David Thompson records the first written description of the Wanapum Indians and of the landscape along the Columbia between Crab Creek (present-day Grant County) and the mouth of the Snake River (near present-day Pasco and Kennewick) on July 8-9, 1811.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 5/25/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9010

On July 8-9, 1811, Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) records the first written description of the Wanapum Indians and the landscape along the Columbia River from Crab Creek (present-day Grant County) to the mouth of the Snake River (near present-day Pasco and Kennewick in Franklin and Benton counties). Thompson embarked from Kettle Falls on July 3 on a historic voyage down the Columbia River to the Pacific. He is the first non-Indian to descend the river and make contact with tribes between Kettle Falls and the mouth of the Snake River, where he intersects the route of Lewis and Clark from five years earlier.

July 8: Crab Creek to Yakima River

"July 8th. Monday. Passed a bad Night with Musketoes & a high Wind . ... Prepared a Mast, Sail, &c, & at 6:50 Am set off" (Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye, 108).

After a mosquito-plagued night near the mouth of Crab Creek (just below the present-day town of Beverly), the Nor’Westers scudded down the Columbia. They had made only a few miles under the sheets when they skipped through the waves of a roiling rapid (modern-day Priest Rapids). Spotting a large village on shore, they managed to beach the canoe half a mile downstream. A chief mounted on horseback rode down to investigate, then took word of the new arrivals back to his people. Although non-Indians had never visited this section of the river, at least one item of European manufacture had made its way this far upstream, for when the chief returned he was accompanied by "an old white headed Man, with the handle of a Tea Kettle for an ornament ab[ou]t his Head; he showed no Signs of Age except his Hair & a few Wrinkles on his face; he was quite naked & ran nearly as fast as the Horses -- we could not but admire him" (Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye, 109).

Thompson invited everyone in the village to join in a smoke, and while the men passed the pipe and talked, the women sang and danced in a performance that, like others the surveyor had witnessed, contained "something of a religious nature." These people, whom Thompson called "Skee mooin" (Wanapum), spoke a Sahaptin tongue, and here a translator (a visiting chief from another tribe they'd met upstream while visiting the Interior-Salish-speaking Sinyakuse), showed his mettle:  "interpreting with an audible Voice ... he seems a sensible respectable Man." Each phrase would have been rendered from Sahaptin into Salish, then into French or English by the Nor'Westers' interpreter, Michel Boulard.

The furmen accepted a gift of pounded roots made into neat little cakes and two small salmon of the same species they had seen upriver, then watched the Wanapum harvest the summer run:

"These people, as well those of the last Village, are making use of the Seine Net, which is well made from wild Hemp, which grows on the rich low grounds. The net appeared about full six feet in breadth by about thirty fathoms [180 feet] in length" (Thompson, Travels iii., 264).

The rapids that the Nor’Westers shot are now drowned behind the Priest Rapids Dam, but the village site that Thompson recorded in his journal and later codified on several maps is still occupied by Wanapum people, who still gather Indian hemp for cordage and netting, and sew tule rushes together to make mats to roof their longhouses. Elders still tell stories about a man named Fast Runner who kept up his speed to a very great age.

Below Priest Rapids, the Columbia River flows through present-day Hanford Reach, but Thompson made no mention of the famed White Bluffs, focusing instead on the snow-patched ridge of the Blue Mountains in the distance. In the evening he put ashore at a village of 150 men whom he called "Skaem en a" (Yakama). As the men boiled their usual fare of salmon for supper, Thompson marveled at a trace of oil in the cooking kettle -- the first sign of fat he had seen on a Pacific salmon -- and remarked that the fish now assumed a pleasing trout-like taste.

Although Thompson was unaware of the fact, he had just overlapped the track of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In mid-October six years earlier, Captain Clark (1770-1838) had paddled upstream from the confluence of the Snake to the mouth of the Yakima. Along the way he had observed "great numbers of Salmon dead on the Shores, floating on the water and in the Bottoms which can be seen at the depth of 20 feet. the Cause of the emence numbers of dead Salmon I can’t account for" (Moulton, Journals, 5:286).

While William Clark had witnessed the tail end of a salmon run, David Thompson was floating through the midst of an active fishery. As anthropologist Eugene Hunn points out, the timing of Thompson’s July journey exposed him to a much higher river level than the Americans had experienced during their travels of October 1805 and May 1806. The surveyor witnessed tribal people engaged in a different variety of activities as they touched the big river on their annual round, and the fresh details contained in his journals add another layer to the understanding of Plateau lifeways at the moment of contact.

Thompson was impressed both by the situation of the mouth of the Yakima River and by the people whom he met there. They listened to his "often repeated speech" about his plans to supply much-desired trade goods of every description, and they promised to satisfy his need for "industrious hunters for the winter season." They assured him that there were plenty of deer to supplement an abundant supply of trout and dried salmon for food during their mild winters. In response, Thompson promised to build a trade house nearby (Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye, 109).

July 9: Mouth of Snake River

"July 9th. Tuesday. A stormy night & Morng, wind NWtly. At 6:10 Am set off, Co[urse] S80E 1/2 M to the Junction of the Shawpatin [Snake] River with this, the Columbia" (Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye, 109).

Upon reaching the mouth of the Snake River (near present-day Pasco and Kennewick in Franklin and Benton counties), Thompson realized that he had intersected the path of the American captains; from a letter of Lewis’s he had copied, he would have known that they had named this river after Lewis. But the surveyor chose to call it the Shawpatin, after the tribes who lived around its confluence with the Columbia.


Sources: Barbara Belyea, Columbia Journals (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); Jay Miller, "Middle Columbia River Salishans," in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998); Gary Moulton, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 5 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001); Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker’s Eye (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); Jack Nisbet interview with Gene Hunn, Seattle, July 1, 2004; David Thompson, Notebooks 26 & 27, F443, Archives of Ontario, Toronto; David Thompson, Travels, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Related Topics:   Environment | Exploration | Northwest Indians | Rivers

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