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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

David Thompson among the Kalispels, 1800-1812


by Jack Nisbet • Historian and author

According to his field journals, British fur agent David Thompson first heard about Salish-speaking people west of the Rocky Mountains from Blackfeet on the Prairies of what is now Alberta. In October of 1800, a Pikani Blackfoot headman the traders called Sac o tow wow took Thompson to task for doing business with Kootenai people, complaining that the British would soon be supplying arms to the "Flatheads," who were obviously powerful political rivals to the Blackfeet. These Flatheads, Sac o tow wow warned, would ambush the fur traders in the mountain passes and steal their horses.

Those two brief mentions mark the beginning of years of confusing entries in Thompson's journals. When the agent finally made his journey over the pass in the summer of 1807, he waited for "Flatheads" to come visit his Kootanae House at the source lakes of the Columbia, so they could guide him south to country he had heard would be rich for beaver. Months passed without any Flatheads appearing. By that fall, he was hoping to trap in the country of the "Ear Bob" people who lived south of the Kootenais. This information probably came from his own French-speaking voyageurs--Thompson always sent men ahead of him to scout the country and get to know the people--and is a reasonable English translation for "Pend Oreille."

Because of business obligations with his company partners, Thompson didn't reach today's Pend Oreille Lake until the fall of 1809, when he built a trade house near modern Hope, Idaho. Thompson called the people who helped him lay out the house site "Flatheads," but then named both the trade house and the lake "Kullyspel." From voyageurs like Michel Boulard, who was learning how to speak the local Salish language, and from visitors who came in while the fur traders were building their post, Thompson gradually figured out that he was dealing with loosely associated bands of people who traveled up and down the large drainage that today we call the Flathead, Clark Fork, and Pend Oreille rivers.

But before the trade house was complete, Thompson and Joseph Beaulieu, another trusted voyageur, headed downstream with a Kalispel "lad" as a guide. Two days later, after passing a "sandy point" on the lake [now the town of Sandpoint] and a falls where Thompson failed to catch any fish [now called Albeni Falls], they arrived at a family encampment near the mouth of Calispel Creek [in the town of Cusick], in early October.

Thompson devoted a few lines in his journal to this key encounter, describing cautious introductions with an elder he named "Le Bon Vieux"--the Good Old Man. The two smoked Thompson's ritual gift of trade tobacco, and the fur agent accepted welcome gifts of dried salmon and roasted camas, which assuaged some of his party's hunger. Alice Blackbear Ignace, a Kalispel elder who passed away in 2006, made a pointed comment after hearing Thompson's version of the meeting: "Why didn't he say anything about the shirt we gave him?" As the story was passed down to her, the white men were hungry and dressed in very ragged clothes when they arrived at the mouth of Calispel Creek. After an introductory smoke, the Kalispel people had presented the head visitor with a nice buckskin shirt before providing him with food.

"And what did he give back for that?" asked Alice Ignace. "Iroquois who came and trapped all the animals out of our creeks. I have to tell you, my grandmother did not like this like David Thompson at all."

Thompson did indeed import Iroqouis trappers to show the Salish people what kind of volume his commercial venture demanded. In spite of that, over the next three years, whenever David Thompson was in Kalispel country, Le Bon Vieux acted as his guide, translator, and intermediary between the traders and other Salish bands. Thompson built another trading post called Saleesh House near Le Bon Vieux's winter camp, just upstream from the confluence of the Clark Fork and Flathead rivers. The fur agent purchased good Indian hemp twine spun by Le Bon Vieux's wife to repair his fish nets. Le Bon Vieux negotiated the price for a Kalispel canoe that Thompson used to move supplies, and guided Thompson through the network of trails that led south to the Spokane country.

During his two winters at Saleesh House, David Thompson spent considerable time with other Kalispel tribal elders as well, including one man he called "The Singer" and another who the traders nicknamed "Cartier." The latter, whose Salish name was rendered as Chen a ma la le, helped Thompson create an English-Salish dictionary of about 400 terms that reveal much about the kinds of trade goods, natural history, and personal interests that were on Thompson's mind during that period. The agent titled this word list "Saleesh & Kullyspell Vocabulary 1810," showing that he was beginning to understand the common language and kinship bonds that held the culture together. Thompson did not name which of his Salish acquaintances provided him with wide-ranging comments on tribal spirituality and natural history that appear in his notebooks during these winters of 1809-10 and 1811-12, but many of these entries demonstrate a combination of close observation and effortless wit that clearly appealed to him. When Alice Ignace heard one of them--"Bears hum when they lick their feet"--she laughed heartily herself. One summer, she said, she was working a dense patch of huckleberries so hard that she crawled right up on a bear that was scrubbing its mouth with a purple paw. Alice imitated how the bear's paw made its lips hum and growl at the same time, then laughed again. "That's the first time I've heard that Thompson guy say something I agree with."

After David Thompson returned to Montreal in 1812, he spent many years drawing five large maps of western North America. All of them include very accurate renditions of the parts of Kalispel country that he traveled through, and somewhat less accurate versions of places such as Priest Lake that he never visited. There is no way to know whether he simply misunderstood his tribal informants, or whether they purposely distorted the information to throw the new intruders off track.

What is known is that Thompson's influence did not end when he left the country. Iroquois trappers first brought to the region by him trapped many pelts over the next few decades. Several of the men who worked for him, including Michel Boulard, Joseph Beaulieu, and his chief clerk Finan McDonald, married Salish women and raised families in the region. And Thompson's words and maps live on to provide fascinating, if slightly warped, picture of what the Pend Oreille country was like two centuries ago, right at the moment of first contact.

David Thompson, ca. 1823
Map of North America from 84º West sheet 7
(detail) lower Saleesh River
Public Record Office, London

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