Too often an interest in a particular historical event is so intensely focused on a single event that the context within which it occurred is lost. When that happens history can become very misleading or even factually distorted.
In my opinion, such is the case with David Thompson and the legacy he left behind following the four years he spent in the vast, unexplored wilderness of the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the 19th Century. In fact, the legacy he left was one of an extremely successful business that lasted for more than 60 years.
On April 30, 1803, U.S. representatives in Paris, working under the direction and authority of President Thomas Jefferson, agreed to pay $15 million for about 828,000 square miles of land—about $2.00 an acre—that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Very little of the remote reaches of the lands involved had been explored.
Map courtesy of the History Channel
Jefferson's next step was to authorize the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery with a single goal in mind—to see if they could find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition began their journey from a spot near St. Louis, MO, in May 1804 and spent the winter of 1804–1805 with the Mandans on the upper Missouri.
The Corps managed to reach the shore of Pacific Ocean in November 1805 and built Fort Clatsop where they spent the winter of 1805–1806. On the return trip, Lewis and Clark split up in order to explore more territory and look for a more direct route home. To accomplish their mission the Corps had to travel more than 8,000 miles by boat, on foot and on horseback.
The Corps of Discovery was primarily a military venture. Its mission was to a direct route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific. Along the way they were to map the country and maintain journals recording their observations about people encountered along the route as well to produce drawings and written descriptions of native flora and fauna. They performed with military precision and did an extraordinary job for the President.
In the fall of 1809, only three short years after the Corps of Discovery had passed through the region, North West Company (NWCo) trader-explorer-surveyor David Thompson reached the valley of the river named by Lewis and Clark—Clark's Fork of the Columbia. Thompson called it the Saleesh River.
Thompson was the first European to establish a permanent business in the region when he built two trading posts along the banks of the Saleesh. The first, Kullyspel House, was located near Hope, ID. The second, Saleesh House, was built near Thompson Falls, MT. Thompson remained in the region until the spring of 1812 when he returned to Montreal and retired from the fur trading business.
Kullyspel House was closed after only two seasons of operation. The trading enterprise started at Saleesh House remained a busy, economically successful business run by the NWCo until 1821. That was the year when the fur trade in the region took a major turn. The North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) merged their businesses or in their words, "amalgamated" their holdings. Their agreement provided that all trading posts would be owned and operated by the HBC despite the fact that most of the men working for the new partnership were Nor'westers—former employees of the NWCo.
Following the acquisition of all NWCo posts by the HBC, the name of Saleesh House was changed to Flathead House. Trade from the original post continued until about the mid 1820s. At that time, the original post, built by Thompson, was abandoned and a second "Flathead House" was built at a spot a short distance downriver from Weeksville, MT. The HBC continued trading from that location until a decision was made to move it yet again.
In 1846, construction of a third "Flathead House" was started on Post Creek between the towns of St. Ignatius and Ronan, MT. Angus McDonald, who had been in charge of second Flathead House during the 1839 outfit year was transferred from Fort Hall (ID) in 1847 to take charge of the third Flathead House. Shortly after he arrived he re-named it Fort Connah and remained in command of the post during outfit years 1848-1854 before being transferred to Fort Colvile (re-named Colville) and appointed Chief Trader for the entire HBC operation west of the Rocky Mountains and south of the 49th parallel.
The HBC continued to operate at the Fort Connah location until the US Government ordered it permanently closed in 1871. It was the last HBC post to operate in what is now the United States.
A map in the National Atlas of Canada shows the locations of HBC fur trading posts for the period 1600-1870. The HBC acquired many of their posts from other companies. In such cases, the owner of the post before acquisition by the HBC and the total length of time it was in operation are provided. A portion of the Atlas' map covering posts located in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia is shown here.
Pay special attention to the solid red triangles associated with several of the posts. These represent the posts that were owned by the NWCo and that operated for at least 16 years-long enough to be amalgamated by the HBC in 1821. Note that the date of construction for Flathead House was 1809-the year Thompson built the post and named it "Saleesh House."
Kullyspel House, originally constructed in 1809 by Thompson, was closed in 1811 after only two year of operation. The empty red circle indicates that it operated for three years or less.Thompson closed the post prior to the amalgamation—it was never operated by the HBC.
For some reason the HBC's Fort Connah, located on Post Creek between the towns of St. Ignatius and Ronan, MT, did not appear on this map despite the fact it remained in operation until 1871.
This map insert shows the fur company that originally constructed and operated each of the posts as well as the number of years it remained in operation. A statement on the document reads:
"The date applied to a post on the map indicates the first year in which it is known to have been operated. Names and dates have been applied to all posts that were in operation for four years or more, and where space allows, to those that were in operation for less than four years."
The red triangle for Saleesh/Flathead House indicated the post remained in business for more than 15 years. Sometime during the mid 1820s the post burned. Whether by accident or on purpose wedo not know. What we do know is that following the 1821 amalgamation the post's official name was changed to "Flathead House" by the HBC.
About the time the original Saleesh/Flathead House burned, we begin finding references to it in the journals of several HBC employees who were assigned to Flathead House (aka Flathead Post) during the mid 1820s. Based on our research, I believe the new location—the second Flathead House/Post—was built a short distance downriver from where today's Weeksville Creek empties into the Clark's Fork.
An important clue for the location of the second Flathead House was found in the journal of William Kittson who was traveling with Peter Skene Ogden on his Snake Country Expedition. In September 1825, while returning to Spokane House from the Snake River country, Kittson arrived at Flathead House. He recorded the following about arriving at the Horse Plains, where Plains, MT, is now located:
"Friday 29th Encamped this afternoon at the North end of the Horse Plain...
Saturday 30th Continued my march...Passed and visited the Flat Head House found it complete. Had some trouble in getting over a rock [Bad Rock] below the house...
Sunday 31st Continued the march...Encamped a the foot of Falls [Thompson Falls], 12 miles from Flat Head Post..."
Note that in this journal entry, Kittson used both the terms "house" and "post" when referencing Flathead House. For orientation purposes, following is a clip from Kittson's 1825 map. His original map shows North being to the left side of the sheet. Most maps are oriented with North towards the top of the sheet. For ease of comparison with other maps and images, North is toward the top of the following section of Kittson's map.
- Circle #1 shows where Kittson drew the location of the post. Note that on his map, Kittson calls the post Fort Flat Head.
- Circle #2 shows the Horse Plains/Dog Lake area. The trail leading to the SE is the Road to the Buffalo along Camas Creek.
- Circle #3 is the confluence of the Flathead and Clark's Fork Rivers.
- Circle #4 is Flathead Lake.
William Kittson's 1825 map
Compare the Kittson map with the following clip from Thompson's 84° Map. Thompson's map shows an important river crossing that did not appear on his original map. This crossing was obviously the place where fording the river was possible for at least a part of the year.
For orientation, note the location of Saleesh House (labeled "N.W.C. Obs") near upper left and "Horse Plains" near the center of the map. Between these two sites is a trail (dotted line) leading south and connecting to another river. The trail can be seen on the south side of the river in the white circle. It followed today's Swamp Creek to its headwaters. Swamp Creek empties into the Clark's Fork about a mile downstream from the mouth of Weeksville Creek.
This is the trail I believe Thompson traveled on his exploratory trip to the vicinity of the present day towns of St. Regis and Superior, MT, in 1811. The confluence of the Clark's Fork and Flathead Rivers (lower right) is about a mile above the town of Paradise, MT.
The Clark's Fork is shown flowing to the north at the lower edge of the map. At the point where Thompson shows the Swamp Creek trail leading to the Clark's Fork (in the white circle), the river abruptly changes directions, first to the southeast, then again to the north just before it converges with the Flathead River flowing in from the east. The towns of St. Regis and Superior, MT, are located on the Clark's Fork along I-90 a few miles south from the bottom of this map.
Now I want to address another longstanding argument and that is whether or not there were three separate "Flathead House" locations. Yes in our opinion there were. And we believe the facts support that.
Here is how we arrived at that conclusion after locating a map that was what we considered to be the final piece of that puzzle. After 1821, three Flathead Posts belonged to the HBC-but only one was actually in operation at any given time between the years 1821 and 1871.
The first was the original post built near Thompson Falls, MT, by David Thompson in 1809 named Saleesh House. It was renamed Flathead House in 1821 by the HBC when it was merged with the NWCo. This post continued in operation until burning down in the mid 1820s.
As a result Flathead House was relocated about ten miles upriver so that beaver hunters coming from the east by way of the Horse Plains did not have to cross Bad Rock using the trail shown in this photo. There is no doubt it presented a challenging impediment to travelers, especially old people, children and horses. The toe of the nearly impassable, solid-rock, outcrop dropped straight off into the river until construction of the Northern Pacific Rail Road was underway and the base of it was blasted away to allow the track to be laid on level ground.
Father Pierre-Jean De Smet-a Blackrobe-while working among the Flatheads and other regional tribes, noted that on November 3, 1841, when traveling along the Saleesh Road to the Buffalo, his party had to cross Bad Rock.
Courtesy of Gonzaga University
This is an exact description of his crossing experience, one of the best available, copied directly from De Smets Letters and Sketches, 1841-1842, published in Philadelphia in 1843:
"On the 3rd of November, after prayer and instructions to the savages, we continued our march. We were on the borders of the Clarke Forks, to which we were obliged to keep close during eight days, whilst we descended the country bordering the stream. The river is at this place of a greenish blue, very transparent, caused probably by the deposit of a great quantity of oxygen of iron. Our path during a great part of the day was on the declivity of a lofty, rocky mountain; we were here obliged to climb a steep rough pass from 400 to 600 feet high. I had before seen landscapes of awful grandeur, but this one certainly surpassed all others in horror. My courage failed at the first sight; it was impossible to remain on horseback, and on foot my weight of two hundred and eleven pounds, was no trifle. This therefore, was the expedient to which I resorted: My mule Lizette was sufficiently docile and kind to allow me to grasp her tail, to which I held on firmly: crying at one moment aloud, and at other times making use of the whip to excite her courage, until the good beast conducted me safely to the very top of the mountain. There I breathed freely for a while, and contemplated the magnificent prospect that presented itself to my sight.
"The windings of the river with the scenery on its banks were before me, on one side hung over our heads, rocks piled on rocks in the most precipitous manner, and on the other stood lofty peaks crowned with snow and pine trees: mountains of every shape and feature reared their towering forms before us. It really was a fine view and one which was well worth the effort we had made. On descending from this elevation I had to take new precautions. I preceded the mule, holding her by the bridle, while she moved cautiously down to the foot of the "Bad Rock," (as it is called by the savages,) as though she feared stumbling and rolling with her master into the river which flowed beneath us."
With that picture in mind, imagine what it must have been like trying to move men, women and children of all ages plus often hundreds of horses and dogs laden with gear and baggage across such a place. This is how remains of the trail look today.
The second Flathead Post was constructed on the north side of the Clark's Fork River nearly opposite from the mouth of Swamp Creek which flows in from the south. This 1889 GLO map shows where a remnant of the original Indian road still exists where it crossed a ridge to avoid a meander of the river that existed prior to the construction of the railroad in 1882.
The following image is how it looks today. Compare the two for a better understanding. The small circle is the mouth of Swam Creek. The larger circle is what we believe is the most likely location of the second Flathead House. The slough where the roadside information sign shown below is located is at the center-right.
Following is a photo of a short section of the original tread of the Saleesh Road to the Buffalo that has managed to survive in this area.
This roadside information sign recently installed by the Montana Department of Transportation is based largely on our David Thompson/Saleesh House research. It is located at the viewpoint pullout on Highway 200 as shown on the Google image above.
Flathead House information sign near Weeksville.
Photo by Linda Haywood
Angus McDonald knew exactly where the second and third Flathead Posts had been located since he had been in charge of each during his years with the HBC. Shortly after being placed in charge of the third post in 1847, he re-named it Fort Connah. He was eventually promoted to Chief Trader at Fort Colvile in charge of virtually all HBC operations in the northwest. Angus' son, Duncan, was placed in charge of the post after his father was re-assigned and remained in that position until the U.S, Government ordered it permanently closed in 1871.
Angus and his family claimed ownership of lands around Fort Connah and during the period 1860-1871 he made several trips between Forts Colvile and Connah on business and to visit family. Notes he jotted down along the trail during that time provide great bits of information about where the HBC posts were located.
His comment about the location of second Flathead Post places its location almost exactly where we have been discussing near Weeksville. In a letter dated September 22, 1856, Angus noted that:
"...the old fort [Flathead Post] which is no more was abandoned in consequence of the building of the new fort in 1847."
The "new fort" McDonald mentions is best known as Fort Connah located on Post Creek just east of Highway 93 about six miles north of the town of St. Ignatius. There is no doubt in my mind that it was originally called Flathead Post.
Few people know that the lands included in what would become the Oregon Territory in 1846 were the only lands in what is now the United States to be claimed by proclamation. We know from David Thompson's Journal that he did just that by planting poles in the ground with a note attached at two places; (1) the Saleesh House site and (2) at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers.
As a matter of interest, note the red circle on the map is known as "The Angle" and was surveyed by none other than David Thompson while employed by the International Boundary Commission. But that's another story.
Following the War of 1812, Great Britain and the United States agreed that the 49th parallel would be the official boundary between the US and Canada. They also agreed that joint occupation could continue in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon and the areas that are now North Idaho and Western Montana.
As time passed, tolerance by the US Government for HBC operations and the rights of non-US citizens became more restricted. Articles in a related treaty signed in 1846 clearly defined a few important limits and restrictions that would be imposed if the HBC wanted to continue it operations on US soil. The treaty also dealt with legal rights of HBC employees and other non-citizens associated with the HBC.
"From the point on the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude, where the boundary laid down in existing treaties and conventions between the United States and Great Britain terminates, the line of boundary between the territories of the United States and those of her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca's straits to the Pacific Ocean: Provided, however, That the navigation of the whole of the saidá channel and straits south of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude remain free and open to both parties."
"From the point at which the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude shall be found to intersect the great northern branch of the Columbia river, the navigation of the said branch shall be free and open to the Hudson's Bay Company, and to all British subjects trading with the same, to the point where the said branch meets the main stream of the Columbia, and thence down the said main stream to the ocean, with free access into and through the said river or rivers, it being understood that all the usual- portages along the line thus described shall in like manner be free and open. In navigating the said river or rivers, British subjects, with their goods and produce, shall be treated on the same footing as citizens of the United States; it being, how_ ever, always understood that nothing in this article shall be construed as preventing, or intended to prevent the Government of the United States from making any regulations respecting the navigation of the said river or rivers not inconsistent with the present treaty."
"In the future appropriation of the territory south of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude, as provided in the first article of this treaty, the possessory rights of the Hudson's Bay Company, and of all British subjects who may be already in the occupation of land or other property lawfully acquired within the said territory, shall be respected."
"The farms, lands, and other property of every description belonging to the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company on the north side of the Columbia River, shall be confirmed to the said company. In case, however, the situation of those farms and lands should be considered by the United States to be of public and political importance, and the United States' Government should signify a desire to obtain possession of the whole, or of any part thereof, the property so required shall be transferred to the said Government, at a proper valuation, to be agreed upon between the parties."
Finally, in 1855 the Hell Gate Treaty between the US Government and the Flatheads was ratified. It officially established the Flathead Reservation but did not retroactively replace or alter the terms of the Treaty of 1846.
The following map published in 1901 still shows the "Flathead Post" name attached to what was undoubtedly Fort Connah. In my opinion, this should settle the argument about whether there was not one, not two, but actually three "Flathead Post" operations. All three belonged to, and were operated by, the HBC during the period 1821–1871.
There is a longstanding question about whether the renamed post was Flathead House or Flathead Post. In my opinion, the answer seems to be fairly simple. I believe the primary, underlying problem is mostly related to semantics. During the early years of the westward expansion of the fur trade industry across the Rocky Mountains, the terms, "House", "Post", "Store" and "Fort" were often used interchangeably to describe a permanent trading facility. This could explain the various names.
That fact has apparently been overlooked, ignored or misinterpreted by a lot of historians for years. I think it is rather simple. People who visited the post prior to 1821 knew it as Saleesh House. They would likely have been inclined, out of habit, to continue calling it Saleesh House, the NWCo name. On the other hand, newcomers to the region after 1821 probably called it either Flathead Post or Flathead House—the HBC name. That's simply human nature.
In 1871, the US finally ordered the HBC to cease operations on American soil. Fort Connah was the very last HBC operation in the United States to close its doors. The bottom line to this discussion of "Flathead House" issues and history is that the fur trading business David Thompson established in 1809 continued to be profitable long after his departure—lasting for 62 years.
Fort Connah — Third Flathead Post.
Painting by Peter Peterson Tofft c. 1860s
The Fort Connah Restoration Society has been involved in restoring the old post for a long time. The Society opens it to the public during and annual fur trade rendezvous re-enactment. To find out more, visit their website at:
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