On August 18, 1811, members of the Pacific Fur Company, known as the Astorians, name Priest Rapids on the Columbia River in honor of a tribal leader they meet there. Priest Rapids is located north of the Big Bend area of the Columbia, just north of White Bluffs (present-day Hanford Reach). The Astorians are on their way upstream to build the first American trading post on the mid-Columbia as the vanguard of a new business enterprise by New York fur baron John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), who intends to establish a commercial fur empire in the Northwest as well as a transcontinental trade network between the Missouri and the Pacific coast.
Paddling North of the Big Bend
The small group of Astorians paddled upstream around the Big Bend of the Columbia in two dugout canoes they had purchased from Chinook tribesmen near Fort Astoria, their newly established trading post near the mouth of the Columbia. The party was led by Pacific Fur Company partner David Stuart (1765-1853), who was assisted by three clerks, three French-Canadian paddlers, and one Hawaiian worker. A journal kept by clerk Alexander Ross (1783-1856) provides a firsthand account of the journey.
On August 18, as the Astorians emerged from the placid section of the river known as the White Bluffs (present-day Hanford Reach), the current picked up speed and they soon reached the foot of a strong rapid that stretched far upstream, “a dangerous and intricate part of the navigation” (Ross, 134). After surveying the current, they made their way up one edge of the rapid “full of rocks and small channels, through which the water rushes with great violence” (Ross, 134).
Walking along the shore, Ross had an opportunity to observe some of the local fauna: “The ground here is everywhere full, covered with flat stones, and wherever these stones lie … the rattlesnakes are very numerous. At times they may be heard hissing all around, so that we had to keep a sharp lookout to avoid treading on them” (Ross, 135).
After ascending the lowest riffle about half way, the furmen stopped to camp for the night. “Here a large concourse of Indians met us, and after several friendly harangues, commenced the usual ceremony of smoking the pipe of peace: after which they passed the night in dancing and singing … The name of the tribe is Ska-moy-num-acks; they appear numerous and well affected toward the whites” (Ross, 134).
Encountering a Shaman
Among the tribesmen who greeted them, the Astorians were impressed by a “tall, meager, middle-aged Indian, who attached himself very closely to us from the first moment we saw him. He was called Ha-qui-laugh, which signifies doctor, or rather priest … . We named the place “Priest’s Rapid” after him” (Ross, 134).
The landmark christened Priest Rapids by the Astorians (now flooded by Priest Rapids Dam) was the site of a village called P’na by the Wanapum people who inhabited the area, in reference to a basketry trap used there to catch salmon. Their neighbors, the Moses Columbias, also visited this important fishery, which they called “Noisy Water,” to lay in supplies of dried salmon (Rigsby, 60).
Anthropologists Bruce Rigsby and Michael Finley, who have studied the history and ethnography of the Big Bend area tribes, note that the Wanapums spoke a dialect of the Sahaptin language, whereas the Moses Columbias were Interior Salish speakers. They believe that the name Ross recorded, Ha-qui-laugh, is a misspelling of Tla-quill-augh, the Interior Salish word for shaman. Based on the probability that some of the villagers were bilingual, Rigsby and Finley conclude “that Ross’s ‘priest’ was a shaman and, among other things, a speaker of a neighboring Interior Salishan language” (Rigsby, 57). But his exact identity, in their opinion, “remains a mystery. We cannot say whether he was a visitor, a local resident (say, married to a traditional owner), a kinsman, a trading partner, or some combination of these roles” (Rigsby, 74).
Whoever he was, his epithet has remained firmly attached to the landmark of Priest Rapids ever since.