A Short Introduction to the Site
“A very fine day,” British explorer and cartographer David Thompson often began his journal entries, despite conditions that might have thwarted many seasoned fur traders.
In 1809, racing to beat Hudson Bay and American fur trading interests, Thompson established Saleesh House near present day Thompson Falls, MT. Represented by the North West Company, the post encouraged trade among the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes.
By November, after an accidental gunshot blew apart a clerk’s hand, Thompson’s journal reflected: “A mild fine day – As we are all quite hungry and much in want” –only a slight departure from his more cheerful entries. Struggling to maintain this new outpost, Thompson must have been quite relieved when Jaco Finlay, a trading associate, showed up with twenty eight beaver tails and forty pounds of dried meat.
Full Description of the Historical Site or Museum
From his winter camp (Kootenae House) near Lake Windermere in the upper Columbia, Thompson ventured into the region we know today as the Crown of the Continent when he crossed over the low divide between the Columbia and Kootenay rivers at Canal Flats. His entourage journeyed along the waterway he called McGillivary's River to the Tobacco Plains near present day Eureka, Montana and continued downriver to Bonners Ferry, Idaho. He headed overland to Lake Pend d'Oreille, where he established the Kullyspel House trading post to acquire furs from local tribes.
Saleesh House, located on the Clark's Fork River, was 60 miles upriver from Thompson’s successful venture on Lake Pend d’Oreille. The new post intersected buffalo trails frequented by “Flat Heads,” as Thompson called the local natives. The name, often attributed to the flattening of children’s heads, would eventually find its way into modern lexicon even though no evidence exists that this practice was ever used by interior Salish-speaking tribes.
According to tribal member Johnny Arlee, the name was possibly derived from sign language describing hair styles boasted by his ancestors. Despite the misnomer, the local tribes thought well enough of the trader to bestow their own name on Thompson, calling him “Koo-koo-sint” or “Star watcher.” Presumably, Thompson’s habitual use of surveying equipment contributed to this name.
Saleesh House was well placed in a beaver-rich area and operated for the next few years under James McMillan, the unfortunate clerk who lost a finger to the fateful blast in November. While Thompson’s choice for the post was successful, the exact location of Saleesh House has been speculated by many writers and historians over the years.
The David Thompson Monument erected on the north side of Highway 200, close to mile marker 51, was placed by convenience rather than fact, while the traditional location was believed to have sat about a mile and a half away. Current thinking on the matter has moved the site again, farther upriver, yet no archeological survey has been done to support this theory.
Thompson’s accomplishments, bolstered by the bicentennial anniversary, have produced renewed interest in the 50,000 miles journeyed by the explorer. George Sibley’s PBS documentary “Shadows of David Thompson” carries viewers across the distance through thoughtful interviews and visual historic reenactments. Sibley’s film includes native perspectives, an important but often forgotten voice in Thompson’s activities.
When Thompson returned to Saleesh House for the last time in 1812, he found the post “in poor repair.” In 1821, the North West Company merged with the Hudson Bay Company and Saleesh House was likely affected by this business arrangement. It is uncertain how long the post continued operating, or under what banner of ownership. Various sources claim another post, sometimes called “Fort Flathead,” though most likely under the same tenure of Saleesh House, continued trading successfully into the mid-1800’s when Hudson Bay opened Fort Connah near present day St Ignatius.
References: Haywood, C. (2008). Sometimes Only Horses to Eat. Montana: Stonydale Press. Nisbet, J. (1994). Sources of the River. Seattle: Sasquatch Books. Sibley, G. (2009). Shadows of David Thompson. Gale Force Films. Thompson, D., Belyea, B. (Ed). (1998). Columbia Journals. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Driving Directions from Nearest Town or Landmark
East of Thompson Falls on highway 200:
Milemarker 50.9 - David Thompson Monument, located on the north side.
Milemarker 52.3 - traditionally assumed Saleesh House location. South .25 miles on Salish Shores Drive.
Milemarker 52.7 - currently suggested location of Saleesh House. Approx. two miles east on Airport Road to River View Drive.