In 1971, on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), the Minister responsible designated six mountain passes as being of national historic significance. In 1978, a seventh pass was designated - Howse Pass in the Rocky Mountains.
By 1800, fur traders were searching for new trade partners and lands not yet exhausted by a century and a half of trapping, as was the case with many of the areas east of the mountains. John McDonald and Duncan McGillivray were building North West Company posts along the North Saskatchewan River throughout the 1790s and heard stories of a tribe living west of the mountains, in the Columbia River Valley, the Kootenay, now known as the Ktunaxa.
With the aim of providing a trade centre for the Ktunaxa, McDonald established Rocky Mountain House in 1799 on the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. McGillivray and experienced trader and cartographer David Thompson, soon joined him and sought to discover a route across the Rockies to reach the Columbia River Valley.
Howse Pass was part of the ‘Kootenay Trail’ linking the eastern slope of the Rockies with the Columbia Valley, a traditional Aboriginal transportation route for many years. This route was most likely used from the 18th century onwards by the Ktunaxa to gain access to the buffalo herds on the plains east of the mountains.
In 1807, David Thompson and a North West Company party traversed the pass, and established Kootenae House in the Columbia River Valley to provide easier trade with the Ktunaxa. Joseph Howse, the Hudson's Bay Company employee after whom the pass is named, first crossed in 1809. Both companies established trading posts along the Columbia River Valley, and used Howse Pass until 1810.
The influence of the fur trade on First Nations peoples in the region altered the culture of warfare and tribal relationships. The sudden introduction of guns and trade goods transformed the balance of power between the Pikani and the Ktunaxa. After 1810, Howse Pass was eclipsed by Athabasca Pass. European traders travelled the more northerly Athabasca to avoid hostile Pikani seeking to block trade with their rivals. Athabasca Pass became the fur-trading route of choice across the Rocky Mountains from 1811 to 1854.
Howse Pass is located on the border of British Columbia and Alberta. Beginning at the junction of the Saskatchewan and Howse rivers, it follows the Howse River to the confluence of the Freshfield, Forbes and Conway Creeks, to the Alberta-British Columbia border. From there it continues through Crown lands controlled by the Province of British Columbia to the junction of the Blaeberry River and Cairnes Creek. The pass can be reached by hiking 26 km west from the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North).
Howse Pass House National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
This pass, which links the North Saskatchewan and Columbia river systems, was known to the Aboriginal peoples of the area long before the arrival of the Europeans. It was probably used from the 18th century onwards by Ktunaxa (Kootenay) people to gain access to the buffalo herds on the plains east of the mountains. In 1807, David Thompson and a North West Company party traversed the pass which was used by the Canadian fur traders until 1810 to explore and establish posts west of the Rockies. Joseph Howse, the Hudson's Bay Company employee after whom the pass is named, first crossed it in 1809.
After his initial crossing of Howse Pass in 1807, David Thompson established a number of trading posts in the Columbia River drainage of present day British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and Washington including Kootanae House, Kullyspel House, Saleesh House, and Spokane House. This gave the northern traders the edge over the Hudson’s Bay Company in terms of establishing firm trade relations within these areas.
Howse Pass is one of several national historic sites related to the fur trade. It is most closely associated thematically with Athabasca Pass, Yellowhead Pass, Henry House, Jasper House, Fort St. James, and Fort Langley National Historic Sites of Canada.
Payne, Michael, “The Fur Trade on the Upper Athabasca River 1810 – 1910,” Western and Northern Service Centre, Parks Canada, 2004