Grande Prairie

A section of a Larry Hunter mural in Summerland, B.C., showing the Brigades.

This is a section of a Larry Hunter mural in downtown Summerland, which shows the Brigades passing Okanagan Lake.

With a little luck and lots of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You can order or pre-order the book, here: 

Here is another story from the Grande Prairie — yes, that place that we visited just a few short weeks ago. I found the beginnings of this in the little booklet published by the Grande Prairie folk: called “Saga of Westwold.” Here is how the story goes:

When the Hudson’s Bay Company bought the North West Trading Co in 1821, they built a fort at Okanagan, in what is now Washington State, and Grand Prairie, being on the first route between the two forts [Okanogan and Kamloops], was a stopping place for transients….

Again, in December 1851, the chief rode in from Grande Prairie. Food was scarce and hunting not what it used to be. It seemed desirable to the old chief, that the white men should stay in the valley. So he sent for the old Hudson’s Bay Company chief trader Angus McDonald, and showed him the beautiful valley, with its wealth of grassland and primeval timbers spread out for miles among the sheltering hills. Then calling his sons as witnesses, the old chief solemnly presented Grande Prairie to Angus McDonald, and his seed, forever. What more friendly gesture could one race offer to another?

Too Busy, so Lost it. 

But Angus was occupied with business at the time, and could not take up his residence on the land. Time enough for that later. He little thought that from the world beyond the valley, man would be looking for new homes, and that in a new country, possession is nine point of the law…

The chief spoken of in the above quote is N’Kuala, or [Nicola], of the Okanagans, whose home was generally known to be in Summerland. So you may wonder — Did Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile once own the Grande Prairie? Well, yes, he did. He says so himself.

But more to the point, perhaps, is that McDonald was nowhere near the Grande Prairie in 1851, so far as I can see. But in 1852, another HBC man was nearby, as you will see below (although I do not think he went all the way to the Grande Prairie.) At this point we stop to visit Fort Shepherd, built on the Columbia River just north of Fort Colvile in 1856. Here we find that the men are having trouble locating a Brigade trail that would take them around the range of mountains behind the new fort. They wanted a trail that did not cross the boundary line into the United States, and it was essential that they find a trail that would keep them in British Territory. 

They did not know of the other possible trail north of Fort Shepherd to Okanagan Lake’s upper end, but here is the story behind that trail. Before he left Fort Colvile in 1852, Alexander Caulfield Anderson had sent William Sinclair, Jr., to explore for a trail between the Arrow Lakes and Okanagan Lake. Sinclair found a route that went much of the way to Talle d’Epinettes, at the north west end of Okanagan Lake, via a lake Anderson called the Flat Bow Lake (now called Mable Lake.) I am thinking that Talle d’Epinettes is just a little beyond the First Nations village at the head of Okanagan Lake, where N’Kuala’s family lived — N’Kuala could have been there at that same time, I suppose. And the only way that Angus McDonald was anywhere near the top end of Lake Okanagan was if he accompanied William Sinclair on that expedition (which he might have done, I guess). Still, that brought the two men nowhere close to the Grande Prairie, unless they accompanied N’Kuala there.

The HBC men who were at Fort Shepherd in 1856 knew nothing of the “new trail” through Mabel Lake. George Blenkinsop was in charge at Fort Shepherd, and Angus McDonald was in charge at Fort Colvile. But at this time, McDonald was receiving medical treatment at Fort Vancouver, and while he was there he visited his old boss, A. C. Anderson, who had retired to Cathlamet, on the Columbia River west of Fort Vancouver. There, Anderson told him of the expedition that William Sinclair Jr. had made in 1852. So, if McDonald had not accompanied Sinclair on this expedition (and there is no sign he did), he now learned about it, and was determined to re-explore it, to see if it would prove to be a good brigade trail to Kamloops, via the Grande Prairie, or the Nicola Valley.

Angus McDonald had reached Fort Vancouver for medical treatment on the 19th March, “with the accounts of the Colvile District for the past year. He brought with him some 150 oz of Gold dust extracted from the Colvile Mines, and I am happy to inform you that the Returns in Furs are over those of Outfit 1855.” Fortunately, McDonald did not take long to recover his health, and he arrived in Fort Langley from Fort Vancouver in June 1857: James Douglas reported he “took charge of the return brigade, and is to resume his station at Fort Colvile, while Chief Trader Blenkinsop will be stationed at the new establishment, which we have named after the Governor [of the London Committee], Fort Shepherd.”

From Fort Colvile, Blenkinsop reported on McDonald’s now robust health, saying: 

I arrived here on the 25th May and found letters from Mr. Chief Trader [Dugald] McTavish instructing e to carry on the business of the District, as Mr. McDonald’s health would not permit of his returning from [Fort] Vancouver for some time. He is now however gone, quite recovered, and started a fortnight since to examine the country above the upper [Arrow] Lakes to discover, if possible, a road in that direction suitable for the conveyance of Goods from Fort Hope, as I regret to say, a few observations taken by myself a week or two since prove the barrier of mountains at the back of the new Fort impassable, without going into American Territory at least ten miles south of the 49th parallel…

If, unfortunately, we are chosen out from having a road south of the Fort the communication must be carried out by Boats up the Columbia Lakes, thence by Horses to Fort Hope, passing the camp of the old Chief Nicholas and falling into the present track of the Encampment des Femmes about three days journey from Fort Hope. This road is reported to be a good one, good pasture being found along the entire route, and one or two excellent places for guarding Horses during the winter as well as suitable for farming purposes, 

And so, in September 1857, Angus McDonald apparently completed the exploration of a possible new route via Flat Bow Lake [Mabel Lake], Talle d’Epinettes, Chief N’Kuala’s camp in Summerland (presumably), Nicola Lake, and Campement des Femmes. Did he travel via Kamloops and the Grand Prairie, or did Chief N’Kuala guide him by the First Nations trails that led up the Jacques River to the Nicola Valley and Lake – I suspect the last is true. I had wondered about the detour to N’Kuala’s Camp in Summerland, but in my mind it is now explained — if McDonald is going to explore the First Nations route to the Nicola Valley, then he would visit N’Kuala’s camp and ask the chief to show him [McDonald] the good road to the Nicola Valley and beyond: perhaps N’Kuala guided him all the way to Campement des Femmes, because that road would also be new to Angus McDonald. 

Of course, James Douglas grumbled, considering the exploration of this route unnecessary. “I place little reliance in Mr. Blenkinsop’s astronomical observations…” he griped. “I conceive it to be quite unnecessary to open a new route by Nicholas [Nicola] Lake, until the boundary line is marked upon the ground by the proper Commission[er]s. Till such time we have a perfect right of passage with our goods to and from the new Establishment [Fort Shepherd].” So James Douglas’s letter confirms that he new route through Mabel Lake and past Nicola Lake was the plan that the Fort Colvile and Fort Shepherd men had in mind. And in this letter, Governor Simpson also confirms it:

I regret to hear the difficulty that has arisen respecting a practicable road through British territory to our new post at Pend-d’Oreilles River. I do not know by whom the selection of that site was made but it certainly was well understood that a primary consideration in building the post was to enable us to supply that part of the interior with goods through our own territory. If it should prove that we must still avail ourselves of the old channel of communication, no object can be gained in keeping up the Pend-D’Oreilles post [Fort Shepherd] so it can have no advantages not possessed by Fort Colvile. I shall be glad to hear the result of Mr. McDonald’s exploration of the country between the Columbia Lakes and Thompson’s River, in reference to the opening up of a road in that direction.

Governor Simpson seemed to think the road should go via the Kamloops post, which would mean that Angus McDonald would ride through the Grand Prairie. But did he? When was he gifted the entire valley by Chief N’Kuala? I do not know. And perhaps, to find the answer, we have to look at the absolute chaos of Angus McDonald’s writing and records. Of course, you are all familiar with his manuscript, “A Few Items of the West,” by Angus McDonald, circa. 1881. What will we find here?

“From a reading of the manuscript,” the editor writes, “it is evident that Angus McDonald had in mind a description of the trip from the Flathead country in Montana to Victoria, B.C., and he has included in his description personal reminiscences of a number of separate trips taken over the route by himself at various times; and though no dates are mentioned, the text indicates that the first of these trips was probably taken about 1860, and the last undoubtedly between the months of April and December, 1881.”

So….. 1851, or 1852, or 1857 are the dates that we are looking for. As you can see above, the first of the journeys in this manuscript was taken about 1860 — but likely not in 1860 itself, as Susan Moir, who lived at Hope, met Angus McDonald on the brigade trail just east of Hope that same year. Will we find the information that we are looking for in this document?

Anyway, in 1860, it is clear that Angus McDonald did not travel by the Mabel Lake route, but came up from the south, by the Similkameen Valley and the Okanagan River to “Pin-tik-tin, “where the Okanagan Reservation is made.” The footnote to this says that “This is Penticton, a small town at the southern end of Okanagan Lake. It is derived from the Indian name, Pente-hik-ton. Our author is following the then-regular trail from Osoyoos to Okanagan Lake, thence along the eastern side of that lake to its Northern extremity, and thence by way of Grande Prairie to the South Thompson River, near the present Ducks [Monte Creek] station on the Canadian Pacific Railway.” On this journey he passes the Okinagan Mission held by the Oblate Society of Catholics, established in 1857 on the eastern side of Okanagan Lake in what is now Kelowna. This is Father Pandosy’s Mission, and yes, it is in Kelowna, and so McDonald travelled up the east side of the lake in 1860. Then McDonald goes on to say:

Seventy more miles by the Okinagan Lake and beyond it brings me to Grand Prairie, a beautiful vale of about ten miles by two. It is now all ranched. By right it belongs to me, having been given to me and allotted to me by the master of the whole country of the Okinagan. He was the chief Nicholas [N’Kuala], and deeded this plain to me in presence of his sons, some of whom are still living. Years afterwards when I spoke to Sir James Douglas, Governor of British Columbia, he thought for various reasons that it would be difficult ro secure it for me. Had I a written deed of it, he said, before the colony was organized, I might get it. I remarked that living witnesses should always be as good as writing, but he though the colony would not agree to it. The heirs of the chief insist yet that it should be given to me.

He was gifted ownership of the Grand Prairie well before 1860, it seems. But when?

From the Grand Prairie McDonald goes on to visit his daughter, Christina, who now lives in Kamloops — so clearly this is not his expedition through Mabel Lake: nor is it his journey to Fort Hope via the Brigade Trail. Still, I wonder when and how Chief N’Kuala gifted Angus McDonald the Grande Prairie, but I am not sure I will find the answer here.

Perhaps some of you have other documents or writings that can clear this Grande Prairie mystery up — not that I really need to know: it’s just idle curiosity. But idle curiosity can lead you to some ineresting stories. However, I think I have run out of resources, and can only guess at what happened at the Grande Prairie. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.