David Thompson records first written description of the Sanpoil Indians and the landscape along the Columbia between Kettle Falls and the mouth of the Sanpoil River on July 3, 1811.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 5/05/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9006

On July 3, 1811, Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770 - 1857) embarks from Kettle Falls on a historic voyage down the Columbia River to the Pacific. In addition to his scientific work as a geographer, Thompson is the fur agent in charge of the Columbia Department of the North West Company of Canada. He is on a mission to determine whether the Columbia is navigable to the sea and whether it will provide a viable trade route for the fur company. Thompson is the first explorer to write a description of the Sanpoil Indians and the Columbia River between Kettle Falls and the mouth of the Sanpoil River on the present-day Colville Indian Reservation, located in Okanogan and Ferry counties.

Thompson spent the last two weeks of June 1811 camped at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River (near the present-day town of that name), where he and his crew constructed a canoe from cedar planks and visited with the array of tribes who had gathered from around the region to fish for salmon. By the 2nd of July, the canoe was finished, its seams were gummed, and Thompson was ready to embark on his historic journey to the coast.

"July 3. Wednesday. After arranging several small affairs, we in number 8 Men with 2 Simpoil [Sanpoil] Indians set off on a voyage down the Columbia River, to explore this River, in order to open out a Passage for the Interiour Trade with the Pacific Ocean" (Nisbet, MME, 102).

The Nor’Westers’ new plank canoe was loaded with a supply of fresh horse meat, a small assortment of trade goods to give as gifts or exchange for food, plus a pack of beaver, bear, and cougar pelts that Thompson was taking "as an adventure" in case he met a trading ship at the mouth of the river. His crew included French Canadian voyageurs Pierre Pareil and Joseph Cote’, his long-time translator Michel Boulard, and free hunters Michel Bourdeaux and Francois Gregoire. Two Iroquois Indians called Charles and Ignace paddled at the bow and stern. Thompson also engaged a Sanpoil Indian couple who had been visiting the falls to serve as interpreters and envoys who could introduce him to the people downstream.

As was his habit when exploring new territory, Thompson supplemented his record of courses and distances with remarks on topography and navigation, such as the severity of rapids and the lengths of portages; he also estimated the population and assessed the trade prospects of the tribes he visited. Thompson knew that he would be making contact with tribes who had not yet been visited by non-Indians, and he made sure to pull ashore at each encampment along the way. At every stop, the furmen were graciously received with gifts of food; they reciprocated with tobacco for smoking and small presents such as rings, hawks bells, beads, gartering, vermilion, awls, and buttons.

"My reason for putting ashore and smoking with the Natives, is to make friends with them, against my return, for in descending the current of a large River, we might pass on without much attention to them; but in returning against the current, our progress will be slow and close along shore, and consequently very much in their power; whereas staying a few hours, and smoking with them, while explaining to them the object of my voyage makes them friendly to us"  (Thompson, Travels, iii. 259).   

During the first day of his journey, Thompson encountered a drastically changing landscape. He had just spent the winter within a dense rain forest on the upper Columbia; downstream from Kettle Falls, the last ponderosa pine trees gave way to the sagebrush country of the central Columbia Basin, where annual precipitation is measured in single digits. The river was wild with runoff from the big snow year, and frequent eddies and whirlpools kept his compass constantly vibrating: "The Courses are not so correct as I could wish" (Nisbet, MME, 104).  

Faced with the standing waves of the Grand Rapids (known today as Rickey Rapids), the voyageurs portaged the heaviest of their cargo around the obstruction, then ran the rapid close to the left bank. They passed the mouth of the Spokane River, where the Columbia takes a sharp bend west.

"The River presented much steep Rock, often in step like Stairs of 20 to 30 feet perpendicular of black greyish Rock, reddened in places," Thompson wrote. "The Current of the River is every where strong, but the water is exceeding high -- when it lowers, I make no doubt but Canoes can very well make their way up it" (Nisbet, MME, 104). Because Thompson was assessing the prospects of the Columbia as a trade route, he was constantly trying to visualize what travel against the current would be like for loaded canoes.

The surveyor estimated that they had covered 70 miles (the actual distance is closer to 90) by late afternoon, when they reached the Sanpoil River and paddled a short distance upstream to camp near a village of the people that he called Simpoils or Spoil-ehiehs (now known as Sanpoils). While Thompson’s party pitched their tents, he dispatched the couple traveling with him to summon their chief, who returned at the head of a procession of men bearing gifts of dried salmon, roots, and berries. After the chief made a speech in a "singing loud smart Tone," Thompson produced tobacco to smoke with the assembled men. While the fourth pipeful was being smoked, the Sanpoil man who had accompanied the Nor’Westers from Kettle Falls "related in a low voice all the News he had heard and seen" while at the falls. The chief then repeated this news to his people: "At the end of every 3 or 4 sentences then he made a Stop, which was answered by all the People calling in a loud drawling voice -- Oy."

After the chief had finished reporting the news, Thompson explained the purpose of his journey, being careful to pause frequently so that the chief could relate his words to the assembled band.  "I then explained to them my object to know how this River was to the Sea, and if good, very large Canoes with Goods of all kinds would arrive, by which they would be supplied with Clothing and all they wanted if they were industrious hunters."

After matters of state were taken care of and a few more pipes were smoked, one of the Sanpoil men asked if the women could bring the furmen a small present. Thompson consented, on the condition that the present did not include any eetoowoy roots -- probably the camas bulbs that were causing violent colic among his men. The women of the village soon arrived, having painted themselves in honor of the occasion, and presented their gifts, which consisted of the dreaded eetoowoy roots along with serviceberries, which proved to be much more to the Nor'Westers' liking: "sweet, wholesome, & nutritious" (Thompson, Travels, iii., 257).   

The Nor’Westers requested a dance, and "all of them young & old, Men, Women & Children began a Dance, to the sound of their own Voices only, having no Instruments of any kind whatever. The Song was a mild simple Music, the cadence measured" (Nisbet, MME, 105). Thompson noted that the older people formed one line and danced in place, while the younger men, women, and children performed a much more vigorous step, mingling "as chance brought them together." After an hour, the chief instructed his people to perform a good luck dance for the travelers, "that we might be preserved in the strong rapids we had to run down on our way to the Sea." This the people did with such eager good will that "the dust of their feet often fairly obscured the Dancers, tho' we stood only about 4 feet from them" (Nisbet, SOTR, 190).

Thompson counted 78 men in the village, and multiplied that number by seven to estimate a population of 546 "souls." Their lodges were constructed of poles, covered with rush mats, "a sufficient defence in this season," Thompson remarked. These were the summer mat houses that the Sanpoils erected at their fisheries during the warm months, with one end left open to shelter drying fish (Miller, 259). Thompson observed that they depended largely on roots and berries for food, plus a small species of salmon that they caught in a weir stretched across a brook. Game animals seemed to be scarce, and many of the people were poorly clothed, "for fisheries give food, but no clothing, whereas hunting gives both" (Thompson, Travels ii., 239)

At the time of European contact, the Sanpoil, who spoke the Okanagan-Colville dialect of Interior Salish, lived along the Columbia between the mouth of the Spokane River and the Swawilla Basin, a few miles downstream from the mouth of the Sanpoil River. Descendants of the tribal band visited by Thompson and his voyageurs now live on the Colville Indian Reservation, in Ferry County, Washington (Miller, 254).

Sources: Barbara Belyea, Columbia Journals (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); Jay Miller, "Middle Columbia River Salishans," in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998); Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker’s Eye  (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River  (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); David Thompson, Notebooks 26 & 27, F443, Archives of Ontario, Toronto; David Thompson, Travels, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Related Topics:   Environment | Exploration | Northwest Indians | Rivers

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