An ox team outfit caravans through Ashcroft in 1890. (Courtesy photo of B.C. Provincial Archives)

An ox team outfit caravans through Ashcroft in 1890. (Courtesy photo of B.C. Provincial Archives)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Ox team freighters play important role in Cariboo Gold Rush

The Cariboo Wagon Road was to provide a direct and dependable route

For a 40-year period, from the early 1860s until just after the turn of the 20th century, the preferred method of hauling heavy freight to the goldfields was by ox team.

In fact, one of the reasons advanced for building the Cariboo Wagon Road was to provide a direct and dependable route for the heavy wagons to travel.

The first freight outfits operated out of Yale, which was the terminus for the supply vessels during the gold rush.

Later, with the arrival overland of the CPR in 1886, the base of operations shifted up to Ashcroft, shortening the journey by almost 100 miles.

Shipping by ox trains was much cheaper, since oxen cost less than horses to purchase, to maintain and to operate, but it was a lot slower.

The record for a 550-mile round trip from Ashcroft to Barkerville was six weeks, but the average trip took well over two months.

Typically, a freight outfit would consist of two or three 10-ton freight wagons pulled by 12 oxen, commonly called “bulls.”

Each pair was known as “yoke” since they were joined at the shoulders by a large, wooden yoke.

READ MORE: William Pinchbeck is not alone on the hill

The pair at the front were the leaders — the fastest steppers, to set and maintain the pace.

In the middle were the swingers — the steadiest animals which plodded along, and closest to the wagon were the wheelers — the dependable animals that did most of the heavy pulling.

Barring accidents, a bull was good for 10 to 12 years’ service.

Some lasted 15 years or more as swingers or wheelers, but leaders were sold as beef as soon as they showed signs of slowing down.

The driver was known as a “bull slinger,” and he only rode on the wagons during tricky downhill sections when he needed to apply the brakes.

Usually he walked alongside the outfit, through the dust and grit, with a goad — a short rod with a whip at one end and a sharp prod at the other, using both ends as needed to keep the team moving.

The outfits had no spare animals.

All of the oxen worked all the time.

If one animal became lame or played out, it would be sold or traded to a rancher along the way, and a new animal was broken in en route.

Occasionally, the reject ox might be picked up on the return journey if it had regained its health, but most often, it had been “beefed” — butchered and consumed for food.

On the road, a freight outfit stretched a distance of about 200 yards. The animals shuffled along, raising a huge dust cloud that could be seen for miles.

Twenty miles a day was considered to be very good travelling, but towards the end of the journey, when the bulls were tired and sore, 12 miles a day was more realistic.

On some of the steep hills six miles a day was all they could manage.

The animals needed occasional rest stops. After climbing a long hill, the skinner would find an open spot and the team would have a half hour rest.

READ MORE: Family connection to history of Springhouse School

Unlike horses, which rest standing up, the oxen would all kneel down when a halt was called. Some of them, because they had tender hides, even wore knee pads.

No feed was carried for the animals. Whenever the outfit stopped for the night, the bulls were allowed to graze.

The experienced, older animals never strayed very far, but the younger ones had a tendency to wander off, so they were usually yoked together with a veteran to keep them close.

It didn’t always work, and sometimes the bull skinner would have to spend a couple of hours in the morning tracking down the animals.

One fall, a yoked pair got away, and they were not found until the next spring, still yoked together.

Somehow, the younger ox had stepped over his partner which had been lying down, and the yoke had become inverted.

The two animals must have had a uncomfortable winter, dragging the yoke along between them, but they were in quite good shape when they were found, and they both did good service for several freighting seasons afterwards.

Because of the condition of the road, which was only 18-feet wide with a gravel base, freight oxen had to be shod, a difficult process for both beast and man.

The animal would be lassoed, then prodded into a special timber frame.

The lead rope, fastened to the horns, was then tied down firmly to a big cross bar in the front.

Canvas slings were passed under the belly to lift the ox, then one leg would be pulled up and fastened by a chain to a sturdy timber on the side of the frame.

Since oxen have cloven hooves, two shoes were nailed on to each foot, with the animal struggling and bellowing the entire time.

One by one, each hoof was shod. Some of the ox shoes were huge, measuring more than six inches long and three inches wide.

The blacksmith certainly earned his fee when called upon to shoe a whole team.

In the winter time, when the deep snows made freighting impossible, the oxen were turned out to forage for themselves.

A few might die of starvation, but that was one of the hazards of the business.

It was cheaper to buy one or two replacement animals than to purchase feed to over winter the whole team.

Most animals survived and came through the cold season without any ill effects.

The last ox team freight run to Barkerville left Ashcroft in May of 1903. The era of bull teams was ending.

Barkerville had shrunk to a fraction of its gold rush hey day size, and the demand for large loads of freight had diminished.

Horse drawn wagons could be used, and they were much faster, but their time too was drawing to a close.

During the First World War, motor freighting became the rule rather than the exception, and the freight wagons pulled by oxen or horses were relegated to history.

Author’s note: For this story, I have relied heavily on an old article from October, 1950 in the Canadian Cattlemen magazine titled: Bull Teams of the Cariboo, by P.W. Luce.


Do you have a comment about this story? email:
editor@wltribune.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

CaribooLocal History

Just Posted

Correlieu Secondary School made the announcement on their Facebook page. (file photo).
COVID-19 case detected at Correlieu Secondary School in Quesnel

This case marks the seventh time COVID-19 has been detected in the Quesnel School District

Lori Weseen gives a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to William Lindstrom. Lindstrom was the first person immunized at the new clinic inside Arena 2 in Quesnel. (Cassidy Dankochik Photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
‘We answer the call,’ Quesnel nurse one of many making pandemic switch

Vanessa Salmons is helping lead vaccination efforts in Quesnel

A crash on the Quesnel River Bridge is backing up southbound traffic on Highway 97 in Quesnel. (File Photo)
Crash on Quesnel River Bridge backs up southbound traffic

At least three vehicles were involved in the collision, which took place on the bridge

The Gold Rush Cycling Club is asking users of the Wonderland trail network to respect any temporary trail closures that may be necessary during trail construction. Four new trails are anticipated to be constructed this year. (Photo submitted)
New development on the horizon for Quesnel’s Wonderland Trail Network

Construction on four new trails to start soon, says Gold Rush Cycling Club

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Restrictions will lift once 75% of Canadians get 1 shot and 20% are fully immunized, feds say

Federal health officials are laying out their vision of what life could look like after most Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19

Police are at Ecole Mount Prevost Elementary but the students have been evacuated. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Gardener finds buried explosives, sparking evacuation of Cowichan school

Students removed from school in an ‘abundance of caution’

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen outside a hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Channi Anand)
B.C. donates $500K to Red Cross COVID-19 relief efforts in India

The money will provide oxygen cylinders and ambulances for patients in communities grappling with the virus

Superintendent Aaron Paradis, community services officer with the Surrey RCMP, during a media availability about a recent drug bust in Port Coquitlam. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Police seize 13 million ‘potentially fatal doses’ of pure fentanyl at B.C. drug lab

The evidence was seized at large, illicit drug manufacturing site in Port Coquitlam

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth debates the province’s latest measure to control crime, March 10, 2021. The legislation allows police to impound vehicles used to transport weapons and further restricts sale of vehicle and body armour. (B.C. legislature video)
B.C. seeking ways to ‘name and shame’ gangsters, minister says

Mike Farnworth appeals to family members to talk to police

Jonathan Prest had to climb way up to the top of a dead red cedar tree to rescue a terrified cat, but he made it up and down successfully. (Facebook photos)
Tree cutter rescues cat stuck 100 feet up a dead and dried-out cedar

Jonathan Prest put himself in extreme peril to get a terrified cat out of a dangerous situation

The Greater Victoria School District continues to face backlash over its wording and approach to Indigenous learners in its 2021-2022 budget talks. (Black Press Media file photo)
School district’s approach to Indigenous learners leaves Victoria teachers ‘disgusted’

Backlash grows over ‘pattern of colonial thinking permeating the leadership’

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)
Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Most Read