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English fur trader made big impact as explorer

The Aberdeen Times of Aberdeen, Idaho

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Idaho 100

Editor's Note: With Idaho s sesquicentennial coming up - 150 years since the designation of Idaho Territory by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 along with Power County also celebrating its centennial, authors Marty Peterson and Randy Stapilus have recently released Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State. Select offerings from that book will be published, space available, in The Power County Press and The Aberdeen Times.

#46 David Thompson April 30, 1770-February 10, 1857. Fur trader. Hope.

Buried: Montreal, Quebec, Canada,

Mount Royal Cemetery.

David Thompson is the one person on this list who never was a citizen or long-time resident of the United States, or even a long-time resident of Idaho. He was a native of England, and lived nearly all of his life in Canada spending only a quick stretch in what is now Idaho.

But his short time on the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille left reverberations that impacted the history of the area for decades to come. His time was commemorated in a monument at Hope which notes, "...the coming of the first white man to Lake Pend D'Oreille, David Thompson, explorer, geographer and fur trader."

Indentured in his youth to the Hudson's Bay Company, he learned about exploring and trading in furs, and traveled on foot distances that seem truly incredible. By 1801 he became a partner in the North West Company, exploring around Lake Superior north to the Slave Lake region in Canada. In 1806 (partly as a result, perhaps, of news of the American Lewis and Clark expedition?) he headed west, across the continental divide.

In 1809 he explored the upper Columbia area (now in British Columbia), then moved south, along Lake Pend Oreille, east of what is now Sandpoint. Here he paused itself an unusual thing for a man who, as writer Cort Conley said, "moved like he had a posse on his tail." The spot on the lake, now called the Hope Peninsula, was at a useful juncture. It was easily accessible by water across an immense distance, and it was located at a crossroads near where a large number of tribal groups (the Flatheads, Spokans, Kalispels, Coeur d'Alenes) all lived. Here he set up the first commercial building in the Northwest by a person of European descent: Kullyspell House, a place where he and the various Indian groups all could trade among themselves. And it was used as such; there are indications the trading was brisk.

Exactly how long he stayed there we don't know. It wasn't long; he headed east down the Clark Fork to winter in what is now Montana. He probably resided in Idaho just about long enough to have (in modern terms) gotten a driver's license or qualified to vote probably barely long enough to qualify for this list, and maybe less time than anyone else on it.

He returned to Lake Pend Oreille in the spring, stayed a short while, then headed east to sell the furs he had gathered. He may have visited the location once more (he would spend the remainder of his life in Canada), but Kullyspell House did not last long. It was abandoned after attacks from the Blackfeet, who were not part of the trading consortium and whose enemies had received rifles and other supplies from Thompson and his crew.

There was no direct follow-up to Thompson's short stay in Idaho. Kullyspell House was demolished, and even its location was unknown until a determined effort to locate it in 1923. Canadians never did move into the area, and people from the United States did not settle around Lake Pend Oreille until the 1880s.

So why is Thompson, remarkable as he may be, on this list?

One reason is Thompson's spectacular work as a geographer and mapmaker, filling in the gaps and explaining to the interested and some key people were interested what lay in what is now the upper Idaho Panhandle. (For years it was proprietary information of the North West Company, but the basic outlines undoubtedly made their way out over time.)

One of those interested persons surely was Father PierreJean de Smet, whose deliberate travels through the region around 1840 had a big effect on the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and, indirectly, on United States settlement through the area. Thompson's story of establishing a prosperous trading center in the region must also have had some influence on later prospective settlers.

The secondary reason has to do with the pattern of settlement, and an answer to this question: If the prospects were so good, why did not the North West Company, and other Canadians, follow up? The answer probably has a lot to do with the relationships among the tribes in the area especially the Black-feet which were affected by Thompson and his efforts a trading. Speculation is, wore got out that, for a while a least, the area around Pend Oreille was not safe for Canadians. That may have helped clear the decks in the region for the United States settlers who arrived later.

Marty Peterson (of the University of Idaho, Idaho Centennial Commission, state budget office and much more over the years) and Randy Stapilus, political writer and publisher, released Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State. Its subject is just what the name implies - 100 profiles of Idahoans, listed in rank order, who had an outsized impact on developing the state of Idaho. The book is an officially endorsed sesquicentennial book the first publication so endorsed. The book is available from the publisher at, and through, and some local retailers.

Copyright 2012 The Aberdeen Times, Aberdeen, Idaho. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: December 19, 2012

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