As the fur trade spread across the West, traders expanded their territory in search of potential trading partners and new sources of fur. In the late eighteenth century, European and Canadian fur traders first encountered the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) people on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. In 1799, the North West Company established Rocky Mountain House and the Hudson’s Bay Company built Acton House on the North Saskatchewan River. The two companies hoped to serve the Ktunaxa at these posts but tribal clashes between the Peigan and the Ktunaxa hindered their attempts.
The Columbia Basin remained one of the largest, unexplored areas of North America west of the Rocky Mountains at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Columbia River was discovered by Europeans in 1791, but remained unexplored for almost twenty years. America’s push for land led Lewis and Clark to the region in 1805-06, but they did not establish any trading posts.
At about the same time, the North West Company approved David Thompson’s plan to explore, map and establish trade in the Columbia Basin. In the fall of 1806, he sent an advance party under Jaco Finlay to clear the trail over Howse Pass. The following spring, fifteen years after the initial meeting with the Ktunaxa, David Thompson established Kootenae House along the Columbia River. This was the first fur trading post to be established in the Columbia Basin and the first to serve the Ktunaxa people.
Kootenae House was established as a trading post for the Ktunaxa people as well as a base for Thompson’s subsequent explorations and the expansion of the North West Company’s trade in the Columbia Basin. Over the next five years, (1807-1812) Thompson explored and mapped much of the Columbia Basin, encountered many First Nations groups, and established trading posts at key locations (Kootenae House, Kullyspel House, Saleesh House, and Spokane House). Throughout his journeys, Aboriginal people served as guides and provided valuable information about the land and people throughout the Columbia Basin.
Territorial competition between Americans and British-Canadians made territorial expansion to the Pacific Ocean important. Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia in the summer of 1811, and found that the American Fur Company had built Fort Astoria just a few months earlier. Thompson returned to Montreal in 1812 but his maps, contacts, and trading posts established British claims to the region until the international boundary was formalized along the 49th parallel in 1846.
The Ktunaxa played a critical role in the establishment and survival of traders at Kootenae House. Thompson and his party arrived in July 1807 desperately short of food and the Ktunaxa traded provisions although they had limited food supplies themselves. In their first summer at Kootenae House, the Ktunaxa advised fur traders where to construct fish weirs to harvest salmon. In addition to furs and provisions, the Ktunaxa also traded some of the their horses to the fur traders which enabled expansion of the fur trade.
David Thompson’s explorations resulted in the establishment of a network of fur trade posts throughout the Columbia Basin. As a result, fur trading expanded in the early nineteenth century to include First Nations in southern British Columbia and in much of the current states of Montana, Idaho and Washington. The subsequent influx of fur traders, missionaries, prospectors, and settlers in the nineteenth century led to great social changes in the lives of Aboriginal groups throughout the region. The cultural dynamics and material culture of Aboriginals in the Columbia Basin was altered as guns, knives and cloth replaced more traditional items such as bows and arrows, stone knives and skin clothing.
Kootenae House was busiest in the first years following its establishment. Thompson wintered there in 1807-08 and 1808-09 thereafter it rapidly declined in significance. In the fall of 1810, the Peigan blocked Thompson’s return from Rocky Mountain House over Howse Pass. As an alternative route, he crossed the Rocky Mountains by way of Athabasca Pass. This led to the increasing popularity of the northern pass and while the Howse Pass route was not abandoned, its use declined drastically.
Mr. Basil Hamilton, newspaper reporter and entrepreneur, identified the original location of Kootenae House in 1910. He based his identification on limited exploratory excavations and reference to portions of David Thompson’s journals. Hamilton had the remains of stone chimney mounds, palisade trenches and building foundations mapped by a land surveyor.
Kootenae House was a declared a National Historic Site in May 1934. Today the site is marked by a stone cairn, which bears a National Historic Sites of Canada plaque. The site is located just north of Invermere, British Columbia and is administered by the Parks Canada Agency. The site of Kootenae House is situated on a grass-covered terrace, surrounded by meadows and forests and contained within the Columbia Valley. Only stone chimney mounds and below surface archaeological remains mark this once influential node of Canadian history.
Kootenae House House National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
In 1806 the North West Company clerk, Jaco Finlay, blazed a trail over Howse Pass from the Saskatchewan to the Columbia River. The next year, David Thompson followed this route to the Columbia, then turned up river and built Kootenae House below Windermere Lake. Using this fort as a base, he explored the upper Columbia and Kootenay rivers, and established a chain of posts on the Columbia watershed. Kootenae House was used periodically until 1812, when the hostility of the Peigans east of the pass forced its abandonment.
Two years after Basil Hamilton’s death in 1933, his wife, Mrs. A. M. Hamilton, donated the 12-acre parcel of land containing Kootenae House to the Government of Canada.
David Thompson played a great role in surveying the Columbia River Valley while at Kootenae House. After learning of the great naval battle of Trafalgar that led to the demise of victorious British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Thompson named the dramatic Purcell Mountain peak that towers above Invermere, Mount Nelson.
“Kootenae House National Historic Site of Canada Commemorative Integrity Statement,” Parks Canada, 2007
Heitzmann, Roderick J., “Kootenae House National Historic Site of Canada Archeological Inventory 2005,” Western and Northern Service Centre, Parks Canada, Calgary, 2006