British Lieutenant Charles William Wilson received his first taste of Eastern Washington in June of 1860, catching a buggy ride from a Dalles steamboat agent to meet a paddle-wheeler that was about to embark on a trip up the Columbia.
Mr. Koe had a pair of first rate horses & we did the distance, 12 miles over a very hilly and sandy road, in 2 hours & 5 minutes. It was the first time I had ever sat behind a pair of American trotters & I was equally amused & astonished. They drive in the most curious manner; the feet fixed firmly against the splash board, one rein in each hand & the elbows sticking straight out from the body, whilst the head is kept well back; the pace at which they go, especially down hill is terrific, you think you must inevitably be smashed, but I must say they steer beautifully along the worst roads.
Wilson was 24 years old when he took his thrill-ride to Celilo Falls. A native of Liverpool, England, he had already served two years as secretary for the British team of the International Boundary Survey, wrangling supplies from Fort Victoria to Sumas Prairie on the Fraser River. He had learned about mule trains and mosquitos, about thick brush and work crews trying to blaze a boundary swath through Douglas fir trees that measured 30 feet in diameter and rose 250 tall; he had sat through two wet, chilly winters attending fur trade balls and watching gray skies. But Lieutenant Wilson had a nose for real adventure, and what he loved more than anything else was a fast ride on the hunt. His arrival in the open country marked the beginning of many sporting gallops through the bunchgrass.
For the 1860 work season, the Boundary Survey had made arrangements to purchase California mules, ship them up the Columbia via steamboat to Fort Walla Walla, then use the animals to transport necessities overland to Fort Colvile. From there they could distribute goods to the various crews marking the 49th parallel from the Okanogan Valley to the Continental Divide. Lieutenant Wilson was in nominal charge of the pack train and payroll, which sometimes required him to carry large amounts of gold in unseemly situations. But his diary indicates he spent much more time roaming on horseback, eyes attuned to anything that might prove new or exciting.
Wilson reveled in the afternoon winds that blew up the Columbia, and was certainly speaking from experience when he wrote, "If by chance when out shooting you get caught in a sand storm you get nearly suffocated & blinded whilst the sand pricks your face like so many needles going in." He raced coyotes until his horse stumbled in a rabbit hole or the "prairie wolves" left him behind in the dust. He marveled at the malevolent stare of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, shooting them whenever he had the opportunity and slicing one engorged serpent open to find that it had recently fed on two large mice.
Following the ancient tribal route from the Walla Walla River to Kettle Falls, Wilson's mule train crossed the Snake River, then headed up the Palouse with their leader firing away at waterfowl and upland game birds of all descriptions. He became especially fond of the "curlews" (probably long-billed curlews) and "a large kind of dove" (probably band-tailed pigeons, but possibly the now-extinct passenger pigeon). He watched short-eared owls rowing low over the bunchgrass. As soon as Wilson discovered sharp-tailed grouse, his run up Cow Creek past Sprague Lake to the Spokane country proceeded in one ecstatic march of target practice with his double-barreled shotgun: "whir'r! whir-r! bang! bang! went my two barrels."
Enthusiastic as he was for gamebirds, the lieutenant also absorbed other aspects of a country only two years removed from the bitter 1858 Indian wars, and displayed a keen interest in the tumultuous social changes that the boundary survey itself was helping to precipitate. He camped with tribal people at every opportunity, feeling himself completely separate from their hatred of Americans because he was British. Wilson described Spokane Garry's European-style education, his conversion to Christianity and his falling out with both white and tribal leaders on the local scene. Wilson followed the events that would lead to the American Civil War, and, like many Englishmen, clearly favored the Southern cause.
Wilson also had a romantic connection with the landscape: as his party approached the West Plains of Spokane, he watched "the sun going down over the plain behind a bank of clouds, bringing out the edges as if they had been carved with a knife & tipping them with points of gold." Although Wilson was not a trained artist, his watercolor sketches capture his ebullient nature, and convey an immediacy rarely matched in early depictions of the Inland Northwest.
After fording the Spokane River at Lower Crossing (just above the present Long Lake Dam), the pack mules headed north for the Colville country. Back in the forest now, the lieutenant was pleased to discover that
instead of the brush, the grass grows luxuriantly right under the trees & the trees themselves much more scattered, so that you can ride anywhere through the wood. Crossing the Spokane to Walker's prairie... we had a very pretty view of the formation of the country, the deep blue of the limestone cliffs & brilliant red of the pine bark forming such a curious contrast & wonderful appearance.
Upon reaching the Colville Valley, Wilson was surprised to find himself among farmed fields, herds of cattle and real houses for the first time since leaving The Dalles. The settlers living there proved to be a "curious medley" of former fur trade workers and their tribal wives and children: "the old trapper, the voyageur, Canadian, French, Iroquois & amp; half-breeds." Speaking French as he moved through the valley, the lieutenant soon arrived at the Hudson's Bay Company post called Fort Colvile, located on the Columbia at Kettle Falls. Angus MacDonald was the agent in charge, playing the part of a Scottish lord with bagpipes on hand, a placer claim on the Columbia, a Nez Perce wife and a charming teenaged daughter named Christina.
The arrival of Wilson's pack train at Fort Colvile attracted a swirl of visitors, in part to check out the first British soldiers ever seen in the interior. One headman of the Lake Indians "came to pay me a visit & shake hands; he is a most wonderful man & remembers the first whites coming into the country." Kamiakan, "the great war chief, was here too the other day; he was the heart & soul of the last war against the Americans & a finer looking fellow & more graceful rider I hardly ever saw." Spokane Garry reappeared, "...a very shrew, clever fellow; he seems rather unsettled, like all the other Indians." Wilson thoroughly enjoyed the swirl of cultures, but also recognized one of the several reason that Garry and others had to be uneasy. "All this however will I fear soon change; whisky & drunkenness, the invariable companions of American or indeed any soldiers, will soon work a change, & I am afraid not for the better."
Pesky business matters and flooding in the Colville and Pend Oreille valleys trapped Wilson at the fur trade post through July. A spider that he reckoned to be a tarantula "nobbled on my arm," but that did not prevent him from watching tribal fishermen manage the summer salmon run at Kettle Falls.
They hang a basket made of willow or crab apple over the rock at the side of the falls, the salmon in jumping strike their noses against the top part & fall into the basket below; they catch from 700 to 1000 salmon a day in this manner which are equally divided amongst them in the evening by one of the chiefs. The most curious sight is to see them empty the basket, two men strip & jump into it armed with wooden bludgeons with which they knock the salmon on the head & then pass them on to others on shore; it is rather an awkward situation in this same basket as a part of the fall runs right over their heads nearly drowning them.
Wilson did not get started for the field until August 9, crossing the Columbia and following a fur trade trail east to the Okanogan. From there he ascended to Lake Osoyoos, where he described another clever tribal trap for salmon, killed more rattlesnakes, complained about mosquitos and "bull flies" and captured the recently hatched young of a kind of "sandpiper" (possibly a killdeer) in his bare hands.
From there he visited the gold diggings around Rock Creek to witness the fascinating horror of a boom town in full swing. Intrigued by the idea of getting rich off gravel, he described the placer and sluice methods being used to extract gold flakes, comparing them to California styles, and calculated the average rate of return. He also seemed well aware of the wrenching changes that such extraction meant for the landscape and the local tribes.
Wilson returned to Fort Colvile via the Kettle River, which the boundary surveyors called the Nehoialpitku, an approximation of its name in Lakes language. Reveling in abundant hazelnut bushes that provided tasty treats along the lower portion of the river, the lieutenant arrived back at the post in early September. A photographer from the Royal Engineers happened to be visiting Fort Colvile, and the lieutenant was just in time to get his photograph taken "...in my traveling costume: skull cap, leather coat & amp; trousers & moccasins; with my old gun which has been my constant companion on horseback & foot in all my wanderings." An assortment of tribal people and local fur trade figures, including the teenaged Christine MacDonald, posed for the same camera.
The everyday routine of a trade house bored Wilson to tears, and after completing administrative duties he was ready to take off again, this time for the Pend Oreille country. More work and then deteriorating weather delayed his journey until winter finally canceled the jaunt altogether. In early November, the Boundary Survey crewmen were still hunkered down in their tents adjacent to the fur trade post.
Winter has commenced here, the last week we have had some very hard frosts & today it is snowing off & on, the Indians however seem to think we shall have a thaw before the regular downfall of snow, which lies on the ground all winter... we had hard frosts every night which used to turn us out pretty sharp in the mornings; the hoar frost settling on ones face, has a peculiar sensation; getting up in the morning the skin used to feel quite tight & amp; brittle & as if, were one to laugh, the whole would splinter into a thousand small pieces.
Even with a visit to the gold fields upriver at Sheep Creek (opposite modern Northport), Wilson groused about the confinements of the fort, but by Christmas he had settled in to a winter routine: playing cribbage and backgammon; waiting desperately for a mail delivery from the Dalles; thumbing through issues of Punch and the Illustrated London News when the postman finally arrived. For physical amusement he turned to "sleighing & snow shoe walking which is a first rate exercise but very hard work until you become accustomed to it." Wilson also made a habit of talking to local tribal people as he tried to get a feel for the landscape.
I have become great friends with all the Indians about here. They often come to my hut & smoke their pipe & as I begin to pick up some of their language, we hold wonderful conversations together, plenty of hunting & amp; fighting stories some of which are very good.
By February, he wrote, "We have had a very mild winter for this country, the Indians say they hardly remember such an open one."
An "open" winter in those times might look a little different than the ones we experience now. On Valentine's Day, Wilson gathered up the commission's survey instruments and began a horse trek to Fort Walla Walla via the established tribal road that can still be traced along the west side of the Colville Valley. He found the snow three feet deep all across the Spokane Plains, "over which we had to walk & amp; drive the horses in front of us, whilst the wind, which generally blows there hard enough to take the hair off one's head, cut right to the bone almost stopping the circulation." Wilson made it to Walla Walla and caught a steamboat downriver to Portland. From there he shipped to San Francisco, enjoying the pleasures of that big city while waiting for the survey instruments to be repaired and recalibrated for the coming field season. He made his way back to Fort Colvile by the end of April to find an even greater frenzy of gold fever: the upper Columbia and Fraser River rushes remained active, and new strikes had been reported from the Nez Perce country. Under such conditions, the lieutenant found the fur post "decidedly a dull spot to remain in," and was more than happy on May 16, 1861, when "I left our winter quarters at Colvile, popularly known as the 'Penitentiary' from our long & weary winter imprisonment there."
That spring, the British team of the Boundary Survey was supposed to complete their task of cutting a swath and erecting stone and iron cairns to mark the 49th parallel clear to the Continental Divide. In an effort to make up time, the work crews split into three parties: one to tackle the Okanogan section, one to work between the Kootenai and Flathead Valleys, and a third to push east into modern Waterton-Glacier Park in an attempt to top the Continental Divide. Charles Wilson's assignment was to set up an advance depot at Sinyakwateen Crossing on the Pend Oreille River and keep the supplies moving for all three parties.
He left in mid-May, crossing paths with Spokane Garry once again during his first night's encampment near Chewelah. Garry filled the lieutenant in on more bits of his life, including his education at Red River, his role in the 1858 war, and how the Americans had reduced him to poverty by killing all his horses. "He hates them with all the bitter hatred of an Indian," Wilson wrote sympathetically, "and with some reason." A deluge of spring rain caught the party on Chemokane Creek, forcing them to lay over; the downpour failed to keep Wilson from a vigorous hunt for sharp-tailed grouse. On the next day, they reached the Spokane River, descending through lush fields of blue camas, and watched a group of Spokane people put the finishing touches on their season's salmon weir at the mouth of the Little Spokane. Following that river to Peone Prairie, Wilson "had a fine gallop" through open ponderosa and bunchgrass, rejoining the main branch of the Spokane at Antoine Plante's famous ferry crossing. They camped nearby, and Wilson rode down to Plante's house to borrow some milk and butter for his supper. From his campsite, the lieutenant painted one of his finest watercolors, capturing the glow of spring bunchgrass and weathered basalt cliffs on a radiant spring evening around the present Arbor Crest Winery.
On May 23 Wilson found time for more sport as his pack train covered 16 miles across Rathdrum Prairie, fishing for trout on Rathdrum Creek, shooting enough "curlews" (either long-billed curlews or upland sandpipers) for supper, and riding hard. "I had a chase after a wolf on the prairie, but he had too long a start for me and I could not get up with him." The next day's journey, moving north through the Hoodoo drainage toward the Pend Oreille, held even more excitement.
We made 22 miles and camped on the edge of a lake where water birds were breeding in great numbers, cranes, geese, ducks, bittern, great northern divers, grebes, etc etc. We saw a very pretty sight here, a crane valiantly defending her nest against two coyotes or small prairie wolves; they were on the other side of the lake and out of shot, but the whole thing was full in sight; the quick circles of the crane and her darts at the two wolves, who had hard work to keep beyond the reach of her formidable beak... Long after I went to bed I lay awake listening to the wild cries of the wild fowl as they were feeding amongst the rushes.
Wilson reached the Sinyakwateen depot (near Riley Creek Campground at present-day LeClede, Idaho) on May 25, firing away at curlew and sharp-tailed grouse all the way in. He spent the next six weeks there, organizing supplies and shipping them off by mule to their destinations north. In his journal he admitted to having spent the "greater part of my time here shooting, fishing, and bird nesting," by which he meant collecting eggs from nests — a popular gentleman's hobby of the time. His two prizes were the loon and sandhill crane eggs, two birds that must have been common nesters on Lake Pend Oreille at the time. By early July, however, Wilson was chafing at the bit again, bothered by mosquitos and endless delays in the arrival of his newspapers and magazines — "our messenger has brought some wonderful story about the mail having been captured by a southern privateer."
In mid-July he finally started north, mounted on the same dark yellow horse that he had been riding everywhere for the past year and a half — "swift, sure footed, of great endurance and for an Indian horse very high spirited." Wilson was glad to be traveling again, but upset to find that his trail up the Pack River led him away from open country back into the trees.
The whole of the road was over level ground, through a dreary forest in which the underbrush prevented our seeing anything but the narrow trail a few yards in advance of us. At the Pack greatly troubled by mosquitoes and a large fly which bites like a lancet and draws blood freely; we had to keep up large fires, in the smoke of which the poor horses stood, unable to feed from the number of flies and presenting a most melancholy spectacle.
His miseries continued as the party dipped down into the Kootenai drainage and arrived at Chelempta Depot, Bonners Ferry. The Lower Kootenai people he tried to talk to had no understanding of his broken Salish, and the mosquitos continued to buzz around his ears. The entire next week of traveling, which saw the party cut away from the lower Kootenai to the Moyie and Yaak drainages, then rejoin the Kootenai below Kootenai Falls (downstream from Libby, Mont.), was broken only by a glade Wilson discovered that provided good grass for the horses and an abundance of delicious serviceberries for the men, "a most agreeable addition to the never changing pork and bacon." They negotiated the difficult portage around the falls, then slogged their way upstream to the Tobacco River, just south of modern Eureka and the 49th parallel.
Here Wilson recovered his more familiar state of energetic curiosity. Several of the Upper Kootenai he met there spoke Kalispel Salish, so the lieutenant could listen to them describe their spring buffalo hunt and marvel at the many pounds of humps and tongues they had brought back over the Divide with them. As the country opened up again, more grouse appeared, so that he and his new friends "had a most delightful ride over the rolling prairie, occasionally stirring up a grouse or a curlew from the long grass as we rode along." He met more Kootenai returning from successful hunts, and detailed their methods of jerking buffalo meat.
As they moved east toward the North Fork of the Flathead drainage and the lure of the great Rocky Mountains, Wilson met two of his survey team cohorts, including Dr. David Lyall, who had served with legendary Arctic explorer John Franklin. Together they decided to emulate the Kootenai hunters and hop over the Divide to have a look at the Prairies. Nothing could have pleased Wilson more than the spectacular scenery and fine fly fishing around what is now Glacier National Park.
The streams are literally alive with the most delicious trout of all weights, and they are the most ravenous fish I ever met... a young larch tree or a piece of willow for a rod, some 15 or 20 feet of line and a roughly tied fly of grouse feathers are our weapons and though rough are very effectual. Dr. Lyall caught nine dozen fish in four hours.
In the vicinity of Chief Mountain and Waterton Lake, Wilson and Dr. Lyall broke out into a vista of rolling prairie as far as the eye could see. They scrambled down to find plenty of buffalo sign, wolf-chewed bones, and the remnants of Indian encampments, but not a single living animal.
After recrossing the Divide, Wilson and his companions had to skirt a large forest fire on his way to the main survey camp. The lieutenant tarried there only a few days before returning west via the Flathead, Tobacco and Kootenai rivers. It was a summer of forest fires, and smoke filled the air all the way back to Sinyakwateen on the Pend Oreille. Without detailing his exact route, Wilson arrived back at Fort Colvile in the the beginning of October to a cloud of rumors about the Virginia campaign in the American Civil War. He spent much more time, however, tracing out stories about new gold strikes in the Cariboo country, and the hordes of riches to be found upriver.
Although Dr. Lyall was the only other member of the survey team with him at the post, Wilson found entertainment where wherever he could, which included watching agent MacDonald and his family — including the delightful Christine — embark on a hunting expedition, "mounted by twos and threes."
The boundary surveyor crews did complete their tasks, but finished too late in the season to return to Esquimalt, which meant another winter at Fort Colvile for Wilson. The American Civil War was all the talk now, so the lieutenant occasionally visited the American garrison at their post (also named Fort Colville, but spelled the American way with "ll" — the spelling that stuck), to hear the latest news. The American manners did not set well with Wilson's British ways — "they are decidedly a very rough set," he wrote — and his sleigh rides to their post decreased as the winter wore on.
The 1861-62 cold season brought harsh weather that held on without respite.
This has been one of the severest winters any of the people here ever remember, the whole of January was intensely cold, for a week we had the thermometer down at nights to 28 º & 31 º below zero, 60 or 63 degrees below the freezing point, a most disagreeable time for us as we cannot warm our rooms up & it stops all work, everything frozen as solid as iron even to wine & treacle became thick like insufficiently boiled toffee... Even the mighty Columbia is frozen over at places & one can walk across on the ice just above the Falls & hear the roar of the water rushing underneath; the high falls of the stream which runs through the Colville valley are frozen solid & are a very curious sight.
As late as March 6, Wilson could still describe the shape of the Columbia River and Meyers Falls in terms that sound like one of Franklin's doomed polar expeditions.
The river has been frozen over for two months & after I shook off my cold I made several expeditions across, in one place the ice was heaped up to a height of twenty feet with deep crevices running through it & we had good fun scrambling about amongst the huge blocks; the river was frozen nearly to the edge of the fall the rush of water & blocks of ice under the frozen surface made a most disagreeable noise under the feet though it was so firm any number of waggons might have driven over. The high falls of the Mill creek running through the Colville valley were frozen hard as iron & were very beautiful. Two unfortunate men have been frozen to death near here, another has lost his feet.
The snow was still piled up on April 2, when Wilson and Lyall took their leave of the Columbia. Wilson, whose friendly ways had proved attractive to many of the local people, had plenty of goodbyes to say; like many of his contemporaries, the lieutenant assumed that he was witnessing some of the last gasps of Plateau tribal culture. "Whisky and civilization are doing their work quickly and surely amongst them; in twenty year's time they will be a matter of history."
They slogged through deep snow all the way down Chemokane Creek and across the West Plains of Spokane, but winter finally lightened up around Sprague Lake, where they had fine sport shooting migrant ducks and geese. Charles Wilson left our country exactly as he had entered it, in a clatter of hoofbeats and gunshots: "Whir-r! whir-r! Bang! Bang! with both barrels."
In his last journal entries before shipping from Vancouver Island, Wilson expressed interest in returning to the Pacific Northwest so he could expand his studies of tribal culture. He proved he was serious when, in 1865, he delivered a paper to the London Ethnological Society, detailing what he had seen of the Cowichan, Salish and Kootenay tribes during his sojourn with the Boundary Commission and including perceptive vocabularies of Kalispel Salish and Kootenai languages. By then he had been promoted to captain, and would soon be dispatched to the Middle East, with orders to begin a detailed land survey of Jerusalem. He followed that assignment by serving tours in Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula and Asia Minor. Between stints in charge of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, Wilson was promoted to colonel and knighted in 1881. His career took a nosedive, however, when he commanded troops at the Battle of El Gubat on the Nile in 1885; after the campaign ended, he was named as one of several officers whose delays in action had led to the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum.
Yet the energetic Wilson proved resilient against even that setback. He continued to serve in the military until 1898, and continued to travel in Palestine as late at 1904, searching for Biblical sites such as Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre. When he died in Kent, England, in 1905, at age 69, he had witnessed strife, cultural sea changes and spirited hunting on four different continents, riding hard the entire way.