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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Crossing a Small Divide


by Jack Nisbet

When the first British fur trader David Thompson arrived at the headwaters of the Columbia River in 1807, he and his men were very adept at doing one thing: canoeing up and down navigable waterways. As they began to expand their business from what is now southeastern British Columbia south across the 49th parallel, Thompson realized that the Columbia tributaries bent back upon themselves in a bewildering series of loops and circles, and that he needed tribal knowledge of overland routes to get from one drainage to another. When he reached the Pend Oreille Valley in 1809, Thompson knew he was on a tributary of the big river, and wanted to find the most efficient route back to the Columbia. Kootenais to the north had described for him the difficulties that Metaline Falls would pose for a trade route, and a short canoe run downstream from a Kalispel encampment near Cusick confirmed their words. Drawing on local knowledge, Thompson saw that if he moved one drainage west to the Colville Valley, he could reach the great summer fishery at Kettle Falls. There he could not only meet a host of new potential trading partners, but also have a clear shot to the Pacific on the main stem of the Columbia. All he had to do was figure out the easiest way to get from the Pend Oreille to the Colville.

The Kalispel obviously had several ways to accomplish such a journey, among them a "long portage" that led directly west over the mountains. But after some consultation, Thompson moved south, following an established trail that he called the Kullyspel Road. This easily negotiable route, which began at the south end of Calispel Lake, led him to Nine Mile Falls on the Spokane River, where some of his men had just completed building a trade house. From there Thompson traveled north up Rail Canyon, struck the Colville River near its source, and walked another relatively flat tribal trail to Kettle Falls. On a map drawn in 1816 that shows many such native trails, Thompson dotted in his Kullyspel Road winding south from Calispel Lake, cutting an arm of the Little Spokane River, and crossing the prairies south of Deer Park. But he also marked his "long portage" as a route from a branch of the Little Spokane that crossed the divide south of Chewelah Peak and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Chewelah. The beginning of the trail looks illogically far south from Cusick, but then again, Thompson never surveyed the route himself.

After the Hudson's Bay Company moved their main trade house to Fort Colvile at Kettle Falls in 1825, they had to make this trip on a regular basis. The writings of agent John Work (1826), governor George Simpson (1841), Father Pierre DeSmet (1841 & 44), members of the Wilkes Exploring Expedition (1841), and British Army officer Henry James Warre (1845) all describe crossing an "intermediate Divide" between the Colville and the Pend Oreille Valleys. Unlike Thompson, all of their journals are vague about distances, landmarks, and compass courses. It is Lieutenant Warre, longing for the comforts of Fort Colvile after a long trip from Fort Edmonton, who provided the most colorful account. His party had spent the night very near the modern town of Usk, then ridden across a "large plain" accompanied by "Indians gallopping about in every direction."

We commenced an arduous ascent which took us 5 1/2 hours to accomplish. From the height the views were superb--to the South West stretching far away over wood & Water till your Eye rested on the vast Sandy Plains, covering the whole fall of the Columbia Country; and on the East, you could follow the Flathead [Pend Oreille] River to the Lake. And the Mountains rising range over range far into the blue distance...The Sand was Fetlock deep mixed with Sharp Stones, the poor horses suffered, but one day more & their labors will for a time be at an end.

Warre's description seems to mirror a summer trip from Usk up the old Flowery Trail Road, featuring copious amount of dust, great views of the Pend Oreille River and Calispel Lake to the east, the open country around Deer Park to the south, and the mountains contained in the Colville National Forest to the north. And since the Flowery Trail does not exactly jibe with the route David Thompson dotted on his 1816 map, it raises question about the proximity of the original tribal trail, Warre's Hudson's Bay Company route, and our modern dirt and asphalt highways.

In the late 1970s the Colville National Forest commissioned a team of archaeologists led by Gary Gather Ayers to try and determine just that. The group delved into the historical record, determined that none of the accounts could possibly serve as an accurate overland guide, and set out to survey the land themselves. What they found were parts of a main trail of uncertain age whose track was clearly visible in open forest; a ridgetop trail that was not quite as evident; and sections of another more easterly trail. Among the clues they sifted through were circular pits, scarred ponderosa pines, rock cairns, fire hearths, scattered bottles, and the remains of early homesteads. Their search led them south of Chewelah Peak and landed them in the Colville Valley among the wet meadows of upper Cottonwood Creek.

The Ayers report, issued in 1979, could serve as a corollary to the same original source that David Thompson acted on: the local knowledge of the Kalispel tribe. When anthropologist Alan Smith spent three seasons working with those people in the Pend Oreille in the 1930s, he was told that during a hard winter long ago, some local families moved to the Colville Valley. Antoine Andrews, a descendant of one of those families, recorded his version of the story on tape in the early 1970s. Transcribed and presented by Pauline Flett and Father Tom Conolly in the Colville Valley in 1997, Andrews's tale is full of hunger and desperation, of winter struggles and spitted muskrats roasting around a campfire. It is a long, circular story, ringing with humor, that ranges far past the length of a modern audience's attention span. But if the full version of this saga could be plotted out, it would almost certainly provide the sort of landmarks, habitat designations, distinctive creek crossings, and ridge outlooks that would allow a modern traveler to revisit one small crossing out of the much larger ancient network of Kalispel Roads. Antoine Andrews's story keeps a tight hold on the landscape, and thanks to the work of tribal language programs it has only gradually released its grip with the passage of time. In its essence, the story still recounts the easiest way to travel between the Pend Oreille to the Colville Valleys.

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