, at the junction of the Okanagan and Columbia rivers, and made the journey by way of Similkameen. He chose that route to satisfy a natural curiosity, and to spy out the land. After incredible hardships, Ross and his party descended from the highlands on the north side of the Similkameen River, and came to the valley at a point near Keremeos. Ross had set out on December 20, 1812, to visit David Stuart at Kamloops, and arrived there on the last day of the year. Here is Ross’s story in his own words: “…with Mr. Stuart I remained five days, and in coming home I took a near and unknown route, in order to explore a part of the country I had not seen before; but chose a bad season of the year to satisfy my curiosity: we got bewildered in the mountains and deep snows, our progress was exceedingly slow, tedious, and discouraging. We were at one time five days in making as many miles, our horses suffered greatly, had nothing to eat for four days and four nights, not a blade of grass appearing above the snow, and their feet were so frightfully cut with the crust of the snow that they could scarcely move, so that we were within a hair’s breath of losing every one of them.”
Here follows an account of an accident caused by using too much powder to kindle a fire. Both Ross and his companion, Jacques, were stunned by the explosion. The narrative continues: “We hastened next morning from this unlucky encampment, and getting clear of the mountains, we descended into a low and pleasant valley, where we found the Indians I had been in search of, and something both for ourselves and our horses to eat. At an Indian camp we remained one day, got the information we required about the country, procured some furs, and then, following the Sa-milk-a-meigh River on to Okinacken at the forks thence we travelled almost night and day till the 24th of January when we reached home again.” (These quotations are from Ross’s book “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River” (London, 1849, pp. 206-208), quoted in the author’s article on “Fur and Gold in Similkameen,” in “The British Columbia Historical Quarterly,” April, 1938, pp 67-88).
Our next record is Archibald McDonald’s map of the Thompson River district. This map is dated 1827, and indicates a journey made by McDonald in October of the previous year. The original is preserved in the Archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a photostat is on file in our provincial Archives. It also covers the ground between Kamloops and Similkameen – Okanagan Forks, but follows only in part the route taken by Ross in 1813. McDonald followed a more westerly course after leaving Nicola Lake and came to the “Schimilicameach” at a point apparently near the present town of Princeton. His “Red Water River” may be the Tulameen (which means “red earth”) which is the north branch of the Similkameen River. Thereafter, he followed the left, or north bank as he journeyed eastward.
Until the Boundary award of 1846, goods had been transported from Fort Vancouver to New Caledonia by the Columbia River as far as Fort Okanagan, thence by pack-train to the junction of the Similkameen and Okanagan rivers, across country to Okanagan Lake, along its west bank, then across country to Kamloops. It became imperative that the Hudson’s Bay Company discover an all-red route, north of the Line, from New Caledonia to the Pacific: a route which would avoid the dangerous stretches of the Fraser River. Alexander Caulfield Anderson was selected to discover this new route. Along with five men, and several natives, Anderson left Kamloops on 15 May, 1846, and travelled to Fort Langley by way of Harrison and Lillooet lakes, arriving at the fort on 24 May.
The return journey began on 28 May. Anderson enlisted the services of a native who undertook to guide him to the headwaters of the Similkameen River, from which he hoped to cross to the forks where Princeton is now situated. Leaving the Coquihalla on his left, Anderson followed the Nicolum, and then the Sumallo as far as its junction with the Skagit. Near this point the Sumallo forks with the Snass (Canyon), and Anderson turned north coming to a small lake which reminded him of the Committee’s Punch Bowl in the Rocky Mountains. Although it was only the first week in June, the rhododendrons were in bloom but the lake was frozen over. On the 6th, they hit a beaten trail (Blackeye’s), and after much hardship arrived at Blackeye’s lodge just west of Otter Lake. They enjoyed a meal of fresh carp. From this point guides led them through the canyon to Aspen Grove, and on to Kamloops.
The road which became the Brigade Trail had five stopping places between Hope and Otter Lake: Manson Camp at the head of Peers Creek, 15 miles from Hope; Encampement du Chevreuill (Deer Camp) 19 miles farther on, where Chief Trader Paul Fraser was killed by a falling tree in July, 1855; the bend of the Tulameen 49 miles from Hope; Lodestone Mountain, 12 miles from Camp 3; and the Encampement des Femmes, near Otter Lake.
IN THE STEPS OF THE FUR TRADER
In 1937, with Willard Albert Davis, better known as “Podunk,” the writer sought to retrace the old trail. Podunk was a man to be reckoned with. Even in old age his frame suggested the rugged strength of younger days. His twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks and white beard told of a patriarch who feared God, and nothing else. His name was a household word and his memory has already become a legend. We travelled from Otter Lake, past Camp 5 and up Jackson Mountain.
When we started climbing, travelling was hard, for as yet we were on no trail, and were ceaselessly climbing over windfalls and dodging branches. We had our first rest about an hour before noon. Through the tree tops we could see Otter Lake to our left. The valley below was green and gold, threaded by a ribbon of blue, with mountains rising on the far side presenting tree-lined ridges against a clear sky. Soon after this we hit the Brigade Trail. We came to it at a point where it switchbacks. Podunk had no doubt we were on the original trail. At one point we came across an old stump from which, near the base, a piece of wood projected, making a triangle with the trail and the tree. This was all the proof Podunk needed. It was one of the little devices the brigade men used to keep their horses from rubbing their packs against the tree. The horses had to go around the projection. The road has long since fallen into disrepair, and is now difficult to follow, but to oldtimers in Similkameen it will always be “The” Brigade trail.
The trail which Anderson followed to Tulameen was the one on which Nurse Warburton got lost, and lived on berries for six weeks till she was found by Podunk Davis, after others had given up the search. She got lost a second time on the Pemberton Meadows Trail. It had been planned that when she returned to Vancouver from this trip she would meet Podunk Davis there, and they were to be married. But she never came, and neither of them was ever married. Mr. Davis died on 27 October, 1943. Just as on the mountain trails, Podunk looked forward to the final journey without fear. Before he died, he said, “I’ve had a good time. Life owes me nothing.” Princeton paused to pay a fitting tribute to the memory of a brave soul, one who had pioneered many trails, and sat on his horse like a king.
THE LOWER VALLEY
These explorations in the western part of Similkameen were all made to discover transportation routes within British territory from the northern interior to the coast. By the time the brigade trail from Kamloops to Hope was an accomplished fact, servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company were surveying the eastern part of Similkameen. The purpose of this latter exploration was trade rather than transportation, and the desire to have Company posts on British soil. When Robert (Bobby) Stevenson visited Fort Okanagan on 17 June, 1860, he found a great number of Indians at the fort. They were assisting the factor to pack up goods, preparatory to moving the post to Keremeos, where it had been decided earlier in the year to establish a farm and trading centre. The possibilities of stock-raising and horse-breeding were also kept in mind. Loads were arranged for 150 horses. At the time, Stevenson was a member of the John Collins expedition, and had gone to the fort to purchase supplies. But no supplies were on sale, as the post was to be abandoned the next day. Keremeos is said to mean “wind channel in the mountains.” The name is descriptive. The village of today lies not far from the river and the sage-brush slopes beyond the orchard lands are often swept by winds that course through the valley. The rolling bunch grass hills made an ideal range, and the servants of the Company were quick to see its possibilities. In 1956 Keremeos achieved village status. This coincided with the 50th anniversary of its moving from the old location to the present site.
In the Keremeos branch of The Canadian Bank of Commerce is a plaque with the legend: “Hudson’s Bay Company post, 1860-1872. Francois Deschiquette, officer in charge. Alexander Ross first visited these parts in 1813.” Deschiquette was the first factor at the Keremeos post. He came from the nearest point across the Line. Soon after his arrival, he erected a small log building, and commenced farming on a small scale. He died two years later, and was succeeded in 1863 by Roderick McLean who had been with the Boundary Survey party, and was considered one of their best axemen. Frank Richter, who planted fruit trees in the valley in the early 60’s, was in charge of horses and cattle. By the spring of 1864 McLean had completed the log store, and begun the erection of a dwelling house. He made many journeys among the Indians who traded furs for goods supplied by the Company. Furs collected by McLean were baled and shipped by pack-train to Fort Hope, taken by river steamer to New Westminster, then on to Victoria and thence to London, England. After McLean left the Company in 1867, he opened a store at Rock Creek, later going to Cariboo where he remained ten years. Following this he lived for a time in Kelowna, then took up land at Okanagan Falls.
McLean was succeeded by John Tait, who remained till 1872 when the post was closed. As a trading centre, Keremeos does not seem to have been very profitable. It was more important as a centre for wintering horses and putting up hay. It also had a strategic value, which was lost when the trading posts just south of the boundary were closed. The store erected by McLean stood till 1914.
Life in our valley was quiet in those far-off days. There was less friction between native and newcomer than south of the border. Mrs. S.L. Allison attributed this largely to the influence of the Roman Catholic priests, who laboured effectively among the native peoples. Some still remember the long pack-trains, and the jingle of horses’ bells when the time came to bring in supplies over the Hope Trail, or to send pack-trains, or herd cattle to Hope. Perhaps life was more severe then than it is now but we still need the spirit which enabled men and women in pioneer days to face life with a deep faith and a brave heart. They builded better than they knew.