David Thompson: Vol III ~ Kootenay House, 1807 : Articles & Resources
by Donna Ward, Northwoods Press
The grizzled, scruffy fur trader stood at the door of the fort in the mountains. Short and stocky, he did not look imposing until his powerful voice carried a shout to the Piegans just beyond his gates, “I know you are come as spies, and intend to destroy us, but many of you will die before you do so; go back to your countrymen and tell them so!”
It was October, 1807. The heavy snows had started and the mountains were becoming impassable. With only six men and ten guns, David Thompson, the indomitable fur trader and map maker, found himself in a precarious situation. He was in the mountains to trade with the friendly Kootenae natives, but on the route through the plains, the jealous and hostile Piegans had been a threat. Now they come after him ready to make war.
A hostile Piegan chief had charged his warriors “Crush the white men and the natives on the west side of the mountains, before they become well armed. We know them to be desperate men, and we must destroy them before they become too powerful for us!”
As soon as he had arrived on the steep banks of the Columbia River, David Thompson had built a heavy wooden fort for protection through the long winter. The first of its kind in the mountains, Kootenai House was a tiny fortress in a vast wilderness. Thompson wrote in his journal, “I knew the danger of the place we were in, but could not help it.”
Thompson’s rebuff did turn the Piegan spies away for a short while, but it was not long before a large war party came again, setting siege on the fort so that traders could not hunt or get water from the river except by quiet stealth at night. He wrote, “The Piegans had met in council, and it was determined to send forty men to destroy the trading Post, and us with it, and they pitched their tents before the gate, which was well barred. They remained for three weeks, thinking we would suffer for want of water as the bank we were on was 20 feet high and very steep. But at night, by a strong cord, we quietly and gently let down two brass kettles each holding four gallons and drew them up full; which was enough for all of us.”
Finding the fur traders always on the watch, the warriors decided not to risk their lives. Prior to embarking on this mission, one Piegan War Chief, who was not in approval of the attack, had publicly charged the leader “remember you have men confided to your care, which you must bring back; you are sent to destroy the enemy not to lose men.”
After three weeks outside the fort, the warriors suddenly broke camp. David Thompson was sure it was a trick. Later, he found out that some of them had been hunting and had caught sight of Kootanae hunters, friends of the traders but enemies of the Piegan. Piegans were trespassing on Kootanae land and were now at risk of being attacked and they decided to return home while all was still well with them.
When the Piegans returned to their camp on the plains, the hostile Chief who had sent them was appalled by their lack of success. Stirring them up he shouted, “Let the warriors get ready; in ten nights I will call on them. Each man will take a full ten days of dried provisions for we shall soon leave the country of the Bison, after which we must not fire a shot or we shall be discovered.”
This time, about three hundred warriors under three chiefs assembled, took their route across the mountains and camped nearby the fort. David Thompson’s blockade was becoming more vulnerable with dwindling supplies, but Thompson’s spirit was ever indomitable and his faith in God was strong. The Piegans sent two spies to see the strength of the fort and the shrewd trader, hoping through diplomacy to actually win them over, invited them to stay the night. The next morning, two Kootanae men arrived, their eyes glaring angrily like tigers at the Piegans. David Thompson asked them all the sit down to smoke a pipe together, a sign of negotiation and peace. He had made up gifts and in the presence of the Kootanae told the Piegans to take the presents to their war chiefs and be off hastily, before they find their whole party in danger.
“I cannot protect you against the Kootenae,” he advised. “For you know you are on these lands as enemies. The Kootenae will soon be here and they will fight for their trading post.”
The two spies hurried back to their encampment and laid the gifts before the feet of the chiefs who looked down in delight. One chief exclaimed, “If we proceed with our plan to attack, nothing of what is before us can be accepted!”
The eldest of the three chiefs, wistfully eyeing the goods, said at length. “You all know me, who I am, and what I am. I have attacked tents, my knife could cut through them and our enemies had no defense against us, and I am ready to do so again. But to go and fight against Logs of Wood, and with people we cannot see and with whom we are presently at peace, is what I am averse to. I go no further.” Diplomacy had won out against hostility; clever management prevented war.
Thus, David Thompson wrote in his journal, “by the mercy of good Providence I averted this danger.” He was safe for the present with only hunger and harsh weather to battle the end of 1807. In the spring, he would head east again, to get the furs to the great Northwest Company post at Old Fort William (present day Thunder Bay, ON)
Questions for discussion:
- How many years ago did this exciting story happen? 2007 is the 200th anniversary of Thompson’s discovery of the Howse Pass through the Rocky Mountains and the establishment of Kootenai House on the Columbia River. It is also the 150th anniversary of David Thompson’s death. What then was the year of his death? See exciting events planned for 2007-2010 to commemorate one of our greatest heroes. The North American David Thompson Bicentennial Partnership
- David Thompson was not only “the greatest geographer that ever lived,” (he explored and mapped 3.9 million square km.), but he knew the natives intimately and was sharp-witted but always fair. By what words and actions does he turn the whole situation around?
- This story was taken from David Thompson’s journals with direct quotations. Why are primary source documents (eye witness accounts) valuable in historical research? Seventy years after his death, in 1922, Thompson’s journals were edited and published as David Thompson’s Narrative. This valuable material can now be read online at Champlain Society website. Thompson’s priceless original journals will be on display throughout the bicentennial celebration. A rare copy of the published work is presently valued at $4500 U.S.!
© 2007 Donna Ward