- Historic Sites
A Man to Match the Mountains
To David Thompson—who died blind, penniless, and bypassed by history—we owe our first knowledge of the American continent’s rugged Northwest
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
This is a significant addition to history. The only Americans known to be heading for the west at that time, one year after the departure of Lewis and Clark from the Columbia, were a group of fur trappers under a St. Louis trader named Manuel Lisa. But at that moment, Lisa’s men were still far east, on the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. One could assume that the Kutenais might have heard of this party, or had gotten their information mixed up, save for the fact that Thompson’s messengers also gave him a letter from the Americans, a copy of which Thompson sent back east across the mountains.
The letter was dated “Fort Lewis, Yellow River, Columbia, July 10, 1807” (when Manuel Lisa and his men were even farther down the Missouri, near the mouth of Nebraska’s Platte River) and was signed by “James Roseman, Lieutenant” and “Zachary Perch, Captain & Commanding Officer,” and listed American regulations for foreigners who were trading with Indians in territory claimed by the United States. The signers said they were sending Thompson the regulations under “Power delegated to us by General Braithwaite Commander of all the new ceded Territories northward of the Illinois,” and added that they had heard about Thompson’s trip to trade in the Columbia basin from informants among the Mandans.
U.S. Army records reveal no Lieutenant James Roseman, Captain Zachary Perch, or General Braithwaite, but Thompson’s entry takes on even greater drama when it is realized that the position ascribed to “General Braithwaite” was actually held at the time by General James Wilkinson, a master of intrigue and deceit, who was deeply involved in the Aaron Burr conspiracy to establish an empire in the West. Moreover, the regulations given to Thompson closely paralleled advice that had been given by Lieutenant ZebuIon Pike to some British traders in northern Minnesota during the winter of 1805-06. Pike had drawn up those regulations in the field, but had given a copy of them to Wilkinson, his commanding officer, when he returned to St. Louis.
On December 24, 1807, Thompson received a second letter from the Americans, who revealed that they were with the Nez Percé Indians of Idaho and had had a fight with the Atsinas, allies of the Blackfeet, and had suffered losses. This letter was signed “Jeremy Pinch Lieut.” and, blaming Thompson for arming the Atsinas and causing the Americans their difficulties, threatened him with force if he did not withdraw “with a good grace” from the country. Thompson sent the Americans an answer to this letter, saying that he was “neither authorized nor competent” to discuss the question of who owned the Columbia country, and he forwarded a copy of Pinch’s letter to his superiors east of the mountains, adding that “This officer was on a party of Discovery when he wrote the above.”
Thompson’s journals make no further reference to Jeremy Pinch, who is not listed in army records either, but British archives reveal that Pinch and the mysterious expedition received mention in correspondence in the 1840’s during British-American negotiations over Oregon. In addition, later journal entries by Thompson, as will be seen, and also maps made by other Canadian fur men, indicate that some unknown Americans were actually in the country at this time, and had a post near what is now Missoula, Montana.
Pinch, Roseman, and Perch might have been western militia officers, or the pseudonyms of Army Regulars, possibly on a private exploring and trading venture for Wilkinson disguised as an official government mission. A study of General Wilkinson’s intrigues in St. Louis shows a number of references to private expeditions he planned to send up the Missouri, as well as correspondence that raises doubt as to whether the United States government was aware of his dispatch of Zebulon Pike’s expedition to the southern Rockies in that same year of 1807 until it was well under way. Unlike that of Pike, however, the fate of the Pinch group is not known, but further study of the shadowy and little-known figures revealed by Thompson and other early Canadian traders as having been in the Northwest soon after the time of Lewis and Clark might uncover evidence of a western debacle that has never been recorded.
In the spring of 1808, Thompson started the first of many exploration trips through the Columbia country. Before winter settled in, he sent several of his men under a big, red-bearded clerk named Finan McDonald to establish a trading post on the Kootenai River in Montana. McDonald pitched two skin tepees and built a log storehouse opposite the site of Libby in northwestern Montana. It was the first structure built by whites in the state.
During the next summer, 1809, Thompson also went off to Lake Pend Oreille, where on September 10 he built the Kullyspel House, the first white establishment in Idaho. From this trading post, he explored east and west into mountainous Montana and Washington, making the first white contacts with many Indian tribes.