Thompson's & Ashley's Lolos

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The first one (or two)

In March of 1810, only four years after the Lewis and Clark expedition was over, the first written record of a man named Lolo appeared in the field notes of David Thompson (1770-1857).1 He and his party were camped at Ilthkoyape (Thompson's misnomer for Kettle Falls)2 on the Columbia River from August 20 until September 2, having just returned from the mouth of the Columbia and a week-long visit with the Americans who were building Fort Astoria. On March 28 he mentioned three voyageurs who were with him: Charles (no other name), Pierre Pareil, and Charles Coté. Then, otherwise unidentified, "Lolo arrived."3 Nothing more. It was as if Thompson had been expecting him, another hired hand like Pareil and Coté. Maybe Lolo was a regular, or maybe he was late. In any case, no further remarks seemed necessary.

Another Lolo–or was it the same one?–was in a group of trappers and voyageurs that made up Thompson's party at Camas Prairie in the heart of Salish country:4 La Gasse (no other name); Chas Loyer, a free trapper; Michael or Michel, who may have been either Michel Bourdeaux or Pierre Michel; Gregoire, a chasseur (hunter); and Lolo, of whom nothing was recorded anywhere, but may have been—according to the editor of Thompson's Montana journals—an Iroquois or French-Canadian half-breed like the others.5 On April 11 Michel bagged five deer; Seauteaux, an Ojibwa Indian who was also known by at least six other variants of his French noms-dits, bagged four; Lolo scored only one deer.6 This Lolo rated another mention on May 13, 1810: His horse had wandered off during the previous night, and finding the animal was his responsibility, so the party was late getting under way. His record improved somewhat in November of 1811, when he showed up after a good hunting trip with Michel. They returned to camp with "5 more parcels of Meat."7 Then, on December 2, just as abruptly as when he had first appeared, Lolo, along with six Salish men, simply "went away."8 There were no further appearances of any Lolos in Thompson's journals.

Side Trip

However, David Thompson was genuinely interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Five years after the Corps of Discovery left Travelers' Rest for the second and last time, Thompson gained possession of a copy of a letter to an unnamed recipient written by Meriwether Lewis in St. Louis on September 29, 1806. It was mainly devoted to a general description of the Expedition's return from the mouth of the Columbia to St. Louis. On the morning of February 25, 1812, with the letter in hand, Thompson borrowed two horses at a Salish village on the Jocko River, and hired a half-breed Kootenai guide named Pierre Gaucher, or Le Gauche–"Lefty."9 Together they rode past the Jocko's source and descended via a narrow mile-long "defile," or narrow canyon, into the valley of Clark's River, where they climbed a "knowl" north of the river for a look around.10 It has been said that Thompson also carried a copy of Patrick Gass's (1807) published journal of the expedition, but if he had, he would have known Lewis and Clark's name for what Thompson could only call "the Brook of the Defile." Besides, Gass's single volume lacked a map.

Neither Lewis's letter nor Gass's published journals contained any details of the Expedition's passages across the Bitterroot Mountains, nor their bivouacs at the creek's mouth. Nothing beyond Lewis's one simple statement: "In returning thro' the Rocky Mountains, we divided ourselves into several parties digressing from the Route by which we went out with a view more effectually to explore the Country," or–if Thompson had Gass's book–the sergeant's 113-word summary of the plan. However, Lefty must have heard many tales about the Expedition's trips through the area, and their rest stops at the gathering place a mile above the confluence with the big river of the stream he might have known as tum-tsum-lech ("no salmon"). It would be naive to suppose he hadn't, for a detailed mental catalog of travelers and their routes was a frontier guide's stock-in-trade. So he must have pointed out the Indian roads that were in view from that "knowl," and called attention to the visible ranges and ridges so that Thompson could get the picture. In his journal, Thompson described the canyon and the stream simply as "a Defile by a bold Brook," "the Brook of the Defile" and, more definitively, "the Brook of the Defile that leads to the Salmon"–the spawning beds of the Lochsa River to which Old Toby led the Expedition on September 13.11

It is important to remember that Le Gauche did not mention our Lolo, the one whose name was to displace Lewis and Clark's "Traveller's-rest creek." Probably he had not yet taken up residence there, or if he had, Le Gauche had not yet heard of him. Moreover, in defense of the well-meaning individuals who would later make up stories about Lolo's origins, Thompson was employed successively by the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. His field notes were corporate property and their contents were carefully guarded. Thompson's voluminous records did not begin to become public until 1888, followed by more in 1897, and the publication of the journal of his visit to the present states of Montana and Idaho awaited the passage of another 53 years.12

Lolo number two (or three)

Fifteen years later, in the spring of 1825, William Henry Ashley (1778-1838) and Andrew Henry (1775-1832), partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, held the first of several annual regional markets events where trappers could trade furs for supplies and amenities. One of the markets they held that year took place on the Henry's Fork of the Green River in western Wyoming. Two entries in Ashley's account book show that one of his customers there was a "Mr. Lolo" who offered Ashley a total of 48 beaver plews, and in return received various items, from sugar, coffee and tobacco to powder and lead.13

None of these details contribute much to our understanding of the name or the men known by it. Thompson's Lolo was only an engagé, a hired hand; Ashley's was a mountain man and free trapper.

1. The story that Thompson met a trapper by the name of Lolo near the hot springs on Granite Creek in 1810 is not true. Thompson never set foot on the Lolo Trail.

2. The "falls" actually was a series of cascades that dropped the Columbia River 50 feet in a short distance. Thompson misunderstood his Indian informant. Ilth Koy Ape was the name for the J-shaped traps the Indians used to catch salmon that faltered in their efforts to surmount the falls. The Salish name, Shonitkwu means "roaring waters." The Irish-born Canadian artist Paul Kane (1810-1871) claimed that the voyageurs called the falls Chaudière, or Kettle Falls, "from the numerous round holes worn in the solid rocks by loose boulders. These boulders, being caught in the inequalities of rocks below the falls, are constantly driven round by the tremendous force of the current, and wear out holes as perfectly round and smooth as in the inner surface of a cast-iron kettle." Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, ed. Lawrence Burpee (Toronto: Radisson /Society of Canada, 1925), 215-16.

3. Pierre Pareil and Charles (really Joseph) Coté were milieux or middlemen—canoeists with minimum qualifications who paddled from the midsection of the craft, where only strength was required. David Thompson, Columbia Journals, ed. Barbara Belyea (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), 170. The remaining members of the crew would have been the avant (foreman, such as the Expedition's Pierre Cruzatte) who piloted from the bow, and the gouvernail or steersman who sat at the stern.

4. Camas Prairie is still a traditional Salish gathering-place for camas harvesting, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation 25 miles west-northwest of St. Ignatius, Montana.

5. David Thompson's Journals Relating to Montana and Adjacent Regions 1808-1812, edited by M. Catherine White (Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1950), 85, 99, 100.

6. Ibid., 105-06.

7. Ibid., 183.

8. Ibid., 184. Thompson, who was fluent in numerous Indian languages, typically spelled Salish with a double ee rather than an i, perhaps to capture the phonetic refinement of it.

9. The intended recipient of that letter remains uncertain. The handwriting is David Thompson's, which proves it was his own copy, but there was no addressee named in the heading. Moreover, in view of Lewis's deep-seated anglophobia, it seems unlikely he had Thompson specifically in mind when he wrote the original. Donald Jackson reprinted the document in his Letters, 1:335-43, and discussed its provenance at length.

10. Catherine White concluded that Thompson and Le Gauche climbed present Mount Jumbo, the north post of Hell's Gate, but the confluence of Travellers Rest Creek with the Bitterroot River cannot be seen from there. White, ed., David Thompson's Journals Relating to Montana and Adjacent Regions 1808-1812 (Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1950), 203-07. Owing to some confusion among Thompson's compass bearings, the actual location of the "knowl" remains questionable.

11. The word defile was a military term denoting a canyon so narrow as to compel companies of soldiers to march through it with a narrow front, perhaps as few as 2 or 3 men abreast. Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

12. See Note 5.

13. "Ashley's Accounts from Rendezvous, July 1825," in Mountain Men and the Fur Trade: Sources of the History of the Fur Trade in the Rocky Mountain West, (retrieved August 25, 2011).