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David Thompson, pathfinder, and the Columbia River Elliott, T. C. (Thompson Coit), 1862-1943 1911

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 David Thompson, Pathfinder 
and the Columbia River 
Member of American Historical Association 
and of Oregon Historical Society 
The Scimitar Press 
Kettle Falls, Wash, 
and the Columbia River

An address given at the Annual Meeting of the Pioneer Association of Stevens County,
at Kettle Falls, Washington, June 23,  1911.
This annivft^ary year on the Columbia has special significance to those
residing along its upper courses as well as to those at its mouth, and it is well
worth while for the people of Kettle Falls and vicinity to rehearse the career
and honor the name of the first man of the white races who explored and made
permanent record of the sources of this magnificent stream, and who was the first
to traverse its entire length from source to mouth. Strangely enough the work
of this really great and notable man is just coming to public prominence, particularly so an account of his achievements in the basin of the Columbia; even the
historians of our river have failed to award him much more than passing notice.
Brief mention only is possible within the limits of this address; and let it first be
stated that one of the few geographical points to which the name of this man,
David Thompson, was once attached (by himself or by some of his associates)
—the only locality in fact ever so designated on the main course of the Columbia—is the stretch of rapids a few miles below these Falls and now locally
known as Ricky Rapids in recognition of your pioneer settler, Mr. John Ricky.
On the early maps used by the Hudson's Bay Company these rapids were
noted as the Thompson Rapids, doubtless because of some incident as yet
unknown to us.
Our interest in anyone is always enlivened by his likeness or some bit of
writing from his hand. Something of what David Thompson wrrote in his journal
(now to be seen at Toronto, Canada) and thus actually recorded while here
at Kettle Falls one hundred years ago this very week will serve as an introduction to him personally. His journal reads: "June 29th, 1811, Saturday,
very fine day but cloudy.    Finished the canoe to one board in each side.
All the timbers of the other canoe got burnt by neglect. . . The
Indians speared six salmon, they gave us two.    They carry the aversion they 2 T. C. ELLIOTT
know the salmon to have to the taste of the water in which men and animals
and especially salmon have been washed to superstition. They did (not) begin
spearing till near noon, as the spearer had seen the bearer of a deaths head boy
since dead; to have speared fish with such uncjean eyes would driven all the
salmon away and he pacified himself with a decoction of the scraped bark of
the red hem(lock); thus cleaned he proceeded to work. The salmon are about
15 to 25 to 30 pounds weight here, well tasted, but they have cut all their
feet retaining all their meat; their flesh is red and extremely well made. June
30th, Sunday, a fine cloudy day, in the afternoon slight rain. They speared
eleven salmon, gave us three, one is a fine one. Finished the boards of the
canoe, rested the rest of the day. July 1 st, Monday, a very fine day. Men
went for gum which they gathered and made and gummed a very small part
of the canoe. One salmon. Engaged Billaris as hunter etc. Sent off the
balance to Juco. Gave the horses to the care of the Chief here and killed
one for food. July 2nd, Tuesday, very fine day, gummed the canoe and arranged many little affairs."
The following day he started down the Columbia in this one canoe with
seven companions of French and Indian blood on that first journey of a white
man from Ilth-koy-ape, as the Indians called these Falls, to the ocean. The
night of the 5 th found them encamped some distance below the mouth of the
Okanogan river, on the 9th they were a little way above the mouth of the
Snake or Lewis river, and on the 14th or 16th arrived at Fort Astoria, there
to be greeted by Duncan McDougall and other former associates of Mr.
Thompson in the Northwest Company, but then partners and managers in the
Pacific Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. These people had arrived in the
Columbia by sea during the month of April, preceding.
You ask how did David Thompson arrive at Kettle Falls in June, 1811,
and whether by chance or design. He came on horseback from Spokane
House, a trading post or fort then already established, erected the previous year
at the junction of the little Spokane with the main Spokane river by one of his
men, presumably Finan Macdonald. This seems a little early to find the name
Spokane in written form, but so it appears; "Skeetshoo" was the designation
given by David Thompson to the Spokane river and to the lake later known
as the Coeur d' Alene.
He had reached Spokane House by the "Skeetshoo road'* or trail from
the Kullyspell (Pend d* Oreille) river and tribe. The Kullyspell (or Saleesh)
river and lake were already familiar to him through several months spent in ex- DAVID THOMPSON, PATHFINDER 3
ploring and trading there during 1809-10 and the establishment of two trading
posts, one near to the Thompson Falls, Montana, of the present day. To the
Saleesh he had come by the "Kullyspell Lake Indian Road" from the Kootenay
river, where he left the canoes used in descending the Kootenay from a point
in British Columbia opposite to the waters of the Upper Columbia Lake and
distant from that lake not more than three miles across the low divide since
known as Canal Flat but to him as McGillivray's Portgage. This portgage
he had reached by canoes up the Columbia from Canoe river at the extreme
bend of the river in British Columbia, so named by himself because of his enforced encampment there from January until April of this same year 1811 in
preparation for his "sortie" to the mouth of the Columbia. The occasion for
this "sortie" was the permission given to him and the instructions received from
his partners of the Northwest Company at their annual meeting at Fort William
on Lake Superior in the summer of 1810, for the Northwesters had declined
to join with Mr. Astor in the enterprise to occupy the month of the Columbia
and expected to develop the Indian trade there on their own account, as they
afterward did.
But let me revert to David Thompson's own records. He was at Astoria
on the 1 5th of July and from there visited Cape Disappointment at the mouth
of the river, but at once started up river again, for his journal reads: "August
8th, 1811, Chapaton River, at noon, latitude *fr8k degrees ?fr minutes Z^sec-
onds north, longitude m^ degrees ttL^ minutes r^-seconds west. Laid up
our canoe." The Chapaton (Shahaptin) was the Snake riv*r and this entry
shows him to have been at the mouth of the Palouse river, a well known
camping place for the Nez Perces Indians; from whence the party took to the
hurricane decks of as many Nez Perces horses and followed the well established Indian trail to the Spokane (Aug. 18th) and thence to Kettle Falls again
(Aug. 23rd). By the third of September he was again prepared with canoe
and provisions and proceeded up the Columbia, through the Arrow Lakes and
the Dalles des Mort to Boat Encampment on Canoe river, and from there
crossed the Rocky Mountains again to the Athabasca in October.
I mention the details af the career of David Thompson in the year 1811
because these facts are not yet familiar to the residents of our Columbia river
region, because they are pertinent to our anniversary season, and because their
narration serves to reveal to us the traits individual to the man. At the age of
forty-one years David Thompson thus traversed every reach of this magnificent
river from source to mouth, a physical achievement for a man even at th® 4 T. C. ELLIOTT
present day; but more than a mere physical achievement by him because his
record gave first to the world its knowledge of the long sought for source and
windings of this river, as a few years previous he had been the first to discover
and mark the real source of the mighty Mississippi river.
David Thompson was a "goer." If anything further is needed to indicate
this let it be said that during the last days of April, 1810, he was at Pend d*
Oreille lake of Northern Idaho, and in July of the same year was at the Rainy
Lakes near Lake Superior (and probably at Fort William) and on the 6th of
September of the same year was again near the head waters of the Saskatchewan preparing to cross the divide onto the Columbia to complete his journey
to its mouth and establish the rights of the "Northwesters" on the entire river.
He journeyed to the Rainy Lakes because he had an appointment to keep
there with his partners, and he hurried back again because he had a duty to
perform for his Company and for his Country. Those were not yet the days
of fees to porters in Pullman cars or even of the Rocky Mountain stage coach,
but time and distance yielded to the energy and endurance of such men as the
fur traders.
David Thompson was possessed of great physical courage and ability to
lead men. You or I would hesitate to cross the Rocky Mountains on foot after
the winter begins, but let me quote from "The Journals of Alex. Henry and
David Thompson** (including Dr. Coues' admirable notes) a resume of the story
of his terrible journey across he continental divide in mid-winter; prefacing with
the explanation that provisions were very low that fall of 1810 at the few fur
trading establishments on the Saskatchewan and that owing to sudden hostility
of Piegan Indians the mountain pass used in 1807-8 and 9 was closed to Mr.
Thompson then and he was compelled to seek an entirely new and unknown
one. "Nov. 7th, 1810. At 1 1 a. m. Pichette and Pierre arrived . . .
from Mr. Thompson's camp. They left him on Panbian river, with all his
property, on his way to the Columbia, cutting his road through a wretched,
thick, woody country, over mountains and gloomy muskagues and nearly starving, animals being very scarce in that quarter. His hunter . . could only
find a chance wood buffalo on which to subsist; when that failed they had to
recourse to what flour and other douceurs Mr. Thompson had—in fact the
case is pitiful. . . . On Dec. 5 th, 1810 Thompson had reached a point
on Athabasca river which he gives as Lat. . . . From this place he dispatched men to Mr. Henry at Rocky Mountain House asking for pemmican
and supplies.    .    .    .     He was in dire extremeties, and his men were disaf-
fected to the verge of mutiny by the sufferings they shared with him.    On the
fl 15th the thermometer was minus 30 degrees.     .     .    .     On Saturday, the
29th, thermometer 31 below he started.     .      .      .      On New Years Day
1811, thermometer minus 24 degrees, the dogs were unable to move their
loads, a cache was made, . . . Thompson struggled on, with ever-increasing difficulty and danger; but there was no alternative. Jan. 4th, he came
to a bold defile whence issued the main Athabasca river, 'the canoe road to
pass to the west side of the Mountains.' . . . Jan. 8th, the brook still
seemingly the main stream dwindling away; Mountains, about 1 mile apart,
2000 to 3000 feet high . . . Thursday, Jan. 10th, crossed the Height
of Land. Jan. 1 1 th held DOWN a brook. . . . Jan. 1 3th, sent back
to Height of Land for some things left there, but wolverines had destroyed
everything except 5 lbs. of balls. Jan. 14th, dogs could no longer haul their
loads, owing to depth and softness of the snow; reduced all baggage to a weight
of about three and one-half pieces, and abandoned everything not absolutely
necessary, including his tent, courage of the men fast sinking. Jan. 15 th
sighted mountains on other side of the Columbia. . . . Jan 21 st, down
to the Columbia.    Jan. 22nd, down the Columbia 1 m. to a bold brook and
1 and |/2 m. to a cedar point. F. d. P. men dispirited, 'useless as old women*
determined to return to Canoe river and wait for men, goods and
provisions and build canoes." So we see that even ih these desperate circumstances he was ready to proceed, and had he been able to cross the mountains by the Howse Pass in September or October 1810 in all probability
would have pushed on down the Columbia to its mouth during the winter and
anticipated the Astor party in actual occupancy. Failing in the effort he proceeded more slowly.
Courage and ability to endure hardships were but common attributes to
the fur trader, but ability to observe intelligently and record with continual
care the daily events and experiences, and the habits and names of the Indian
tribes and localities was not so common. David Thompson kept his note
book or journal under all conditions of weather or travel, and made record of
the daily camping places in scientific terms and with such exactness that these
localities can be checked today with scarce a variation. His instruments were
small, only such as were held in the hand, but his observations were accurate.
A prominent engineer and scholar of Canada has had occasion to follow many
of the routes of travel and gives testimony to this fact. And this ability and habit
were not based upon the diploma of any school or institute of learning, not at 6 T. C. ELLIOTT
all. At the age of seven years and a poor boy David Thompson had been
placed by his father in a charity school in London, and remained there seven
years learning all that was taught, which included a little of navigation, and
reading all that came in his way, for he was an omniverous reader. When
about fourteen years old (about 1 783) the Hudson's Bay Company applied for
a suitable boy to enter their service and he was then apprenticed to that Company for a period of seven years, and began life in the fur trade along the bleak
shores of Hudson's Bay. His companionships were improved to the utmost,
and a spirit of ambition inspired him to outdo his associates. His love for exploration was influenced perhaps by the travels of Samuel Hearne, who was
one of the officers over him. Considering himself held back by the ultra commercialism of the Hudson's Bay Company after due time he turned to their
more enterprising competitors, the Northwest Company of Merchants of Canada,
with headquarters at Montreal, and became a Northwester. As such he was
chosen, after some years, to push the trade across the continental divide further
south than Peace river, where Simon Fraser crossed over, and thus it fell to
him to find the sources of the long looked for "river of the west" which both
Alex. Mackenzie and Simon Fraser had hoped to find before him.
Let it not be supposed that the Northwest Company of Merchants of
Canada were at all ignorant of the goings and comings of the Lewis and Clark
party in 1805-6. Those very same years Simon Fraser (and McLeod) penetrated to the waters of the river afterward named in his honor, and in the
month of June of 1807 David Thompson descended the western slope ofthe
Rocky Mountains by way of the pass at the head of the Saskatchewan river,
which pass was afterward generously named in honor of a rival trader in the
Hudson's Bay Company. The winters of 1807-8 and 1808-9 were both
spent at the trading house built by him in July 1807, on the lower of the two
lakes forming the source of the main Columbia; but explorations down the
Kootenay river and a journey back to Fort William to meet his partners engaged his time. In the summer of 1809 he pushed across the Indian road
southward from the Kootenay to the Kullyspell (Pend d* Oreille) lake, explored both the lake and rivers below and above it, and spent that winter
(1809-10) at a trading house (already mentioned) established near the Flat
Head Indians of Montana; but all the time was gathering information from the
Indians as to the courses of the streams flowing to the ocean, and his men
were extending their trade and acquaintance with the country during his absence.
But the entries in David Thompson's journal tell of more than courage, DAVID THOMPSON, PATHFINDER 7
endurance, intelligence and care; they show that he was a devout man. His
common expressions "thank God" and "thank Heaven" were sincere outbursts
of a spiritual nature and not mere habitual repetitions. That season of 1811
at midsummer he had an important mission to perform and unknowrn miles to
travel, and yet on Sunday here at Kettle Falls he rested. Five years afterward he was engaged under appointment from the British Government in the
important work of directing the survey and establishment of the boundary line
between the United States and Canada from Maine to the Lake of the Woods.
While thus engaged an associate observed and afterward remarked the following; "Mr. Thompson was a firm Churchman, while most of our men were
Roman Catholics. Many a time have I seen these uneducated Canadians
most attentively and thankfully listen, as they sat upon some bank of shingle, to
Mr. Thompson, while he read to them in most extraordinary pronounced
French three chapters out of the Old Testament and as many out of the New,
adding such explanations as seemed to him suitable."
The same individual thus describes Mr. Thompson physically; "A singular
looking person of about fifty. He was plainly dressed, quiet and observant.
His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all around,
and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears just above the eyebrows. His
complexion was of the gardiner's ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply furrowed features were friendly and intelligent, but his cut short nose gave
him an odd look. His speech betrayed the Welchman. No living person
possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson's Bay countries, which
from 1793 GO to 1820 he was constantly traversing. Nevermind his Buny on-
like face and cropped hair; he has a powerful mind and a singular faculty of
picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with howiing savages, or climb the Rocky mountains with you in a snowstorm, so clearly and
palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel
the snow-flakes on your cheeks as he talks." This quotation is from an address delivered recently before the Royal Geographical Society of London by
the eminent engineer already mentioned, Mr. J. B. Tyrell, to whose personal
research and interest the world is chiefly indebted for its growing knowledge
of David Thompson.
Hurrying down the Columbia in July, 1811, David Thompson landed at
a large Indian encampment near to where you are now accustomed to "keep
your eye on Pasco" and erected there a pole with this written notice upon it:
"Know hereby that this country is claimed by Great Britain as part of its ter- 8 T. C. ELLIOTT
ritories, and that the Northwest Company of Merchants from Canada finding
the factory of this people inconvenient to them do hereby intend to erect a
factory in this place for the Commerce of the Country around."
Intelligent students of American history today candidly admit that the American diplomats did exceedingly well in finally placing the line of the Canadian
boundary at the 49 th parallel of North Latitude, and agree that the work of
David Thompson gave a considerable degree of fairness to the British demand
for that boundary to follow the line of the Columbia River south from the 49th
parallel, which is the most Great Britain ever seriously claimed. And wre of the
Republic may well be thankful that those pesky Indians of the Saskatchewan
in the early fall of 1810 hindered David Thompson from crossing the "height
of land" and thus from coming down the Columbia that year and actually occupying the mouth of the Columbia in advance of the Astor party.
During the final stages of the negotiation for the settlement of the international boundary with Great Britain, between 1842 and 1846, David Thompson, then about seventy-five years old, wrote several letters to the officials of his
government emphasizing the extent and value of this wonderful Columbia River
country and "relating the services he had performed here. These letters are
now on file in the Public Records Office at London and they are the plea of
an old and forgotten man for recognition; for in sorrow be it said the last years
of his life were spent in poverty and perhaps at times in distress. His death
occured at Longueil, near Montreal, in the year 1857 during his eighty-seventh
year. The families of the Merchants of Canada who had grown wealthy
through the fur trade forgot him in his failing years, and the government had
no time to listen to his story.
That other grand man of the Columbia, Doctor John McLoughlin, during that same year 185 7 died at Oregon City, Oregon, under similar circumstances of distress of mind. The people he had befriended became forgetful
and even sought to despoil him. But during these anniversary years these men
are coming to their own in the memory of the generations of the present, and
these two names, David Thompson and John McLoughlin, will be placed first
among others of the early history of the Columbia River.
Ilth-koy-ape is the more appropriate and musical name for this beautiful
and romantic part of this magnificent river, but the French-Canadian voyageurs
and employes came to term these Falls LaChaudiere, in recollection of similar
formations in the rocks of the falls on the Ottawa River, and that name came
in turn to be translated into its English meaning.     The first line of direct com- DAVID THOMPSON, PATHFINDER 9
munication, trade and travel across the continent of North America (Mexico excepted) passed up and down the Columbia River and for a period of thirty years
and more was used as such, with the portage at Kettle Falls affording one of
the most important supply and resting stations. We do well to honor the career
and name of the man who discovered, explored, made known and opened this
highway of communication, David Thompson, who loved his work and did it
well, and who is proclaimed by Mr. Tyrrell as the greatest land geographer
the British race has ever produced.   


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