Follow the Fur Trappers' Footsteps

It's a bit of a stretch, but you could say this place we call home is here because 19th-century English dandies liked really soft hats. Sure, it's certain the Pacific Northwest would have been settled somehow, but as it happens, the first white people came here to trap beavers, whose pelts were used to make prized felts. The British Empire settled the world, it seems, in order to bring home exotic new goods. The Caribbean was colonized for sugar plantations so that tea — from China — would go down easier back in London. Colorful new fabrics came from India, and opium from other points around the Far East.

Using riverboats, canoes and their own two legs, fur trappers ranged over vast lands — all the way from Hudson's Bay to the mouths of the Columbia and Fraser rivers. And they set up trading posts along the way. Just north of Spokane, we've got one of the most important sites, Spokane House, which, in 1810, became the first white settlement in what would become Washington state.

Along with the many vestiges of trading posts, highways are littered with point-of-interest markers, too. Some will make your jaw drop, like the one on the Banff-Jasper Highway that encourages you to look up at the insane Athabasca Pass and imagine fur trapper David Thompson crossing it. In the winter. With women, children and horses in tow.

David Thompson is among the best remembered — perhaps because he bothered to write it all down, but also because his exploits were amazing. It was one of his own maps, in fact, that was used by Lewis and Clark to get them started on their journey.

The MAC is mounting a major David Thompson exhibit to open in October 2005. But even sooner than that — this summer, in fact — Thompson-mania will be hitting the Inland Northwest in the form of a musical. The world premiere of DownRiver! will be staged at the Halstead Middle School in Newport, Wash., on July 10-11. On July 14, it will be staged at the Kalispel Reservation powwow grounds in Usk, Wash. On July 17, it will be at the MAC in Spokane, and then it will have a three-day run, July 23-25, at the Cutter Theater in Metaline Falls, Wash. Backers of the show plan to make it an regular summertime event in Pend Oreille County. For details, call 509-447-9277.

Spokane writer Jack Nisbet has penned the classic David Thompson book, Sources of the River. If you're going to follow in the trappers' footsteps this summer, it's a fun read. Another good one is Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell, who was a real trapper back in the 1830s.

The remnants of the fur trade are all around the Pacific Northwest. And in the summertime, this history comes to life as the region's many fur trapper brigades stage encampments at the various historical sites. These men and women are a little bit like the Civil War reenactors, but instead of combat, they recreate what life was like for the fur trappers. Mark Weadick of Coeur d'Alene has been involved in the hobby for years, and he's currently preparing for an encampment at Spokane House on June 19-20.

"The thing that appeals to me most about that era is the individual freedom of the time. You were really on your own hook to make your living," says Weadick, who is a fur trapper and forester in real life. "Along with that, the country was... I'll call it 'pristine' in terms of wildlife and other resources."

Weadick is also a member of a group called Friends of Spokane House, whose goal is a full reconstruction of the trading post as it existed in 1823. "For a year now, we've been working on a scale model, using all of the available documentation, from archaeological digs and journals kept at the time."

Soon, they'll pass their work on to Riverside State Park, the caretaker of Spokane House, in hopes that grant money can be found to create a proper historical site.

But on June 19-20 (from 10 am-5 pm), visitors can listen to Weadick and his fellow brigadiers — all dressed to the period — tell what life was like for fur trappers. They'll demonstrate weapons and even replica boats — if the river isn't running too fast. There's also an informative interpretive center on the site that's open through Labor Day.

Among the other sites worth considering, Fort Vancouver might be the best. Operated by the National Park Service in Vancouver, Wash., it's a huge recreation of the Hudson's Bay Co. headquarters. It was operated continuously for various purposes between 1825-1945. The fort features a series of events on the first Friday of each month, and their own trapper encampment is also on June 19-20.

Just east of Vancouver, B.C., is Fort Langley, which was built on the Fraser River in 1827. British Columbia officially became a Canadian province at Fort Langley in 1858. Their Fur Brigade Days are July 31-Aug. 2.

Rocky Mountain House sits within sight of the east slopes of the Canadian Rockies, between Calgary and Edmonton. First established on the North Saskatchewan River in 1799, it features an extensive collection of artifacts. On summer weekends, Rocky Mountain House offers a puppet show depicting David Thompson's exploits, and Brigade Days are July 10-11.

Fort Nisqually is a fully recreated trading post in Tacoma. When it was established in 1833, it became the first white settlement on Puget Sound. Later, it became a major agricultural operation, too. Fort Nisqually's brigade encampment is Aug. 14-15.

Finally, for something a little closer to home, Old Mission State Park hosts its annual Mountain Man Rendezvous on Aug. 20-22. Although the North Idaho site of the 1848 Cataldo Mission is a religious site with little fur trapping significance, it's a great place for the event. Living history will also be on display at Cataldo for the Historic Skills Fair on July 11, when visitors can gain a deeper appreciation of the lives led by the region's first settlers.

Publication date: 06/10/04

Wallace Huckleberry Festival @ Wallace

Fri., Aug. 19, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sat., Aug. 20, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...