Skip to content

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Isnardy family of Williams Lake

Amadee Isnardy was born in 1840 near Nice, France
The Chimney Creek House, built in 1875. The image is an original watercolour by Wilfred Wright. (Image submitted)

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

One of the oldest and most recognized names of the early European settlers in the Williams Lake area is that of the Isnardy family.

Amadee Isnardy was born in 1840 near Nice, France. When he was 14 years old, with dreams of becoming rich in North America, he and two of his four brothers stowed away aboard a ship headed for Mexico.

From there, he worked his way up to California, where that gold rush was just coming to an end. Over the next four years, he drifted ever northward, searching for the elusive metal.

By 1859, Amadee had arrived in British Columbia , and following the Harrison route to Lillooet, he decided to stay in that frontier town for a while. There, he operated a general store in the community. He also met, and eventually married, Julienne Willamatkwa, the daughter of the Chief of the local Stl’atl’imx First Nation. Early in 1862, the two of them decided to move further north, and set out for the Cariboo.

When they arrived in the Chimney Creek Valley, they decided to settle there. At the time, Chimney Creek was located on one of the main routes to the goldfields, and Amadee was very astute in realizing that a stopping house and a farm in this spot would realize a tidy profit. He pre-empted 314 acres on both sides of the trail and extending further up the lush valley, and he began clearing the land. He built a small sod-roofed log cabin where they lived until a more substantial dwelling could be constructed.

READ MORE: Quesnel Forks, a true relic of the gold rush

By 1864, Isnardy erected a two-storey roadhouse, located about a mile up the trail from the Fraser River. With a four-horse team, he also pulled in a smaller log building from further up the valley, setting it up beside the roadhouse to serve as a saloon. Both structures quickly became favourite stopping places for travellers and packers travelling to and from the goldfields. The roadhouse had five rooms upstairs above the Isnardy family living quarters, and there were another three noisy rental rooms above the saloon. The famous packer, Cataline, was a regular visitor whenever he passed through the area.

Gradually, the hard working Isnardy acquired more and more land up the valley along Chimney Creek. He hired 50 Chinese men at 50 cents each per day to dig a system of irrigation ditches. Some of these are still visible today alongside the Chimney Valley Road. Eventually the Isnardy holdings stretched all the way from the Fraser River up to Brunson Lake. That part of the land holdings was known as “The Dairy Ranch.” It had originally been pre-empted by Charles Bronson, an ex-freight hauler, who settled there to raise beef cattle and dairy cows. Somehow, the spelling of the lake named after him was changed over the years to Brunson.

On his land, Amadee Isnardy raised cattle, pigs, sheep, vegetables, grains and hay. There was a great demand in the goldfields for these commodities, and he prospered. In the mid 1870s he built a large frame house next to the old roadhouse. It became known as Chimney Creek House, and served as the family home and nerve centre of the huge ranching operation.

In the late 1880s, Amadee began a ferry boat operation across the Fraser River. The Chilcotin was beginning to open up, and year-round access to the west side of the river was becoming necessary. The ‘ferry’ was a six by 12 foot scow which was rowed back and forth across the river. To transport freight teams, the wagon was first unhitched and loaded into the boat, then the horses were led into the water and pulled by their halters to swim across the river behind the ferry.

Isnardy’s oldest son, Joe, took over the operation of the ferry, which in 1900 he sold to Murdock Ross an ex-teacher from Nova Scotia. Ross operated the ferry service until the first Sheep Creek Bridge opened in 1904.

Amadee and Julienne had eight children, two of whom died in childhood during a severe pneumonia/influenza outbreak in 1891. Julienne was a devout woman who often travelled up the trail and over the ridge to attend Sunday services at the St. Joseph’s Mission. The family home was a happy one, although strict and Catholic, and it was always filled with music.

Amadee died in 1907 at the age of 67. Julienne outlived him by another 11 years, passing away in 1918 at the age of 79. Both are buried at the St. Joseph’s Mission cemetery. Upon his death, Amadee’s estate was divided up among the six surviving offspring. Son Frank inherited the Brunson Lake property. Daughter Mathilda, who married William Pinchbeck’s son William Jr., was willed the property at the junction of Dog Creek Road and the Chimney Valley Road. This included the land on both sides of, and at the base of the hill that is now known as Pinchbeck Hill. William and Mathilda remained on this place until 1941, when William Jr. passed away.

Their son, Wilfred, continued to manage it, but the title remained in Mathilda’s name until it was sold to Ted Weetman Jr. in the early 1960s.

Amadee’s son Charlie was deeded the part of the ranch that we now call the Chimney Creek Estates. It was eventually subdivided and sold as five and 10-acre parcels of land.

Eldest daughter Hortense, who had married Pablo Tresierra, a former packer, received the Four Mile Creek property, also known as Pablo Creek. They had established a roadhouse and a ranch there and raised a large family. When Hortense, affectionately known as “Peavine Granny,” passed away in 1956, she was survived by eight children, 55 grandchildren, 101 great grandchildren and seven great great grandchildren, which may give the reader some idea how deep the connections of the Isnardys are in the community.

The remainder of Amadee’s estate went to his other two sons, Joe, who received a cash settlement, and Jimmy, who inherited the home ranch. That property included all the land stretching from the mouth of Chimney Creek halfway up the big hill descending into the valley, and southeast on both sides of the creek. Jimmy worked this ranch for about 20 years before selling it to John Edgar Moore, owner of the Onward Ranch in 1926. Moore sold the operation in 1939 to the Buckley Brothers, recent arrivals to Williams Lake. They did not keep it long, and sold out to a partnership of the Avery Brothers (Dr. Frank Avery, of Quesnel and Dr. Larry Avery of Santa Rosa, California), and local businessman and ex-fire chief, Sid Pigeon. The ranch was renamed the A and P Ranch, and the big hill down into the valley quite naturally became known as the A and P Hill.

The partners went into the potato growing business in a big way, and a large concrete semi-underground potato storage cellar was constructed, the remains of which can still be seen today along Highway 20. In 1952, this ranch was sold once again, this time to Pudge Moon of the Hillcrest Ranch at the top of Sheep Creek Hill. He kept it until 1956, when it was purchased by Bill and Beryl Stafford. It has remained in the Stafford family ever since.

Today, although there are many descendants of Amadee and Julienne Isnardy, only three of their grandchildren remain, Frank (Williams Lake), Olivia Bowser (Kamloops) and Geneva (Jennie) Porterfield (Merritt). There is no doubt that the story of this family is closely linked to the history of Williams Lake. In this article I have barely scratched the surface of the rich and memorable narrative of this family, which began with a young French teenager seeking riches in a new land and which has left an incredible legacy in our part of the Cariboo.

Information for this article was found in the writings of Branwen Patenaude and Irene Stangoe, as well as in the historical notes of Dr. John Roberts. Thanks also to Frank Isnardy for his assistance.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

Read more