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.

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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.

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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.

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