Column: Ranchers, cowboys and a smallpox epidemic

Shuswap Outdoors by Hank Shelley

As large and small companies test for a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus, back in the early settlement of B.C., especially in the Interior, First Nations people and ranchers were well aware of what nature could provide for the simple things. Epidemics such as smallpox, however, required vaccination.

In his book, Buckaroos and Mud Pups: The Early Days of Ranching in British Columbia, Ken Mather relates to the many individual settlers that preempted land. One such person was R.L. Cawston, a young English chap who arrived in the South Okanagan in 1872 He worked on several ranches there.

Cawston eventually founded his own spread in an area that still bears his name.

Like many early ranchers, they hired on local native cowboys who were outstanding at riding, roping and taking care of stock and winter feeding, writes Mather. The Gang, Coldstream, and many ranches in the Chilcotin had native cowboys riding herd over their animals. Cawston cared for and appreciated those who worked for him. He ate with them in the bunk house and made sure the cook served up heaping plates of the best grub available.

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In 1883, when an epidemic of small pox raged through B.C., Cawston received vaccine from the government to vaccinate native people of the Simikameen and South Okanagan, writes Mather.

“When he realized there was not enough to go around, he improvised. He pushed a large number of pins through a whisky bottle cork, then stuck each one into the pox sore into someone already infected He then inserted the pin into a healthy arm transferring the infection and effectively vaccinating that person.”

The epidemic passed through the region and Cawston received $300 for his efforts.

Next week the tale of Takaya the timber wolf of Victoria.

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