The Fur Trade began in the territory of what is now Canada in the 1500’s in Newfoundland and along the St. Lawrence River. Over the next three hundred years fur traders, known as courrier du bois (or forest runner), expanding the trade westward learning to live off the land from the First Nations peoples and trading with them.
Moving west to the Pacific coast was difficult due to the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges. So, in 1811, New York business tycoon John Jacob Astor sent his Pacific Fur Company to the mouth of the Columbia River to establish a fur trading post named Ft. Astoria (at modern-day Astoria, Oregon), giving his company access to the territories west of those mountain ranges.
In 1811, NWC explorer and trader Alexander Ross travelled east up the Columbia River to the mouth of the Okanagan River where he established Ft. Okanagan. At this fort First Nations traded furs and horses for metal tools and other items. Ross would leave the valley in 1825 with his Okanagan First Nations wife.
Later in 1811, from Fort Okanagan NWC employee David Stuart, accompanied by a small group, made his way north along the Okanagan River into the Okanagan Valley; becoming the first confirmable white man to have entered the region. Following trails that had been used for thousands of years by the Okanagan and Shuswap peoples, Stuart’s group made their way to the Thompson River where they established Ft. Cumcloups (Kamloops).
Stuart returned to Ft. Okanagan 6 months after leaving. For him the trip had been successful having traded for large quantities of furs and establishing the new fur trail, based on First Nations’ trails. This was just the first journey for the fur traders and for the next 30 years the fur that had been caught during the winter was baled and packed on horses at Ft. Kamloops and transported overland to Ft. Okanagan. Most of these horses had been received in trade from the First Nations.
In October 1813, during the War of 1812, Fort Astoria was seized by British rival fur trading corporation, North West Company (NWC). Following the seizure of the fort, now renamed Ft. George, the NWC set about expanding trade inland from the coast. The following year, in 1814, the NWC sent its first ship load of Okanagan fur to China.
The fur supply in the Okanagan was never significant and had nearly vanished by 1814. As such the Okanagan Fur Brigade Trail changed roles into an important transportation route replacing the overland route over the Rockies as the main supply line for New Caledonia (the Hudson Bay Company’s name for what is now British Columbia) and became the main overland transportation route for the fur traders.
With meager fur supplies the relationship between the fur traders and the Okanagan First Nation was mainly based on the trade of horses, food stuffs, guiding and labour services.
Following the merger of the HBC and NWC in 1821, the HBC, the largest fur trading company, entered the Okanagan for the first time. With this merger HBC employee Tom McKay was sent to widen the trail and make it more serviceable by larger teams of pack animals and officially making it the Okanagan Fur Brigade Trail. This renovation meant that trading supplies no longer had to cross the entire continent over land from York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay.
With this merger the Okanagan Fur Brigade Trail became the main transportation route for all of New Caledonia’s (now British Columbia) fur trade, as it was a safer and easier route than the treacherous Thompson and Fraser Rivers.
The Okanagan Fur Brigade Trail went from the Columbia River northward along the east side of the Okanagan River to Okanagan Falls. There it crossed to the west side of Osoyoos and Okanagan Lakes. At the northern end of Okanagan Lake the trail continued to Grand Prairie (Monty’s Creek) and Westwold before reaching Ft. Kamloops.
In 1846, the Okanagan Fur Brigade Trail was abandoned following the signing of the Treaty of Oregon between Great Britain and the United States of America. This treaty established the border along the 49th parallel and cut off British, and therefore the HBC’s, access to the Columbia River south of that boundary. As a result the HBC traders had to cross the difficult mountain passes to move west to the coast and the forts at Langley and Yale.
The trail would not see any known non-indigenous use until the Cariboo Gold Rush that began in 1861. From that time on it would be used occasionally by ranchers and others travelling to regions north of the Okanagan. Today, sections of the trail are integrated into Highway 97 and Westside Road. Still much more remains unused; museums and historical societies along its length, including us, are interested in its preservation.
The old cairn at Highway 97 and Old Okanagan Highway, near the Westbank Museum, commemorates the spot where fur traders and First Nations used to meet and trade.
Today, we, the Westbank Museum, wish to recognize the important and cooperative affiliation between these fur traders and the Okanagan First Nation.