The North West Company
In 1778, the North West Company (NWC) was organized as a commercial fur trading network which ultimately spanned the continent. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the North West Company began exploring the Rocky Mountains and points west to exploit the fur resources. David Thompson ,
explorer-geographer and wintering partner with the
North West Company, crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1807. His explorations resulted in the establishment of several trading posts in the upper Columbia River area.
In April 1810, Thompson engaged Jacques (Jaco) Finlay , a Metis free hunter, as a clerk and sent him to Spokane country with orders to build a small trading post at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers. The Little Spokane was a meandering, gentle river - ideal habitat for beaver and other fur-bearing animals. The post was also located on a traditional meeting ground of the Spokane area Native American tribes, making it an excellent spot in which to trade for furs.
Jaco Finlay, likely with help from other free hunters and possibly Finan McDonald - built a small, crude cabin, which they called Spokane House. This became the first permanent white settlement in what is now the state of Washington. The red headed Finan McDonald may have been the first white man seen by most of the local tribes. Finan - known for his great strength - was a tough, burly Scot, standing six-feet-four inches tall. He married the daughter of a Pend Oreille chief, which gave him much stature amongst his wife's people. Jaco Finlay, a first class woodsman and beaver hunter, had a varied and adventurous life. As David Thompson's guide and hunter, Finlay explored much of the Inland Northwest.
Spokane House and Fort Spokane
For two years, Spokane House enjoyed a fur trade monopoly with the Spokane area tribes. In 1812, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company arrived in the
Spokane area, bringing competition from the Americans. For protection - as they did with other posts - the Astorians built their new Spokane River trading post near the already-established Spokane House. The Americans called their post Fort Spokane (at that time spelled Fort Spokan). Fort Spokane was built on a grand scale to impress the native peoples. It housed the thirty-two workers, clerks, and traders who ran it. There was friendly but intense fur trading competition between the two establishments. Both companies agreed not to use alcohol to obtain furs from the Indians.
The Astorians success, however, was short lived. Word reached the Pacific Fur Company's Fort Spokane post in the spring of 1813 that England and the United States were at war again. The Americans also learned that a British frigate was on its way to Astoria to deprive them of their seaport on the Pacific Ocean. The Americans knew that without Fort Astor on the coast they could not ship the furs they had gathered. There was yet no established overland route to the east coast. On June 13, 1813, the three leaders of the Pacific Fur Company sold their fort and their goods at great financial loss to the North West Company. The North West Company moved to the more spacious Fort Spokane, renaming it Spokane House. Many of the Astorians stayed to work for the British company.
For the next few years, Spokane House was a bright refuge for the few company men in the area. Dances and parties were held in the storage rooms, helping both the men and their neighbors endure the long cold winters. The gates of the fort were seldom closed, as the relationships that were established with the local tribes were truly peaceful and friendly.
Hudson's Bay Company Merger
In 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) combined with the North West Company, and the post name was changed back to Fort Spokane. Governor Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company visited the post in 1824. He decided that since the swift Spokane River was unnavigable most of the year (and the furs were being depleted in the local area) requiring long overland treks, the facilities of the company should be moved. Simpson chose a spot on the Upper Columbia near Kettle Falls that could be reached by boat from the sea. He named the new site Fort Colvile, after Andrew Colvile, a London HBC Board member.
The men of Fort Spokane spent the winter of 1825 to 1826 building long boats for transporting furs and goods to the new fort. In the spring of 1826 (spring was the only time the Spokane River was navigable), they headed downstream to the Columbia, abandoning Fort Spokane. Only Jaco Finlay and his family remained. They too left after Jaco's death in 1828. By 1836, when Reverend Samuel Parker passed the old post, only one of its bastions remained. By 1843, the German naturalist Charles Geyer reported that nothing remained of Spokane House except for some mounds where chimneys had stood.
Spokane House Today
Today, the story of Spokane House - which is now part of Riverside State Park - is
told at the Spokane House Interpretive Center. This area of the park includes the sites of both the first North West Company post (Spokane House) constructed in 1810, and the Pacific Fur Company post (Fort Spokane) constructed in 1812. The latter was purchased in 1813 by the North West Company, which abandoned the original Spokane House post and immediately moved into the larger post. After 1821, this became a Hudson's Bay Company post renamed Fort Spokane.
This historic area has undergone a great deal of study since first acquired by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Two archaeological digs the first in 1950-53 and a second in 1962-63 have assisted in unraveling the story of the Pacific Fur Company, North West Company, and Hudson's Bay Company post. The physical evidence unearthed by the archaeologists and the documentary evidence found by the historians has greatly helped to reconstruct the fur traders' story.
Several problems were faced in attempting to locate the precise location and orientation of Spokane House/Fort Spokane structures. Early writers were vague, and their descriptions led to widely divergent interpretations of where the
structures of the post actually lay. In an attempt to locate the stockade walls of the trading post, archaeologists began their investigations with two east-west trenches and one north-south trench. They found the rotted fragments of wooden pickets in one of the trenches. By following the direction of these pickets, they determined that they were the remains of a stockade wall which ran roughly north-south. Subsequent excavations revealed sections of other walls, with the result that two rectangular areas were located one within the other. One cornerstone was found with the butt-end of a vertical post resting on its flat upper surface. This find is representative of the post-in-ground method of construction thought to have been used on earlier structures at this site. Because the North West Company/Hudson's Bay Company traders moved everything of value to the new Fort Colvile site on the Columbia River, few objects and artifacts have been found.
The exact location of the original 1810 Spokane House has not yet been determined.
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