In 1778, the North West Company was organized as a comercial fur-trading network which ultimately spanned the continent. At the turn of the nineteenth century the Northwest Company began exploring the Rocky Mountains and points west to exploit the fur resources. David Thomspson, explorer-geographer with the North West Company, crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1807. His explorations resulted in the establishment of several trading posts.
Under the direction of the British-Canadian North West Company's David Thompson, two men were sent to Spokane country in 1810 with orders to build a small trading post at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers. The men, Finan McDonald and Jacques (Jaco) Finlay, built a small, crude cabin which they called "Spokane House". This became the first permanent white settlement in what is now the state of Washington.
The Little Spokane was a meandering, gentle river, ideal habitat for beaver and other fur-bearing animals. The post was also located on a traditional meeting ground of the Spokane area Native American tribes, making it an excellent spot in which to trade for furs. These two men were the first white men seen by most of the Native Americans.
Finan McDonald, know for his great strength, was a tough, burly Scot, standing six feet four inches tall. He married the daughter of a Spokane chief, which gave him much stature amongst his wife's people.
Jaco Finlay was a first class woodsman and hunter. He had a varied and adventurous life. As David Thompson's guide and hunter, he explored much of the Northwest.
The Spokane House enjoyed a fur monopoly with the Spokane area tribes for two years. In 1812, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company arrived in the area, bringing competition from the Americans. As with other posts, the Astorians built their trading post near the already-established Spokane House for protection. The Americans called their post "Fort Spokan".
Fort Spokan was built on a grand scale to impress the Native peoples. It housed the 32 workers, clerks, and traders who ran it. There was friendly competition between the two establishments for fur trading. The Astorians success was short-lived, however.
Word reached them that England and the United States were at war again. The Americans also learned that a British frigate was on its way to Astoria to deprive them of their seaport on the Pacific Ocean. The Americans knew that without Fort Astor they could not ship the furs they had gathered. There was no established overland route to the east coast. On June 13, 1813, the three leaders of the Astor Company sold their fort and goods, at great financial loss, to the North west Company.
The Northwest Company moved to the more spacious Fort Spokan, renaming it Spokane House. Many of the Astorians stayed to work for the British Company.
For the next few years, Spokane House was a bright refuge for the few white men. Dances and parties were held in the storage rooms for the entertainment of the men and their neighbors, helping them all to endure the long cold winters. The gates of the fort were never closed, as the relationships that were established were truly peaceful and friendly.
Between the years of 1813 and 1825, Spokane House prospered. In 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company combined with the North west Company. Governor Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company visited the post in 1825. He decided that because the swift Spokane River was unnavigable, and the furs were being depleted in the local area, requiring long overland treks, the facilities of the company should be moved. Simpson chose a spot on the Upper Columbia near Kettle Falls that could be reached by boat from the sea. He called the spot Fort Colville.
The men of Spokane House spent the winter of 1825 to 1826 building long boats for transporting furs. In the spring of 1826, the only time the Spokane River is navigable, they headed downstream to the Columbia, abandoning Spokane House. Only Jaco Finlay and his family remained. They too left after Jaco's death in 1828.
By 1836, when Reverend Samuel Parker passed the old post, only one of its bastions remained. By 1843, the German naturalist Charles Geyer reported that nothing remained of Spokane House except for some mounds where chimneys had stood.
Today the story of Spokane House is told at the Spokane House Interpretive Center.
The site has undergone a great deal of study since it was first acquired by the Washington State Parks and Recreations Commission. Two archaelogical digs, 1950-53 and 1962-63, have assisted in unraveling its story. The physical evidence unearthed by the archaeologists and the documentary evidence found by teh historians have greatly helped to reconstruct the fur traders' story.
Several problems were faced in attempting to locate the site of Spokane House. Early writers were vague and their descriptions led to widely divergent interpretations of where the site actually lay. Archaeologists began their investigations with two east-west trenches and one north-south trench in an attempt to locate the stockade walls of the trading post. They found the rotted fragments of wooden pickets in one of the trenches.
By following the direction of these pickets, they determined that they were the remains of a stockade wall which ran roughly north-south. Subsequent excavations revealed sections of other walls with the result that two rectangular areas were located, one within the other.
One cornerstone with the butt end of a vertical post resting on its flat upper surface was found. This find is representative of the post and sill method of construction thought to have been used on structures at this site.
Because everything of value was taken to the new "Fort Colvile" site on the Columbia River, few objects and artifacts were found.
For further educational opportunities at Riverside State Park, see our education page.
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