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The fur trade in the Columbia River Basin prior to 1811 Elliott, T. C. (Thompson Coit), 1862-1943 1915

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Array The Fur Trade in the Columbia 
River Basin Prior to 1811 
By 
T.C. ELLIOTT 
Member of American Historical Association 
and of Oregon Historical 
Society. 
The Ivy Press 
Portland, Oregon 
1915   Photo, by H. Ries.   Aug. 1912
The Source of the Columbia River
View looking South across the Portage to Kootenay River |
See page 8 
THE FUR TRADE IN THE COLUMBIA RIVER
BASIN PRIOR TO 1811
By T.   C.  Elliott
One of the present activities of the historical societies of
Oregon and Washington is the publication of source material
relating to the early fur trade along the Columbia River. It
has been a popular and to an extent a scientific habit to refer
to the city of Astoria as the oldest trade center of the Old
Oregon Country; some of our histories furnish evidence to
that effect. It was on the 12th of April, 1811, that the officers
and employees of the Pacific Fur Company were landed from
the ship Tonquin and established a temporary encampment
on the south side of the Columbia River, ten miles from Cape
Disappointment, and immediately thereafter began the erection of the trading post named by them Fort Astoria. On
the 15th of July, four months later, David Thompson, the
North-West Company fur trader and astronomer, coming from
the source of the river recorded in his journal: "At 1 P. M.,
thank God for our safe arrival, we came to the house of Mr.
Astor's Company, Messrs. McDougall, Stuart and Stuart, who
received me in the most polite manner." And in another connection Mr. Thompson has recorded that the establishment
then consisted of "four low log huts." It is the purpose of
this paper to designate ad seriatim the trading posts that had
been built and in use west of the Rocky Mountains prior to
the founding of Astoria and to briefly sketch the beginnings
of the fur trade on the waters of the mighty Columbia River.
The first barter with white people by the natives residing
on the Columbia River was with the masters of trading vessels
along the Coast, of which little record has been left to us.
When Captains Lewis and Clark, the explorers, descended the
river in the fall of 1805 they found among Indians living quite
a distance in the interior "sundry articles which must have
been procured from the white people, such as scarlet and blue
*A  paper  read  at the meeting  of  the  Pacific  Coast  Branch  of the  American
Historical Association at the University of Washington,  Seattle,  May 21st,  1914. cloth, a sword, jacket and hat;" and in their journals also
appears a list of the names of about a dozen traders who had
been accustomed to frequent the Coast at the mouth of the
river. When Lieut. Broughton, of the British Royal Navy,
in the Chatham sailed cautiously into the Columbia River in
the early afternoon of October 21, 1792, he passed at anchor
behind Cape Disappointment a trading brig named the Jenny,
one Captain Baker in command (after whom Baker's Bay takes
its name) and Broughton records that this captain had been
there earlier in the same year. The name of Captain Baker
does not appear on the list of names set down by Lewis and
Clark; by them this same bay was named Haley's Bay, after
a trader then best known to the Chinook Indians. These brief
recitals in authentic records have led some to an unanswered
inquiry as to whether some itinerant trader may not have
actually sailed into the Columbia River in advance of its discovery by Captain Robert Gray in May, 1792. The diplomats
of Great Britain raised no such claim in connection with the
dispute over the Oregon boundary line, however.
Turning now to the sources of the Columbia an interesting
contrast exists between the beginning of trade there with that
on the upper Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountain range.
Manual Lisa is the name prominently conected with the Missouri River at that period; immediately following the return of
the Lewis and Clark expedition Lisa built a trading post on
the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Big Horn and began
to purchase furs for transport to St. Louis; that was during
the summer of 1807. At the same time David Thompson, a
partner of the North-West Company of Canada, was building
an establishment at the head waters of the Columbia from
which he transported furs to the Rainy Lakes, and Fort William on Lake Superior. Manual Lisa had troubles enough with
snags and Indians along the Missouri and was resourceful to
overcome them. David Thompson experienced even greater
difficulties in crossing the Rocky Mountains and descending
the long course of the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg.
David Thompson is one of the most remarkable figures con- nected with the history of the Columbia River; the record of
his career written with his own hand is not only of great
scientific value, but an inspiration to any earnest student of
the history of this Pacific Northwest. He has been described
as the greatest land geographer the English race has ever produced.
The Columbia River is estimated to be 1,300 miles in length
and Kettle Falls, in the State of Washington, about forty miles
below the Canadian boundary, marks very closely the half-way
point on the river. It may be said rather broadly, then, that
one-half of the river is in British Columbia and one-half in the
United States, speaking of the main river and not of its
branches. The statesmen who decided the Oregon boundary
question did not have this equal division in mind, but nature
has furnished this suggestion of their fairness.
As if to purposely render our history romantic the first
trading post upon any of the waters of the Columbia River,
including its branches, was built almost at the very source of
the main river, near the outlet of the chain of small lakes which
resolve themselves into the river. Tobey Creek, flowing eastward from the glaciers of Mt. Nelson, of the Selkirk Range,
enters the Columbia River from the west about one mile
below the outlet of Lake Windermere, in the political division
of British Columbia known as the East Kootenay District.
Upon an open gravelly point overlooking Tobey Creek and
"a long half mile" (quoting from David Thompson's original
survey notes) from the Columbia stood the stockade and buildings marking the beginning of commerce in the interior of
"Old Oregon." The exact site of this house has recently become known by the unearthing of the old chimneys of the
buildings, as well as by Indian tradition. An earlier location
on Canterbury Point, Lake Windermere, at first selected was
abandoned before any buildings were completed, because of
exposure in procuring water for domestic use (compare with
Lyman's History of the Columbia River, Putnam's Sons, 1911,
page 282). "Kootenae House" was the name given to this
trading post, and it is not to be confounded with the Fort "3.
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to forget that on the waters of the Fraser River Basin trading
posts had been established in the year 1806 by Simon Fraser
and his partners.
In this romantic locality David Thompson spent the fall,
winter and spring of 1807-8 in company with his clerk, Finan
McDonald, and six servants. He put out his thermometer and
set down the first record of the weather in interior British
Columbia. With other scientific instruments he determined
the latitude and longitude of the House and of the lakes. He
bestowed the name upon Mt. Nelson (now locally known as
Mt. Hammond), which looms up so grandly to the westward
of Lake Windermere, and determined its altitude. He found
bands of wild horses roaming over the hills and caught some
of them; he observed and made record of the habits of the
salmon spawning in the river. He gathered in trade one hundred skins of the wild mountain goat, which brought a guinea
apiece in the London market. He-was besieged for some weeks
by a band of Piegan Indians who crossed the P-Ocky Mountains with instructions to kill him, because the prairie Indians
did not wish to have the Kootenaes supplied t with firearms,
powder and ball. In March, 1808, Mr. James McMillan visited
him from Rocky Mt. House, on the Saskatchewan, with dog
teams and sleds, bringing more trading goods and carrying-
back as many packs of furs. His trade was with the Kootenaes
of the vicinity, and from as far south as Northwestern Montana, of the United States. In April, 1808, he made an exploring trip down the Kootenay River as far as Kootenay Lake,
and in June recrossed the Rocky Mountains with his furs and
carried them to Rainy Lake House before again returning
to Kootenae House for another winter. The government of
British Columbia could well afford to permanently mark the
site of Kootenae House in honor of this remarkable trader,
astronomer and pathfinder.
At the beginning of the second winter at Kootenae House,
Mr. Thompson felt sufficiently acquainted with the country
and the Indians to begin to push the trade further to the south. 8
The Kootenay River, taking its rise in the main range of the
Rocky Mountains, flows southward into the United States
in Montana, and in its course passes within a mile and a half
of the lake out of which as its real source the waters of the
Columbia River flow northward for 200 miles before turning
to the south. The divide between Columbia Lake and the
Kootenay River is not a ridge or a mountain, but a level flat
of gravelly soil not at all heavily timbered, which affords a
very easy portage for canoes. Across this portage in November, 1808, went Finan McDonald, Mr. Thompson's clerk, with
a load of trading goods, and descended the Kootenay River
to a point on the north bank, just above Kootenay Falls, and
nearly opposite to the town of Libby, which is the county seat
of Lincoln County, Montana, and there set up two leather
lodges for himself and his men, and built a log house to protect the goods and furs and spent the winter, being joined
later by James McMillan, already mentioned. Here, during
the winter of 1808-9, were carried on the first commercial
transactions of white men south of the forty-ninth parallel of
north latitude, and in that part of the Old Oregon Country
which afterward became a part of the United States.
News travels rapidly among the Indians and later events
indicate that furs must have been brought to this winter camp
from the Saleesh or Flathead country to the southeast, and
from the region of Pend d'Oreille Lake to the southwest. About
three years later, at a point a few miles further up the Kootenay
River, but on the same side (nearly opposite Jennings, Montana), the North-West Company erected a more permanent
trading post, known as Fort Kootenay, in opposition to which,
in 1812, the Pacific Fur Company built another fort near by. At
Fort Kootenay took place the bloodless duel between Nicholas
Montour and Francis Pillet "with pocket pistols at six paces;
both hits; one in the collar of the coat, and the other in the leg
of the trousers. Two of their men acted as seconds, and the
tailor speedily healed their wounds." This is the story told
by the facile pen of Ross Cox. 9
The year 1809 brought to the active notice of the North-
Westers the intention of John Jacob Astor to occupy the mouth
of the Columbia River, and the records of the House of Commons in London show a petition from the North-West Company
for a charter which would give them prior rights to trade upon
Columbian waters. David Thompson, however, was not waiting for charters, but prepared to act according to the teachings
of the later David Harum, that is "to do to the other fellow
as he would do to you and do it fust." He knew from the
results of the winter trade at Kootenay Falls that there were
Indians of a friendly disposition living to the south of the
Kootenay, and doubtless he also had already some knowledge
of the route of the Lewis and Clark party on their return trip
in 1806, for the following year he had a copy of Patrick Gass'
Journal with him as he traveled. So after a trip across the
Rocky Mountains to leave his furs and obtain more trading
goods, he returned to the Columbia during the summer of 1809,
and from there descended the Kootenay River as far as the
present site of Bonner's Ferry, in Idaho, where his goods were
transferred to pack animals and taken southward across the
regular Indian trail (the "Lake Indian Road," as he called it)
to Pend d'Oreille Lake. And on the 10th of September, 1809,
upon one of the points jutting out into the lake near the town
of Hope, Idaho, he set up his leather lodge or tent upon the site
of the next trading post upon Columbian waters, which was
called "Kullyspell House." A substantial log house was at
once built for the protection of the goods and furs and another
for the officers and men, and Mr. Finan McDonald placed in
charge. Kullyspell House did not remain in active use for
more than two winters, probably, other posts to the eastward
and westward being found sufficient to care for the trade; but
business was lively there during the season of 1809-10. Ross
Cox, who passed that way in the fall of 1812, makes no mention of this Post, but John Work, when crossing the lake in
1825, mentions a camp at "the Old Fort." No trace of its
site has been found in these later years.
I 10
No sooner had the buildings of Kullyspell House been well
begun than David Thompson set off again, to the southeastward up the Clark's Fork of the Columbia River, in the direction of the principal habitat of the Saleesh Indians, a tribe
more commonly but less properly known as the Flatheads.
He traveled about seventy-five miles up the river to a small
plain ever since known as Thompson's Prairie, and on a bench
overlooking the north bank of Clark's Fork River, located his
next trading post, called Saleesh House. Three miles below
is Thompson's Falls and two miles above is Thompson River,
and to the State of Montana alone belongs the distinction of
preserving to history in its nomenclature a permanent reference to this indefatigable and remarkable man. Thompson's
Prairie appears to have been in olden times a refuge of the
Saleesh Indians when pursued by their enemies, the roving
Piegans or Blackfeet. Just above the prairie to the southeastward the hills again hug the river on either side, and there
is a stretch of shell or sliding rock over which the Indian trail
passed. This place is locally known to the Indians as Bad
Rock and across it the Piegans did not dare to pass; and Mr.
Thompson carefully placed his "House" on the safe side of
Bad Rock. After acquiring firearms the Saleesh were on more
of an equality with the Piegans and able to defend themselves
in battle, both when hunting the buffalo along the Missouri
River and in their own country. So in later years this trading
post was, temporarily at least, removed further up the river
beyond Bad Rock. In 1824-25 it was located where the Northern Pacific Railroad station named Eddy now is, and later it
was near Weekesville, a few miles further up the river. About
1847 Angus McDonald removed it to Post Creek, near the St.
Ignatius Mission, in the beautiful Flathead Valley. Wherever
located, it was the scene every winter of very lively and extensive trade, the Saleesh being of all the tribes of Indians the
most moral and friendly in their relations with the whites,
not even the Nez Perces being excepted. Missoula, Montana,
today succeeds Saleesh House as the commercial center of the
Flathead Country, and as a city exceeds Astoria in both popu- !§
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lation and bank deposits. David Thompson spent the winter
of 1809-10 at this trading post, in company with his clerk,
James McMillan, who arrived in November by way of Kootenay
River with additional trading goods. Again, in 1811-12, after
his famous journey to the mouth of the Columbia, Mr. Thompson wintered here.
When in April, 1810, he started on his annual journey across
the Rocky Mountains, Mr. McMillan accompanying him, by
the usual long and wearisome series of canoe routes and portages, Mr. Thompson expected to be back again in the early
fall, and he left Finan McDonald in charge of Saleesh House,
with instructions or permission to assist the Saleesh Indians
in the use of their newly-acquired firearms. Such an activity
was very much to the liking of that restless Highlander, and
he even accompanied the tribe on their annual buffalo hunt
and took part in a successful battle with the Piegans on the
plains along the Missouri River. The Piegans were so angered
by this that they at once made trouble on the Saskatchewan
River, further north, and prevented Mr. Thompson's party
from returning over the usual mountain pass. He was compelled to seek a route through the Athabasca Pass, and as a
result did not arrive at the Columbia at all until the middle
of January, 1811, and was ice-bound for the rest of the winter
at the mouth of Canoe River.
In April, 1810, when at Kullyspell House, Mr. Thompson
had also engaged the services for the summer of one Jaco
Finlay (whose full name was Jacques Raphael Finlay) an intelligent half-breed, who seems to have been already living
in the Saleesh country as a sort of free-hunter; and the presumption is that he authorized Finlay to push the trade further
west intq the Skeetshoo, which would be the Coeur d'Alene
Country. At any rate, when Mr. Thompson returned to the
Saleesh Country in June, 1811, he found no one there nor at
Kullyspell House; but he did find both Jaco Finlay and Finan
McDonald residing and trading at a new post designated as
Spokane House. To Jaco Finlay, then, possibly assisted by or
assisting Finan  McDonald,  probably belongs  the honor  of  14
selecting the site and erecting the first buildings at Spokane
House, located on a beautiful and sheltered peninsula at the
junction of the Spokane (then known as the Skeetshoo River)
and the Little Spokane rivers, a spot where the Indians were
accustomed to gather in large numbers to dry their fish. The
location was nine or ten miles northwest of the present flourishing city of Spokane, which has succeeded it as a natural
trade center and which today outranks Astoria in both population and commercial importance. Alex. Henry states in his
journal that Spokane House was established in the summer
of 1810. It was maintained as the principal distributing point
in the interior by the North-West Company and later by the
Hudson's Bay Company until the spring of 1826, but was then
abandoned in favor of a new post at Kettle Falls (Fort Col-
vile) on the direct route of travel up and down the Columbia.
The cellar holes of the buildings at Spokane House can still
be indistinctly seen by those who know where to look for them.
In 1812, a very short distance from these buildings, the Pacific
Fur Company built a rival establishment, which was maintained
until the dissolution of that company in the fall of 1813.
There remain to be mentioned three other valid attempts
to establish trade relations in the basin of the Columbia, the
first of which may have antedated the building of Spokane
House by a brief period. This was the enterprise of the Win-
ships of Boston, who sailed into the river in the spring of 1810
and began to erect some buildings on the Oregon shore at
Oak Point, about fifty miles from the sea. This attempt was
abandoned almost immediately because of the sudden rise of
the river with the melting of the snows inland; it was a matter of weeks only and possibly of days. The second was the
temporary residence of Andrew Henry, of the Missouri Fur
Company, during the winter months of 1810-11 on the upper
waters of the Snake River, near the present town of St. Anthony, Idaho (compare with Lyman's Hist, of the Columbia
River, page 109). The overland party of Astorians found his
abandoned cabins upon their arrival in the early fall of 1811,
and it was many years afterward before Fort Hall was built 15
as a trading post in that general locality. The third was the
only attempt of the Hudson's Bay Company to compete with
their rival, the North-West Company, for the Indian trade west
of the Rocky Mountains. Alexander Henry makes mention in
his journal of the starting off of this expedition from Rocky
Mountain House on the Saskatchewan in the summer of 1810,
under the charge of Joseph Howse, and states that James McMillan was sent to follow and keep watch of them. David
Thompson, when near the source of the Columbia in May,
1811, on his way from Canoe River to the Saleesh Country
and beyond, met an Indian who told him that this Hudson's
Bay Company party was already returning and was then at
Flathead Lake. It is not positive where this party spent the
winter, but in his "Fur Hunters of the Far West" (Vol. 2, p.
9), Alexander Ross places them on Jocko Creek in Missoula
County, Montana, near where the town of Ravalli is now situated ; while an early edition of the Arrowsmith map of British
North America (which maps were dedicated to the Hudson's
Bay Company, and purported to contain the latest information furnished by that company), shows their trading post at
the head of Flathead Lake very near to where the city of
Kalispell, Montana, now is.
The editor of a prominent newspaper in Montana, upon reading of the establishment of Saleesh House by David Thompson in the year 1809, wrote that they were beginning to feel
quite antiquated in Western Montana. Trade in the Kootenay
District of British Columbia antedated the building of Astoria
by three and a half years, and that in the Flathead Country
of Montana by one and a half years, and that at Spokane,
Washington, by at least six months. The cities that have
become the commercial centers of these interior districts have
not been built upon the exact sites of the early trading posts
unless that may be said as to Spokane, Washington, but have
all been built along the same established Indian trails or roads,
and these have become the transcontinental railroads of today.
Search for the existing records of these early enterprises
and for physical remains of the early trading posts may be 16
likened to the search for gold by the miners of the "Inland
Empire" during the early sixties. The Old Oregon Country
is as rich in history as in the precious metals; the search for
the one adds to our culture and that for the other only to our
material wealth.  

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