On July 4-5, 1811, Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) records the first written description of the Nespelem Indians and the landscape along the Columbia River from the mouth of the Sanpoil River through Nespelem Canyon (modern-day Ferry and Okanogan counties). He embarked from Kettle Falls on July 3 on a historic voyage down the Columbia River to the Pacific. The fur agent in charge of the Columbia Department of the North West Company of Canada, Thompson is on a mission to determine whether the Columbia is navigable to the sea and whether it will provide a viable trade route for the fur company. Thompson’s crew includes French Canadian voyageurs Pierre Pareil and Joseph Cote, translator Michel Boulard, and free hunters Michel Bourdeaux and Francois Gregoire. Two Iroquois Indians called Charles and Ignace paddle at the bow and stern.
July 4: Sanpoil River to Nespelem Canyon
On the evening of July 3, Thompson and his voyageurs camped at the mouth of the Sanpoil River, where they visited with a group of Sanpoil Indians. After buying salmon from the Sanpoils for breakfast, Thompson questioned them about the surrounding countryside. Whenever possible, the geographer took celestial observations for latitude and longitude at key landmarks along his route so that he would be able to accurately map the region. Hoping to make an observation of the sun at its midday meridian, an important measurement for determining latitude, he took his sextant and climbed a 40-foot rock outcrop to gain an unobstructed view of the river. He wanted to use the river’s surface as a natural horizon for his observation, but by the time he climbed high enough to see over a clump of willows, the sun had passed the meridian.
The Nor’Westers then relaunched their canoe, accompanied by a Sanpoil interpreter. Later that afternoon they slid into Nespelem Canyon, where steep banks confined the river’s roiling current for more than 25 miles. In addition to the narrowed channel, the river dropped 30 feet in the space of the first four miles, creating a dangerous series of rapids.
“It is wild work to navigate this River in its present state, yet the Trees which we see lodged among the Rocks show us plainly that to have lodged them there, the water must then have been twelve feet higher than it is at present” (Thompson, Travels ii.240).
As the voyageurs maneuvered around the jutting rocks, the Iroquois steersman Ignace stood up in the stern to better see the river ahead. When the canoe flashed past a large boulder, a spar jutting from a driftwood tree knocked Ignace out of the boat. “Altho he had never swum in his Life he swam to keep himself above the Waves, ‘till they turned the Canoe round & took him up” (Nisbet, MME, 105). With their steersman back on board, the Nor’Westers began looking for a flat spot to pitch their tents; at 7 p.m. they gave up and spent the night leaning against a rocky cliff while the canoe floated alongside. Thompson, who believed in the nineteenth-century medical technique of blood-letting, always carried a surgical lancet with him, and that evening he bled Ignace to relieve him of his near-drowning experience.
July 5: Nespelem Indians
“July 5th. Friday. A rainy Morng. Havg made 2 Paddles, at 6 1/4 AM we set off” (Nisbet, MME, 105). After a short float, the paddlers reached the head of Whirlpool Rapids, where huge boulders created a daunting obstacle course, as the channel narrowed even further. One look at the high waves studding the river convinced the voyageurs that a portage was in order. As they carried their cargo along the shore, they met a group of “Inspaelis” (Nespelems) with horses who helped carry the baggage two miles to a suitable campsite. About 60 Nespelem families were camped nearby, and presented the visitors with the standard gift of berries, roots, and roasted salmon, plus five live horses and four small dried animals that Thompson tentatively identified as marmots. He reciprocated with an assortment of rings, hawks bells, beads, gartering, vermillion, awls, and buttons.
The onset of heavy rain forced the travelers into their tents. When the rain abated in mid-afternoon, the Nespelems returned to continue their visit. Boulard, who spoke some Interior Salish, could not understand the Nespelems’ dialect, and Thompson was fortunate in having the Sanpoil man to serve as intermediary. The people reported that no beaver lived in their treeless country, but there were bears, muskrats, black-tailed deer (mule deer), and a few sheep. They cut the skins of these various animals into narrow strips and wove them into blankets; Thompson remarked that only one type of animal was used per blanket, with no intermixing of species.
When the Nespelems offered to dance “for our good voyage & preservation to the Sea & back again,” the Nor’Westers accepted.
“They all both Men, Women & Children formed a Line in an Ellipsis; they danced with the sun in a mingled Manner. An old Man who did not dance set the Song & the others danced as if it were as a Person running, but passing over a very small space of Ground, their Arms also keeping Time tho’ hardly stirring from their sides … and ending with a kind of prayer for our safety, all turning their faces up the River & quickly lifting their hands high & striking the Palms together then letting them fall quickly” (Nisbet, MME, 106).
As he watched the dances, Thompson noticed bracelets and headbands made of brilliant white dentalium shells, an important trade item obtained from coastal tribes. The women were more profusely outfitted than the men, and some had copper ornaments hanging from their petticoats, an example of manufactured trade goods that had filtered through intertribal trading systems.
Observing the surrounding countryside, Thompson noted a powdery soil mixed with stones that supported bunchgrass and “2 strongly-scented Shrubs” (probably big sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush). He thought the agricultural prospects poor, but the Nespelems, after smoking five feet of the Nor’Westers’ imported tobacco, mentioned that they grew their own strain of tobacco nearby — even though it was not yet ripe, they were thinking of harvesting a small amount to smoke.
Before departing the next morning, Thompson smoked several more pipes with his hosts, then entrusted three large bags of roots to the custody of the Nespelem chief, to be retrieved on his return upriver.
Like their Sanpoil neighbors, the Nespelem spoke the Okanagan dialect of Interior Salish. Around the time of David Thompson’s visit, the Nespelem fished for salmon along the Columbia on both sides of the mouth of the Nespelem River. They dug roots in the Big Bend country and hunted game in the highlands north of the river. In 1872, the Nespelems were assigned to the Colville Indian Reservation, in Ferry County, Washington (Miller, 254).