O’KEEFE, CORNELIUS, rancher, postmaster, jp, and businessman; b. 26 July 1838 near present-day Fallowfield, Ont., son of Michael O’Keefe and Esther Demers; d. 27 May 1919 near Vernon, B.C.
Cornelius O’Keefe was the seventh child of a farmer from County Cork (Republic of Ireland) and his French Canadian wife. He was raised on the family farm in Nepean Township, Upper Canada, and received his basic education locally. In 1862, having heard of the discovery of gold in British Columbia, he travelled west via the Isthmus of Panama. After an unsuccessful attempt at gold-mining in the Cariboo, he worked in 1862 on the construction of the Cariboo Road between Clinton and Bridge Creek under Gustavus Blinn Wright*. Later he helped to build 115 Mile House at Lac la Hache.
In 1866 O’Keefe met Thomas Wood, a native of Newfoundland, in the vicinity of Kamloops, where Wood had wintered a herd of cattle. The two men went into partnership, first driving the cattle to the Big Bend gold area of the Columbia River and then going overland to the Willamette valley in Oregon, where they purchased a herd of about 180 head. Subsequently they met Thomas Greenhow, an Englishman, who also became a partner, and returned with him through Washington Territory and the Okanagan valley. Arriving at the head of Okanagan Lake in June 1867, the three men each pre-empted 160 acres of bottom land.
By 1871 Wood had relocated his ranch. O’Keefe and Greenhow remained in partnership, establishing a small general store to serve the native people and the few settlers in the north Okanagan. In 1872 this store became the home of the valley’s first post office; O’Keefe would serve as postmaster until 1912. Located at the end of the wagon road into the Okanagan, the post office also became the terminus of the British Columbia Stage Line.
Sometime after his arrival O’Keefe had formed a liaison with an Okanagan woman, Rosie, from the nearby Head of the Lake band. They would have two children, a boy and a girl. This relationship not only improved O’Keefe’s domestic circumstances, but also established an alliance with the Okanagan. The alliance was to be strained in 1873 when O’Keefe filed an additional pre-emption on land claimed by the Okanagan but exempted from the reserve boundaries established in 1865. The disputed land would be granted to the natives after a lengthy negotiation.
The 1870s were a time of dwindling markets for the cattlemen of the British Columbia interior. O’Keefe and Greenhow were content to build up their herds and use the income from their store and post office, and from a newly constructed grist mill, to purchase additional lands. By 1876 O’Keefe owned 960 acres of prime Okanagan bottom land with good access to water.
O’Keefe returned to Nepean Township in 1877 and married Mary Ann McKenna in Fallowfield on 20 November. They were to have five sons and four daughters over the next 16 years. During that time O’Keefe’s fortunes improved dramatically. The depression that had followed the gold-rush was lifted by the economic activity resulting from the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1880s. For ranchers like O’Keefe, living near the line of construction, there was a ready market for beef and other goods. With the completion of the CPR, interior ranches gained access to new markets in coastal British Columbia and in southern Alberta, where livestock were in demand for foundation herds.
The O’Keefe Ranch, which by the mid 1890s had reached about 12,000 acres, raised cattle and sheep and had large acreages in wheat. But the successful growing of fruit in the Okanagan valley placed increasing pressure on the large cattle ranchers to sell their lands for settlement. This, coupled with a falling off of the beef market in the late 1890s and the overgrazing of pasture lands, brought about the end of large-scale ranching in the Okanagan. O’Keefe was one of the last to sell. Having previously subdivided and sold about 3,000 acres, he disposed of most of his remaining holdings in 1907 to the Land and Agricultural Company of Canada.
Mary Ann O’Keefe had died in 1899, leaving O’Keefe, at the age of 63, with eight surviving children. He returned to Fallowfield and, on 8 Jan. 1900, married Elizabeth Theresa Tierney. The couple would have three sons and three daughters, the last child born when Cornelius was 76. After 1907 O’Keefe invested in town lots in Vernon and constructed theatres there and in Kamloops. A justice of the peace, he also served as director of the British Columbia Cattle Association, director of the Okanagan and Spallumcheen Agricultural Society, and president of the Vernon Jockey Club. He was active in the Conservative party and in 1911 was elected honorary president of the Vernon Conservative Association. He lived until his death in his lovely ranch house, which remained in the family’s hands until 1977 and is preserved today as a historic site.
BCARS, GR 1999, 1876, vol.1; 1879, vol.1 (mfm.). Greater Vernon Museum and Arch. (Vernon, B.C.), Photograph files. Historic O’Keefe Ranch Arch. (Vernon), O’Keefe papers (mfm. in BCARS, Add. mss 1890). NA, RG 10, 3663, file 9801; RG 31, C1, 1851, Nepean Township, [Ont.]. St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church (Fallowfield, Ont.), RBMB, 20 Nov. 1877, 8 Jan. 1900 (mfm. at NA). Inland Sentinel (Kamloops, B.C.), 12 Dec. 1889. Vernon News, 18 June, 8 Oct. 1891; 12 April 1894; 21 Aug. 1896; 12 May 1904; 2 Feb. 1911; 29 May 1919. Peter Carstens, The queen’s people: a study of hegemony, coercion, and accommodation among the Okanagan of Canada (Toronto, 1991). Stan McLean, The history of the O’Keefe Ranch (Edmonton, 1984). M. A. Ormsby, “A study of the Okanagan valley of British Columbia” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1931).
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