- 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
The winter of 1809-10 found him at still another new post called the Saleesh House, which he built for the Flathead trade on the pine-bordered Clark Fork River near Thompson’s Falls in northwestern Montana. In return for beaver furs and provisions of dried meat, he supplied the Flatheads with their first guns; those Indians, long persecuted by the Blackfeet, who already had white men’s arms, gave a Blackfeet band the surprise of their lives by opening fire on them with the newly acquired “lightning sticks.”
In February, 1810, Thompson referred again to Americans in the area, this time to a mysterious “Mr. Courter,” who had apparently had a post near Missoula and was killed by Blackfeet. Thompson rushed to the scene of his death and helped to halt the looting of the dead man’s property. Who Courter was, or where he came from, is not known, but he might have been a survivor of the Pinch group, because Thompson’s salary payments to the employees of the deceased American indicate that three years’ wages were owed to at least one of the men. In addition, another of Courier’s companions was a man named Rivet, who had accompanied Lewis and Clark during the first year of their expedition, leaving them in North Dakota.
During the spring, Thompson did some more exploring in northeastern Washington, then took his furs back across the Rockies to a company post in central Canada. This time, when he tried to return to the Columbia, he found his route blocked. The Blackfeet were enraged over the arming of the Flatheads and they were determined to put an end to the white men’s trade across the mountains. Their war parties guarded the approaches to the pass Thompson had been using. One of Thompson’s colleagues hit on a scheme for putting the Indians to sleep on “high wine,” a potent mixture of alcohol and water; though they got some of the native watchers “beastly drunk” one night, the plan went awry, and Thompson was forced to look for a new route farther north.
The journey proved to be one of the boldest and most dangerous in Thompson’s career, for in the midst of winter it took him through treacherous glacier fields and towering ranges of mountains, across what is now the Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Aided by Indian and half-breed trappers, he struggled on snowshoes through an unknown country half-hidden by high-altitude clouds and storms. Then, on January 10, 1811, he found the famous Athabaska Pass and eleven days later, worn by the hardships of the trip, he reached the Columbia. He was all for continuing to the coast, but his companions had had enough, and refused to go farther until spring.
It has been suggested by some historians that the detour and delay on the Columbia until the arrival of favorable traveling weather eventually proved costly to British claims to Oregon. The North West Company was aware of the plans of the New York fur merchant John Jacob Astor to send an American trading expedition to the mouth of the Columbia, and it is possible that Thompson had been directed that year to hasten all the way down the Columbia and build a post on the Pacific Coast before the Americans could get there.
Thompson stated in his journal that he would have liked to head immediately down the Columbia, but his party was too small to risk dangers from the unknown tribes it would meet along the way. First, he said, he would have to return to the Flathead country and enlist additional men from among those he had left at his posts. He made no mention, however, of being under orders to hurry to the coast; his failure to bend every effort to get there, once he did start traveling in the spring, supports a conclusion that can be drawn from a North West Company letter, written that year and recently found, stating that the company would establish a post on the Pacific Coast only if it were supported by the dispatch of a man-of-war and protected against the Americans by the erection of a British government fort.
At any rate, Thompson returned to Montana, where he heard of more Americans in the area—again, none of them known to history—and soon thereafter he finally turned to the formidable business of exploring the lower Columbia. He journeyed to Kettle Falls in northern Washington, built a stout cedar canoe, and on July 3, 1811, he embarked on the downriver voyage.
At the mouth of the Snake River, on the dusty sagecovered plains where Lewis and Clark had reached the Columbia six years earlier, Thompson paused to erect a pole and tie a paper to it, claiming possession of the country for Great Britain and announcing his intention of erecting a North West Company post on the site for trade with the Nez Percés, Walla Wallas, and other Indians in the vicinity. Then he hurried on, sweeping down the Columbia and reaching the coast on July 15. He was too late. Astor’s men had arrived at the mouth of the river in March and had already built a fort. The Americans, however, were surprised by Thompson’s appearance from the interior, and their chagrin was great to find that the British were already established among the inland Indians.