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Why Kelowna gets credit for first European settlement in Okanagan

This 1847 map shows the first European settlement, St. Joseph's Mission in the Okanagan, which was established, but abandoned, in Sumlmerland well before the Father Pandosy Mission in Kelowna in 1859.
Image Credit: Submitted/Jesuits/Aaron Arrowsmith map makers

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since its original publication March 3, this story has triggered debate between historians about the authenticity of the map used and the location of the St. Joseph's Mission. It may not be reliable as fact. See this follow-up story — Location of Okanagan’s first European settlement sparking conflict between historians — for more details. While the source of this story is in doubt, the story remains here and is filed under corrections as an acknowledgment of error.


Father Pandosy and Father Pierre Richard were sent by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Mission in 1859 to establish the first non-Native settlement in the Okanagan Valley in order to "preach the gospel to the poor."

So said as a City of Kelowna website about the Mission, a sentiment echoed on a number of other websites.

“Missionaries built the first settlement at the head of Okanagan Lake in about 1840 and near Kelowna in 1859,” the Canadian Encyclopedia said.

Both of those statements, according to Summerland historian David Gregory, have it wrong.

That honour properly goes to Father Joseph Nobili who founded the St. Joseph Mission on the shore of Garnett Lake in what is now Summerland in 1845, a good 12 years earlier.

It was a short-lived mission and almost didn’t happen but a Jesuit map dated 1847 clearly shows the mission’s existence long before Pandosy arrived on the other side of the lake.

“Giovanni Pietro Antonio Nobili was a Roman Catholic priest, Jesuit and missionary,” said the Kelowna Canadian Italian Club website. “On August 9, 1845, by agreement between Grand Chief Nicola and Father Nobili, a settlement was founded at Nicola Prairie.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia account is mistaken because Nobili wrote about Nicola Prairie, which some misinterpreted as being “the head of Okanagan Lake,” historian Gregory, who has read Notili's letters, said.

Nobili was born in Rome in 1812 and taught in Jesuit colleges in Italy before taking on the missionary role in North America, arriving in Summerland in 1845.

“This guy was a scholar,” Gregory said. “He published articles on physics and mathematics when he was in Rome and he was really an academic. But, in terms of the outdoors stuff – totally useless. He didn’t know how to swim or anything. So, they had to be careful. The Indigenous people had to look after him because he had no clue.”

The selection of the Garnett Lake site was no fluke.

It was along a Syilx trail that had been in existence for up to 6,000 years and became known as the Fur Brigade Trail. The first European to set foot in the Okanagan was Scottish fur trader David Stuart in the summer of 1811 where he, also, was met by Chief Nicola.

“When the Jesuit priest came to this spot, he didn’t just go to an abandoned piece of property,” Gregory said. “He went to an Indigenous village. He was invited to create his mission at this Indigenous village and this was Grand Chief Nicola’s village.”

READ MORE: The true story of Grand Chief Nicola, told by his descendant

But the agreement came, initially, with some conditions.

“He agreed to settle with Chief Nicola provided Chief Nicola drops all his wives – he had 16 wives,” Gregory said. “The deal was: ‘You drop all your wives except one and I’ll settle in Summerland.’ Nobili was here for about three years and he realized the reason Nicola had multiple wives was a way of peacemaking between the Indigenous nations. You marry the daughter of one Indigenous Chief to another chief, it’s a way of keeping the peace between the nations.

“The Jesuit priest realized that and in the end he said he dropped that condition because he realized multiple wives was a good way of maintaining the peace. It’s kind of cool that the Native chief was able to convince a Jesuit priest that the priest was wrong.”

During his stay, Nobili travelled as far north as what are now Prince George and Fort St. James but the 1847 map shows the only settlement in the Okanagan being in Summerland.

By 1848 there was a gold rush in California and the Jesuits were called away.

“When the Jesuits were going to abandon that mission, they wanted to make sure the Protestants didn’t get any of their stuff so they basically just destroyed the buildings,” Gregory said.

Times were different after Father Pandosy moved into Kelowna a decade later in 1859.

Even though the Kelowna missionaries moved on to Kamloops in 1885, the buildings remained and have been restored by the Okanagan Historical Society, who more accurately say that the Father Pandosy Mission was the first permanent European settlement in the Okanagan.

While Father Nobili did remove his buildings, the site remained as a stop along the Fur Brigade Trail and was referred to as Priest Camp.

In 1998, the District of Summerland opened the 50-acre Priest Camp Historic Park, but to Gregory’s chagrin it has never actually been zoned as parkland. To his mind, that means it stands at risk of being converted to other purposes.

“This was a long time ago, but I saw drawings of a potential subdivision up there,” Gregory, who is also a former mayor of Summerland, said.

READ MORE: Land acknowledgement? No, Okanagan bands want land back

When Nobili arrived, Nicola was surrounded by 80 bodyguards, which is indicative of how large and important the village was at the time if it could house that many bodyguards.

“The priest chose that site because it was an Indigenous village so it’s important to preserve that site because it’s a really important Indigenous site that should be protected,” Gregory said.

In 1849, Father Nobili founded the first Catholic college in California, the Kelowna Canadian Italian Club website said.

“While supervising construction in 1856 he stepped on a nail, contracted tetanus and died on March 1,” it said. “He is buried in the mission church, now the chapel of the University of Santa Clara.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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