Packer, rancher & Hall of Famer
Jesus Garcia was part of the first wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants to travel from the California gold fields to the gravel bars of the Fraser River during the early 1860s.
Born in Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, Mexico in 1832, Jesus Garcia left his home at 13 to pursue his fortune in California, which at the time was still part of the Republic of Mexico. On arrival, he met up with Blais Leon, and the two soon developed a lifelong friendship.
Garcia quickly found work as a packer in charge of a 20-mule outfit that hauled ore from a silver mine to a smelter, and when volume increased, he hired Leon as his helper. They worked together in California for the next four years before whispers of gold in the north encouraged them to move on. Garcia and Leon, as well as a number of other Spanish-speaking men, including the legendary Cataline, helped form the transportation system that made the gold rush possible.
On arrival in Yale, B.C., Garcia was hired by Raphael Carranzo to work in his packing outfit. Soon Garcia was making packing trips through the Cariboo. After two years, Garcia bought half the pack train from Carranzo and went into business for himself. Each fall, he and other packers in the area brought their pack trains into the Nicola Valley for the winter in the area that is now known as Hamilton Hill.
Garcia, along with compatriots Raphael Carranzo, Antonio Godey, Pancho Guiterrez, Pedro Ateago, Joseph Castillou, Blais Leon and Jesus Silva were among the first Spanish-speaking people who spent their winters pasturing their pack animals in the Nicola Valley. To survive the harsh winter conditions, they were often forced to build their huts partially underground.
While they were afforded the right of citizenship, the Spanish-speaking population was considered different by the white majority. Unlike the native population, they were given the right to vote. However, for census purposes, they were counted within a different racial bracket — grouped separately from whites, Asians and Natives.
Regardless of any discrimination he may have faced, Garcia was soon to become one of the most prominent and respected packers, then ranchers in the area.
Garcia married a local Nlaka’pamux First Nation woman, Kroventko, daughter of Humsinna, a chief at Spuzzum. After marrying Garcia she became known by her English name — Mary.
By 1871, Garcia had decided to settle in the Nicola Valley, building a cabin near the old powerhouse (May Street) by Coldwater River. After selling his packing outfit in Yale, Garcia sent for his wife, Mary Kroventko Garcia, and children.
Son Frank Garcia, five or six at the time, recalled the move: “Father decided to stay in the Nicola Valley. He sold his pack train and from Yale, he brought his family. It took us three days on the trip to Nicomen (Thompson’s Siding); Mother carrying our youngest sister in her arms on horseback. From Nicomen, we rode over the mountains and arrived at a point known as Dot. We camped there with a man named Johnny DuVal. Next day we arrived where Merritt now stands.”
With the death of Leon in 1877, Garcia got back into packing after buying his deceased friend’s cattle and pack train at a public auction. He returned to packing during the summers for two years before giving it up for a final time to devote his efforts to ranching.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Garcia built a large family home near the present site of the River Ranch buildings. Records state that it “was a busy place… Jesus and his wife Mary often played host to large groups of grandchildren.”
In 1907, the Garcia home was destroyed by fire but was quickly rebuilt. “A mansion by standards of that time,” the Garcia home stood until 1964 when it was torn down by Garthwaite, of the Rey Creek Ranch, the owners of the original Garcia pre-emption at that time (pre-emption was a method of acquiring provincial Crown land by claiming it for settlement and agricultural purposes).
A staunch Catholic, remembered by Father LeJeune in 1923 as “the father of Catholicism in the Valley” because of his devotion to the church, Garcia donated an acre lot to Father LeJeune in 1909. (The lot is where the senior citizens hall rests today, a half a block away from busy Garcia Street.)
In addition to cattle, Garcia also tried his luck with coal. He was involved in several coal deals over a 20-year period, ending when he sold his rights to the Diamond Vale Coal Company in 1905.
After suffering many years of rheumatism and arthritis, Garcia died in 1916 and was buried in the Coldwater Cemetery. He left an estate estimated at $100,000 that included several thousand acres of land that stretched from Aspen Grove to Mamit Lake. The estate provided each of his children with a source of income for many years.
Jesus Garcia was survived by his wife, Mary, who later died in 1932 and is buried alongside her husband on the Coldwater Reserve. There were 14 children born to them, five of whom were alive when Garcia died: Mary, Eleanor, Sarah, Frank and Johnny. Many descendants of Jesus and Mary still live in the Merritt area.
In 2011, Jesus Garcia was inducted into the B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame.