Pack trains were a big part of pioneer life in British Columbia’s early history, and a new book by a Quesnel author focuses on one particularly well-known packer — Jean Caux, or Cataline.
Cataline: The Life of B.C.’s Legendary Packer by Susan Smith-Josephy and Irene Bjerky is now available. The book, which shares Cataline’s life though the words of his friends and family and those who chronicled the development of the province, is published by Caitlin Press.
In the early days of British Columbia, explorers, trappers, traders, miners, merchants, workers, and settlers relied on pack trains for the materials needed to live and work. Packers were also vital to the building of railways, roads, and telegraph lines. The most famous of all the men who ran the pack trains was Jean Caux, who would enter British Columbia’s history as the legendary packer “Cataline”.
He came to North America from southern France with his brother, eventually landing in B.C. in 1858. Having learned the trade from Mexican packers in California and Washington, Cataline established a pack train operation that grew to be one of the most well-known and reliable in the province, and he secured contracts with the government and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Throughout his career, Cataline witnessed many of the pioneering events that shaped the province, including the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858, the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1862, the coming of the railway to Ashcroft in 1886, and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to Hazelton in 1912.
Smith-Josephy lives in Quesnel, and she is a writer, researcher ,and genealogist. Her background makes writing local history books a perfect choice: she trained as a journalist at Langara College and has worked for a number of small-town newspapers in B.C., and has a history degree from Simon Fraser University.
Irene Bjerky has been interested in Jean Caux for a long time and has been researching her genealogical connection to him. Bjerky is a member of the Yale First Nation, and her great-great-grandmother was Amelia York, a well-known basket maker and mother to two of Cataline’s children. Bjerky lives in Yale and is a boilermaker and a former commercial fisher who is interested in her family’s and community’s history.
Smith-Josephy connected with Bjerky while she was doing research. “She had done quite a lot of research on her family, which has a connection to Cataline,” she says. “She was really helpful to me and really generous with her emails to me and explaining her family connections.”
This book comes from Smith-Josephy’s interest in, and passion for, local history.
“I read a lot of local history, B.C. and Canadian history,” she says. “Because we live in this area, I travel a lot up and down the back roads and enjoy the scenery and imagine what it was like in the old days.”
Reading articles and books about B.C. history, Smith-Josephy kept coming across mentions of Cataline, and she thought she would like to read about him, so she tried to find a book about him and discovered there were none. She started gathering information, and spent about eight years off and on researching Cataline and working on the book.
“What happened is I had so much information and the document was so huge that I put it aside because I thought ‘I don’t know how to cull this down,’” she says. “I kept coming back to it. I hired a really good editor who focused it down.
“I just hope people like it, and I wrote the book for Cataline because I felt like he needed to be honoured. I hope he likes it.”
Smith-Josephy says what made Cataline well-known is the fact he ran pack trains for so long.
“He did it from the late 1850s to the 1910s,” she says. “Society changed in so many ways in those years. It’s interesting to see how he is when different things are occurring, such as the gold rush, railroads, telegraph lines, and other social aspects.”
Smith-Josephy’s first book was about Lillian Alling, a European immigrant who was living in New York and wanted to go home, so decided to walk. She sees quite a few similarities in the subjects of the two books.
“From 1926 to 1929, [Lillian Alling] walked from New York to Ontario and across Canada and up to Alaska — it’s sort of the same feeling, a slow drift across landscape,” she says. “That’s the way I feel about Cataline … both of the characters, it’s slow and steady movement across a large area in a large amount of time. Although they were with other people, they were both solitary. They didn’t know what they were doing was extraordinary at all — they didn’t feel that. Both were very, I think, eccentric people, unique and well-liked in the retrospect of history.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected plans for promoting the release of Cataline, but Smith-Josephy thinks she’ll do everything she was going to this year, such as book signings and an event as part of the Quesnel Museum Heritage Speakers series, next year. She had also planned to visit independent bookstores up and down Highway 97, such as in Williams Lake and 100 Mile House, to promote her book, and she says she will probably do this next year as well.
Smith-Josephy hopes people who want to get a copy of Cataline will purchase it at a local, independent bookstore, like Books and Company in Quesnel, if they can. The book is also available online through the Caitlin Press website (https://caitlin-press.com/).
She also hopes people enjoy her new book and become interested in the area’s history.
“I hope when people are on the back roads of B.C. and even the highways … that they get a feeling for him or a feeling of how it was,” she says. “You can just look at the dry landscape of Ashcroft, Clinton, and Cache Creek, and you can feel they were there. You can get a feel for people’s influence on the land and the way they moved through it.”
Smith-Josephy is grateful to all the museums and archives she visited, anybody who helped her with questions while she was researching, and people who read her writing and offered constructive criticism, and she thanks Irene Bjerky, Caitlin Press, and her editor, Betty Keller.
“So many people were so generous,” she says. “Good museums and archives are so important. Please visit them when we can. And thanks to local bookstores who carry local history.”