Native Culture

Among the ancient cultures of the world, Salish People from the interior of the Northwest and particularly the Sinixt People who inhabited a vast territory from the headwaters of the Columbia River to it’s junction with the Spokane River are recognized for their stewardship of the land.  Traditions that allowed the strongest runs of salmon to clear Kettle Falls and continue to spawning grounds upstream kept a healthy population of fish running in the Columbia for millenia.  While Egyptian, Sumatran, Greek and Roman Empires rose and fell, often as the result of unsustainable practices, local tribes lived on. They managed to fish amicably at the Kettle Falls, one of two major fisheries on the Columbia River (the other being at Celilo Falls) by keeping a peace between tribes who fished here, even when they were at odds during the rest of the year.  Caribou, Elk, Bear and other animals were similarly sustained and honored in Sinixt culture.

Trails led for generations to the Falls and back to home villages.  Most long distance travel was accomplished by canoe.  The Sinixt developed a unique style, the sturgeon-nosed canoe, that allowed them to paddle up swift-moving streams without swamping because the bow of the canoe parted the waters without swamping, much like a kayak.  They also developed extensive trail systems, known as “Grease Trails” because the principle trade item was bear fat, highly prized for its ability to keep without developing a rancid flavor.  These trails often included rope bridges made of hemp.  As the major crossroads for this network of water trails and foot paths, Kettle Falls was the central trading hub for the region.

Around 1760, Pawnee Indians brought Spanish Ponies from the Great Plains to the Northwest.  Traditional trade routes such as the Kalispell Trail then extended to the Bitterroot Valley in Montana and down to Celio Falls near The Dalles Oregon.  There it connected with trade routes from the Chinook tribes on the coast.  Buffalo robes, obsidian for knapping and shells became inland trade items.  But along with the wealth of extended travel came disease.  As early as 1770, 40 years before White People arrived on the scene, Small Pox was reported near Kettle Falls.

Traditional Indian life involved passing on knowledge and building character in each new generation.  Every member of a tribe had duties that took training from one generation to the next.  Over the next half century, European disease decimated Native Peoples.  Some estimates are that only a tenth of the original population remained by the time of local first contact with White People.  The lore and history that was lost in these epidemics can hardly be overestimated.

At the time David Thompson arrived representing the Northwest Company, local people were anxious to trade for steel and guns.  Great Plains tribes already armed with industrial technology had begun raiding Sinixt territory.  The Northwest Company was largely staffed by French-Indian mixed blood people.  When their time working for the company was over, they became “Free Men”.  Many of them settled near Chewelah even before David Thompson arrived in the Colville Valley in 1811.  Today, many of the surnames of local tribal members have French roots.

The Freemen also brought with them their Catholic religion and eventually Jesuit missionaries.  In 1845 St Paul’s Mission was established near Kettle Falls as well as St Regis Mission near Chewelah by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet.  Native People’s were willing to learn from the religion of some of the Fur Traders.  It did not completely eclipse their experience with the spirits of nature.  By then crude vaccinations for Small Pox administered by the priests saved many from death and increased Native appreciation for the healing powers of these new spirits.  They were not as impressed with the beliefs of Protestant Missionaries Cushing and Myra Fairbanks Eells and Elkanah and Mary Walker, who established the Tshimakain Mission near Ford Washington in 1838 and left in 1848 without converting a single soul.

In 1825 the Hudson Bay Company established its principle “factory”, Ft Colvile (spelled with one “l”) on a wide floodplain north of Kettle Falls.  Ft Colvile supplied food and trade goods to traders in the territory north and east of the Falls and was the principle trading post for the interior of the Pacific Northwest.  The post grew huge crops of potatoes and grain, raised beef and pork and grew fruits and vegetables.  Local tribes learned to cultivate land and began farming throughout the Colville Valley.  Their crops were included in the trade goods of Fort Colvile.

With the boundary treaty of 1846 that established the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the United State, a new government came to replace the British-backed Hudson Bay Company.  The American representative, Issac Stevens came in 1853 and began a campaign to relegate all Native Tribes to reservations.  American settlers moved into the area and the American Army established Fort Harney, which soon became Fort Colville, 3 miles north of the present town of Colville in 1859.  By 1866 the Spoielpi, now called the Colville Tribe, were forced out of the Colville Valley and onto a reservation on the west side of the Columbia.

What followed was a long litany of broken treaty promises as rich mineral deposits were discovered throughout the region and the government worked to exploit the reservation where they a had already forced many tribes from throughout the region to live together.  White men’s vices of liquor and gambling further impoverished the Native Nations.  Only in the last 50 years through a series of successful court battles and the establishment of viable tribal businesses such as timber and gambling, have the local tribes begun to consolidate and control their reservations and bring more health and prosperity to their peoples.

For further reading, follow these links:

The Crossroads Project

Stevens County Crossroads on the Columbia Digital Archive

Since the ice sheets retreated 10,000 years ago, Native Peoples fished at Kettle Falls until the falls were submerged beneath waters backed up by Grand Coulee Dam in 1940.  Rivers were the highways of early travel, where they came together villages arose.  Native people gathered through the summer at the falls to catch and dry salmon.  This is the oldest and greatest of the Crossroads on the Columbia.

The first official contact between Native Peoples and White People at Kettle Falls occurred in 1811 when David Thompson arrived at the falls and constructed a canoe to take Beaver pelts to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia.  This connection began an era when Kettle Falls became the principle Fur Trading Post in the interior of North America West of the Rockies. It’s key position in an international trade loop to China and back to England made it a crossroads on a much larger scale.

The Fur Trade ended around 1850 just before gold was discovered on the Columbia near Waneta on the border of the US and Canada.  Mining dominated development over the next 100 years as gold and other minerals hidden in the complex geology that formed the Kettle Falls led to the rapid development of travel by river and then by railway.  National and local governments clashed, built stongholds and wagon trails, and provided security for the dominant culture.  Industrial and agricultural boom towns peopled by immigrants from Europe and Asia sprang up along the waterways and eventually the railways of the region.  These new crossroads towns grew in turn from waves of homesteaders, many fleeing turmoil in the US and abroad.  They settled in even the most remote ends of the roads wherever water and soil would support a cow and the forest would provide trees for a cabin.

In some ways the forces that built the region stole its glory.  Railroads that brought industry and took minerals found more lucrative crossroads in Spokane and Seattle.  Rivers became sources of industrial power and ceased to serve as highways for fish and boats.  Mines boomed and busted forcing many to abandon the ends of the road and flee to bigger cities for work.

These themes meet and crisscross each other: Native People, The Fur Trade, Government, Mining, Boats, Railways and the Ends of the Road.  Each of them provides a way to organize our history.  Like any arbitrary convention, they may fall short of telling the whole story.  But they do provide roads into the territory and we encourage you to explore each of them to understand how they influenced each other.

For those of us who call the Kettle Country home and the thousands more who have their roots here, but live elsewhere, the crossroads on the Columbia have many stories to tell.  This archive is designed to hold the pictures, stories, records and other pieces of the past in a digital form, where researchers can piece together their own stories, share them with each other and with the rest of the world.  It is also designed to back up the physical treasures of our local museums and family collections so that even if they are lost to flood, fire or a weak economy, they will be here at least in a virtual form for the world to see.

Like any crossroads town, this website depends on its patrons to build valuable, accessible and attractive works together. Every dollar of the Preserve America Grant that funded its beginning needs to be matched with labor and material from the community itself.  There are opportunities and resources to encourage that effort in the History Detective categories of this website.

We need to strengthen, not replace our museums. There is no subsitute for being here,  This project will enhance efforts to develop tours and tourism to the museums and the rest of this historic area.  If you are not already familiar with the museums of Old Stevens County, a territory that covers much more than today’s jurisdiction, visit them soon.  You will be glad you did.

Although some history is written in stone in grave yards and the corner stones of historic buildings, none of it is complete and all of it is open to interpretation.  There are always facts to add and facts to dispute, this site will provide forums so that we can improve what is written.

A town that stops changing dies.  Similarly, technology keeps providing new opportunities to see the world in different ways.  Social Networks, Mobile Technology, Augmented Reality, Location Based Service, Gesture-based Computing and the Semantic web are some emerging technolgies that can enhance our understanding of the past and enrich our interactions with the present.  There is room for a lot of growth in this archive and rich resources to work with.  If you have ideas and projects that dovetail with this one, get involved.  We can find ourselves at the crossroads.

Get Your Story Told

This project depends on “History Detectives” to help with all phases of collecting information and putting it together in stories.

For a quick slide show of the process check out Building the Archive.

Curiosity is the first quality of a good detective but you don’t have to be an expert at history or computers to be a big help.  Everyone is good at something.

  • If you are curious, you probably want to know what kinds of things “History Detectives” do.  To start with, you can work at home on your own schedule or at a nearby museum or library organizing material or scanning.
  • There are a lot of hand-written documents that we can use help with typing up or just indexing their contents.
  • There are other papers with people’s names that we want to be keep track of.
  • If you have your own photo or story collection, that could help us too.
  • If you write or even just tell old stories, that could be very valuable.
  • You could plan a tour or inventory collections.
  • If you know genealogy  that could be huge.


So if you like to poke around in the past for any reason, this project needs you.  An easy way to contact us is to just post a comment to this page.  Give us a phone number (We won’t publish it on this website.)  We’ll call you and take it from there.


A Preserve America Project for Stevens County Washington