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Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide: Early Ranching in BC and Alberta

By Ken Mather

March 6, 2014

Review By Max Foran

I liked this book. It was well written, adequately-researched, and, in my opinion, achieved its author’s purpose. With his tight focus on frontier and early ranching personalities in British Columbia and Alberta, Mather gives the reader a colourful, informative, and entertaining insight into two very different ranching frontiers.

Mather’s personalities are well chosen and treated in a lively, sometimes gripping manner. Two main themes emerge. First are the hardships that marked life on the mining/ranching frontier of British Columbia and on the big leaseholds in southern Alberta. To his credit, Mather does not over-exaggerate trial and tribulation but allows them to emerge as typical challenges. His repeated accounts of harrowing experiences and feats of endurance will leave a singular impression on readers. Second, one is struck by the high mobility of Mather’s diverse characters, and it is here that the legendary restlessness of cowboys and ranchers is brought to life. They moved from job to job, often; not always in ranching nor out of necessity, and sometimes after apparently putting down permanent roots. In this respect, Mather’s book provides a good insight into the human dynamics of a bygone era.

For those looking for detail, Mather provides some interesting facts and insights. He emphasizes the different ranching traditions in British Columbia and Alberta and details their origins through the equipment, clothing, and techniques of his chosen characters. More significantly, he demonstrates the underappreciated influence of the BC ranching experience on Alberta, using as examples overland trailblazing, inflows of horses and cattle, and horse-breaking and cattle-handling techniques. His section on horses was excellent, especially his discussion where he shows how the stronger and bigger horses of BC stock were ideally suited to the more robust Alberta cattle. Since Alberta ranching history usually focuses on its American and eastern Canadian roots, Mather’s comments on the BC influence are illuminating.

The book suffered in some areas. The lack of explanatory maps was a glaring omission. Furthermore, Mather did not set his ranching frontiers in geographical context with respect to type, location, climate, and topography. The bibliography lacked important sources. There was no mention of David Breen’s seminal work, nor that of Warren Elofson. Simon Evans’ stellar history of the Bar U was ignored, as was Grant MacEwan’s biography of John Ware. Mary Ellen Kelm’s book on rodeo would have been very useful in the discussion on Natives. Finally, important wider variables were omitted. Some discussion on beef marketing, settler intrusions into ranching country, and government policies and their impact on the leasehold system and on exports would have widened the reader’s perspective while putting Mather’s characters into more meaningful context.

In the main, however, this book should have wide appeal to those interested in a unique aspect of BC history, and to those seeking a lively parallel discussion on Canada’s two earliest ranching frontiers and the vibrant characters who embodied them.

Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide: Early Ranching in BC and Alberta
Ken Mather
Victoria: Heritage House, 2013. 224 pp. $19.95 paper