Cattle Drives

News of the trail, the excellent grazing along the way, and the ready market at the end attracted the interest of cattlemen in western Oregon. At the time, there was a surplus of beef cattle in the valleys of the Willamette, Rogue, and Umpqua Rivers of Oregon. These cattle were descendants of those driven over the Oregon Trail from the Mississippi Basin since 1843. They included a few purebred shorthorns or Durhams mixed with “California” cattle, some of which were the small Spanish “black.” The resulting cattle were not longhorns as has sometimes been suggested.

A painting of a group of cattle reclining in the grass. Click to enlarge,
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Credits: Painting “Cattle in Grass” showing type of cattle in the gold rush days. PDP1204 - Courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum

They had prospered so well in the fertile valleys of Oregon that their numbers far outnumbered the demand for them. Oregon cattlemen were not blind to the potential market that British Columbia represented. Once they found that their cattle could be successfully wintered in the Yakima, Klickitat, and Walla Walla districts before driving them north to the mining areas, they began a major movement of cattle east of the Cascade Mountains. During the spring and summer, these cattle were driven north across the border into British Columbia where thousands of miners were attracted by the fabulous wealth of the Cariboo . During the years from 1858 until 1868 over 22,000 head of cattle crossed the border at Osoyoos Lake and were driven up the Brigade Trail into the Interior.

Competition to control the lucrative beef market in the Cariboo became quite intense. Supply and demand caused considerable fluctuation in prices, and cattle in the Cariboo were being sold for prices ranging from $50 to $150 a head. The latter price was realized in the spring of 1862 after a devastating winter in Washington Territory reduced the cattle available there. Obviously a fortune could be made by anyone who had cattle to sell at the right time.

A photograph of cattle arriving at Barkerville. Click to enlarge,
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Cattle arriving at Barkerville. A-03787 – Courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum

In order to be first upon the scene in the spring, drovers occupied land in the bunchgrass areas around Fort Kamloops or in the Bonaparte River valley. Here they could winter their cattle and hold them until prices were at their best. John J. Jeffries, Ben Snipes, and Jerome and Thaddeus Harper, native Virginians, were among the chief importers of cattle who realized that the bunchgrass ranges of British Columbia were excellent grazing grounds. The earliest drovers wintered their cattle without pre-empting land, preferring to take advantage of the abundant grass and the lack of government officials to harass them. Along with these drovers were a number of packers who followed the Hudson’s Bay Company practice of wintering their horses near Fort Kamloops.

Wellington Boot (1860s)

The Wellington boot was a riding boot with a low heel and side seams and covered the leg up to the calf. This style of boot was used extensively during the US Civil War and spread across the west where it was popular with the early drovers.


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