1812 Trip to Saleesh Lake

Visit to Saleesh (Flathead) Lake

David Thompson's March 1, 1812 trip

Saleesh Lake
During the final weeks of trading from Saleesh House, Thompson and his men concentrated their efforts on picking up as many furs and as much pemmican as was available before heading back across the Rocky Mountains. Those efforts were focused on the Saleesh, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille bands wintering on the prairies in the vicinity of Dixon, MT located at 47 18' 58" N, 114 18' 52" W. His camp was located at or very near the location of Old Agency, MT at 47 19' 44" N, 114 17' 45" W.

Although he never mentioned anything in his journal about leaving the Columbia Department of the North West Company (NWCo) and retiring from the fur trade, I believe his intention to do so were apparent. I based my belief on journal entries from his final days in Saleesh country.

On February 25, 1812, Thompson set out with a Kootenai guide named Pierre Gaucher aka Le Gauche (Lefthand) to view and to write extensive notes about what is now the Missoula Valley and the Hell Gate Canyon — Thompson's Defile of Courter. Two days later he was back at his camp at Old Agency. Seeing that business efforts were going as planned, on March 1st he decided to take a look at Saleesh (Flathead) Lake and the surrounding country.

On July 23, 1926, T.C. Elliott and J.B. Tyrrell arrived in Kalispell, MT. Their purpose for being there was to identify the location of the "high knowl" which David Thompson described as the place from where he viewed Saleesh Lake and the surrounding country on his March 1st trek. They gave a presentation on the subject at the Elk's Temple that same evening.

On July 26, the two men along with an entourage motored to a spot approximately three miles east of Polson — a knoll about a quarter of a mile southeast of Bird Point on the line between sections 1 and 6 at an elevation of 3,023 feet at 47 41' 59" N, 114 5' 31" W. In the remainder of this OBServation we will refer to this spot as the E/T (Elliott/Tyrrell) Location

For almost 100 years, this spot has been accepted as the place where David Thompson stood to view the lake for the first time. However, Linda and I have a different theory. We based our research on Thompson's journal entries followed by trips to the field to view the landscape and see how closely it matched the journal descriptions. After our field work, we feel confident that the E/T location is not the knoll described and visited by Thompson.

David Thompson, Saleesh House
At approximately 1:30 PM on March 1, 2012, 200 years ago almost to the hour when Thompson arrived at the top of his knowl, Linda and I stood on top of the E/T knoll with about 30 other people to commemorate Thompson's trip to see the lake. The event was sponsored by the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum and I was asked to say a few words about the famed explorer/surveyor who supposedly stood here 200 years ago. The group had a great on-site discussion about Thompson's visit. That evening, I gave a PowerPoint presentation revealing for the first time the contrarian information provided here. That's me in the beaver hat and red blanket shirt. Linda was busy taking pictures.

A very significant point when considering if this is the correct location is that from the top of the E/T knoll, you cannot see the high knoll we believe to be where Thompson and Le Gauche actually stood in 1812. The intervening country to the west of the E/T location is significantly higher in elevation and blocks almost the entire viewshed of the Flathead River's course with the exception of the lake outlet located at the Highway 93 Bridge at the west end of downtown Polson.


In October 1809, Thompson hired a guide (probably a Kootenai) to lead him back to the Big Bend in McGillivray's River where he was to meet James McMillan who was bringing in a new supply of goods for trade along the Saleesh River. He also hired the man's son as a hunter to provide food along the way. As part of that deal, the young man was also given Thompson's personal blanket, rifle and accoutrements such as powder, ball and patching.

David Thompson, Saleesh House
This was one business agreement that did not work out well for Thompson. The guide did not know the way back to the big bend in McGillivray's River. Consequently, he got them lost and ended up leading Thompson miles to the southeast of where they should have been. To make matters worse, the man's son turned out to be both a poor hunter and a thief. In the end, he deserted the party taking Thompson's belongings with him.

Le Gauche was nothing like the earlier guide. Thompson respected him and trusted in his knowledge of the country. Engaging Le Gauche again to lead him to a good vantage point from which he could see the lake and surrounding country, Thompson "...got a loan" of some horses from the Indians for the trip.

According to Thompson's journal, there were two Indian camps between his own and the mouth of "Weir Brook" - today's Mission Creek - a short distance southwest of the small community of Moiese. The lower camp consisted of 60 tents and Thompson noted that few men were present. The upper camp of 20 tents was led by the man Thompson called "...the Old Chief" with whom he had done business on more than one occasion.

Thompson's description of his route is very clear and he goes on to provide more detailed information about his route:
"At 11..15 AM crossed a Brook of 10 yds [across] comes from where I was at the Kootanae Camp 1810 - say 10 M - at 11..22 a deep little Brook of 3 yds [across] - 2 1/2 ft deep from the Mountains to the northd of the latter, carries no Wood from hence, runs off to the Wtd & does not join the other Brook..."
We know from the journal entry that he left the Saleesh camp at the mouth of Weir Brook (Mission Creek) at 9:10 AM. His course from there was N15E for two miles. He and Le Gauche then changed course to go around a range of high hills following which they turned to a course of N8E.

Saleesh House
The red line on this photo was placed there based on Thompson's journal notes as quoted above. The "straight Co[urse]" he and Le Gauche followed from the mouth of Weir Brook (Mission Creek) was the first leg of the track. They then veered to the east to get to the east side of the high "meadow knowls" he referenced. Once around the knolls Thompson provides us with the course they followed and the estimated distance from their position to where they "...alighted on the top of bare Knowl...". That bearing was "...abt N8E 18 M."

March 1, Thompson crossed to the west side of "Weir Brook" about 600 feet above the upper camp. From his journal:
"At 9..10 AM set off & in about 1/8 M crossed the Weir Brook of abt 15 yds [across] now only 18 In deep - we held on for abt 3/4 M up along the Brook, which comes from the NE defile then turned off behind the range of Meadow Knowls held on abt N8E 18M - our straight Co[urse] from the Brook of Saleesh Camp, is N15E 2 M - we came smartly on Trot & hard Gallop to 1..25 PM when we alighted on the top of bare Knowl, commanding a very extensive View of the Lake & Country far around..."
Two hours and five minutes after leaving the mouth of Weir Brook, Thompson noted they crossed a brook about 30 feet wide and seven minutes later, another brook about 10 feet wide. This would be today's Crow Creek and Mud Creek. Their ground speed (on horseback) between the two would have been 3-4 miles per hour implying that it was perhaps a half mile between the points where Thompson and Le Gauche forded the two streams. The following map is my plot of their route based on Thompson's journal.

As a footnote, Thompson was familiar with Crow Creek having been there in 1810 (as mentioned in his March 1st journal entry) when he had been searching for a Metis living with the Kootanaes. On that occasion he apparently followed Crow Creek to a camp probably located in the vicinity of present day Ronan, MT.

Saleesh Lake
Flathead Lake
David Thompson Saleesh House
Thompson's bearings were generally recorded in 2º, 5º or 10º increments. That tells us something about his concern for accuracy at a particular place. His March 1st bearings from Weir Creek to the knoll were recorded to an accuracy of 2º. In addition, once on top of the high knoll, he probably took a backshot along the route they had followed from the meadow hills which could be easily seen from the summit of the knoll. Backshots were sometimes used to either check or improve accuracy.

Thompson noted in his journal that Mud Creek did not empty into Crow Creek. This suggests that he crossed the two creeks far enough above their confluence that he was unable to see where the channels converged. His 1814 map (shown here) confirms his statement by showing separate streams emptying into the Flathead River above the mouth of the Little Bitterroot River. Modern maps and photos clearly show the combined streams flowing into the river below the Little Bitterroot. That discrepancy along with several others shown on this map will be addressed in a future OBServation.

Below the photo of the knoll, known as Goose Hill, is looking slightly west of south. It is located along a line very close to the route described in Thompson's notes and shown above in red on the Google images. The ridgeline leading to the top drops away to the south affording horsemen approaching from that direction, as Thompson and Le Gauche did, an easy path to the summit.

David Thompson Saleesh House

Goose Hill is located on Back Road immediately west of Pablo Reservoir. It is clearly visible from Highway 93 in the vicinity of Mile Marker 56 located just north of the town of Pablo. The below photo shows the knoll and how prominent it is over the surrounding landscape. The photo was taken from a point a few hundred feet west of State Highway 93 about seven miles north of the city of Polson.

David Thompson Saleesh House

When Thompson and his guide reached the top of the high knoll at 1:25 PM. The view was impressive as Thompson noted:
"...we came smartly on Trot & hard Gallop to 1..25 PM when we alighted on the top of bare Knowl, commanding a very extensive View of the Lake & Country far around "..Sketched off the Lake &c - the Sortie of the Saleesh River bears from me S80W 6M the River then makes a Curve to the Westd & bends round to the bitter Root Rivulet..."

Thompson's journal entry provided valuable information about his view from the knoll. He estimated the general direction (S80W) and distance (6 miles) the river flowed from its outlet at the lake until it turned to a more westerly direction. From there he described it bending around to a course that eventually led south and west to the mouth of the Little Bitterroot River.

The entry provides the bearing from what was probably his position on the ridgetop (located in the vicinity of 47° 26' 05' N, 114° 29' 35" W) to the unmistakable Big Bend on the Flathead River. He also noted the same straight-line bearing along their route prior to reaching the OBS location shown in the valley to the east. The location is identifiable since it is the place where the Little Bitterroot River veers to the east. The site is located on the Magera ranch (originally homesteaded in 1910 by the Melton family). A mile below the OBS location it empties into the Flathead River.

This painting by Kalispell artist Frank Hagel depicts Thompson and Le Gauche viewing the Flathead Valley and Lake from atop the "bare Knowl". Note in the middle-right of the painting where the Flathead River flows out of the lake. The bearing to that point from Goose Hill is N18E. Hagels location is based on Thompson's journal entry and coincides almost exactly with the Goose Hill location. The E/T location is almost four miles east of the source of the river.

Saleesh Lake

Compare this photo taken by Doug Crosby from the top of Goose Hill to the Hagel painting. When comparing the two it is easy to recognize the similarities, especially the background detail. The only conflict is that the outlet of the Flathead River is not visible from the Goose Hill location.

Flathead Lake

In the following aerial photos you can see a green pin marking an OBS location. Just south of this pin in the photo on the right is a red pin labeled M Mkr. Thompson was at, or very near, this spot in 1809, when his Indian guide had them lost. At or near that point Thompson took a sun shot to establish his latitude then headed northwest following the Little Bitterroot River Valley - his "bitter Root Rivulet" - quoted in the journal entry above. The Little Bitterroot empties into the Flathead River at the spot labeled Mouth LBR in the photo on the right. The high hills west of the OBS location reach an elevation of 5,000 feet within about three miles and consequently loom in one's view to the southwest from the knoll.

Although Thompson never again set foot along the lower reaches of the "bitter Root Rivulet" after 1809, he recognized the drainage and it's relative location from his high knoll perch.

Virtually none of the Flathead River west of the lake outlet can be observed from the Elliott/Tyrrell location.

Saleesh Lake
Flathead Lake

During his years in the fur trade, Thompson often made sketches of what he regarded as special places. Unfortunately, most have been lost. Only a handful of sheets have survived. One of those is a sketch of the Mission Mountains done, while he and Le Gauche were on top of the high knoll on March 1, 1812. The following short entry appeared in his journal that day: "...Sketched off the Lake &c..." Further down in the same entry he says:
"...the Scenery on the east Side of the Lake is not striking, a sameness of Hills appears to the Scenery I drew off 2 years ago - to the southd of which last a bold wide Gap formed one common Road to the Buffaloe a few years ago, but from its vicinity to the Peagans, disused for many Years - the line of Hills &c is sketched off as per Map - marked NE View of the NE defile &c..."
Evidently Thompson had already done some sketches in 1810, probably while he was trading for furs in the Dixon, MT area. According to his journals, he also made sketches of the area around Saleesh House located near Thompson Falls, MT and of the Missoula Valley during his short visit there with Le Gauche on February 25, 1812; just two days before his trip to see the lake.

Thompson was very careful to capture detail such as the prominent, identifiable peaks of the Mission Mountains. Shown below is sheet No4 - South of the Saleesh Lake one of the five sheets that he sketched to illustrate the Mission Range. The original is archived at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

Flathead Lake

...and Now — the Rest of the Story

Now that you know what David Thompson told us about where the high knoll was and how he and Le Gauche got there, let's take a look at the rest of the story with a relatively short synopsis and comparison of its location compared with that of the E/T location.

Saleesh Lake

I have already provided several thoughts about why I think the E/T location (Traditional Spot) is wrong, among them are the elevation differences. The 3,028 foot elevation of the knoll at the E/T location is simply not high enough to have been seen from the top of Goose Hill. Another is illustrated by this photo which shows both knolls.

Since I was unable to use Thompson's bearings, distances and viewing area descriptions from his journal to lead me to the E/T location, I simply reversed the process using the reciprocal of Thompson's bearing of N8E 18 miles - S8W (188ºs on a full-circle compass) 18 miles - to draw a line from the E/T location back to the point from which he and Le Gauche would have begun the 18 mile leg of the journey. The result is a line parallel to the line to the new knoll (Bare Knowl) but with the northern terminus of the E/T line being roughly four miles farther northeast than the line to Goose Hill.

The southern terminus of the E/T backcourse line is important for a couple of what I consider to be compelling reasons about why Thompson would not have been there. First, it ends within a few hundred feet of what is now the namesake reservoir for the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge. The area for several miles around it is swampy and filled with potholes - all those little black dots you see in the photo.

Following the opening of the Flathead Reservation for homesteading in 1910, the area has been integrated as part of an irrigation project serving both Indian and non-Indian owners. During Thompson's time, the area was likely much more swampy than it is today. It would not have been a wise route for the two men to have followed. The upper Crow Creek channel is clearly visible. Also shown is the location of Fort Connah — the last Hudson Bay Company trading post (closed in 1871) to operate in a territory claimed by the United States.

Second is the distance he traveled. In his journal, Thompson provided only two courses and distances from the mouth of Mission Creek ("Weir Brook") to the top of the knoll, a total of 20 miles: "...turned off behind the range of Meadow Knowls & held on about N8E 18M - our straight Co[urse] from the Brook of Saleesh Camp, is N 15 E 2 M...".

The distance from the southern terminus of the red line to that of the blue line adds another six miles making the distance from the mouth of Mission Creek to the E/T location a total of 26 miles, a significantly different distance than Thompson recorded in his journal.


All things considered, Linda and I are convinced that the red line best represents Thompson's route on March 1, 1812. His mileage estimates, the description of the surrounding country within his view and his identification of the Little Bitterroot drainage all support the Goose Hill location on Back Road at the west edge of Pablo Reservoir as being the place where he and Le Gauche stood - not the E/T location.

"Ordinary history conveys information; extraordinary history conveys understanding!"
Stewart Edward White-1931