Traditionally Kalispel territory encompassed Lake Pend Oreille along the Pend Oreille River into eastern Washington, and east along the Clark Fork River into Montana. They established year-round settlements near present-day Laclede, on both sides of the river, and at the mouth of the Clark Fork River, where 300-400 Kalispel lived. There were additional permanent villages in eastern Washington, as well as numerous seasonal camps, including one near present-day Sandpoint.
Long before white explorers came to the Pend d’Oreille country, an old Indian trail from Spokane River ran through Rathdrum prairie and crossed the Pend d’Oreille at Sineacateen (a name which comes from the Kalispell or Pend d’Oreille word for crossing-of-the-waters), located close to the present site of Laclede. Then the trail continued northward across the Kootenai at Bonner’s Ferry.
Idaho was the last state to be explored by European and American explorers. Lewis and Clark crossed into Idaho in August 1805 on their journey of exploration for the United States government. Their route took them far south of present-day Bonner County, over Lolo Pass and down the Clearwater River.
While many explorers gained great fame, including Lewis and Clark, our area was first exploited by David Thompson: the determined and intrepid Canadian trading expedition leader who led the first white men to the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in the fall of 1809. His contemporary, the great explorer Alexander Mackenzie, remarked that Thompson did more in ten months than he would have thought possible in two years.
Painting by David Manchess. Retracing the steps of Canadian explorer and mapmaker David Thompson, Manchess traveled into remote Saskatchewan to see the wilderness firsthand. “It’s inspiring to stand in the same spot where an explorer stood 200 years before and discover that nothing has changed,” Manchess says. ©1996 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.
Thompson served as explorer, map maker, and trader for the Canadian North West Company, a rival in the fur trade with Hudson’s Bay Company. Although he was in Idaho for a total of only sixty-eight days over several years, Thompson’s impact was tremendous. He not only expanded the fur trade into the Inland Northwest and established the first trading post on Lake Pend Oreille, Kullyspell House, but he also located all the practical routes of travel. Kullyspell House still stands on the Hope Peninsula, and longevity of the building is a testament to the fortitude of the man. Soon after Thompson set up Salish House in Montana later in 1810, a year after David Thompson established a North West Company fur trade post on Lake Pend d’Oreille, and some of his trappers came down this trail to found Spokane House west of Spokane Falls where the later city of Spokane was built. Thompson’s Pend d’Oreille post (Kullyspell, or Kalispell House) proved to be an unfortunate location: on November 14, 1811, Thompson decided to abandon it because the Kalispell (or Pend d’Oreille) Indians did “not hunt, but only gamble & keep the men starving. . . .” So he sent his trappers back to Spokane House. But Finnan MacDonald (who had a Pend d’Oreille wife) continued to work with the Pend d’Oreille band, which often camped at Sineacateen. By the spring of 1813, rival Astorian fur traders were on hand at MacDonald’s Pend d’Oreille camp at Sineacateen. In an effort to rush in a stock of tobacco for more effective competition for furs in the Pend d’Oreille camp, the Astorian gained a temporary advantage. But MacDonald, who regularly helped his Pend d’Oreille associates fight the Blackfeet, came out ahead in the long run. The North West Company emerged in control of the Spokane-Pend d’Oreille country, and MacDonald spent many years enjoying “the fascinating pleasures of the far-famed Spokane House.” Whenever he took his wife to see their Pend d’Oreille relatives, he still traveled over the old Indian trail past Sineacateen.
Trappers and traders continued to sporadically make their way to the region throughout the first half of the century, along with many missionaries, mainly Jesuits, called “Kaniksu” (Black Robes in Indian). In the years after the fur trade, the Indians continued to camp on their travels at Sineacateen. The North West Company was not alone in trying to harvest furs in the Pacific Northwest. Hudson’s Bay Company maintained a chain of posts throughout the region and absorbed its opponent in 1821. The fur trade continued into the 1840s, but its importance declined as the years went on.
As more Europeans and Americans arrived, they displaced the Indian tribes that originally lived in the region.
However, efforts to establish a reservation for the Kalispel failed, and tensions between the two cultures increased. Michael, leader of the upper Kalispel, signed a treaty with the government in Sandpoint in 1887, but Masselow, leader of the Lower Kalispel, refused to agree to its terms. As a result, Congress never ratified the treaty.
In 1914, the Kalispel finally received more than 4,500 acres of land for a reservation in eastern Washington. Members of the tribe continued to travel in and out of Bonner County into the 1930s, following some of their traditional seasonal activities.
Father DeSmet arrived in 1846. He marked a lake in the Selkirk Mountain range as “Roothan” honoring his superior in Italy. Captain John Mullan, builder of the Army’s Mullan road, likewise saw the mountain gem and named it “Lake Kaniksu” on his map in 1865. This mountain-ringed body of water later became known as Priest Lake.
Two major survey projects introduced more newcomers to northern Idaho. Isaac Stevens directed a transcontinental railroad survey in the early 1850s, exploring several possible routes across Idaho. One along the northern shore of Lake Pend Oreille later became the route chosen by the Northern Pacific Railroad.
British and American surveyors camped in what is now Bonner County in 1860-1861 as they worked their way north to mark the international boundary. Survey crews established a supply depot at Sineacateen in 1860, and another one farther north at Chelemta, near present-day Bonners Ferry. From there crews moved north to the border, which they marked with a wide swath cut through the forest. Artist James Alden accompanied the American team, recording their activities much as a photographer would today.
The decade of the 1860s brought a flurry of activity to northern Idaho. Gold was discovered in 1863 on Wild Horse Creek in British Columbia and the next year near Helena, Montana. Thousands of miners swarmed through Idaho on their way to the new diggings. While those heading for Wild Horse followed the old Indian trail that David Thompson had used, miners going to Montana had the option of taking the recently completed Mullan military road (the route of Interstate 90) or the trail around Lake Pend Oreille. A steady stream of pack trains passed over both routes, taking supplies to the new camps.
The naming of Bonner County is a memorial to an outstanding pioneer of the north area – Edwin L. Bonner, who came here in 1863 and purchased the right to build and operate a ferry on the Kootenai river from old Chief Abraham of the Kootenai tribe at the ferry site less than 30 miles from Canada.