History of the Okanagan

The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia is a long narrow valley created by receding glaciers. The valley has a number of lakes kept fresh by runoff from the mountain peaks, which flank either side of the valley. Okanagan lake is 70 miles (100 kms) long and stretches from Penticton in the south to Okanagan Landing at the north end of the lake. Steep fertile claybanks left by the receding glaciers dominate the southern shores of the lake. Broad fertile valleys are found at the north end of this unique lake area.

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The Similkameen Valley is also a steep walled valley created by the winding Similkameen River. This valley joins the Okanagan farther south in Washington state in the USA.

The region encompassing these valleys is classified as an arid biotic zone, almost desert. In fact the only desert in Canada is located in the south end of the valley near Osoyoos, which is on the Canada-USA border. Irrigation has changed the bunchgrass covered benches into an agricultural wonderland. This is orchard country, growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Vineyards are becoming more numerous, and the valley has gained a reputation for its premium wines.

Before the intrusion of the European searching for furs, gold, and later pasture for their herds of cattle, the Okanagan Natives enjoyed all these pristine valleys had to offer. The areas near the river bottoms were home during the winter season, and the surrounding mountains supplied berries and game during the hot summer months and late autumn.

Access to the territory, first called New Caledonia, and later to become British Columbia, was through the Okanagan Valley. The Hudson's Bay Company Horse Fur Brigades, from 1821 to 1847, transported trade goods on packhorses on the trip in and furs on the journey out. When the boundary of Canada was established in 1858 Osoyoos became the port of entry. Vast cattle herds trailed through the customs at Osoyoos to supply food to the miners in the Cariboo. Ranches were established to raise beef on the abundant bunchgrass which covered the benches on either side of the river valley.

Placer gold was discovered and mined on the Similkameen River, but in the late 1800's gold was discovered in the hard rock high above the valley. The rush was on!

We were the wild west! The Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys had gold camps, cattle drives, large cattle ranches, stage coaches, sternwheelers on the lake, and boom towns along the shores. Railroads vied for the right-of-way to build track to tap the wealth of the valleys, and beyond.

Skookum Publications has recorded and documented the colorful heritage of these valleys, and has books available to the discerning public.





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