Lake Roosevelt
Administrative History
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When Rivers Ran Free
This was our country. God created this Indian Country, and it was like he spread out a big blanket, and he put the Indians on it. The Indians were created here in this country, truly and honestly, and that was the time our rivers started to run. Then God put fish in the rivers, and he put deer and elk in the mountains and buffalo upon the plains, and roots and berries in the field, and God made laws through which there came the increase of fish and game. When the Creator gave us Indians life, we awakened and as soon as we saw the fish and the game we knew that they were made for us. For the men God gave the deer, the elk and the buffalo to hunt for food and hides; for the women God made the roots and the berries for them to gather, and the Indians grew and multiplied as a people, and gave their thanks to the Creator. When we were created we were given our ground to live on, and from that time these were our rights.

--Statement of Colville and Okanogan Chiefs, 1925

Native or aboriginal people have lived in the Upper Columbia region for over 9,000 years. Extensive archaeological excavations of several sites at Kettle Falls suggest seven distinct periods that show times of relative abundance alternating with periods of scarcity. The salmon fishery at Kettle Falls, so significant in historical times, varied in importance for these early people; during one prolonged period, heavy flooding interrupted the salmon runs, forcing people to depend on other available food sources. Approximately 3,400 years ago, however, after salmon reestablished their runs as far as Arrow Lakes and eventually to Columbia Lake in British Columbia, people once again exploited this resource at Kettle Falls. The activity increased dramatically about 2,600 years ago, and the fishery became a prominent gathering place where people from a wide region came to fish, trade, and socialize. By the time of contact (when Indians first encountered non-Indians), Salish speakers at the falls included the Shwayip (Colville), whose territory encompassed the Columbia River from the fishery at Kettle Falls upriver to the Little Dalles (south of Northport) and downriver to the Inchelium area; the Sinaikst (Lakes) people, with lands to the north; the Sanpoil, with lands to the southwest; and the Okanogan even farther west. Those speaking Flathead dialects of the Salish language included Spokane, Kalispel, Flathead, and Chewelah, while the Kutenai spoke a language unrelated to others in the region. [2]

Indians of the Upper Columbia region felt the impact of Euroamericans long before contact. Horses, first brought to the American Southwest by Spaniards, gradually moved north through inter-tribal trading and arrived in the Columbia Plateau region ca.1730-1750. These animals dramatically increased the mobility of many tribes and enabled some to travel east to the Plains region to hunt buffalo. A more insidious harbinger of Euroamericans arrived in the form of epidemics that decimated large numbers of native people. The first outbreak of smallpox in the Colville region hit in 1782-1783, prior to any direct contact with non-Indians. In the mid-nineteenth century, a rapid succession of both smallpox and measles epidemics between 1846 and 1853 killed many Indians and further weakened the tribes. [3]

Following early Spanish and Russian claims along the Pacific coast, American and British interests spent several decades vying for control of valuable lands and resources of the Pacific Northwest. The initial attraction was furs, especially for the lucrative sea otter trade with China. Farther inland, beavers were prized for their pelts; the soft underfur was felted and turned into top hats, a popular fashion accessory of the day.

Fur traders approached the Inland Northwest from both east and west. The first to document his travels through the region was David Thompson, an experienced explorer, map maker, and trader with the Canadian-based North West Company. He had two primary objectives as he moved into the region: establishing a chain of trading posts and exploring the Columbia River to its mouth. Thompson and his small group of men built Kullyspell House on Lake Pend Oreille and Saleesh House farther up the Clark Fork River in the fall of 1809. Spokane House, near the junction of the Little Spokane and Spokane rivers, followed the next year. [4]

Thompson spent his limited time in the region exploring and mapping trails and river courses. His arrival at the Columbia River in June 1811 added Euroamericans to the diverse mix of cultures already found at Kettle Falls. The salmon season was about to begin, and Thompson was impressed with the village he found at Ilthkoyape (his transcription of the native name for Kettle Falls). He described sheds about twenty feet wide and from thirty to sixty feet long, made from boards hand-split from large cedar logs. These structures had a covering of boards and mats to protect the salmon being smoke-dried on poles inside. [5]

Indians fishing from platform and rocks at Kettle Falls
Indians fishing from platform and rocks at Kettle Falls, no date. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO 3245).

Later observers described the activities at the fishery. Artist Paul Kane visited in August 1847 at the height of the salmon run when the fish moved in "one continuous body . . . more resembling a flock of birds than anything else in their extraordinary leap up the falls, beginning at sunrise and ceasing at the approach of night." Father Pierre Jean DeSmet watched men catching up to three thousand salmon each day, using spears and J-shaped baskets placed in the falls. After cleaning and filleting the catch, the women hung the fish to dry in the sheds. Excess fish were used later for trading. [6]

Thompson built a canoe while visiting the busy fishery and then launched his voyage down the Columbia, reaching the Pacific Ocean in July 1811. To his great disappointment, he found that upstart Americans from the Pacific Fur Company already had established Fort Astoria. Two Astorians who accompanied him on his return trip up the Columbia built three posts, two of which competed directly with ones previously established by Thompson. These included Fort Okanogan (1811) at the mouth of the Okanogan River; Fort Spokane (1812), just a stone's throw away from Spokane House; and another post (1812) near Saleesh House. The rivalry was short-lived, however. The outbreak of the War of 1812 helped convince the Astorians to sell their assets to the North West Company, which in turn merged with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1821. [7]

Within a short time, HBC officials decided to cut expenses by moving the district headquarters from Spokane House to Kettle Falls. Sir George Simpson, HBC Governor in North America, preferred the new location for its easy access to the Columbia River as well as its agricultural potential. He negotiated with an Indian leader who gave a tract of land for a trading post but refused to share the Kettle Falls fishery. The Spokane Indians were unhappy with the loss of a post in their territory. "The Spokans [sic] will not be pleased at the removal of the fort," Simpson wrote to HBC employee John Work in April 1825. "You must secure the Chiefs with a few presents besides fair words." [8]

Construction of Fort Colvile began in August 1825 but proceeded slowly, due in part to the apparent ineptitude of some of the crew. The new quarters were ready by the following spring and provided a log stockade surrounding a number of log buildings, constructed in the post-and-sill style common to HBC posts. Simpson described Fort Colvile in the early 1840s as "cleaner and more comfortable" than any other fort between there and the Red River. [9]

Simpson's belief in the agricultural potential of the Colville Valley proved accurate. By 1841 the HBC farm spread over two hundred acres, two-thirds of which grew crops of wheat, potatoes, barley, oats, corn, peas, and garden produce. The company's cattle herd had increased from the initial bull and two heifers in 1825 to nearly two hundred by 1841. Farm facilities expanded in 1830 with the construction of a water-powered grist mill on the Colville River. In addition to supplying its own needs, Fort Colvile sold cheese, butter, and pork to the Russians at Sitka, Alaska, and sent flour, cornmeal, pork, and other products to HBC operations throughout the Pacific Northwest. [10]

Fort Colvile buildings
Fort Colvile buildings, no date. Note the post-and-sill construction of the log structures. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO 2443).

HBC's principal business was not farming, of course, but furs, and it enlisted the local Indian population in this endeavor. Indians did most of the trapping in the Colvile District, trading pelts from beaver, otter, muskrat, bear, marten, and other animals for weapons (knives, guns, and ammunition), tools (traps, axes, and firesteels), domestic items (wool blankets, cotton cloth, mirrors, and beads), and tobacco. HBC generated considerable money from this trade. "We made an enormous profit on the Indian trade," wrote HBC employee Ross Cox in 1832. Traders would exchange a gun, worth approximately $6, for twenty beaver pelts, worth $40 to $50 each. Similarly, a couple of yards of cloth, worth less than $1, traded for eight skins. [11]

The trade relationship altered many aspects of traditional native life. Indians quickly became dependent on traders for material goods, particularly ammunition and tobacco. Although Fort Colvile was not a traditional winter camp, it attracted Indians who began to winter nearby, taking food from the traders during hard winters such as 1830-1831. Gifts of food and tobacco to chiefs and other Indian leaders gradually eroded the power of traditional leaders until the HBC traders became authority figures in the region. HBC employees encouraged the men to trap during the usually sedentary winter months, with varying success. Prostitution, drinking, and gambling-induced poverty all had negative impacts on traditional culture. On a more positive side, intergroup warfare appears to have decreased after traders arrived. Paradoxically, the acquisition of guns and ammunition put the Interior Salish on a more even footing with the Plains tribes. [12]

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2003