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David Thompson, pathfinder, and the Columbia River Elliott, T. C. (Thompson Coit), 1862-1943 1925

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Array David Thompson, Pathfinder 
and the Columbia River 
Member of American Historical Association 
and of Oregon Historical Society 
Koke-Tiffany Co. 
Eugene, Ore. 
and the Columbia River 
By T. C. Elliott
This anniversary 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 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 a 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 like-
*This paper was published in Vol. XII of the Oregon Historical
Quarterly. Since then the writer has had access to photostat copy of the
note books of David Thompson and has been able to correct some minor
errors in words and figures of the text as then printed; also to correct
a few of his own statements of fact. The call for data concerning David
Thompson has become so frequent that it seems desirable to offer the
entire paper, as corrected, for republication.—T. C. Elliott. 2 T. C. Elliott
ness or some bit of writing from his hand. Something of
what David Thompson wrote 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 29 Saturday A very fine day—but cloudy—finished the Canoe to 1 Board in each Side &c—All the Timber of the other Canoe got burnt by neglect.   Paquia &
2 Indians come from Jaco. they bring the sad news of
the death of Dejarlaix. his Wife and 4 Children, also of
the same of Paquia's Wife and Child by Water in a Rapid
of the Saleesh River with all their Property, only Paquia
and themselves escaped—the Indians speared 6 Salmon,
they gave us 2 do. they carry the aversion they know the
Salmon to have to the taste of the Water in which Men, &
Animals, & especially the Salmon themselves have been
washed to Superstition, they did (not) begin spearing
'till near Noon, as the Spearer had seen the Bones of a
Dog's Head long since dead, to have speared fish with
such unclean Eyes would have driven all the Salmon
away, & he purified himself with a decoction of the
scraped Bark of the Red Thorn, thus cleansed he proceeded to work—the Salmon are about 15 to 25 to 30 lbs.
weight here, well tasted, but have lost all their fat, retaining still all their Meat, their flesh is red and extremely well made.
June 80th Sunday A fine cool, cloudy day, in the afternoon begins Rain—they speared 11 Salmon, gave us
3 do. one a very fine do. finished the Boards of the Canoe
and rested the rest of the Day.
July 1 Monday A very fine day—Men went for Gum,
which they gathered and made and gummed a very small
part of the Canoe I Salmon, engaged Bellaire as Hunter &c—Sent Vallade to Jaco—Gave the Horses to the
care of the Chief here—& killed one for Food. David Thompson 3
July 2 Tuesday A very fine day—gummed the Canoe
arranged many little affairs &c.
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 5th found them encamped some
distance below the mouth of the Okanogan River, and on
the 9th they were a little way above the mouth of the
Snake or Lewis river, and on the 15th arrived at Fort
Astoria, there to be greeted by Duncan McDougall and
other former associates of Mr. Thompson in the North-
West 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, Jaco Finlay or Finan
MacDonald. This seems a little too early to find the name
Spokane written in 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
He had reached Spokane House by the "Kullyspell
road" or trail from the Kullyspell (Pend d' Oreille) river
and tribe. The Kullyspell river and lake were already
familiar to him through several months spent in exploring 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 Clark Fork or
Saleesh River he had come by the "Kootenay Indian Road"
from the Kootenay River, where he left the canoes used
in descending the Kootenay from a point in British Co- 4 T. C. Elliott
lumbia 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 Portage. This portage 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 voyage to the mouth of the Columbia.
The occasion for this was the permission given him and
the instructions received from his partners of the North-
West Company at their annual meeting at Fort William
on Lake Superior in the summer of 1810, for the North-
Westers had declined to join with Mr. Astor in the enterprise to occupy the mouth 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 15th of July and from there
visited Chinook Point near the mouth of the river, but
at once started up river again, for his journal reads:
"August 8th, 1811, Chapaton River, at noon, latitude 46
degrees 36 minutes 26 seconds north, longitude 118 degrees 53 minutes 47 seconds west. Laid up our canoe."
The Chapaton (Shahaptin) was the Snake river 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 (August 18th)
and thence to Kettle Falls again (August 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 to the Athabasca and returned in October. David Thompson 5
I mention the details of 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 the 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 explore and mark one 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, 6 T. C. Elliott
Henry and David Thompson" (including Dr. Coues' admirable notes) a resume of the story of his terrible journey across the 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 11 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. 5th, 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 pem-
mican and supplies. ... He was in dire extremities,
and his men were disaffected to the verge of mutiny by
the sufferings they shared with him. On the 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 dwindled away; Mountains, about
1 mile apart, 2000 to 3000 feet high . . . Thursday,
Jan. 10th, crossed the Height of Land.    Jan. 11th held David Thompson 7
DOWN a brook. . . . Jan. 13th, 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. 15th sighted mountains on
other side of the Columbia. ... Jan. 21st, down to
the Columbia. Jan. 22nd, up the Columbia 1 m. to a bold
brook and 1 and i/2 m. to a cedar point.   F. d. P1. men
1 Fort  de  Prairie.
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 in 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 of 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 8 T. C. Elliott
learning, not at all. At the age of seven years a poor boy
David Thompson had been placed 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 om-
niverous reader. When he was about fourteen years old
(about 1783) 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, fur traders of Canada, with headquarters at Montreal, and became a North-
Wester. 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 Canada, were at all ignorant of the goings and comings
of Lewis and Clark 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 of the 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 David Thompson 9
in July 1807, at the lower of the two lakes forming the
source of the main Columbia; but explorations down the
Kootenay River and a journey 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 stream 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, 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 unknown 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 extraordinarily 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 10 T. C. Elliott
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 1783 to 1813 he was constantly
traversing. Never mind his Bunyon-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 howling 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 snowflakes on your cheek 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
Paddling 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 there erected a pole with this written notice
upon it: "Know hereby that this country is claimed by
Great Britain as part of its territories, 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 American  diplomats  did  exceedingly David Thompson 11
well in finally placing the line of the Canadian boundary
at the 49th 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 we 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 at times in distress. His
death occurred 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 1857, 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 12 T. C. Elliott
placed high 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
servants came to terms there 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 communication, 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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