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Review

Buckaroos and Mud Pups: The Early Days of Ranching in British Columbia

Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three

By Karla Decker

November 4, 2013

Review By Joanna Reid

If traditional historical writing is about “maps and chaps,” most writing about British Columbia’s interior ranching landscapes could be characterized as about “hats and chaps”: ten-litre Stetsons and leather or woolly chaps. Most works present rough, idiosyncratic characters who struggle against an unforgiving landscape. Two new books, both published by Heritage House – Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three, edited by Karla Decker, and Buckaroos and Mud Pups by Ken Mather – continue this tradition. While Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three is an edited collection of excerpts of local history and Buckaroos and Mud Pups is a “history of early ranching in BC,” both describe the distinctive lives that people forged in the challenging landscapes of the BC interior. 

In the Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin series, the rough frontier life of the region emerges in excerpts from local histories and memoirs. A journalist’s experiences in the Cariboo gold rush, a historian’s description of Chinatown at Barkerville, a rancher’s famous long-distance cattle drive, a Secwepemc woman’s memories of residential school, and a pioneer’s description of a stranded “loonlet” are but five of thirty-one narratives reproduced in the third volume. Stories are organized roughly chronologically. The short biographies of the authors are fascinating, too; the writers are, for example, journalists, ranchers, or people who had unique interactions with the characters they describe. The result is a collection of narrative snapshots, rather like a prose scrapbook. Though some of the stories may be known to readers familiar with the region, the Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three is useful for researchers who want an introduction to many sources or to a general reader interested in a cross-section of local histories. 

In pursuit of glorious “hats and chaps” tales, local histories are regularly silent on the issue of colonial dispossession (cf. Furniss 1999). Anthropologist Elizabeth Furniss (1999, 70) argues that, in pioneer narratives, “the success of the colonial endeavour, it is suggested, was due to the courage, determination, and drive of the pioneers, whereas the broader political and economic contexts that enabled their success, and that functioned to suppress Aboriginal resistance to settlers’ appropriation of Aboriginal lands, go unmentioned.” Only one narrative in Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three problematizes the incursions of non-Aboriginal people into non-Aboriginal space. More Aboriginal voices (rather than pioneer descriptions of Aboriginal people), including Aboriginal narratives about ranching life, would provide further much-needed insight into the challenging colonial history of frontier life. 

Like Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Three, Buckaroos and Mud Pups demonstrates the convergence of diverse peoples and cultures in BC grasslands. However, this book emphasizes ranching history and the unique form that the industry developed in the BC interior between the 1858 gold rush and the First World War. The quirky title gestures towards the intermixing of cultures. “Buckaroos” is an Anglicized version of the Spanish term “vaquero,” which originally described cattle herders of Andalusia, Spain. During colonization, these herders and their culture came to the Caribbean and Mexico and eventually moved north along the west coast of North America, all the way to British Columbia. “Mud Pups” refers to “educated and energetic young men” who came from England “at their parents’ expense”; it is a term that “initially expressed the disdain of those who had paid, and continued to pay, their own way through life” (145). Mather shows how many different people came to own and work on ranches. He also describes how First Nations were involved in the development of the industry.

Mather first provides a history of the early industry before moving on to describe different ranchers and cowboys and life on the range. He provides many textured narratives about cattle drives and working life. The details of early ranching – from hemp whips to polo games to towering haystacks – are very present in Buckaroos and Mud Pups. In the final chapter, Mather describes ranching at the end of the nineteenth century as “big business.” Ranches such as the Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch and the Gang Ranch had large holdings and specialized labour forces. 

Little has been written about the overall history of the provincial ranching industry, and Buckaroos and Mud Pups is a useful intervention. However, the book’s approach is roughly chronological and character-centred; Mather only briefly engages with larger arguments about the environment or the structure of the industry. (Further, Mather does not comprehensively address Aboriginal dispossession, though ranch development was an integral part of colonial resettlement [see Harris 2002, chap. 7].) I found the book at times disjointed and lacking in thematic analysis, thus making it difficult to see how different parts of the story fit into a big picture. At the end, though, I was left with a basic overview and a colourful pastiche of ranching lives during a particular era, which was what I believe Mather intended.

 

WORKS CITED

Furniss, Elizabeth. 1999. The Burden of History: Colonialism and the Frontier Myth in a Rural Canadian Community. Vancouver: UBC Press. 

Harris, Cole. 2002. Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press.