The lush fields of bunchgrass in Hat Creek valley was a significant source of food for wintering herds of cattle destined for the Cariboo. Situated between the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, it was a much sought after piece of land by ranchers, packers and drovers.
This area is home to the Stuctwesemc (pronounced Stluck-TOW-uh-sem) also known as Bonaparte. Adjoining them is the Pavilion band or Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation (pronounced ts-KWHY-lux).
Berries, pinenuts, roots and game were widely available. Elk and mule deer grazed in the valley and medicinal plants were found along some of the smaller creeks that fed into Hat Creek.
Over the millenia, Natives painted drawings on nearby limestone canyon walls with locally sourced red ochre.
Fur Traders to Ranchers
The name Hat Creek comes from Hudson’s Bay Company french speaking fur traders who originally called it Rivière au Chapeau.
Former HBC trader Donald McLean realized the importance of this rich fertile valley in 1860. He established a ranch near the confluence of the Bonaparte and Hat Creek rivers.
In 1861, McLean advised American cattlemen to winter their herds in the Hat Creek valley. More cattle dealers arrived to overwinter their herds the following year.
1862 marked the greatest population influx into the Cariboo and the demand for beef soared. That year roughly 6,000 cattle entered the mainland colony of British Columbia.
Smallpox Epidemic of 1862-63
During the winter of 1862-63, smallpox killed thousands of Indigenous Peoples. Fifteen Secwepemc (pronounced suh-Wep-muhc) bands were completely wiped out, and others like the Bonaparte, barely hung on. Game was scarce and many starved to death.
Between 1862 and 1865, most of the Cariboo mining population left the region for the winter months. Cattle was left to graze in the Thompson, Bonaparte and Hat Creek Valleys.
The Cornwall brothers owned a large ranch “Hibernia” and roadhouse “Ashcroft Manor” on the Cariboo Wagon Road in the Bonaparte Valley. Clement Cornwall described the area as “beautifully grassed throughout”. Some said the bunchgrass was as high as a horse’s belly.
It wasn’t long before the Cornwall brothers set their sights on the grassy areas of Upper Hat Creek Valley which was occupied, for at least part of the year, by cattle drovers and packers who ran a few hundred head of cattle.
Clement Cornwall was elected in 1864 for the Hope-Yale-Lytton District, one of five members representing the colony of British Columbia. The following year, Clement attempted to use his political position to his advantage.
In August 1865 one of the Hat Creek packers received the following notice:
“It is hereby notified that C.F. Cornwall and H.P. Cornwall have applied to the Government for a lease of land for pastoral purposes on Hat Creek Valley. The range embraces fifteen thousand acres, extending from Marble Gap, fifteen miles above McLean’s, for a distance of eleven miles up the valley, being an average width of two miles. Persons are warned not to turn their animals on this land or otherwise interfere with the grass.”
(signed) Philip Henry Nind, Land Commissioner
The Cariboo Sentinel published the notice on August 12th with the following comment:
“Three or four men can, if this holds good, monopolize the whole country, and packers will have to cross the Rocky mountains to get a square meal for their mules, besides cattle dealers will be held in check on the 49th parallel instead of coming into the country with their stock.”
At first the lease application was denied but the Cornwall brothers applied again for 6,000 acres of grazing land and won. Another grant was given to their former roadhouse employee, Philip Parke, who established the Bonaparte Ranch.