William Three Mountains the Elder and William Three Mountains the Younger

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 8/17/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9523
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William Three Mountains the Elder (ca. 1823-1883) and his son, William Three Mountains the Younger (1864-1937), served as important leaders of the Spokane tribe from the fur trade and missionary periods of the 1830s through the dam-building era of the 1930s. The Three Mountains name appears in documents relating to the 1858 Indian Wars, the treaty negotiations and reservation establishment of the 1880s, and the tribe's legal battles into the early twentieth century. They both were independent thinkers whose social and political stances were sometimes at odds with the positions of other tribal leaders as well as those of white officials. Many of the difficult issues they confronted still resonate through the tribal world.

William Three Mountains the Elder  ca. 1823 - 1883

The name Three Mountains is sometimes rendered as chah-tle-hsote in the Spokane language. Spokane elder Pauline Flett (b. 1924) explains that this translates as "three-bare-peaks-snag" and evokes the story of an epic journey. "tle means mountain, and we remember hsote, a forest of bare trees, maybe a big burn, maybe a storm of some kind. The original Three Mountains crossed through that bare forest three times going over the mountain. Probably to the coast, we think, because in those days when we said The Mountain we meant the Cascade Mountains, and crossing over them meant going to the coast” (Flett).

The elder chah-tle-hsote was born during the fur trade era and would have still been a young boy when the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned the Spokane House post at Nine Mile Falls and moved their operation to Fort Colvile at Kettle Falls. He was a teenager when Protestant missionaries Elkanah Walker (1805-1877) and Cushing Eells (1810-1893) arrived in 1838 and established Tshimakain Mission near the winter village of a Spokane band (outside present-day Ford in Stevens County).

According to Cushing Eells, both he and Walker hired young helpers from the village to assist with house chores and farm work. Eells recalled that the teenaged Three Mountains was called William by the missionaries, and

"became attached to the family of Mr. Walker. I judge that he at that day was about 16 years more or less. Characteristically he was cheerful, faithful. Himself, and those he served were mutually gratified" (Eells).

On July 29, 1839, Elkanah's wife, Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1877), wrote in her diary about her attempts to learn the Spokane language, noting that "my boy is a good one to get words from ... . He discovers an eager desire to learn to read and write. Is not quite retiring enough, otherwise like him, shall hate to send away one so anxious to learn. I wish I could keep and instruct him" (First White Women, 166).  A few weeks later, she mentioned that she had been teaching arithmetic to a group of tribal boys that probably included William Three Mountains. "I never could make white children understand half as quick," she wrote. "They added the digits to 10 & got it right the second time" (First White Women, 169).

The missionaries soon discovered that attendance in their schoolroom would be intermittent, for tribal families often traveled to other locations at different seasons to dig roots, hunt, or pick berries. William apparently continued to work for Elkanah and Mary Walker whenever his band was in residence at their winter village, but his tribal allegiances caused tension with the Walkers. On April 25, 1840, Mary wrote in her journal:

"Our Indian boy came later than usual in the morning. Mr. W. said nothing to him. I inquired the reason and it not being very satisfactory, I told him perhaps as he had not been awake long perhaps he was not hungry. He said he had already eaten at the lodges. I told him if the people fed him, perhaps it was good for him to help them instead of us. He remained about the door a few moments, his look not very pleasant, & then went to the lodges" (First White Women, 190).

The next spring, Elkanah Walker noted that he had given "Wild Boy" (apparently his nickname for William) a knife and some gunpowder. Then in early July 1841, after two years with the Walker household, William suddenly departed. Eells, writing many years later, thought that the chief of the nearby village had become jealous of William's rapid progress in learning English and had removed him from the missionaries' influence, but Elkanah's diary entry of July 5, 1841, tells a different story:

"Felt last night I must turn off my boy notwithstanding he has behaved as well as any one could wish or hope. He has been gambling & if he was permitted to stay, the effect would be bad upon the people. So I called the Old Chief & told him what I intended to do & gave the goods to him to pay the lad" (Nine Years, 161).

The Spokanes' fondness for "gambling" had been a source of frustration for the Walkers and Eells since their arrival at Tshimakain, and they spent a great deal of energy trying to convince the tribes that their traditional games were a serious vice.

By 1858, Three Mountains had become a prominent figure among the Upper Spokane band (who lived along the river near the modern Washington city), and his integrity was respected by the entire tribe. When Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) led his army into the Spokane country in 1858 in response to the incident at Steptoe Butte, Three Mountains and his fellow leader Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892) understood that any violent reaction by the tribes would have serious repercussions from the new territorial government, and tried to convince angry young headmen to stay out of the fight. As pioneer Reverend H. T. Cowley (1837-1917) later recalled:

"Few if any of this [Upper Spokane] band participated in the attempt to resist the Wright campaign. A considerable number of the upper Spokanes led by Chah-tle-hsote, or Three Mountains, or as he was familiarly known, William Three Mountains, did all in their power to allay the war spirit among the Upper Band. Three Mountains ... was a man of sterling principles, firm will, and indomitable energy" (Cowley).

When Indian agent W. P. Winans (1815-1917) convened a treaty council with five Plateau tribes in the Spokane Valley in June 1872, Three Mountains was chosen to help represent his people, and lobbied for expanding the boundary of the proposed Spokane Reservation south to the Spokane River.

Although Three Mountains had not been converted to Christianity during the sojourn of the Walkers and Eells among the Spokanes in the 1840s, he later embraced the Protestant faith, as he confided to Cushing Eells during a reunion in 1875: " I understood the teaching of Walker and you but I did not regard it. Subsequently my father died. I heard his dying counsel; but I did not regard that. Two years thereafter I came to a stand: I turned about; I became another person" (Eells). In the spring of 1873, Three Mountains joined a Spokane delegation that journeyed south to the Lapwai Mission among the Nez Perces to deliver an invitation from Chief Garry to missionary Henry Spalding (1803-1874). During Spalding's subsequent visit that July, he baptized dozens of Spokanes, Three Mountains among them.

A new sawmill was being built at Spokane Falls that same summer of 1873, and one of the millwrights observed that William Three Mountains often led religious services at a nearby tribal encampment, called to order morning and evening with a small cowbell.

As increasing numbers of white settlers arrived in the area during the 1870s, resident Spokane bands differed on the best strategies for preserving their homeland. Spokane Garry reasoned that if the bands held fast to their territory around Spokane, they would receive fair compensation for their traditional lands. Three Mountains, on the other hand, opted to relocate to an area removed from the growing city. Around 1878, he and a handful of Upper Spokane families decided to move to an area below Deep Creek Falls, where they established a unique tribal farming community.  

At the Deep Creek Colony, as it was known, William Three Mountains was instrumental in recruiting Protestant missionaries for his people and in establishing a Presbyterian church and school. He farmed successfully for five years while continuing to play a chief’s role in tribal politics, resettlement, and religion. A strong voice for temperance among his people, Three Mountains was shot to death in 1883 by a mixed-blood neighbor named Billy Jackson. An early Spokane resident recalled the incident in a 1916 interview:

"The Jackson boys: there were several of them, sons of an Indian mother by a white man named Jackson ... Jackson himself wasn’t much good and early left for parts unknown. Mrs. Jackson from all accounts was hard working and honest, but with a high temper. She sure had an awful time with these boys who grew up wild and unruly... . Old Three Mountains and the Jackson boys were at outs over his harsh criticisms of their doings so when Billy Jackson got drunk this time he went after old Three Mountains and in the scuffle between them Three Mountains had hold of a rifle which Jackson somehow shot off during the struggle and killed the chief" (Lewis interview with Lefevre).

William Three Mountains the Younger ca. 1864-1937

William Three Mountains the Younger, born about 1864, would have been 19 or 20 years old when his father was killed. Pauline Flett was told that he grew into a tall man, “always a head above everyone else” (Flett). In 1888, under pressure from the increasing numbers of white homesteaders and businesses moving into the area, the Deep Creek colonists moved to an area of the Spokane Reservation known as the West End. Three Mountains the Younger and his wife Mattie developed a farm beside the Spokane River, eight miles upstream from its mouth. "There was a distinctive rock in the river there, we called it Detillion Rock,” recalls Pauline Flett, “with the old A-frame Presbyterian Church nearby. William Three Mountains’s house was just a stone’s throw from Detillion Rock" (Flett). Around 1900, William was elected as chief of his band.

The church near Detillion Rock became known as the West End Church, and services were conducted by William Three Mountains and other tribal members. In 1895, the Office of Indian Affairs authorized the building of a school on the West End to serve the transplanted Deep Creek colonists; that same year Spokane County set aside money to build a bridge across the river near the Three Mountains’s farm (Ruby, 213).

In 1902, Three Mountains, not yet 30 years old, was appointed as one of three tribal judges for the Court of Indian Offenses on the reservation. Agent Captain John Webster, who was in charge of nominations, explained Three Mountains’s qualifications in a letter to the Commission of Indian Affairs:

"Intelligent, serious, dignified and straight-forward, with courage and integrity. By temperament an old time Indian who recognizes and fully accepts the new conditions thrust upon his people; is strictly temperate; has the confidence and respect of a large majority of his tribe" (Webster to Commission of Indian Affairs, 1902).

During the first decade of the twentieth century, activity quickened on the Spokane Reservation as the area was opened to mining claims. New wagon roads were built to reach burgeoning towns and mining camps. A young surveyor for Stevens County named W. M. Manning (1877-1945) oversaw the survey of the route between Detillion Bridge and the Turk Mine, which ran directly past Three Mountains’s home. The new 20-foot wide road required an easement from owners along its path, and in 1911 Mattie Three Mountains affixed her thumb print to an agreement giving consent for the right-of-way along the south boundary of the property.

During the survey process, Manning made the acquaintance of both William and Mattie, and purchased several traditional items from the family. On one visit Manning admired a pair of moccasins worn by Mattie and left with them in his possession:

“Woman’s buckskin moccasins, bought from wife of Chief Three Mountain of the Spokanes, who was at the time, wearing them. Solid beaded design in blue, green, yellow, old rose and purple. 7 1/2” long. Beaded on front and outside only" (Manning).

From William, Manning purchased an item of much greater antiquity: 

“Bow of iron wood, back lined with deer sinew firmly attached by fish glue. Both ends so fashioned as to form when strung a cupid bow. 36” long. Five plain, wooden or target (Bird) arrows attached. Very old, obtained from Chief Three Mountain of Spokanes” (Manning).

During the succeeding decades, Captain Webster continued to endorse Three Mountains’s position as tribal judge. Writing an assessment in 1912, Webster emphasized that Three Mountains "brings to his duties intelligent observation. Keen analysis of evidence and strict impartiality" (Webster telegram). Such praise did not mean that the two men always saw eye-to-eye, as Three Mountains continued to speak for the preservation of the traditional values of the Spokane people. In that same year, he strenuously objected to Agent Webster’s attempts to erect a sawmill on the West End. "Like most of the old full bloods he is adverse to the introduction of certain devices of the white man on the reservation,” wrote Webster, "such as railroads, sawmills, etc." (Webster to Commissioners, 1911).

Also in 1912, William opposed a local community center on the West End. His stand caught the attention of the Spokane newspapers, which ran an article with the headline:"OLD CHIEF FIGHTS COMMUNITY CENTER: Three-Mountain of the Spokanes Believes Club Idea Means Drunkedness; Captain John McA. Webster Lauds Project to Promote Athletic Contests on Reservation" (Spokesman). Captain Webster spoke for Three Mountains:

"He says that in case the building is constructed he will have no control over his people and that the police will be powerless to keep the whites from taking them liquor when they have their big games and social functions. He can see nothing but carousals that he believes would be a calamity to his people."

In his rebuttal, the agent was quoted as saying, somewhat patronizingly, “I do not believe that the chief understands the purpose of the club and building" (“Old Chief”).

But Three Mountains certainly understood the larger issues of tribal land rights. On October 20, 1916, Spokane journalist William S. Lewis (1916-1941) met with William Three Mountains and other tribal leaders to talk about the contact-period history of the area. The first part of the interview addressed the fur trade and the French-Canadian influence on the Plateau tribes; several of the points harkened back to William Three Mountains the Elder and his farming experience.

"The Indians learned to raise potatoes and vegetables from the Frenchmen. We used a hoe split out of a thorn bush with a crook on the end. All this we know of our own knowledge" (Lewis interview with tribal elders).

The bulk of the interview however, was clearly directed at long-simmering bitterness over the issues of displacement, relocation, and compensation for traditional lands.

"Spokane Indians do not feel that they have been treated fairly by the white people. We made claim to the land about the city of Spokane because our fathers had owned the land and because we were in possession of it and cultivated and used it. The Spokane Indians were dissatisfied with having to desert Spokane, because they thought it belonged to them and their dead kinspeople who were buried all over here. White people now have buildings and cultivated fields over the graves of our fathers and their bones dug up and thrown away. When we were driven from our lands we left our farms, our gardens, our hunting grounds, our fishing places, and the burial places of our fathers. When we were compelled to move onto the reservation it was like putting birds in a cage."

"Fifty-three families of us Spokanes moved onto the Spokane reservation about 1895. We were to get each a good house, furniture for it, each a horse and wagon, harness, cows, chickens, tools, etc. All we ever got was a little frame shack, twelve by twenty-four feet, a plow and wagon for each family. We did not get half what they said they would give us ... . This is an important matter with us. William Three Mountains is our judge. We want these things we have said told to the white people that we may receive what we were promised” (Lewis interview with tribal elders).

For the last two decades of his life, William Three Mountains lived with his wife Mattie on their farm near Detillion Bridge. He died at his home in January 1937, survived by his widow and one son. His funeral was held in the Presbyterian Church he had helped found at West End. Four years later, the farm was mostly drowned beneath the backup of Grand Coulee Dam.

Today, the William Three Mountains campground on the Spokane Reservation honors his role in tribal history, and numerous photographs show a tall elegant man, usually with a dark shirt and neat neckerkchief, at gatherings of leaders from across the Plateau. At those meetings he continued to express his opinions, demonstrating the integrity and keen analysis that agent Webster saw him put to use for his people.

Sources: Harvey C. Abeling, “Letter,” Portland Oregonian, October 13, 1935; Henry T. Cowley, “Spokane Indians,” Spokesman Review, May 30, 1897; Clifford M. Drury, First White Women over the Rockies: Diaries, Letters, and Biographical Sketches of the Six Women of the Oregon Mission Who Made the Overland Journey in 1836 and 1838 (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark Co., 1963); Clifford M. Drury, Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: the Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark Co., 1976); Clifford M. Drury, The Diaries and Letters of Henry H. Spalding and Asa Bowen Smith relating to the Nez Perce Mission, 1838-1842, (Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1958); Cushing Eells, “Reminiscenses,” Eells Collection, Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington; William S. Lewis interview with Peter Lefevre, 1916, “Lewis Papers,” Joel E. Ferris Archives, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; William S. Lewis interview with Spokane elders, 1916, “Lewis Papers,” Joel E. Ferris Archives, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; William M. Manning,  “Collection Notes,” Joel E. Ferris Archives, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; Jack Nisbet interviews with Pauline Flett, July 26, September 13, and October 17, 2007, Wellpinit, Washington; “Old Chief Fights Community Center,” Spokesman Review, March 7, 1912, p. 9; Robert H. Ruby and John Brown. The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006); John Webster to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, February 11, 1907, Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington; John Webster to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, June 12, 1911, Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington; John Webster response to Office Telegram No. 512, December 31, 1912, Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington.

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