Hudson's Bay Company begins constructing Fort Colvile near Kettle Falls in early August 1825.

  • By Stephen B. Emerson
  • Posted 11/09/2009
  • Essay 7993
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In early August 1825, the Hudson's Bay Company begins constructing Fort Colvile as a trading post. Fort Colvile is located at the upper end of the two-mile portage around Kettle Falls on the Columbia River. It will become the most important Hudson's Bay Company post in Eastern Washington. The company will continue to operate the post until 1871.

Background to Fort Colvile

In 1810, the Canadian-based fur-trading firm the Northwest Company (NWC) sent employees Finnan McDonald (?-1851) and Jacques “Jaco” Finlay (1768-1828) to the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers to establish a fur-trading post.  It was called Spokane House.  In 1811, the competing American firm of the Pacific Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), built a post near the same location, called Fort Spokane. The War of 1812, however, persuaded the "Astorians" to sell their assets to the NWC, who soon moved into the roomier accommodations at Fort Spokane. The name reverted back to Spokane House. 

In 1821, the British-based Hudson’s Bay Company absorbed the assets of the NWC and, three years later, sent Governor George Simpson (1792-1860) on a tour of inspection in an effort to economize the company’s operations.  One result was the transference of the trading post at Spokane House to a new location near Kettle Falls (Ilthkoyape) on the Columbia River. The new post was called Fort Colvile, named after HBC official Andrew Colvile.

Building Fort Colvile

Construction of Fort Colvile began in early August 1825, after John Work (1792?-1861) sent guide P. L. Etand and seven men “to be employed preparing timber and , if they have time, building a store as a beginning to the new establishment” (Elliott, 1914, p. 105).  Shortly thereafter HBC clerk Thomas Dears was sent to supervise the project. However, when Work, who had been afield attending to his other fur trade duties, arrived to inspect progress on September 1, he was disappointed to find that the work had been half-heartedly conducted -- only a few dozen logs had been squared.  Displeased, Work immediately reorganized the operation.  A saw pit was constructed and a two-wheeled carriage was built to drag logs the 1,400 yards from the nearest source of timber.

By the time Work departed on September 4 he was able to leave 15 men devoted to the project. He expected the new store to be finished in time to move in the material from Spokane House before the onset of winter. Disappointment was again the result, unfortunately, for when Work returned on September 19 he complained that, “Not a stick of the house is up yet nor will the timber be in readiness for some time, I expected the frame at least would have been up” (Elliott, July 1914, p. 166).  There was no choice now but to prepare to spend the winter at Spokane House.

Thomas Dears was put in charge of taking care of the finished timbers and the small crop of potatoes grown at the Kettle Falls location that summer.  Enough lumber had been prepared to begin construction as soon as the bad weather broke in the spring.  Work believed it should only take eight to 10 days to erect the walls of the new store.

Agriculture in the Colville Valley

The potatoes planted at Kettle Falls marked the beginning of agriculture in the Colville Valley.  In the attempts to preserve the potatoes, stored in kegs, Dears's men built the first structure ever recorded in the Colville Valley, a small storage shack.  Most likely it was dismantled or abandoned the following spring as more permanent storage facilities were constructed.  Leaving both lumber and potatoes in the care of the local Indian chief, Dears and his crew headed south to join Work at Spokane House.

It was not an idle winter for John Work.  In the course of his HBC duties he traveled as far as the Flathead country of present-day Montana.  When the weather improved he turned to the task of transferring operations from Spokane House to the new post.  The store at Fort Colvile was soon put into service, and material began arriving.  An entry in Work’s journal, dated March 21, indicates that the transfer was nearly complete.  Botanist David Douglas (1799-1834) notes in his journal that by May, Spokane House had been abandoned by the HBC. Jacques “Jaco” Finlay, who with Finan McDonald had established Spokane House in 1810, retired from the trade and stayed on with his family in the old building until he died a few years later.

In the spring of 1826, construction at Fort Colvile was resumed, and the post began to take shape.  White inhabitants, including women and children, slowly trickled in. In accordance with Governor George Simpson’s demand for self-subsistence, land was broken and crops planted. The first livestock were brought in from Fort Vancouver.  By 1837, company farms were producing almost 5,000 bushels of grain, and the livestock was thriving. Fort Colvile had become the primary supplier of agricultural products in the interior Pacific Northwest.

Fort Colvile and Fort Colville

When the Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the border dispute between the Americans and the British, Fort Colvile’s days appeared to be numbered, since it was south of the chosen boundary at the 49th parallel. It was granted a reprieve when the United States agreed to recognize the possessory rights of British citizens and the HBC.  This allowed Fort Colvile to remain in operation for a number of years, despite dwindling profits as the number of available pelts steadily dropped. The post’s dominance of area affairs declined, largely due to the influx of American miners and settlers. 

Turbulent relations between the United States and some of the Columbia Plateau tribes in the 1850s brought the U.S. Army to the area, and in 1859, the Americans established a Fort Colville of their own farther up the Colville Valley. Soon the town of Pinkney City grew up next to that post as the flow of American immigrants became a flood. In 1869, the HBC received $450,000 as compensation following the extinguishment of its possessory rights. 

Last Years

On June 8, 1871, the Hudson's Bay Company officially abandoned Fort Colvile. Angus McDonald, the last chief factor of the post, continued to occupy the old buildings.  He homesteaded there for a few years despite efforts to evict him. As early as 1869, the United States had expressed a desire to use the post’s structures to house the agency of the recently proposed Colville Indian Reservation.

Special Commissioner John P. Shanks mentions that in 1873 a general council between American officials and representatives of local tribes was held at “the old British trading post.”  It is uncertain if this means that the Americans had achieved possession.  Subsequent reports indicate that the Colville Agency never did occupy the site. Angus McDonald left for Montana, leaving his son Donald to farm the location until 1907, when he too moved to Montana.  Such structures that remained were destroyed by a fire on July 8, 1910, an event recorded by local newspapers. 

Today, the site is inundated beneath the waters of Lake Roosevelt.


Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1869); Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871); Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1873); David H. Chance, Fort Colvile: The Structure of a Hudson’s Bay Company Post, 1825 to 1871 and After, University of Idaho Anthropological Research Manuscript Series No. 4, Laboratory of Anthropology, Moscow, 1972; T. C. Elliott, "Journal of John Work, June-October, 1825," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 1914; T. C. Elliott, "Journal of John Work, September 7-December 14, 1825," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1914; T. C. Elliott, Journal of John Work, December 15, 1825 to June 12, 1826, Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, October 1914; Stephen Emerson, "Effects of Cross-Cultural Contact," in A Design for Management of Cultural Resources in the Lake Roosevelt Basin of Northeastern Washington, ed. by Jerry R. Galm (Eastern Washington University Reports in Archaeology and History 100-83, Archaeological and Historical Services, 1994); William S. Lewis, "Information Concerning the Establishment of Fort Colville," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1925); Orin J.  Oliphant, Old Fort Colville, Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1925), pp. 29-48.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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