By late fall in 1812, Clarke’s “Spokan Fort” seemed on track for success. Then, sometime around Thanksgiving, the Nor’Westers’ fall supply run from eastern Canada arrived with the news that the United States had declared war on Great Britain the previous June, and that a British warship was en route for the Columbia. After a Pacific Fur Company messenger carried word downriver to Astoria, a cloud of uncertainty descended over the whole Astorian enterprise. The Americans realized that their small fort at the mouth of the Columbia would be defenseless in the face of the Royal Navy. After several rounds of negotiations, the Pacific Fur Company sold their inventory to the North West Company and prepared to return east, with the understanding that any of Astor’s employees who wished could transfer to the Canadian company.
In November 1813, the Nor’Westers moved their stock from their original house to the moreexpansive Spokan Fort. A young Irish clerk named Ross Cox found life at the Spokane headquarters quite agreeable. During the winter months, the river provided tasty sucker fish for sustenance, and spring steelhead were followed by rich runs of Chinook salmon; according to Cox, the residents “breakfasted on fish and dined on horse.” The traders planted a large garden of turnips, potatoes, cabbages, melons, and cucumbers. In the summer of 1814, bateaux ferried a rooster, three hens, three goats and three hogs upriver from Astoria. Someone captured a bear cub and housed it in the pig sty. There it was “fed daily by one of our Canadians, of whom he became very fond, and who in a short time taught him to dance, beg, and play many tricks, which delighted the Indians exceedingly.”
Summer at the post, Cox wrote, was occupied with “hunting, fishing, fowling, horse-racing and fruit-gathering; while reading, music, backgammon &c. formed the evening pleasures of our small but friendly mess.” Spokane House became known as a delightful place, a “centre of attraction” with handsome buildings and fine horses that the traders delighted in racing against Indian ponies on a nearby flat.
Ross Cox described meeting the headman of the Middle Spokane band, known to the whites as Ilum-spokanee, and visited their nearby village, noting that “some houses were oblong, others conical, and were covered with mats or skins, according to the wealth of the proprietor.” He learned of the ongoing barter for horses between the Spokanes and the Nez Perce Tribe while remarking that the Spokanes would never kill a horse for their own food, although they supplied animals for the fur traders’ table.
THE H. B. C.
In 1821, the North West Company merged with their primary rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in London. At first, little changed at Spokane House. A single surviving post journal, kept by Finan McDonald and another clerk from April 1822 to April 1823, provides a detailed look at everyday life at the post. A stream of different Plateau tribes visited from across the region. Relationships between these native people and the fur men were almost always amicable, and the gates to the stockade were only shut for a single night during that entire span. Many of the clerks and workers were married to Plateau women, who helped tend the gardens and prepare fish and hides.
The traders and the Spokane Tribe operated separate fishing weirs, and the tribal fishermen always seemed to catch more salmon, trout, steelhead and suckers in theirs. In one of the only tense moments recorded in the journal, a hot-tempered Finan McDonald wrecked the canoe of a Spokane man who dared to spear fish below the company weir. The canoe owner responded by tearing down a section of fence around Finan’s potato garden before cooler heads prevailed.
During the summer of 1822, workers at the post were busy with a major remodel of the 10-year-old buildings, including a new boathouse and defensive measures.
But the following fall, when Nicholas Garry, governor of Hudson’s Bay Company, visited Spokane House, he was not happy with the lifestyle he observed there: “The good people of Spokane District generally have shown an extraordinary predilection for European provisions without considering the enormous price it costs…. They may be said to have been eating Gold,” Garry wrote.
The next spring, after a consultation with Finan McDonald and other clerks, the governor decided to abandon the newly remodeled post and move its operations to a new location at Kettle Falls, to be called Fort Colvile. The logic was clear: The move would place the district headquarters on the Columbia’s main stem and eliminate costly horse brigades to the mouth of the Spokane; the salmon at the Kettle Falls were even more abundant than those at Spokane House; outposts in the Kootenai and Flathead country could be easily supplied. The only difficulty the governor saw in taking leave of Spokane House was that “it may give offence to the Spokan Indians who have always been staunch to the Whites.”
Before departing, the governor obtained permission from Ilum-Spokanee to carry his young son east to attend school at the Red River Colony (near modern Winnipeg, Manitoba), in order to help the transition of the Spokane people into the modern world. The youngster was baptized with the name of Spokane Garry. When the fur brigade left that spring, the lad was tucked in among the season’s fur packs, bound for eastern Canada.
By the spring of 1826, most of the trade goods and equipment had been ferried to the new Fort Colvile. The blacksmith and cook were collecting the last bits of iron from the place, right down to the door hinges. The clerk in charge of the move from Spokane commented that “the Indians much regret our going off,” but when he returned during the summer fishing season, he found most of the people working at their traditional fishing barrier — and taking in 700 or 800 salmon per day.
The abandoned Spokane House buildings were apparently bequeathed to Jaco Finlay. Over the next two years, Jaco, Teshwintichina and a variety of offspring greeted numerous visitors traveling along the trails near the post. Jaco died in spring 1828 at the age of 60. According to tribal accounts, he and his effects were buried beneath a bastion at the corner of the old stockade.
Eight years later, when a Protestant missionary stopped by the site, he reported “a very pleasant, open valley, though not extensively wide. The North-west Company had a trading post here, one bastion of which is still standing.” Apart from that single bastion, the confluence must have looked much as it had when Jaco first rode into the cluster of tule mat lodges in 1810.
When a new wave of white settlers began building the city of Spokane in the 1870s, many made the trek nine miles downstream to survey the old Spokane House site, and pioneer reminiscences and tribal oral histories about the fur trade era surfaced regularly in local newspapers. For three years beginning in 1950, archaeological explorations on the site confirmed some of that history. During the second year of research, the diggers — working on a tip from a local historian who had listened to tribal stories — uncovered a bastion on the northwest corner of the old post’s footprint. Beneath the square, the crew found a rotted coffin that contained human bones as well as a comb, a tin drinking mug, a hunting knife, part of a writing slate, three brass buttons, a pair of reading spectacles and five smoking pipes — one of them incised with the initials JF. The remains were declared to be those of Jaco Finlay, and were reinterred in 1976.
Today, a memorial brass plaque marking Jaco Finlay’s grave is surrounded by colored steel beams delineating the outlines of the posts built in 1812 by the Pacific Fur Company and later enlarged and remodeled by the North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies. The exact location of the original small trade house constructed by Jaco Finlay in the summer of 1810 has never been definitely determined.
Perhaps, however, the legacy of that first Spokane House lies not so much in its precise location as in its human impact. A large number of current citizens across the region count the men on the payrolls of the North West, Pacific Fur and Hudson’s Bay Company as their ancestors. In a very real sense, Jaco Finlay, Finan McDonald, and their Spokane House cohorts marked the beginning of the Inland Northwest that we know today.
The Spokane House Bicentennial “Living History Fur Trade Encampment” — complete with historical reenactors, flintlock shooting and a cannon salute — on Saturday-Sunday, June 19-20, from 10 am-5 pm at Spokane House Interpretive Center, Hwy. 291, Nine Mile Falls, Wash. Visit friendsofspokanehouse.com. Spokane author Jack Nisbet wrote more about David Thompson in his book Sources of the River.