On June 19, 1811, a party of Canadian fur traders from the North West Company, led by explorer and mapmaker David Thompson (1770-1857), reaches Kettle Falls on the Columbia River. For many years, the falls have been a major fishing spot and gathering place for the inhabitants of the region, now called the Colville Indians. The "Nor’Westers," who arrive at the beginning of the first salmon run of the summer, are preparing to descend the Columbia River to its mouth some 700 miles downstream. The site of Kettle Falls, where the Columbia forms the boundary between Stevens and Ferry Counties, is around 30 miles south of the Canadian border. The falls themselves no longer exist; their churning, boiling cascades have been submerged under Lake Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the backup of the Columbia River formed by Grand Coulee Dam. A town in Stevens County near the former cascades bears the name Kettle Falls.
The North West Company was in a race with American John Jacob Astor’s (1763–1848) Pacific Fur Company to reach the mouth of the Columbia River and stake a claim to the fur trade along that great river and its tributaries. For several years, Thompson, the head of the North West Company’s Columbia Department, had been exploring tributaries of the Columbia River in British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and northeastern Washington. In 1810, his department established the Spokane House trading post on the Spokane River about 10 miles downstream from present site of Spokane. In June 1811, Thompson set off from Spokane House on his final push to the mouth of the Columbia, with a party consisting of five French Canadian voyageurs and hunters, and two Iroquois canoemen.
Although the Spokane River flows into the Columbia, it was not navigable, so the party rode north through the valley of the Colville River, which flows into the Columbia just below Kettle Falls. They reached the Columbia on June 19, 1811, just after the ceremonies and dances that marked the arrival of the first salmon of the season. For the next few days, only one man, with a spear, worked the rocks of the falls, although many salmon were passing. Then after the salmon chief announced that the required number of salmon had passed, more men, using nets and baskets, began the major harvest. Thompson named the falls, and the inhabitants (now called the Colville tribe), "Ilth koy ape" after these large woven baskets, using a local phrase that meant kettle trap or net.
Thompson’s name is one potential source for the name Kettle Falls. Another possible source is that French Canadian voyageurs called the falls La Chaudière (kettle or cauldron), either because the water appeared to boil as in a cauldron, or for the potholes at the base of the falls, worn as round and smooth as a kettle by boulders washed over the falls and spun forcefully by the churning water. In addition to the town of Kettle Falls, the Kettle River, which flows into the Columbia a few miles above the site of the falls, and the nearby Kettle Range of mountains derive their names from that given to the falls.
A "General Rendezvous"
Many families, from a number of tribes, were gathered at the village by the falls for the salmon run. Thompson described the village as "a kind of general rendezvous for News, Trade, and settling disputes" (Nisbet, 187). There were many square sheds built from cedar boards, hung with poles for drying salmon on. Thompson, and subsequent visitors, noted that incredible quantities of salmon were taken at the falls. Thompson paid close attention to the complex rituals that the people observed with respect to the salmon, a critical food source, and concluded that these practices were well-founded, writing "Experience has taught them the delicate perceptions of this fish" (Nisbet, 185).
Thompson had considerable opportunity to observe the salmon fishery, because he and his voyageurs spent two weeks at Kettle Falls, while they located suitable wood and built a canoe to take them down river. On July 3, everything was ready, and they set off. Although the Nor’Westers covered the 700 miles of river in less than two weeks, they found on July 15 that Astor’s men had already reached the mouth of the Columbia and established an outpost at Astoria.
For over a hundred years following Thompson’s visit, people from the Colville and other tribes continued to catch and prepare salmon at Kettle Falls in the traditional manner. Then Grand Coulee Dam was built, and in 1939-1940 the falls were flooded by the water that backed up behind the dam, forming what is now officially called Lake Franklin Delano Roosevelt.