The location of David Thompson's Saleesh House trading post has been debated for more than a hundred years. The information on this OBS page provides information about where I believe Saleesh House was located based on his Journal—the first written history of the region.
If you have not yet read my 2008 book, Sometimes Only Horses to Eat
, you should think about doing so. My conclusions about the location of the post are based entirely on Thompson's Journal. Previous searches
, those prior to the late 1960s, were based primarily on his Narrative
written about 40 years after he left Saleesh House and retired from the fur trade business.
Information signs about the "traditional" location of Saleesh House were erected in the Thompson Falls, MT area more than 40 years ago. The location was based on a 1973 archeological project conducted by Dr. Carling Malouf and a group of his students from the University of Montana.
Malouf's dig was not based on his personal research, as far as I can tell, but on that of Thain White, a well-known, well-respected, amateur historian. It is extremely important to keep in mind the huge difference in access to material online today versus the time when these men were doing most of their work. There will probably be even more available in the future. Some may build a case leading to a conclusion different than my own. If so, so be it. My passion for doing this work is to see that history remains true to what it was; not to make it what we think it should have been.
I mean no disrespect to either Thain White or Dr. Malouf. When they were doing their work, the Internet did not exist. If you wanted to research a subject you had to go to a bricks-and-mortar library, sort through the card files for the subject matter, then head for the stacks to locate and pull the book or document of interest.
In 1916, The Champlain Society published J. B. Tyrrell's edition of Thompson's Narrative. From that point on, most "research" and attempts to locate the Saleesh House site have been based on that work—not his Journal.
On page 542 of the Narrative Thompson describes the location of the house as follows:
"The House was situated in a small bay of the river, close to us was a spur of the hills which came on the River in a cliff of about sixty feet in height, beyond which to the south eastward the country opened out to a great extent of fine meadow ground, the scene of many a battle; the Saleesh Indians and their allies, when hard pressed, always made for this rock as their natural defence, and which had always proved a shield to them, and [they] shewed us, the bones of their enemies slain at different times in attempting to force this pass; to me it appeared easy to become master of it, to proceed farther up the River was to be still more exposed."
As you read our take on the location of the post, especially if you are familiar with the area and terrain, you will find the features Thompson described to be easily recognizable.
My book provides a fairly detailed description of the information Linda and I accumulated from Thompson's Journal, other historical evidence and many hours in the field during the past 15 years. We now feel confident that the location we present here is highly likely to be within hailing distance of where the post stood. So here we go.
Since the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s the banks along Thompson's "Saleesh River", the Clark's Fork of the Columbia, as well as the courses of the river and some of the streams flowing into it have been altered—often dramatically. The same can be said about the impacts from roads, highways and dams constructed at least since the invention of the automobile. Such activities can, and did in places, have a huge effect on the hydraulics of flowing water resulting in significant channel alteration and erosion.
When Thompson left Saleesh House for Rainy Lake by canoe in 1812 after his last winter of trading from the post, he noted in his Journal at a portage just upriver from the Noxon Rapids Dam, that the water level was thirty feet higher than when he had left the post about the same time in 1810.
The Thompson Falls Dam, completed in 1915, is forty feet high so the spring runoff level experienced by Thompson more than 200 years ago would appear much like the static water level you see impounded behind it today.
Early photo of the Thompson Falls Dam
Courtesy, Lee Enterprises Daily Missoulian
Following is our best guess about the location of Saleesh House and the details about how we reached our conclusion. We hope providing visual images for reference will be of use to you as we identify and discuss a few of the key details on which our conclusions are based. This Google Earth image shows the vicinity of the location about three miles east of Thompson Falls.
Thompson was a surveyor extraordinaire. His accuracy in calculating Longitude and Latitude was so spot-on that maps he drew were still being used in parts of Canada until the early part of the 1900s.
What Linda and I learned fairly early on was that his determination of Latitude in this region was exceptional. In tracking his routes over the past decade, we learned that when he provided Latitude information for us we could take it to the bank. His calculations for Longitude—not so much.
For example, he recorded the Latitude of Saleesh House to be 47º 34' 35" N. That number was an average based on 45 observations he personally took from the post—an extraordinary number. Based on my personal, limited, surveying experience, I think his accuracy is probably no more than plus or minus 50 feet.
During the same period, he also took 15 observations for Longitude which he noted to be 115º 18' 9" W. That spot is actually about seven miles west of what we believe to be the actual site. Linda and I, accompanied by a friend, hiked to the spot using a hand-held GPS. We found ourselves on the side of a steep hill below a large electric power line. Based on Thompson's Journal, we were nowhere near the prairie he described at the mouth of the river he sometimes referred to as the "House Rivulet." That location would have placed the post on the south side of the Saleesh River. This is a key piece of information that we will later discuss in detail to provide additional information which we believe supports our conclusions.
According to Thompson's Journal, the post was located on the north side of the river—not the south side. Unfortunately, and despite Thompson's own writings, a few local people continue to argue it was on the south side of the river. There is no historical evidence to support such a theory.
In his November 15, 1809, Journal entry Thompson noted when the construction of Saleesh House began:
"Men cut the Wood for my House & set up 5 Posts..."
Based on that entry and the one that follows, the construction of Saleesh House was well underway on November 28th. In his Journal entry for the day he wrote:
"...took a turn across the River, but the Woods are too close for hunting."
The way I interpret those entries is that he had not crossed the river until 13 days after construction had started on Saleesh House. Since there is no other entry in his Journal about his crossing the river again at or near Saleesh House, I think it is safe to say that trip was probably his first—and last.
Despite what has been written in more recent articles and books, Thompson's first attempt to contact Indian tribes west of the Rocky Mountains in the Pacific Northwest along what is today the Kootenai River took place in 1808. Unfortunately, his plans were thwarted by serious problems forcing him to return to Kootenae House, his first post west of the Rockies. His route followed back to Kootenae House was up the Moyie River to its headwaters where he crossed the divide to the Columbia near where Ft. Steele was later established.
In 1809, he traveled by canoe to where he had previously camped near the mouth of Deep Creek, a few miles west of Bonners Ferry, ID. He and one of his clerks—probably Finan McDonald—had evidently done some trading at that site earlier. Angus McDonald, who is discussed in more detail on the Flathead House OBS page, stated that the big, redheaded Scotsman's given name was "Phinan McDonnen of Glengary".
Thompson's map shows a NWCo post at the mouth of Deep Creek. I have been unable to find much about it but generally agree with a handful of other writers and historians that it was likely a temporary trading camp run by Finan. I did manage to locate a reference to it labeled as McDonald's House.
The lower circle shows the NWCo notation for Kullyspel House. The Lake Indian notation is across what is today's Pack River which flows into Lake Pend Oreille. The Lake Indian Road, noted by Thompson in his Journal, connected the two trading sites located about 30 miles apart.
Another OBS page on our website titled 1809 Trip to McGillivray's River
covers that trip in detail. This page deals only with our final determination about where Saleesh House was located.
Thompson finally made contact with Indians familiar with the region and in 1809 was able to engage enough men and horses to travel overland via an Indian trail he referred to as the Lake Indian Road. He and his men left the Deep Creek camp on the morning of Wednesday, September 6th. Two days later he arrived at the mouth of Pack River near where it empties into Pend Oreille Lake and by early October construction work on Kullyspel House was well underway.
A canoe brigade under command of Thompson's clerk, James McMillan, loaded with goods and supplies—for any new posts he might build—was on its way from the Rainy Lake depot with orders to meet Thompson at the mouth of Deep Creek.
As Thompson visited with Indians familiar with the country and with a few Métis voyagers who had married into the tribes or had "country wives" among them, he heard about an Indian road that might provide a better route from McGillivray's River (the Kootenai) to his post. A shorter route would reduce the cost of transportation in both directions and would mean more profit for the company.
The cutoff from the Big Bend of McGillivray's River leading off in a southerly direction had been pointed out to Thompson in 1808. In his Journal he referred to it as the "Kootenae Road."
To explore eastward up the Saleesh River for more good beaver hunting grounds Thompson hired a guide to lead him back to the Big Bend of McGillivray's River in time to intercept McMillan. A Saleesh man who claimed he was familiar with the route was soon engaged. Knowing how scarce food could be in parts of this vast wilderness, he also hired the guide's son as a hunter to feed his party along the way.
Thompson left Kullyspel House on October 11, 1809 following a well-worn Indian road he called Saleesh Road to the Buffalo. Three days later he arrived on what is now called Thompson's Prairie, a few miles east of the present town of Thompson Falls, MT. That was where he camped for the night and where, a month later, he began construction on Saleesh House.
The following picture is of an actual segment of the Road to the Buffalo taken by Linda in the vicinity of Weeksville, MT. Note: Government Land Office (GLO) maps produced in the late 19th Century labeled the original road as the "Kootenai Trail."
Photo by Linda Haywood
This is about as good as it gets. Similar, near-pristine segments are rare. The Clark's Fork River valley was burned almost clean in many parts of western Sanders County by the huge 1910 Fire. In 1935, equally devastating fires destroyed additional large areas of forest along the river.
According to his October 14th journal entry, Thompson had arrived at the "Prairie" about 4:30 PM. He noted there were about 40 horses grazing there but they did not observe anyone else around. Thompson hiked around the area to have a closer look. Returning to the campsite area he had selected, he recorded two important compass bearings and one distance measurement. This is what he wrote in his Journal:
"The Course of the Rivulet which is abt 20 yards is from N18ºE & the Co[urse] we have to go the Morrow is N20ºE ½ M along the Rivulet..."
The importance he placed on the bearings he recorded is obvious. We know that because the bearings he recorded were always in 2º, 5º or 10º increments. Using 2º increments indicated he took special care to make it as accurate as possible, which he did in this case. 10º increments were primarily used for bearings taken while in a loaded canoe on a choppy river or a line-of-sight shot to some distant landmark. He was being as accurate as possible here.
The first bearing he recorded (the longer red line on the left in the following image) was sighting up the Thompson River canyon. The second (the shorter red line on the right) was where the "Saleesh Road to the Buffalo" crossed Thompson River, which he sometimes referred as the "House Rivulet."
The difference between the two bearings was only 2º, his most precise bearing with a hand-held compass. He also noted that the crossing was half a mile from where he was standing. Accuracy was important to him that day. He would be back.
Using the bearings and the distance he recorded to where the Road to the Buffalo crossed the river, we can calculate—fairly accurately—where he stood on that Saturday afternoon.
The bearing line up Thompson River is also a line-of-sight elevation profile. Thompson's view would have been blocked beyond the top of the ridge where the red line ends. It was very exciting to stand on that spot and look up the river, seeing much of what Thompson saw only without the highway, roads and other man-made landscape disturbances.
This photo was taken from the south edge of Highway 200 very near the line-of-site bearing Thompson noted in his Journal. The elevation profile is shown below the photo.
By the time Thompson and his men were ready to hit the trail again the following morning, we can be fairly certain he had already made up his mind to return to this place since he had his men prepare a cache where he concealed items they were packing that would not be needed before he could get back to this site. However, he made no mention of it in his Journal for the day.
There was still a lot of traveling and work to be done before he could return to the Prairie east of Thompson Falls where he would build Saleesh House. In his Narrative he noted the following about the day he completed the loop back to the prairie:
"On the 9th of November, thank God, we arrived at the place we had builded a Store, and were now to build a House for ourselves."
For some reason his comment about a "store" appears to have baffled historians for a hundred years resulting in a long-standing argument about the subject. It focused on whether or not he had constructed some sort of a building during the very few hours he had spent there. In my opinion, that idea is absurd, because there would not have been time to do so.
The spot was perfect for a post. It was on a grassy prairie that provided a great place to graze horses. It was along the bank of a clear mountain stream for a good water supply. It was located on the Saleesh River with good access by either canoe or horseback. It was along on a main Indian road providing easy access for travelers and beaver hunters. And, there were beaver in the area. What else could he ask for? It is clear to me that he had decided this would be a good place to build another post and he had already made up his mind to come back and do just that.
As for the "Store?" During the fur trade era trappers, traders and hunters often used the words store and cache interchangeably. The word "store" was an English word that is self-explanatory. The word "cache" has its origins in the French word cacher—to hide.
Most men involved in the fur trade at the time were of English, French or Métis heritage. In this case, Thompson had excess baggage he wouldn't be using along the way to meet McMillan then take him directly to Kullyspel House. Why pack around, for several more days or weeks, stuff he could get along without? I'm betting he either concealed the baggage by hiding it in the brush or he dug a hole, placed the gear inside then covered and concealed any evidence of the disturbance. That is how a traditional cache was often constructed.
All the key pieces of information necessary to determine where Saleesh House stood were included in Thompson's Journal and Narrative. We discuss several in detail in Sometimes Only Horses to Eat so I will not spend much time on them here.
Thompson's reputation as a surveyor has never been questioned. During his lifetime, few could claim to be his equal when it came to that part of his job description.
First was Thompson's Journal entry on October 14, 1809, when he provided compass bearings and estimated distance that allowed us to determine with a fair degree of accuracy where he was standing when he took the readings.
Second were Journal notes from two separate canoe trips from his trading camp near Dixon, MT to Saleesh House. In both cases, he provided bearings and/or distances from the mouth of the "House Rivulet" (Thompson River) to two distinctly separate "small bays" where they could land bark canoes avoiding damage had they been on a rocky, river bank.
The third came from Thompson's Journal notes that provided us with compass bearings and estimated distances posted in the spring of 1810 and again in 1812 when he left Saleesh House and headed downriver by canoe. On both occasions he noted the initial bearing(s) to be in a southwesterly direction. The only spot where the river flows in a southwesterly direction in the area is immediately west of the mouth of Thompson River.
And the fourth, what we consider to be the most obvious and most important clue about the location of Saleesh House, is found on page lxi of the Narrative. The table on that page provides Thompson's calculated Longitude for Saleesh House.
We were very surprised, to say the least, that for literally the last hundred years historians have never managed to tell us where Saleesh House stood when the information necessary to pinpoint it was right under their noses the entire time. If we sound a little baffled it's because we are. As much as has been written about Saleesh House and the fact that signs purporting to mark the spot where it stood have been in place for almost 40 years, the information on them has really never been questioned. The table referenced, shown here provides very simple, basic information.
These figures are from the table for three of the four posts Thompson built west of the Rocky Mountains during the period 1809–1812:
Thompson's Latest Survey's
Kootanae House 115º 51' 40" 116º 00'
Saleesh House 115º 22' 51" 115º 15'
Spokane House 117º 27' 117º 33'
We know precisely where Kootenae House and Spokane House stood. Both have been excavated so there is little or no doubt about the Latitude and Longitude of each. Using Google Earth, I plotted the points of noted Longitude and Latitude for both posts as recorded by Thompson as well as those resulting from the "latest surveys." Thompson's calculations were both east of the actual sites. The "modern survey" points were to the west.
Using the same methodology for Saleesh House without it having been located or excavated, I was both excited and puzzled to discover that in the case of Saleesh House, they were exactly the opposite. Thompson's calculations were west of the site while the "modern survey's" calculation was east of the location of both my site and the traditional site. Recall that Thompson's calculation for Latitude at Saleesh House was based on 45 observations, 15 for Longitude.
The "modern survey's" location for Saleesh House turns out to be within yards of the spot I originally labeled as the most probable location of Saleesh House determined by the methodology we applied to the available information.
Another clue, but certainly no less valuable by any means, are artifacts found in the relatively small area where we believe Saleesh House stood. Let me be clear at this point that I am not claiming these items belonged to David Thompson or to any of his men. However, they do appear to be period correct and were found very near where I think Saleesh House and the associated canoe landing areas were located.
As far as I am aware, there has never been an artifact found in any of the areas claimed to be the site of Saleesh House, including these, that can be directly linked to Thompson and/or to Saleesh House. Perhaps someday, someone will discover an item that was either described in detail in a journal note or appeared on one of the Saleesh House supply manifests. Only if and when that occurs will we perhaps have a viable clue about the exact location.
The first artifact was a brass powder flask. The construction of the flask and the figures on it indicate this is an original from the late 1700s to early 1800s period.
Brass Powder Flask c.1790-1810
Flask found at Saleesh Ho Site
Photo by Gary Weisz
Reproductions of the original are still being made for use by historical re-enactors. The two halves of the flask were discovered lying side by side as shown. The solder holding the two pieces together had been destroyed by a hundred years of weathering in the elements and it had been crushed during that time. Such a flask was a valuable piece of equipment during the Saleesh House period and had obviously been "lost" or forgotten by its owner.
The second credible discovery was made by an amateur historian a few years after my book was published. Wanting to visit the site by canoe, she paddled upriver armed with a metal detector to have a closer look around the Saleesh House canoe landing area we had identified. What she discovered was a small "cache" of old nails located within about 50 yards from where the flask had been discovered.
The finder did a lot of research on the nails for several months before I knew about them. Among them were a few she thought might be "rose-head" nails, an easily identifiable forged nail, so-called because of the manufacturing process. Such nails were first produced in England and later in the US. The British were turning out rose-heads between about 1790 and 1810. Among their customers during that period would almost certainly have been the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company—Thompson had worked for both.
Following is a page from a publication about primitive nails that might be of interest. With the exception of #10, all would have been available during the period when Saleesh House (aka Flathead House or Flathead Post) was in operation near the mouth of Thompson River during the years 1809 to the mid-1820s.
At the turn of the 19th Century, nails were a very valuable commodity in the vast wilderness west of the Rocky Mountains. They made construction easier but weight and space were always limiting factors for bark canoe brigades. A single brigade could be responsible for supplying everything needed by one or more remote trading posts for an entire year. Unlike a lot of commodities, nails could be reused. Structures being abandoned were sometimes burned, in part so nails and other forged iron hardware could be fairly easily salvaged.
Some argue that similar nails are often found along the railroad and were likely to have been associated with that construction—not with Saleesh House. It is possible they are correct, but then again, perhaps not. What we do know is that these nails were available during all the years Thompson's original post remained was in operation—1809 to the mid-1820s. Unfortunately, this question may never be resolved.
This photo was taken looking in a northeasterly direction with the traditional location of Saleesh House in the foreground (the red square) and Koo-Koo-Sint Ridge in the center background.
This Google image provides a bird's eye view of the area near the mouth of the Thompson River where—despite a hundred years of controversy and urban legend—Saleesh House was most likely located.
Here is a more detailed image showing where Saleesh House stood and where Thompson landed his bark canoes laden with furs and pemmican being transported from the Dixon and Camas Prairie areas to the trading post.
Note the location of the powder flask and the nail cache.
Below is a photo of the "small bay" located below the rapid that existed before the Thompson Falls Dam was constructed in the early 1900s. The rapid was located where the channel narrows just beyond the tall trees on the left of the image.
For a little perspective about the differences in the river Thompson saw when he was here compared to what we see today, note the "brush" at the center left of the picture. It also appears in the next photo and provides a better understanding of how the little bay is situated.
When filled the water level behind the Thompson Falls Dam is about the same depth (which is the case in this photo) as it was at spring flood stage in 1812. In his Narrative, based on his Journal and enhanced by personal recollection, for June 5, 1811, Thompson wrote:
"...having killed a fifth Horse to take with us, we embarked and were soon in the Saleesh River; but how very different from what it was in the Autumn of 1809. Then it had a gentle current of 350 to 500 yards in width in places bordered by fine Forests, in other places by rich Meadows of considerable extent, with plenty of Swans, Geese, Ducks and Plover; all the time we have been here the water has been rising at the rate of two feet each day, the River now presented a great width agitated by eddies and whirlpools, it's apparent height above the level of Autumn was about thirty feet, rushing through the woods in a fearful manner, every Island was a dangerous Fall, and [had a] strong eddy at the lower end; we saw the risque before us, but we were all experienced men and kept the waves of the middle of the River, one place appeared so formidable that we put ashore, and carried everything for two and a half hours."
Pictured below are the charter members of the David Thompson Days organizing committee when it was resurrected in 2009. These were likely the first moccasin tracks in a hundred years left on the sandbar in the "small bay of the river." The sand was deposited by the back-current created by the fast-flowing water spilling through the narrow, constricted channel that formed the rapids. Linda and I are on the left. Note that "brush" in the center right.
How do we know this was one of the places where Thompson landed his loaded canoes after returning to the post from the Indians' winter camps 50 miles upriver? Because on two occasions he made detailed entries in his Journal about where they were located. The first entry referred to a late evening arrival back at the post on Sunday, March 25, 1810.
"...here it became dusk so that I cannot well see the figures distce 1/5 M to the Brook [Thompson River] + 1/4 R. [Rapid] + 1/5 M to the House Road..."
Note the last reference to distance implies the spot where he landed the canoe is where a road up the bank led to Saleesh House.
The second landing was recorded in his Journal on March 4, 1812. This time he chose to land above the rapid. His reference was to the distance to the place where he landed his canoe almost immediately after passing the mouth of the "...the Brook"—Thompson River.
"March 4th Wednesday – A very stormy Night, cloudy Morng – & fine day, partly clear – gummed the Canoe & set off at 8..7 AM Co N72W 1/4, N55W 1/3 the Brook S72W 1/4 end of Co..."
Based on this description, his landing spot was above the spot described in 1810. His description puts it just below the mouth of Thompson River and just above the entry to the narrow channel creating the rapid. The following Google image shows the two courses he described.
Each spring while Thompson was in charge of Saleesh House, furs and dried meat, usually in the form of pemmican, were shipped by horseback and canoe from his trading posts to his assigned supply depot at Rainy Lake.
Two key clues to the location of Saleesh House are spelled out in his Journal notes on April 19, 1810, and again on March 13, 1812, as he was leaving Saleesh House by canoe.
In 1810, he departed the post in a canoe loaded with furs and pemmican on his way downriver to Kullyspel House. The important point to note here is his first two bearings and distances indicated his canoe was headed in a southwesterly direction:
"Co from the Ho S70W 1/2 M, S88W 1/2 M ..."
In 1812, on his final departure from Saleesh House with furs and meat acquired during the winter of 1811–1812, he again noted compass bearings and estimated distances taken from the canoe. This time only the first bearing was in a southwesterly direction but the distances in both cases were similar if we allow a reasonable margin of error related to estimating the speed of the canoe. The total distance on a southwesterly bearing in 1810 was 2,640 feet. In 1812 it was 2,112 feet.
"Co S85W 2/5 M, N60W 1/2 M..."
In the Thompson Falls area there is only a single stretch of the river that flows in a southwesterly direction. It is located between the mouth of Thompson River and the mouth of Cherry Creek that flows in from the south. Saleesh House was undoubtedly located above that part of river.
The stretch that flows in a southwesterly direction can be seen in the center-right of the following Google image. It flows in that direction for only about a mile, ending about halfway between the Thompson River location and the traditional location of Saleesh House.
Finally, recall Thompson's description about the location that we quoted at the beginning of this treatise:
"The House was situated in a small bay of the river, close to us was a spur of the hills which came on the River in a cliff of about sixty feet in height, beyond which to the south eastward the country opened out to a great extent of fine meadow ground, the scene of many a battle..."
This image represents what I believe to be the scene he was describing. The rock outcropping is the "spur of the hills".
Here is a close-up of the "spur."
Travelers on Highway 200 will have no trouble recognizing the spur of the hills and the fine meadow that Thompson mentioned.
In conclusion, our work has been based primarily on the earliest historic information available. Then we checked and re-checked against more recent credible evidence to arrive at what we believe is the most likely location of David Thompson's Saleesh House. We spent many days in the field with a copy of Thompson's Journal, old maps and a compass trying to identify places Thompson either described or where he had recorded an OBS for Latitude.
Each site we located became another dot on the map. Eventually, we had verified enough dots to begin tying them together to form a broader picture of where he was and what he had observed. Did we get every detail exactly right? Probably not! However, we believe we are closer then previous attempts.
Now, after fifteen years of research about the true location of Saleesh House, it is time for Linda and me to step back. We made some mistakes along the way we did not discover until after Sometimes Only Horses to Eat
was published in 2008. As far as we are concerned, most were not of great significance.
However, since our goal from the beginning has been to ensure we preserve the history of the early fur trade in this region as it actually was—not what someone personally thinks it should have been—it is important they be corrected.
So there you have it. Either Thompson got it wrong or the "traditional location" for the post has been wrong for decades. Our money is on Thompson!
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