The American land-seekers in Fir Valley

The story of the Fir Valley settlers on the grasslands east of Winfield has been ably told by Lake Country historian Ronald Taylor in his book Fir Valley: A History. A part of that story that hasn’t been fully explored concerns two Americans and their families who were among the first to ranch in the Fir Valley: John McClure and Jeremiah “Cap” Clark.[1]

John McClure

John McClure, Fir Valley. Photo courtesy of LCMA

The Americans were part of a larger group of five families, most of whom had arrived in Canada by horse and wagon from Whitman County Washington in 1893. Part of what makes this group fascinating for a historian is that they were radically different from the stream of British-born settlers who began moving to the Okanagan in the 1890s and who swelled to a flood in the 1900s with the onset of the orcharding boom. The Americans, in contrast, were offshoots of an earlier flow of settlers, the land-seekers in the great westward movement to California and Oregon. Two of the families, the Rices and the McClures, had first moved to central Oregon via the Oregon Trail, and later moved eastward to eastern Washington, joining the land rush into the Palouse.

The historian John Weaver has written about the speculators, squatters, and land-takers who were part of the land rushes in the American west. While it’s true that, unlike parts of the American west, early land acquisition in the Okanagan was organized and lawfully conducted, and the Americans didn’t come to the Okanagan to illegally take land, their patterns of land acquisition certainly suggest a sharp eye for a good bargain, and a willingness to endure the hardships of settlement in marginal agricultural areas that many of the new British arrivals would have shrunk from even considering.

The Americans initially settled around Black Mountain in 1893. Until this time the high grazing land around the mountain had been jealously controlled by one ranching family, the Lequimes. The Americans were likely able to settle there because just before their arrival, local ranchers had successfully petitioned the government to force the Lequimes to open up access to unsettled crown land beyond their large 2,700 hectare ranch.

The Americans grew hay and some wheat, and raised pigs and cattle. Historian Arthur Gray has pointed out they had a hard time of it on the mountain: in the higher elevations, winters were severe, and those who settled in the lower elevations, in what is now Rutland, had to struggle to find adequate water for their hay crops, gardens and livestock.

The first of the group to attempt resettlement in the Woods Lake area was Jeremiah Clark, who preempted land on Clark Creek, on what is now Beaver Lake Road, in 1899. The date the Clark family actually moved to the new property is unclear: Frieda Clark, Jeremiah’s daughter, suggests in her memoir that it may have been as late as 1903.[2] Clark’s move has an obvious explanation: he had the worst of the American Black Mountain preemptions, a steep chunk of rangeland interspersed with rocky outcrops and forest, located high above present day Rutland.[3] For the three Clark boys, it would have been a long horse ride down the hill to school. Perhaps for Clark the move to the Woods Lake area presented a second chance at upland ranching. Two other families followed the move north: John McClure pre-empted next to Clark in 1902, and Bruce Prather sold out on Black Mountain probably in the same year, and according to Arthur Gray, moved north to the Woods Lake area with the others, although there is no evidence he preempted in Fir Valley.[4]

The McClure and Clark haying operations on their new land are mentioned in the Kelowna Record in 1911 and again in 1912:

“Jack Leslie and his bailing crew… are now moving up the mountain to the ranches of McClure and Clark where there are 150 tons of Timothy hay.” [5]

Although Clark continued ranching until at least 1917, John McClure sold his Fir Valley property, including fifty acres of hay land, to a Mr. Graham from Okanagan Landing in 1912. Jeremiah Clark died in Vernon in 1938.

By Ian Pooley

[1] I have taken much of the material that appears in the article from my forthcoming BC Studies article, “(Re)settling the Central Okanagan, 1860-1904: Land Monopoly, Small-Scale Ranching, and Marginalized First People.”

[2] See Ronald E. Taylor, Fir Valley, A History, self-published (Winfield) 2005, 22.

[3] Ronald Taylor suggests that Clark may have moved to Fir Valley because the Vernon & Midway Railway had surveyed a proposed railway through the area, but since the Clark preemption predates the Vernon & Midway survey, this seems to me unlikely. Taylor, Fir Valley, 6-11.

[4] Arthur Gray includes Prather in the resettlement, and mentions that he is cited as a settler in the area in Early Days of Winfield. Gray dates Prather and McClure’s move to 1900, but gives no source for this. Arthur W. Gray, “Black Mountain Settlement,” Okanagan Historical Society Annual Report No. 26, 47, 50.

[5] Kelowna Record, 10 October 1912.

1 Comment

  1. Carl shearer

    Very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it


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