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Early History Settlement Construction Era Aftermath Appendices

Landscape Through the Eyes of Early Explorers

Other explorers scattered the Pacific Northwest, none with such a great book of detail, but with many different purposes and perspectives of the geography and its inhabitants. Moreover, while Lewis and Clark forged their way through river and rock, much of the Columbia River Basin is unseen, especially the Grand Coulee, so eloquently described by others. Whereas the term "discovery" is an anthropological cataract, for the American west was well scoured by humans before the European exploratory age, the work produced in the 19th century added a huge body of knowledge to American history.

Crossing what it is known today as the Columbia Basin's Big Bend Country, encompassing Douglas, Grant, Franklin, Adams, and Lincoln counties, fur traders scavenged the land for beaver, sheep, goats, deer, and buffalo. During the summer of 1811, David Thomson made the downriver voyage from Kettle Falls to the mid-Columbia. Finding the Native Americans already associated with white men as the Lewis and Clark expedition had been 6 years prior, his claim of the land for Great Britain was seemingly thwarted when Chief Yelleppit produced a medal with the image of Thomas Jefferson on it (Anglin, 48). Near the mouth of the Columbia Thomson encountered Fort Astoria, the site of the Pacific Fur Company founded by John Jacob Astor in 1811. These companies and other formed treks through the Columbia Basin that came to be revised and eventually well-traveled by the mid to late 19th century. Moving primarily between Fort Colvile, near Kettle Falls, Fort Okanogan, near modern-day Chief Joseph Dam, Fort Walla Walla (also known as Fort Nez Perces founded in 1818) at the intersection of the Columbia and the Walla Walla rivers, and Fort Astoria at the mouth; these routes first drove through the Grand Coulee, then took an overland pass east of the chasm, then eventually followed the bank of the Columbia.

Grand Coulee

The commercial battles between the North West Company and the American rival the Hudson Bay Company have little significance today. With political conflicts over land rights distempering any sort of trade agreement, the result was a speedy stripping of natural resources and a final established hegemony of the Americans. For the purposes of outlining the changing landscape of the Columbia Basin, the journals entries of the fur traders prove delectable. Sir George Simpson, in a list of all trade goods moving between London, Boston and California, included "butter, cheese, pickles, sauces, vinegar, sugar, pepper, tobacco, brandy, rum, wine, tea, bar iron, glass, saddlery, fishing gear, soap, firearms and associated equipment, and a great variety of textile and apparel goods" (Anglin, 71). Perhaps this was becoming the great mart of the world as Clark predicted.

In 1814, the fur trader Alexander Ross first gave a written description of the Grand Coulee. His party moved from Fort Okanogan to the Spokane House calling the coulee "one of the most romantic picturesque marvellously formed chasms west of the Rocky Mountains" (Anglin, 101). His account marks the walls of the coulee at about 150 feet high, a gross understatement. However, he does accurately call it a previous home to a river or lake. His description is one of astounding sublimity of nature:

"The site in many places is truly magnificent. But perils and pleasures succeed each other: for while in one place the solemn gloom forbids the wanderer to advance, in another the prospect is lively and inviting and almost everywhere studded with ranges of columns, pillars, battlements, turrets, and steps above steps, in every variety of shade and colour. Here and there, endless vistas and subterraneous labyrinths add to the beauty of this scene, and what is still more singular in this arid and sandy region, cold springs are frequent; yet there is never any water in the chasm, unless after recent rains. In the neighbourhood there is neither hill nor dale, lake nor mountain, creek or rivulet to give variety to the surrounding aspect. Altogether it is a charming assemblage of picturesque objects to the admirer of nature" (Anglin, 102).

The English naturalist David Douglas for whom the Douglas Fir was named, traversed the Grand Coulee during two trips in the Pacific Northwest from 1825-1827 and 1830-1832. He also notes that the Grand Coulee "at one time must have been the channel of the Columbia" (Anglin, 103). His description of one area seems to be the location of today's Steamboat Rock writing, "Some places from eight to nine miles broad; parts perfectly level and places with all the appearance of falls of very extraordinary height and cascades. The perpendicular rocks in the middle which bear evident vestiges of islands, and those on the sides in many places are 1500 to 1800 feet high" (Anglin, 103). His rock heights were overestimated but the projected past of them as islands is an interesting projection also to the future. Today Steamboat Rock stands solemnly in the middle of the great reservoir, as it most likely did millions of years ago. As a 19th century naturalist, he recorded that "the rock is volcanic and in some places small fragments of vitrified lava are to be seen" (Anglin, 103). He also recorded the peculiar aspect of what little water was found. Although there was a "thick sward of grass on its banks" the water had a "bitterish disagreeable taste like sulphur" that the horses refused (Anglin, 103).

Steamboat Rock
Steamboat Rock, a landmark of the Grand Coulee

The first recorded American to see the Grand Coulee was the missionary Samuel Parker whose writing was widely published in 1838 during his research for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. 1838 was also the year that the army's Corps of Topographical Engineers reorganized, thus swelling a new wave of American imperialism. Parker, like others, concluded that the coulee was "undoubtedly the former channel of the river" (Anglin, 105). He wrote, "With considerable difficulty we wound our way into it, and found it well covered with grass, and by searching, obtained a small supply of water. This quondam channel of the river is nearly a mile wide, with a level bottom, and studded with islands. Its sides are lined, as the river itself is in many places, with basaltic rocks, two and three hundred feet perpendicular" (Anglin, 105). He continued to say "The basaltic appearances are exhibited here as in other places, furnishing evidences of eruptions at different periods of time. A peculiarity in this instance was a stratum of yellow earth, eight or ten feet in thickness between the strata if the basalt" (Anglin, 105). This May 31, 1836 provided a very different Grand Coulee to that of one hundred years later.

Grand Coulee
The wall of the Grand Coulee

The botanist W.D. Brackenridge's notes on June 8, 1841 depict a very different attitude than the previous explorers. Rather than simply noting the sublimity of nature and perhaps speculating its past creation, he took into account the future uses of this spectacular land. Perhaps this indicates an even more progressive attitude into settling the great frontier. He wrote, "There is a large tract of flat land in its bottom, but to[o] much impregnated with salt to raise crops or Grain on, but I should think admirably adapted for the raising of Sheep & Cattle, there being plenty of water and abundance of Good grass, both in the Coule[e] and within 20 miles of it on both sides" (Anglin, 109). Interestingly, while his estimations of height, width, and length were more accurate than previous writers' he must have had technology to his advantage. For he strikingly diverts from earlier opinions when he wrote, "I could observe no feature whatever that could lead one to suppose confidently that the valley had ever been the course of the Columbia, as it bears no traces of a sweeping current having passed through it at any time" (Anglin, 109). He also first observes an "abundance of Ducks" (Anglin, 109), that are no longer plentiful today.

In 1838 the army's Corps of Topographical Engineers was reorganized, thus swelling a new wave of American imperialism (Misfortune, 122). Brackenridge's report was one of many used in the resurgence to establish American hegemony in the west. Brackenridge's work was presented in the official report written by Charles Wilkes for the United States Exploring Expedition. It also said, "Although the soil abounded in the same saline efflorescence that had been remarked on the high prairie, yet the lakes [three small lakes observed] were found to be fresh, and wild ducks were seen in great numbers" (Anglin, 110). He recorded many different types of landscape and stretches of water, "In other spots, the earth was damp and overgrown with a rank grass of the same kind as that growing on the prairie. Next to this the wormwood predominated. In the level places the earth was much cracked: incrustations were abundant, which, sparkling brilliantly in the sun, gave the plain somewhat the appearance of being covered with water" (Anglin, 110). When finally he noted the large boulders in the Lower Grand Coulee he came to believe the suppositions of it being a riverbed. The three lakes observed in the apparently dry coulee have been identified as an unnamed lake near Barker Canyon, Tule Lake and Devils Lake (Anglin, 111).

Lenore Lake
This is Lenore Lake on the Grand Coulee

The artist Paul Kane traversed the lands between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Colvile. Convincing a Native American to guide him through this chasm of evil spirits was no easy task until finally "a half-breed, called Donny, although ignorant of the route, agreed" (Anglin, 112). He described the route from the mouth of the Columbia to the Grand Coulee as "a barren, sandy desert, without a drop of water to drink, a tree to rest under, or a spot of grass to sit upon" (Anglin, 113). On August 2nd they "emerged from these mountains of sand" and on the 3rd arrived at the coulee. He wrote, "we came to one of the most beautiful spots that can well be conceived: at least, it appeared to us all that was beautiful, amongst the surrounding desolation" (Anglin, 115). Like a mirage in the desert just north of the Dry Coulee it appeared to Kane:

"It was a piece of table land, about half a mile in circumference, covered with luxuriant grass, and having in its centre a small lake of exquisiitely cool fresh water. The basaltic rock rose like an amphitheatre, from about three-quarters of its circuit to the height of about 500 feet, while the precipice up which we had toiled sank down at the other side" (Anglin, 115).

Finally he found the Grand Coulee and sketched Steamboat Rock. His description on August 5th of finally stumbling upon the Columbia must be included as one of the most beautiful.

"I pressed forward and before sundown emerged from the gorge of this stupendous ravine, and saw the mighty river flowing at least 500 feet below us, though the banks rose considerably more than that height above us on each side. This river exceeds in grandeur any other perhaps in the world, not so much from its volume of water, although that is immense, as from the romantic wildness of its stupendous and every-varying surrounding scenery, now towering into snow-capped mountains thousands of feet high, and now sinking in undulating terraces to the level of its pellucid water" (Anglin, 117).

Grand Coulee

In 1846, the United States and Great Britain agreed upon the 49th parallel as an international boundary, as well as the northernmost marker of the Oregon Territory. Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and parts of Montana and Wyoming comprised the U.S. acquisition. Two months later David Wilmot designed the bootless Wilmot Proviso that stated that slavery should not exist in the new territories bought from Mexico. Slave states or not, the west was determined to be settled. In 1853, Washington was formed out of the Oregon Territory and Congress allocated $150,000 for east-west railroad surveys. Lieutenant Richard Arnold of the Pacific Railroad Survey perhaps became a liminal character in Washington's written history. While working for the promotion of railway construction his journals contain the ornithological histories since erased by technological. He wrote, "I crossed this stream and passed [east of] a fine lake [Moses Lake], about six miles in length and one in width; it was fringed with alder bushes and filled with wild fowl: ducks, geese, and white swan" (Anglin, 120).

These descriptions have provided a literary history of the topography. These awe-inspiring canyons have since been filled with water, and these grasses have been devoured by sheep and cattle, and these birds of abundance have disappeared. So this is the geographical setting for what would become one of the most mesmerizing land and water alterations in American history: a desert re-bloomed.

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