Monday, September 10, 2018

Fur Trader David Thompson Builds Kullyspell House [otd 9/10]

David Thompson, artist’s rendering.
New World Encyclopedia.
On September 10, 1809, fur trader and geographer David Thompson selected a spot on Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille to build a trading post for the British-Canadian North West Company.

He chose a site only a few miles from the mouth of the Clark Fork (12-14 miles across the lake from today’s Sandpoint). Thus, canoes, rafts, and other vessels could reach the post via the river or from any place on the lake. The structures his men assembled were the very first ever built by Anglo-Americans in the future state of Idaho.

London-born to Welsh parents in 1770, Thompson arrived in Canada at age 14, as an indentured apprentice to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Toward the end of that apprenticeship, David was able to hone his skills in mathematics, navigation, and surveying.

Thompson quit the HBC in 1797, after HBC management ordered him to discontinue his survey work and focus on trading. He took a position with the rival North West Company. David’s new employers encouraged his surveying, which included verifying locations along the Canadian border with the United States.

In 1798, Thompson surveyed Turtle Lake, located about ten miles north of today’s Bemidji, Minnesota. He judged that a creek there could be considered the source of the Mississippi River, an important consideration in the boundary negotiations between the U. S. and Great Britain. His determination is now considered incorrect, but he was not off by that much. (And prior to that, no one really had any idea where the source might be.)

In 1804, Thompson was made a full partner in the North West Company. Word that U.S. President Thomas Jefferson had dispatched the Corps of Discovery to explore the Pacific Northwest spurred the Company to greater effort there. Starting in 1807, Thompson explored and surveyed west of the Divide – especially the Columbia River watershed. Kullyspell House was just one of several trading posts he built or helped establish in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Western Canada.

Company management grew even more alarmed when they learned of plans by the American John Jacob Astor [blog, July 17] to exploit the fur riches of the Pacific Northwest. They declined a partnership offer from Astor, but apparently left the door open for further negotiations.

Early in the summer of 1811, Thompson headed east to Montreal; he needed a rest. Along the way, he received orders to go back and see what the Americans were up to. Oddly enough, he apparently gained the impression that Astor and the North West Company were, in fact, already partners. When Thompson reached the Pacific outlet of the Columbia in July, he found the Americans occupying a completed base at Astoria.
Astoria, 1813. Sketch by clerk Gabriel Franchère.
After examining Astoria and consulting with his (he thought) new partners, Thompson headed east to report. By then, Kullyspell House had proven to be a bust; too little income for its considerable upkeep. He closed it down and shifted the area’s operations to a newer post, Spokane House (9-10 mile northwest of today’s Spokane).

Thompson never returned to the West. Today, he is considered the greatest New World geographer ever. He surveyed roughly a fifth of the North American land area, and his maps remained a primary benchmark for over a century. He died in February 1857.
References: [B&W], [Brit]
Bob Gunter, “Kullyspell House,” (1998-2010).
James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1990).
David Thompson, David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812, Champlain Society, Toronto (1962).


  1. This is great info i think it so good and a great life telling story. Its has so much that it talks about. I love it!

    O'Leary Middle School Teacher

  2. David Thompson had a great thrilling life!!!!!!!! I think i might relive his life into my own!