Hat Creek Ranch: Cattle Drive to the Cariboo

The First Cattle Drive

The first cattle drive recorded in British Columbia was in 1846 when Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company moved cattle and horses from Fort Vancouver (present day Vancouver, Washington) to Vancouver Island then on to Fort Kamloops and Fort Alexandria. Small herds of Durham (Shorthorn) and Devons were kept at Forts Victoria, Langley, Kamloops, and Alexandria.

Within months of the gold rush in 1858, General Joel Palmer led a party of 36 men with a hundred cattle from Washington Territory over the international boundary at Osoyoos to the Thompson River Valley. The following year, Palmer took a cattle drive as far north as Fort Alexandria on the Fraser River.

Good land along the Bonaparte River

There were many American ranchers who brought their herds north during the Fraser River gold rush. As the Cariboo gold rush came around and towns sprung up such as Richfield and Barkerville, it became a necessity to establish ranches further north. The first area to see activity was in the bunchgrass ranges along the Bonaparte River, the last area of ample grazing before the Cariboo.

As early as 1859, Lieutenant R.C. Mayne of the Royal Engineers reported,

“There is much good land along the Bonaparte; the whole being clothed with long grass of which the horses seemed very fond.”

Joel Palmer commented on the potential of the bunchgrass ranges on the Bonaparte River in his diary for March 24, 1861:

Any person desiring to establish a grazing ranch, containing about 24 square miles, to combine agricultural advantages, would do well to select the following tract: commencing on Bonaparte River, at the mouth of Lacash (Cache) Creek . . . thence following down Bonaparte River to Thompson River, to the mouth of a branch being the first trail from Bonaparte to Kamloops, thence up that branch, crossing the trail to the (Nicaragua) Bluff; thence round the bluff to Lacash Creek, thence down the creek.

In 1859, a correspondent for the Victoria Gazette noted the Bonaparte River area as having “the most eligible sites possible for winter ranches.” He met two men, Antoine Gregoire and Neil McArthur, who were keeping a herd of 200 mules and horses. Since both of these men had been employed earlier by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it is possible that they were still working for them.

Hat Creek Ranch

By 1861, Neil McArthur pre-empted land at Hat Creek on the Bonaparte. Another ex-Hudson’s Bay employee, Chief Trader Donald McLean resigned his position and took up land in the area around the same time. McLean was killed in 1864 and subsequent owners continued to operate the Hat Creek Ranch and a roadhouse which became known as Hat Creek House and contained 20 rooms.

Neglected for almost half a century, the buildings at Hat Creek Ranch were restored over six years (1981-87). Today, Hat Creek Ranch is a popular stop on the Gold Rush Trail.