British and Americans in the Columbia District, 1807-1810
In June of 1807, Thompson led an expedition that included his wife Charlotte and their three small children across the Divide via the Howse and Blaeberry Rivers. Striking the Columbia near modern Golden, British Columbia, he moved south, upstream, to the source lakes of the great river. There he established his first trade house among Kootenai acquaintances who had been asking for such a post for at least 15 years.
In August, a tribal party from the south arrived at Kootanae House with news of American activity, and probably were the deliverers of a ten-point proclamation and letter signed by two men who claimed to be officers in the U.S. Army. Although no Army records match those officers' names, both documents warned British furmen off what they said was American land. A second letter that reached Kootanae House later that fall repeated the threat, but since no land west of the Continental Divide had yet been assigned by treaty, Thompson knew his North West Company explorations were perfectly legal. He would, however, factor the activities of these shadowy Americans into his plans for the "Columbia District," as the North West Company called all their new business territory within the river's drainage. "This establishment of the Americans will give a new Turn to our so long delayed settling of this country," he wrote, "but in my opinion the most valuable part of the Country still remains with us."
While there has been plenty of speculation as to the identity of these letter writers1 , the only written documents from the Columbia District for this period come either from Thompson's hand or from recopies of his letters and speculation by British fur agents operating on the Saskatchewan. These primary writings contain only a few scattered mentions of Americans operating in the area. Beginning in November of 1809, at the Saleesh House post Thompson established on the Flathead River, the surveyor did do business with a free trapper who may well have been the same Francois Rivet who worked for Lewis and Clark during their trip up the Missouri River to the Mandan villages.2 Rivet, along with other free trappers Thompson employed including Bellaire, Bostonae, Desjarlaix, and Kinville, were characterized as Illinois River men who were constantly running afoul of the Blackfeet.
In February of 1810, Thompson helped Francois Rivet and others distribute the furs and personal effects of an American trapper he called "Mr. Courter" who had been killed in a skirmish with Blackfeet in the Hellgate area. This name might well match with a "Mr. Coartong" who appeared in William Clark's lower Missouri journal.3 Manuel Lisa was certainly operating in eastern Montana by 1807, and some of the other outbound traders Lewis and Clark met on their way down the Missouri may have made it over the Continental Divide to compete with Thompson. But until some undiscovered documentation appears, the story of their interaction in western Montana and northern Idaho will remain murky.
Indian Fishing Station on the Kullespelm Lake & River
The Illinois River men were only part of the waves of French-Canadian, Scottish, Cree, Assiniboine, Iroquois, Hawaiian, and mixed blood furmen that David Thompson introduced into the Columbia District. Although Thompson later wrote that Blackfeet raiders killed the last of the Illinois River men, many of his other employees settled down with Plateau-culture wives and raised families, changing the social fabric of the region. Descendants of those families remain in the greater Northwest, long after Thompson and all remnants of the fur trade have disappeared.
Touching the Core, 1807-1812
A more direct connection between Thompson and the Corps of Discovery arrived at Kootanae House in December of 1807. This was a copy of a lengthy letter written by Meriwether Lewis that described the American expeditions' journey across Lolo Pass, canoe trip down the lower Columbia, winter at Fort Clatsop, return trip across the Continental Divide, and Lewis's 1806 movements up the Marias River. The North West Company's possession of this letter was not necessarily a matter of thievery or espionage; at this time many dispatches on route were seen as public documents, to be published in local newspapers along the way. This particular one might have been addressed to John Hay, a friend of Lewis's who was both a Missouri postmaster and a keen follower of western affairs. The original has never come to light, and no one knows how the only known transcript of this important letter made its way to David Thompson at Kootanae House.4
Thompson's Columbia District
Kullyspel House (est. 1809), now spelled Kalispel, was named for the local Indians, whom Thompson often called the Ear Bobs or Ear Pendants, and the French called Pend Oreilles. Astoria, the first American trading post on the Columbia, was built by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company in 1811, sold to the North West Company two years later, and absorbed into the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821.
As Thompson established his circle of trade on the Columbia's eastern tributaries over the next four years, wintering in the field and traveling back to Lake Superior for resupply each summer, he continued to make diligent observations all over the Columbia District. He pioneered a second route across the Canadian Rockies at Athabasca Pass in January 1811, then ran a hastily-built cedar plank canoe down the Columbia River from Kettle Falls to the Pacific during two historic weeks of July 1811.
Saleesh Mountains "For these four years I have occasionally sketched off various parts of the bold, lofty scenery of the Rocky Mountains....I believe the only drawings that have been made of these Mountains." – Travels iii, 320.
"For these four years I have occasionally sketched off various parts of the bold, lofty scenery of the Rocky Mountains....I believe the only drawings that have been made of these Mountains." – Travels iii, 320.
The moment Thompson intersected the Corp of Discovery's route at the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia, he set up his instruments very close to the spot where Lewis and Clark took their coordinates and made a sextant shot on the position; he did the same when he crossed Lieutenant Broughton's survey for the lower river. Besides connecting the geography of the lower and upper Columbia, Thompson's journal entries also add perspective on the annual cycle of river heights, runoff, tribal ethnography, and salmon runs – for example, where William Clark canoed among spawned out salmon carcasses near the mouth of the Yakima River in October, Thompson described a July fish run that Yakima people were harvesting with a carefully crafted seine net 8 feet wide and an astonishing 300 feet long.
After a few days' visit with John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company crew at Astoria, Thompson crossed the river to what is now the Washington side to view Cape Disappointment and the Pacific Ocean before returning upstream on the Columbia. A thousand river miles later, when he reached the confluence of the Canoe River at the very peak of the river's northern hairpin turn, he completed the first formal survey of the Columbia from source to mouth. In all Thompson's surveys added about 900 river miles to the initial chartwork of Broughton and the Corps, and the furman stretched that farther by making initial surveys of the Kootenai, Flathead/Clark Fork/Pend Oreille, and Spokane drainages.
Winter Journeys Around Saleesh House
Thompson spent his last winter in the west at his Saleesh House post in western Montana performing his usual activities: buying food from tribal hunters; building everything from canoes to waterproof chests; managing the families at the post; trading with a wide variety of visitors; exploring the surrounding countryside as time permitted, keeping track of local natural history and weather; working out his course books for future mapwork; painting watercolors of surrounding mountains; and listening to tribal elders. Guided by a Kootenai man he called Le Gauche, the surveyor visited the Clark Fork valley near the modern town of Missoula in February of 1812. There he climbed a foothill west of Grant Creek (near the mouth of which Meriwether Lewis is believed to have crossed the river on July 3, 1806) and looked south into the Bitterroot Valley. With Le Gauche's help plus the letter written by Lewis that Thompson had copied into his journal at Kootanae House in 1807, Thompson was able to visualize the Corp of Discovery's route from Traveler's Rest over Lolo Pass to the land of the salmon.
1. Moulton, Journals, 8:464n (Sept. 17, 1806); Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 358-360; Harry M. "John McClellan in the Montana Rockies, 1807: The First Americans after Lewis and Clark," Northwest Discovery 2 (November-December 1981), 557-630.
2. Moulton, Journals, 2:528-29, 8:311.
3. Moulton, Journals, 8:311.
4. Jackson, Letters, 1:335-43.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.