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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.

David Thompson's Sense of Place

by Jack Nisbet


Most people’s notion about where they live is a slippery thing to define. Built on myriad intuitive perceptions, informed by all past and present experiences, each person’s view of the world around them continuously develops over time. A single moment is enough to form an opinion about where you are, but in a very real sense, it takes a lifetime to develop a coherent sense of place.
Since David Thompson was the first person to write extensively about the Pend Oreille/Clark Fork drainage, and since so much has changed since he was here 200 years ago, much weight is attached to his comments about our region. But it is important to remember this his own point of view was informed by the places and events of his past experience.

Thompson was born in the village of Westminster in 1770, which at that time lay on the outskirts of the great smoky, writhing mass of urban London. His father died before Thompson was two years old, and by his seventh birthday he was enrolled in a charity school that believed in spare living conditions and very regular habits. In the back of the school building, students tilled a productive garden, and beyond that lay extensive cultivated fields, wetlands, and copses of deciduous trees. As a boy Thompson not only learned the stars, mathematics, and celestial navigation in school, but also farming techniques, bird songs, and the natural history of small mammals from the place he called Tothill Fields.
This close and secure world disappeared when he signed on as an apprentice to the Hudson’s Bay Company at age 14 and shipped out for Canada. When his company ship stopped in the Orkney Islands, Thompson was shocked to find windswept hills completely bare of trees; no person or book had ever told him such a stark landscape existed.

He grew plenty used to open ground over the next few years while serving at fur trade posts around Hudson Bay and across the vast Prairies to the west. In snow-covered tundra, Cree Indians showed him to pick out the black bill of a ptarmigan or the nose of a polar bear from a field of total whiteness, and to stake his life on the most subtle of landmarks. Blackfeet buffalo hunters taught him how to stride tall through the rolling grasslands, and home in on the protection of a small dot of cottonwoods in an otherwise trackless sea. Perhaps because of his dealings with and dependence on such tribes, Thompson found that his evolving sense of these places had to involve elements of family and spirituality.

Travellers seldom stay long enough to be well informed of the religion of the people they visit. I have lived several years with the Na hath a way [Cree]Indians, and speak their soft language...my knowledge of their religion I collected from being present at their various ceremonies, living and travelling with them, and my lovely Wife is of the blood of these people, speaking their language, and well educated in the english language, which gives me a great advantage; it was only in danger and distress that I heard much of their belief; travelling together after a weary day’s march, we sat at the log fire, with the splendid Moon and thousands of sparkling Stars on our sight, we could not help enquiring who lived in those bright mansions
Travels iii.34a

Thompson learned to connect his sense of place through the totem animals that appeared in both tribal stories and everyday experience, and to pay close attention to natural phenomena such as the spectacular northern lights that he saw above latitude 60º. On one such night in the far north, he and a boy named Andrew sat by a fire after a failed hunting excursion.

We continued to watch until about eleven o’clock; - As we were about to rise, a brilliant light [appeared] over the east end of the Lake; it was a Meteor of a globular form, and appeared larger than the Moon, which was then high; it seemed to come direct towards us, lowering as it came, when within three hundred yards of us, it struck the River ice, with a sound like a mass of jelly, was dashed into innumerable luminous pieces and instantly expired. Andrew would have run away but he had no time to do so; curiosity chained me to the spot.

Investigation proved that the “meteor” consisted of light rather than mass, and over time Thompson saw how the Cree connected such astonishing events to their lives in a way that was both practical and poetic.

...The [Cree] Indians of North America call it [Aurora borealis] the “Dead” by the name of Jee pe ak, (the souls of the dead), and when the Aurora is bright in vivid graceful motion, they exclaim, See how happy our fathers are tonight, they are dancing to the enlivening songs of the other world.
iv.104e

In 1807-08 and 1808-09, Thompson spent the first two of his five winters in the Inland Northwest at his Kootanae House trading post he built on the source lakes of the Columbia River. There he was disappointed about the brightness of the aurora, but did manage to spend a surprising amount of his time observing the behavior of local birds ranging from pileated woodpeckers to pine grosbeaks.

January 11 A fine clear day, moderate weather. killed a large red-headed woodpecker, saw an Eagle - bald headed - also a small sparrow hawk. Magpies very numerous -esp. about the Holes of the Fry of Fish - of which they make great havock. The Ravens most cordially helping the men finish the Glacier

Jan 18 A cloudy morn, but fine clear day tolerable sharp - walked to the great Gully - several small Birds with short strong Beaks - the Cocks of a beautiful brick Red in the Head Back breast & Belly & some part of the wings with stripes of white in the wings & the lower part of the Belly & Thighs & [flanks] a bluish colour - [feet] three claws before & 1 behind

Thompson painted credible watercolor studies of the local mountain ranges around Kootanae House, and continued to observe and absorb the landscape as he moved south into the Pend Oreille/Clark Fork drainage. He spent the winters of 1809-10 and 1811-12 among Kalispel, Flathead, and other Salish-speaking people at his Saleesh House post in western Montana, and his journals from that period contain over 400 Salish words and phrases, many of which deal with details of place. His source for this knowledge was apparently a Kalispel elder he called Cartier, or Chenalamale, and this “Kullyspel-Saleesh Vocabulary” played a large role in how the visitor Thompson experienced the watershed.

Another Kalispel who Thompson depended on was called simply Le Bon Vieux, or The Good Old Man, who along with his wife served as a guide, envoy, trader, advisor, and steady traveling companion from the time Thompson met him near Cusick in fall 1809. It must have been Chenalamale, Le Bon Vieux, and other Kootenai and Salish acquaintances who provided Thompson with the bits of tribal wisdom that grace his journal notebooks during the next two and a half years. These range from straightforward but valuable properties of plants, such as a local bear repellent:

The root of the Choo Cru is said to be a good preventative to bears.
The root must be bruised, is chewed and rubbed on the head, hands, of the person. The smell of which is said to be so offensive to that animal that he immediately flies away.

to hunting tricks and acute observations of animal behavior:

Swans can be killed by the light of a flambeaux at night.
The fisher is the natural enemy of the Porcupine.

Bears hum when they lick their feet.

to revelations of religious principals:

Conversing with a sensible old Saleesh, his Religion, ... is this - They regard the Sun, the Thunder and Moon as the principal Deities - but have no fear of them, as they think them employed in doing only good to the Earth...They believe Man to be a com-pound of Body, & something that does not die, retaining after Death, a clear consciousness of what passed in this Life & of what they will see & meet with in the Lands unknown. After Death the Soul goes to the westward, where they believe the great assemblage of Souls to be. - Their Dances are so many religious acts, that they may after Death join the Shades of their departed Friends

David Thompson’s business-like fur trade journals include many details of weather, trade, pelt numbers, and natural history that describe the basic look of this area two centuries ago. But it is these human interactions, moments that begin with phrases like “conversing with a sensible old Saleesh,” or “sitting with an old Indian on a Knoll,” that begin to flesh out a deeper sense of the Salish country that Thompson gained during his brief stay. Because he looked around him, and listened when people talked, and came back for a few successive seasons, Thompson’s writings begin to shed some light on the place where we live today.

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