Bunchgrass – plant of the BC gold rush
Were it not for the bunchgrass, the cattle drives to the Cariboo during the BC gold rush would not have been possible.
Cattle fed on wild bunchgrass that was plentiful from Washington State, through the Okanagan, and along the river valleys of the Nicola, the Fraser and the Thompson River.
The first cattle drives, following old Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigade trails, found the bunchgrass to be plentiful. From the onset of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858 and the years following, packers such as General Joel Palmer came to rely on the nutritious grain to sustain the cattle all the way to the gold diggings in the Cariboo.
The problem started to arise as more and more ranchers realized the need to protect grazing areas. It became necessary to move the cattle from one area to another in order that the grass could replenish itself. Unfortunately, cattle drives with a thousand cattle and five hundred sheep could demolish in an instant, what these farmers had set aside for their winter feed.
The Cornwall brothers of Ashcroft fenced off a large area of grassland for their own use. In addition, they applied to lease all of the Hat Creek Valley in 1865. Only a small portion was granted, as Barnard’s Express made it known it would need the grasslands for their horses.
The grasslands on the east bank of the Fraser River between Big Bar and the Chilcotin River junction became a hotly contested area. Ranchers preempted land there while at the same time it was being used by cattle drovers.
At first it was thought that this was an inconvenience, but small farmers were being put out of business and they blamed cattle ranchers and drovers Jerome and Thaddeus Harper. The Harper brothers, originally from Virginia, made their fortune in the meat business in the California gold rush. The Harpers drove herds of cattle north from Washington and wintered them in Osoyoos. Later, they leased Crown land and bought a ranch near Kamloops. They also entered into a partnership with the Van Volkenburgh butchers in Barkerville.
George Walkem, an elected member of the Legislative Council for Cariboo East, sent a petition in May 1869 to the Colonial Secretary for Governor Seymour on behalf of farmers of the Lillooet district.
“Bunch-grass, as your Excellency is aware, is the only grass indigenous to the soil, and as—unlike most other grasses—it springs from seed and not from a permanent root, preservation becomes a necessity…The grass once eaten off in the summer time is forever destroyed…” He went on to explain that the ranchers were careful where their livestock grazed, leaving a strip for winter feed. “The grass on this strip has thus an opportunity of ripening and in this manner, a continuous crop is ensured from the fallen seed; while the dry bunches form an excellent substitute for hay and food for the cattle when driven by frost and snow from the higher altitudes. This strip forms the only resource of the stock raiser in the winter time, and in the event of its destruction as a grazing ground, your Petitioners will undoubtedly be compelled to abandon this very important branch of farming.”
“A large area of the strip was destroyed last year by large bands of sheep and cattle of passing drovers, who selected this spot for fattening their animals, regardless of the destruction of the grass; and this year larger bands now driven upon it threaten to reduce the whole strip of…the once fertile plains of Lillooet.”
In a private letter to the Colonial Secretary, Walkem spoke of the Harpers vast wealth, estimated to be at $200,000. Walkem also wrote that the Harpers were crushing “both open opposition and indirect competition. Hence, he temporarily benefits himself by destroying the Fraser River grass, while he permanently crushes and ruins the farmers on that river.”
The farmers continued to file grievances to the government the following year. Nothing changed until the health of Jerome Harper began to decline and he left for California where he died in 1874. He left most of his estate to his brother Thaddeus who went through the money in a few short years.