Two Races

In the early settlement years of the 1870s, hundreds of young men took up land in the lush bunchgrass ranges and fertile valleys of the British Columbia Interior. They established cattle ranches and settled into their new way of life. Loneliness often intruded into their lives as they were usually far away from their nearest neighbour and even further away from regular mail from home.

A photograph of a rancher with his Native wife.Click to enlarge,
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Rancher with Okanagan Native wife -F55-19 – Courtesy Historic O'Keefe Ranch

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 lived with Native women. 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 ranching activities. They adapted quickly to the ways of their husbands but maintained close contacts with their own people and culture.

A photograph of a Okanagan rancher, his Native wife and their family. Click to enlarge,
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Okanagan rancher, his Native wife and their family. F17-17 – Courtesy Historic O'Keefe Ranch

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 closeness to nature that they would remember with fondness in later years.

Media Files

Audio Tapes 4256:1 Cattle Ranching in the Nicola - “Indian Wives”
A rancher talks about the Native wives of early ranchers.

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