By William C. Brown
The Indians of the Okanogan country had acquired horses long before the coming of the whites to this region. Hence they were “horse Indians”, not “canoe Indians” and consequently the “Okanogan Trail”, as the first traders and explorers found it in use by the Indians, was a land route, not a water route, although very likely in the more remote days before these Indians had acquired horses it was probably used as a water route, for the chain of splendid rivers and lakes throughout the entire distance is such as to make it possible to go through without excessive portaging.
While it may be stated definitely that the old, prehistoric “Okanogan Trail” of the Indians extended from the mouth of the Okanogan River up through the Okanogan Valley clear to the head of Okanogan Lake and thence over the low height of the land to the waters of the Fraser system, either Shuswap Lake, the Spellumacheen or to Thompson River itself (usually considered to be the latter in the vicinity of the present Kamloops), yet the Indians traveled it on no set course. Sometimes they went on the east side of the river and lakes and sometimes on the west, and again switched back and forth, and likewise when bound direct for the Fraser itself or to lower Thompson River they would go up the valley of the Similkameen to its junction with the Tullameen and then on north by Nicola Lake to the Thompson River.
The whites followed the same practice in their use of the route. They used both sides of the Okanogan Valley and the Similkameen, Tullameen, and Nicola like diversion also as necessity, whim, fancy or traveling conditions happened to influence them. Hence the term “Okanogan Trail” is a somewhat indefinite term as to exact location and likewise as to its length and points of beginning and ending, as we more fully mention further on. But it may be stated with certainty that what might be termed the “main line” was up along the east side of the river to Osoyoos Lake, thence on the west side of the valley to the head of Okanogan Lake, then in a northwesterly direction over the high lands through by Grand Prairie to the Thompson River near the present Kamloops (sometimes called Fort Thompson in old writings). This was the course traveled by the heavy laden pack trains of the Hudson Bay Company that took the trading goods north in the late summer and fall of each year and brought the fur down from the northern posts in the spring. This line is what is often referred to as the “Brigade Trail”, for in the vernacular of the old fur company men, every pack train or flotilla of boats or canoes laden with merchandise or fur was a “brigade”, anything else traveling in the business of the company was an “express”. The other variations of the “Okanogan Trail” different from that last above outlined were generally express routes solely.
The whites began using the so-called “Okanogan Trail” in 1811. The first was the party composed of the trader, David Stuart, and his young clerk, Ovide de Montigney, together with two French-Canadians who left Fort Okanogan in September, 1811, and went up the Okanogan Valley with a few pack horses laden with goods for a trading reconnaissance into the Shuswap Lake and Thompson River country in the interest of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Stuart and his men went through to the Thompson River country and did not return until the following spring. From this time on the route became one regularly traveled by the men of the Pacific Fur Company, the Northwest Company and at last, by the organization that finally monopolized all the trade of this section, the great Hudson Bay Company. The last named used the route regularly from 1822 until 1848 for all its trade in the vast Fraser River section, then called New Caledonia.
There were many trading posts within the immense stretches of New Caledonia and the furs there from were collected every spring at Fort Alexandria on the Fraser. Here they were transferred from the boats to packhorses and here began the great march to Fort Okanogan, on the Columbia, where they would meet the Colville brigade with the results of the winter’s trade from all the country between there and the Rockies in this latitude. Here the fur was transferred to the boats and the consolidated brigades proceeded down the Columbia to the mouth of the Snake River, where the Snake River brigade would join them and all these together would become the so-called “Interior Brigade”, which would proceed to the grand headquarters at Fort Vancouver.