Family moving cattle on horseback.
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Chilcotin History

"You've got to like ranching to be in it .... It's a pretty rough game." - Art Lavington

Welcome to the West Chilcotin - A region steeped in a history of ranching, guiding/outfitting, and trapping. Extending from Chilko Lake in the east to Heckman Pass in the West and north of the Blackwater, it's a huge area with few roads.

The only way to cover ground in the Chilcotin, winter or summer, was on horseback or by team. Living in the Chilcotin meant overcoming obstacles, day in and day out, just to survive.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie was the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains and view the Pacific Ocean from a North American shore twelve years before the more famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Mackenzie set out from Lake Athabaska in 1793 in search of an overland passage to the Pacific and arrived at his destination 72 days and 1250 miles later, the latter 270 miles following ancient Native trade routes called grease trails for the eulachon (a small fish that was rendered for its fat) that were carried over them from the coast to the interior of BC.

This trail left from the mouth of the Blackwater River west of Quesnel, followed the upper Blackwater past Eliguk Lake, over the Rainbow Mountains and through what is now Tweedsmuir Park to Bella Coola and was designated as a Heritage Trail in 1987. Aside from being used by the Natives in the past and as a walking trail now, it has never been developed as a route into the Chilcotin. Instead, as you'll note below, the main route into this area developed from the Fraser River, through Riske Creek, Alexis Creek, Tatla Lake, then Anahim Lake.

It's thought that the first occupiers of land west of the Fraser were the Shushwap Tribe which was nearly wiped out by smallpox in 1862. The Chilcotin or Tsilhqot'in people moved in to take their place from their traditional territory in the west (Alexis Creek to Ulkatcho). The Chilcotin's language is a sister language of the Navajo in the U.S. and is of complicated structure with each verb carrying the subject and object. There are still many of the Elders and some younger people that speak the language, although some mix a pidgin English and Tsilhgot'in in conversation.

While the tribes and the white people had their problems, the Chilcotin Indian Wars being most notable, most of the Chiefs of the Chilcotin bands were very friendly and cooperative with the white settlers, particularly when treated with equality and respect. As a result, many natives went to work with settlers as ranch hands, cowboys, packers and guides. Some started their own freight companies using teams and wagons, or homesteaded their own ranches, while their wives made and sold moccasins and gloves made from tanned deer and caribou hides, and robes made from the fur of marmots.

Probably many people have heard of Tom Hance who put up a trading post and post office at what became known as what else... but Hanceville? His wife Nellie, was the first white woman to come into the Chilcotin and once had a long trip to get to Hanceville in 1887 on horseback. She rode the entire three hundred miles sidesaddle. Tom's place and later Lee's became a jumping off point for all points west and adventuresome men gradually spread through the country, settling their homestead and acquiring ranching stock. While many of their wives were brought from England, the States, or Victoria, many married lasses from one of the Chilcotin tribes and more than one family, especially in the Anahim area, has a long history of intermingled families.

Eventually a road traveled by horseback, team, or on foot developed from ranch to ranch from the Fraser River to Tatla Lake, and finally on to Anahim Lake. These ranches were often used as stopping points and overnighters, where the host welcomed a weary traveler, providing a hot meal and a warm barn. In exchange, the traveler was expected to provide news or gossip of the outside.

Stan Dowling grew up in Vancouver but moved to the West Chilcotin in 1932, farming for a while in Bella Coola, then working on Andy Christensen's Clesspocket Ranch when he decided he was going to start a store. He began trucking freight from Vancouver to Anahim Lake with the only truck in the Anahim area over the wagon road from Williams Lake. From Tatla Lake west, the road had only ever been used with team and wagon or pack horse, so Stan actually built a road by hand over the years without Government help, that would support a vehicle. His longest, hardest, and as he describes, "Most miserable trip." in March, 1937 took nine days from Williams Lake to Anahim Lake through howling wind, pelting snow, and huge snow drifts. He only made it with the help of several teamsters, other ranchers and friends like Andy Holte and Pan Phillips that rode out from Anahim Lake and assisted Stan in bringing his goods in from Tatla Lake in relay.

From Anahim Lake there was a horse and freight trail to the Bella Coola Valley through the precipice, but no proper road. There was no way in or out of the Valley with a vehicle and people down in the valley petitioned the Government for years for financial help to build a road. Since the road would have to go over the Coast Mountain Range, the Government said it was impossible to buid and refused to help. So the people of the West Chilcotin and Bella Coola Valley took matters into their own hands.

In 1951 Thomas Squinas, an extraordinary woodsman and cowboy, set out on horseback to find the best possible route for a road to be built overland from Anahim Lake to Bella Coola, through the rugged mountains of the Coast Range. Two years, $250, a lot of dynamite, donated time and equipment, and back breaking work later, the cat skinner from Bella Coola touched the blade of his bulldozer to that of the cat skinner that had worked his way down the hill from Anahim Lake. The wife of the cat driver that had been pushing road from the top filmed that historic moment on September 26, 1953 when Bella Coola was finally married by road to the rest of Canada, and so it was designated the Freedom Highway. Although it really couldn't be called a highway at the time, but more like two ruts as it took over 9 hours to drive the 100 miles from Bella Coola to Anahim Lake, but it was enough to convince the Government to take over the maintenance and improvements of the road in 1955. With grades up to 18%, the 'Hill' as it is called, is the steepest highway in Canada, if not North America, and is a 'must do' drive.

In 1938, Stan Dowling bought the Hudson's Bay property in Anahim Lake and moved his store from up on Capoose Flats and started the first Anahim Lake Post Office. Thus began, 'Downtown' Anahim. Stan Dowling, with the help of local ranchers, also started the first Anahim Lake Stampede 70 years ago in 1938. It's still famous today and is usually held about the first or second week of every July. The store was later taken over and run by D'Arcy Christensen for years, who had the slogan, "If we don't have it, you don't need it." He was also the local fur buyer and only recently retired from the store and moved to Williams Lake in 2001.

Ranching is still one of the main industries of the Chilcotin, but tourism has also become a mainstay of the area in the past 50 years and in some cases, the two have gone hand in hand with some working ranches offering vacation adventures, pack trips and trail rides. Trapping has gradually given away to eco tours, guiding, and trail riding. Many lakes in the West Chilcotin were popular fishing and hunting destinations, especially for Americans, and gradually little cabins and tent camps were replaced by resorts and lodges. Logging too has moved in but cooperation between resource users and Native Bands have forced restrictions on logging in the country and operaters, Natives and logging companies have formed some of the strongest cooperative units in Canada. These units, or Round Tables', are now being used as models in many delicate regions throughout North America.

 

Wide sweeping mountains on either side of a valley with two horses.
 
Old barn with roof falling in and corrals.
 
Russell Pole fence encloses two horses.
 
Old Cattle Chute
 
Old log cabin with sod roof at Taseko.
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