By William C. Brown
When the trader and trappers of the rival fur companies first penetrated into the Okanogan country in their search for beaver skins and Indian traffic, they found the extensive valley of the Okanogan River and lake a great north and south highway of travel between the waters of the Columbia and the waters of the Fraser. The Indians had been using the route for untold generations when the first white men came into this section in 1811.
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 land to the waters of the Fraser system, either Shuswap Lake, the Spallumacheen 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, 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 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 the 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 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 they would be joined by the Snake River brigade and all these together would become the so called “Interior Brigade”, which would proceed to the grand headquarters at Fort Vancouver.
In late summer, the “interior brigade” left in a body the same as it came in, but having the boats now laden with merchandise and company supplies. At the mouth of the Snake the so called Snake River outfit or brigades was detached for that section. At the mouth of the Okanogan the New Caledonia brigade pulled out and the boats of Colville brigade alone continued on up the Columbia. The horses which the New Caledonia brigade had used on the “Okanogan Trail” when coming down in the spring had been grazing all summer on the bunch grass ranges of lower Okanogan Valley, in the care of herdsmen, usually local Indians. The goods are promptly made into packs and within a few days the boat brigade has been transformed into a horse brigade and is traveling up the “Okanogan Trail” bound back again to Fort Alexandria on the Fraser, where the goods would be once more transferred to boats for distribution to the various posts in New Caledonia. The horses would be brought back south as far as the Kamloops (also called Fort Thompson). The next year the same process would be repeated.
These pack trains or brigades that traveled the “Okanogan Trail” in the flush days of the fur trade, say about 1830, were composed of four or five hundred horses and some years carried several hundred thousand dollars worth of fur. The last New Caledonia brigade came over the old trail in 1847. This was on account of the treaty of 1846 fixing the boundary on the 49th parallel; also on account of the breaking out of war between the Americans and the Cayuse Indians, rendering the Columbia unsafe for brigades carrying furs and property aggregating great value and orders were sent out early in 1848 by express from Vancouver to the officers in charge of the interior posts to break their way through that year over the Cascades to the mouth of the Fraser and after many a reconnaissance and much labor and expense a trail was opened over which pack trains could manage to travel. This became what was known in fur trading parlance as the “Fort Hope Trail” and continued to be the trade route used by the Hudson Bay Company from that time on.
The year 1848 saw no brigade come to Fort Okanogan bound either up or down. The old “Okanogan Trail” was to see them no more….they were gone forever. But the route was still much traveled by both Indians and whites, as it afforded the best north and south passage from the Columbia waters to the Fraser. General Geo. B. McClellan (then a captain) made his well known scouting trip through the Okanogan Valley in the early fall of 1853, the same being made in connection with Gov. Stevens’ explorations of the newly created Washington Territory. McClellan came up from Yakima country through where Wenatchee now is, thence up the trail on the west side of the Columbia to the Okanogan Valley and proceeded as far north as Osoyoos Lake, thence turned east over the mountains by a route which his report does not definitely disclose, to Fort Colville on the Columbia.
In 1858 the “Okanogan Trail” suddenly sprang into importance as the line of travel for a new variety of traffic and transportation. Rich mining strikes were made on the Thompson and shortly afterwards in the Cariboo country. The famous Fraser rush was presently on.
It was known that the fur traders had been going into that country via the Okanogan Valley and the “Okanogan Trail” immediately became one of the lines over which the great stampede poured north. There are many interesting stories pertaining to this period. Perhaps the best known is the McLaughlin Canyon Indian fight, which occurred in the early autumn of 1858 in the McLaughlin Canyon, a few miles south of the present Tonasket. Here a band of hostile Indians ambushed a party of several hundred miners. In the fight several miners were killed. Another is the feat of Gen. Joel Palmer, a freighter, taking a wagon train of nine big, heavily loaded wagons up over the trail in the summer of 1858. Palmer got his wagons clear through to Kamloops, but the trip was beset with too may difficulties to be a success and next year he went in with a pack train instead.
Beginning in 1858 and continuing for about ten years the “Okanogan Trail” was much used by the cattlemen of the Yakima and other sections in that direction over which to drive herds of beef for the mining camps of the north. Practically the whole beef supply for all the Fraser River and Cariboo mining camps went in over the “Okanogan Trail” for several years and throughout the sixties, these beef drives continued. In the aggregate a vast number of cattle were sent north in this way. Between Kamloops and Fort Alexandria on the Fraser, the trail followed a course which was substantially adopted for the location of the Cariboo road that was built by the government of British Columbia in the early sixties. This noted road continues to the present and it so happened that between Kamloops and Alexandria it is substantially identical with the trail traversed by the old time fur brigades, the miners and the beef drivers between the Thompson and the Fraser.
In this connection let us again revert to what should properly be considered as the “Okanogan Trail” when viewed in its true historical light. Now, the truth is that the name “Okanogan Trail” was never coined till the very last of the fifties when the miners, packers and freighters began going into the Fraser River country via the Okanogan Valley. Theses men, together with the stockmen that used the route for their beef drives in the sixties, called the same the “Okanogan Trail” and they were the first to so denominate it. The numerous journals and reports of the early traders, explorers and travelers disclose no such name. The fur company men do not seem to have had a definite name for the route, anything more than it was the “road” traveled in going to and from the New Caledonia department. But they never any place used the name “trail” to designate a traveled course; it was always a “road”.
The word “trail” seems to have come into existence as a part of the western vernacular of the Americans along about the time of the forty-niners, or perhaps a little before, amongst the plainsmen and mountaineers. Viewed in a purely historical light let us see what the “Okanogan Trail” really meant to the men who invented the term and who used the term through the years when it was current. To these men it meant going north to Fraser River by going up through the Okanogan Valley. If they were coming up through the “Big Bend” from The Dalles or Walla Walla, then it began where the trail to Fort Okanogan branched off the old wagon road leading from White Bluffs to Colville. If they were coming through the Yakima Country it is uncertain where they would consider that they had reached the “Okanogan Trail”. According to some accounts it would seem that they had reached it as soon as they were over the Clockum Pass coming north. Again, the Wenatchee River would seem to be the point where the “Okanogan Trail” was reached and so on.
So it is the same as of old, the individual of today can largely use his own judgment as to just what constitutes the “Okanogan Trail”. Just where it should be considered as beginning and ending and just what course it followed between its terminals is to some considerable extent a matter of opinion. This situation, however, is not unusual. Many of the old western routes of travel present the same difficulty when one undertakes to lay them down definitely on a map. One historian will contend that they should be considered thus and so and another something different. So the “Okanogan Trail” meant one thing at one time and something more or less or different at another. The “Okanogan Trail” of the Cariboo excitement in a general way meant a trail extending from about White Bluffs if a party was approaching from that way and from about Wenatchee if the party was approaching from that way and ended at or near Thompson River, where it joined the Cariboo Road. While the “Okanogan Trail” as it applied to the fur companies, began at Fort Alexandria on the Fraser and ended at Fort Okanogan on the Columbia.