In early September 1809, fur agent David Thompson greeted 16 men and two dozen horses who arrived at a Kootenai encampment near the modern town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Thompson had been working in the Kootenai country for more than two years already, but his efforts to reach the Salish-speaking lands to the south had been frustrated by ill timing and his lack of knowledge about the country. Now, as he moved along a tribal trail that he called "The Great Road of the Flat Heads," he prepared to take his message of mutually beneficial commerce to the Flathead, Kalispel, Spokane and Coeur d'Alene people.
The dry days of late summer allowed the travelers to easily ford brook after brook that "would have been much wider in high water," and although they had to cut small trees from both sides of the trail to make way for the pack horses, Thompson judged it a "good Road." On Sept. 8, they followed the lower Pack River to the north shore of Pend Oreille Lake, where they soon bagged four geese, three ducks and a sandhill crane for dinner. More tribal people met them there in canoes and directed the party east along the lake shore; Thompson rode on horseback while some of his men struggled with the boats, hauling timbers and trade goods against a nasty wind. They had to put up for one night before continuing on to some extensive pleasant meadows near the delta of the Clark Fork River, where they found a large encampment of several different bands. Thompson recorded that "They all smoked — say 54 Flat Heads, 23 Pointed Hearts & 4 Kootanaes — in all abt 80 men. They then made us a handsome present of dried Salmon & other Fish with Berries & a Chevruil."
This mixed tribal group indicated to Thompson the sort of central location he had been hoping to find, and early the next morning, accompanied by two of his new acquaintances, he explored a peninsula near modern Hope, Idaho, to look for a place to build. He named both the lake and his new post after the Kullyspel (now Kalispel), one of the tribes camped at the meadows. Over the course of the next three years, Thompson also variously referred to these people as Ear Pendants, Ear Bobs and Pend Oreilles.
Thompson's visit must have received advance billing, for the fur men had barely set up their tents before other groups began coming in with hides to trade. The next week was a swirl of activity. Sixteen canoes of Pointed Hearts (Coeur d'Alenes) and 15 "strange Indians from the west" (perhaps San Poil or Okanagan) were followed by two Green Wood (Nez Perce) men with pelts of beaver, muskrat and bear. Thompson gave a demonstration of the way that he wanted different types of skins to be prepared, then encouraged the visitors to hunt beaver and bring them in to trade "by the time the Snow whitens the Ground."
While the surveyor parleyed, his crew began their routine search for birch to make tool handles and pegs, then felled heavy trees to start the warehouse, always the first building to go up around a trading post. They sank post holes in the gravelly earth, squared logs for corner and wall posts, and whittled "needles" (tenons) to secure them to the sills. At Kootanae House on the source lakes of the Columbia, they had used pine bark for roofing, but since the season was not right for peeling the bark cleanly, they split out rough planks of cedar instead. Thompson groused about their difficulty in finding clay of the right consistency to mix with grass for sealing the cracks.
David Thompson had barely hung the door on his new Kullyspel House quarters when he went off "on discovery" to the west with one trusty voyageur named Beaulieu and a young Kalispel guide. The trio rode past Sunnyside Peninsula and the sandy point that later named the lake's largest settlement, then continued downstream past the tribal crossing at Sinyakwateen and the mouth of the Priest River. Thompson fished unsuccessfully in the pools below Albeni Falls, then followed his guide to a small encampment on the site of the modern town of Cusick; there Thompson met Kalispel men and women whom he would travel with over the next three years. While he camped there, a group of Spokane people rode up from the south, providing his first encounter with members of that tribe.
When Thompson returned to his new Kullyspell House, the late summer encampment there was beginning to break up, and he abandoned the post to follow the tribal groups upstream along the Clark Fork River. Near Thompson Falls, Mont., his men constructed a new trading post called Saleesh House, where Thompson would spend the winters of 1809-10 and 1811-12 with many of the same Kootenai and Salish people who had first led him down the Great Road of the Flat Heads.
Salish and Kootenai bands continued to make a late-summer encampment in the meadows around the Clark Fork Delta long after David Thompson departed. They camped there through the age of broken treaties and forced removal, and of the coming of the railroad, even as white settlers trickled in and began to harvest potatoes and cut hay around their tents. Everyone knew the place as Indian Meadows until 1956, when a dam at Albeni Falls drowned the fertile bottoms. At the Hope Community Picnic, held every August at the Sam Owens Campground on the Hope Peninsula, it is still possible to hear tales of 10-year old kids watching the wagons approach the meadows from the east and from the west; of tepees standing up along the stand of cottonwoods that followed the main channel; of an old gray mare that could not keep up with the Indian ponies in spirited races around the fields; of songs wafting up from the lush bottomlands.
Alice Ignace grew up on the Kalispel Reservation, almost 80 miles downstream from Indian Meadows. When she was a young girl in the 1930s, she traveled with her family by horseback and wagon to camp at the meadows for several weeks in late summer.
"My grandmother, she would sure be happy to get to that place," says Ignace, "because there were always lots of good things out there." Her dad would pitch their tepee and set up drying racks with five or six other Kalispel families; they would see friends and relatives from the Flathead country, and other Indians would be there, too. While the men went out hunting and fishing, her grandmother would be picking berries and digging wapato (arrowhead or duck potato). She dried the berries and stored them in baskets or mason jars that she wrapped in cloth for the bumpy ride home. She sliced deer meat and placed it on the racks to dry, then stretched the family's hides so that they could scrape the fat. She split hundreds of whitefish and arranged them to dry as well. "A good hunter always has three racks," Ignace remembers her grandmother saying. "One for meat, one for hides, and one for the fish."
Her grandmother gathered great piles of rushes (tules) to sew together into mats that she used for everything from kneeling pads to placemats to tepee covers. She also cut the red stems of the plant called Indian hemp while she was there. "She would strip all the leaves off each plant, just like that," says Ignace, flinging her hands out like falling leaves. "Then she'd tie them up in a bundle and take them back to Cusick."
At home, her grandmother stored the hemp plants on a rack above the wood stove to get them good and dry, then soaked the stems and pounded them gently with a stone to remove the pith and separate the fibers, which she twisted and braided into a thread or cord that was flexible, stout and extremely durable. If her grandmother needed some extra-strong line, she would braid a strand of sinew right in with the hemp fibers. "She kept making more and more, winding it all up until she had something that looked like a ball of wool yarn," says Ignace. She used that cord to attach her fish lures, to mend her nets and to sew her tules into rain-resistant mats. Sometimes she would walk out into the woods and strip a long piece of bark from a cedar tree and weave it into a basket, then tie off the top with Indian hemp.
When Alice Ignace hears that in January 1812, David Thompson purchased more than 400 feet of Indian hemp cord from a Kalispel woman to mend his fish nets, it doesn't surprise her at all. "It was what my grandmother used for anything that needed to be tied," she says. "That hemp was important to have around. And the plants my grandmother liked best grew at Indian Meadows."
Jack Nisbet's new book, The Mapmaker's Eye (WSU Press), is in bookstores now.