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Bicentennial set for European explorer David Thompson

SPOKANE, Wash. – Plans are now in the works for a bicentennial commemoration of another early European explorer, David Thompson. Indian tribes along his route are being asked to participate to present their views and thoughts about the impacts of this expedition.

Thompson’s exploration was very different from that of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He spent years living among various tribes, learning their ways and some of the language. He established trading posts and encouraged the trading of furs while accurately mapping much of Canada.

His early career was with the Hudson’s Bay Company and he wintered with the Piegans in 1787 near the Rocky Mountains. After joining the North West Company he traveled to Mandan villages in 1798; and in 1799 married Charlotte Small whose mother was a Cree, a marriage that was to last for 58 years.

Thompson arrived on the upper Columbia River shortly after Lewis and Clark. He and his people did it in a very different way, traveling most of the distance through Canada before descending into what is now the United States near the Idaho/Montana border.

Thompson was in Canada on the headwaters of the Columbia River in 1807 and dropped down to the northern end of Pend Oreille Lake in 1809, where he established Kullyspell House, a trading post and the first non-Indian structure in Idaho. It was named for the local tribe, which is now known as the Kalispel Tribe. Shortly later he established another trading post near Thompson Falls, Mont., which he called Saleesh House, along a route used by several tribes while traveling to the buffalo country of Montana.

In the spring of 1810 he directed Jaco Finlay, his clerk, to build Spokane House near where the town of Nine Mile Falls now sits. Each of these posts was built to trade with the local tribes, bringing them a variety of items in exchange for furs. In 1811 he traveled all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River and thus charted the river’s entire length.

Planning meetings in preparation for the bicentennial have recently been held in various locations including a couple in Spokane at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. John Sirois, cultural preservation administrator for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, presented some thoughts on tribal culture and the impact Thompson’s expedition had on tribal life and culture at one of these recent meetings.

“Before Thompson arrived, a lot of our medicine people foretold to us some of the coming changes, transitions, disasters, diseases and things that were going to happen to us,” Sirois explained. “By the time Thompson arrived many of these villages had lost half their population. There would be more plagues later on but we were sort of on a rebound when he arrived.

“Thompson’s arrival was just another step in that transition that we’ve had to deal with and adapt to,” Sirois said. “Thompson brought with him new tools which aided the tribes with their old tools and knowledge. Trapping was another way to feed your family, another ability to prepare for yourself,” he commented. “Thompson was one of the first non-Indian people that this area had seen. It’s astounding – 1811 – that’s just under 200 years since the first contact,” he exclaimed.

“Whatever his reasons for coming, he sought to make relationships and understand who the Indian people were that he was going to deal with,” Sirois observed. “As a result, that allowed him access to a lot more communities and a better understanding of who these people were.”

Others will have different views of Thompson, as has been the case with Lewis and Clark. The commemorations will be much more subdued during this bicentennial but will provide tribes along his route the opportunity to get their own messages out.