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"Good Fire" and "Bad Fire" Cross the Mountains

For the week of Monday October 22, 2001

In the autumn of 1800, a group of 33 people of the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) nation crossed east over the mountains to the Rocky Mountain House fur-trading post. When trade concluded, trader and explorer David Thompson sent two ill-fated employees, LaGassé and LeBlanc, to overwinter with the Ktunaxa. They all left on October 23rd and travelled westward on foot until they arrived at the Ktunaxa camp near the headwaters of the Columbia River, 18 days later.

Trade being conducted at Rocky Mountain House

Trade being conducted at Rocky Mountain House
© Parks Canada / Lori Brown

The practice of overwintering employees with their customers was good for business. The quantity of Ktunaxa furs increased when LaGassé and LeBlanc became the first winterers west of the Rockies. They gained the Ktunaxa's trust while learning their customs and teaching them different trapping practices. Thompson also hoped that the men would learn the routes through the mountains.

Other than their last names, little is known about LaGassé and LeBlanc. The North West Company kept incomplete records, so most of what is known of their fate comes from Ktunaxa oral history. One man was called "Klisukinql," meaning "Good Fire," because he liked a large hot fire, and the other, "Sahaningluku," or "Bad Fire," because he preferred a small fire. One married a Ktunaxa woman who produced a child in 1802 or 1803.

Children's play fort at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada

Children's play fort at Rocky Mountain House
National Historic Site of Canada

© Parks Canada / R. Irwin / 1999

For five years, LeBlanc and LaGassé made annual trips across the mountains to overwinter with the Ktunaxa. On the 1805 spring journey east, tragedy struck. LaGassé and LeBlanc were met by a war party of Nakota (Assiniboine) who demanded to know where they had come from and who their guide, a young Ktunaxa, was. Although the men lied, saying they had come from the east, the Nakota backtracked their route and attacked the Ktunaxa encampment. Many women and children were killed as their men were away hunting. According to Ktunaxa oral tradition, when LeBlanc and LaGassé returned to the Columbia Valley that autumn, they were killed by angry Ktunaxa who believed they had deliberately revealed the camp's location to the Nakota. LeBlanc's or LeGassé's child was spared only when the Ktunaxa guide explained what had actually happened.

David Thompson, the person responsable for "Good Fire" and "Bad Fire" expedition, and a person of national historic significance, finally crossed the mountains in 1807 without their assistance. Rocky Mountain House, once the base for his travels, is now the location of a small Alberta town and the locality of Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada.

To learn more about the turbulent history of trans-mountain trade and exploration, browse the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada Web site.

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