Pre-Recorded Times to Early 19th Century
The history of the region around CrossRiver Wilderness Centre and today’s Kootenay and Columbia Rivers in southeastern British Columbia is, like the land here itself, rich and diverse. Its gifts have been largely overshadowed by those of its star-studded cousins to the northeast around Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, but many adventurers and travelers have discovered that much of this region’s silent past is indeed part of the magic. The region’s geography and biodiversity ranges from the forested lakelands around the Kootenay and Arrow Lakes, to the lush wetlands of the Columbia River in the southern Rocky Mountain Trench (itself a unique geological mystery that is one of the only natural phenomena that can be seen from space), and of course, the stunning main ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains right immediately around us. Not only the Rockies, but also the nearby Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges flank the valleys of the region with spectacular glaciers, mesmerizing rock formations, abundant wildlife and vegetation, unique fossils, and picturesque mountain peaks. They each have unique histories of their own. The rock of the Purcell and Selkirk mountains is largely sandstones and grits from the Neoproterozoic, late Precambrian era (900-543 million years ago); the Rocky Mountains are predominantly formed with limestones and shales of the younger Paleozoic era (542-251 million years ago). The earliest evidence of human life found so far in this region is that of the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) First Nations whose flint-arrowhead quarries and pictographs in the area date to about 12,000 BC.
The Ktunaxa peoples have historically occupied and protected this region living for the most part in balance with the landscape and in relative seclusion. Their creation story begins in the animal world when the creator started making references to the arrival of humans. At that time a large sea monster started causing a disturbance in what is now Columbia Lake and a war party was assembled. The monster escaped from the lake into the Kootenay River (which at that time flowed into Columbia Lake), and led everyone on a chase around the Kootenay and Columbia River circuit, round and round again. Finally, the chief of animals, Na‡muq¢in, a giant, pushed over a mountain top, blocked the Kootenay River from flowing into Columbia Lake, and corralled the sea monster. Red-headed woodpecker came and killed the monster and the animals feasted. After creating the white, black, and yellow people out of the sea monster’s remains, Na‡muq¢in looked at all the blood on his hands and let it fall to the grass saying, “this will be the red people, they will remain here forever.”
The Ktunaxa are hunter-gatherers who sub-divide themselves into the Upper and Lower Ktunaxa bands, each having subtle differences in expressions and customs, but both inter-communal. Their language is an isolate. It has been coupled more closely with Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs in Central America, rather than any other tribal dialect in North America. The Ktunaxa had a long history of inter-tribal trade with the interior tribes of British Columbia, as well as with the Shoshone to the south, and the Blackfoot and Plains Cree tribes on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, where the Upper bands hunted buffalo once or twice a year. However, they were one of the last tribes in Canada reached by the early European explorers (though they were certainly aware of their approach). Coming from the east over the plains, the Rocky Mountains seemed like “an impassable barrier even to the eagle” (according to the early explorer David Thompson), and coming from the west the many tribes around the coast and along the Columbia River, the “Great River of the West”, ensured a relative seclusion for the Ktunaxa peoples for many years after first contact with other tribes.
In 1800, David Thompson, an explorer, surveyor, and mapmaker with the North West Fur Company, was posted at Rocky Mountain House, in west-central Alberta, in order to lead a party across the Rocky Mountains and set up a trade route along the never-before-travelled Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The fur-trading business had been established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 and after decades of prosperous trade with the tribes of Canada’s east coast, central lakelands, and western plains, word was getting out about a tribe called the Ktunaxa, who lived on the west side of the Rockies in a land rich with wildlife and furs. Similarly, through inter-tribal trade routes and encounters, the Ktunaxa were discovering that there were “white men” on the east side of the mountains trading guns and tools, etc. to their frequent enemies, the Peigan of the Blackfoot Nation. Only a few months after his arrival at Rocky Mountain House, David Thompson got word that a band of Ktunaxa was crossing the Rockies to see him. He set out, escorted them back to the house, traded with them, and started developing a relationship with them that would change the course of regional history forever. In 1807 David Thompson finally crossed the “impassable” Rockies, down into the Columbia River valley, and established “Kootenae House” trading post near modern-day Invermere—the first non-native trade-route over the Rocky Mountains. In 1808 he explored along the Kootenay River, and in 1811 he was the first person to chart the entire length of the Columbia River from its source at Columbia Lake out to the Pacific Ocean.
Back to TopDecades past with few new arrivals into the valley, but with Thompson’s remarkably-accurate new maps, and expansion, growth, and curiosity on the minds of many Europeans, the arrival of new travellers into the Kootenay-Columbia region was steady, often using Ktunaxa or other First Nations guides on traditional trails. In 1824, George Simpson, Governor of Hudson’s Bay Company, crossed over the Rockies and up the Columbia River to reorganize his Columbia Fur-trading Department since the departure of David Thompson. In 1841, the curiosity of the Lower Ktunaxa people led them to seek out and invite Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, a Belgian Jesuit missionary, to live with them so that they may learn from each other. Also in 1841, the newly knighted Sir George Simpson returned by a new route over Simpson Pass and followed the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific on the first recorded trip through the Rockies for pleasure. That same year James Sinclair traveled over White Man Pass and followed the Cross, Kootenay, and Columbia Rivers to stake claim for England in the disputed Oregon Territory. In 1845, Lieutenants Warre and Vavasour crossed over White Man Pass and travelled along the Cross, Kootenay, and Columbia Rivers on a secret and undercover mission to scout for British-troop routes into the Oregon Territory. Shortly after, this Father de Smet travelled along the Kootenay and Cross Rivers east on that same route over White Man Pass on a journey for peace to the Blackfoot peoples. In 1846, Paul Kane, a Canadian artist, traveled across the Rockies to sketch the landscape and native people of the Columbia District along the Columbia River. In 1854, James Sinclair returned to the area leading more settlers to Oregon Territory, this time over North Kananaskis Pass and along the Palliser and Kootenay Rivers.
Early 19th Century to the Present Day
As more and more people began traveling across and throughout the Rockies, thoughts of a railway through the mountains began surfacing and in 1858 Captain John Palliser’s project was approved in London. He would lead an expedition throughout the Canadian Rockies to compile a report on possible road and railway routes through to the Pacific. Captain Palliser himself explored Elk Pass and the Elk River down to the Kootenay River and beyond. The botanist of his party, Dr. James Hector, explored a more northerly route through modern-day Banff, over Vermillion Pass, along the Vermillion and Kootenay Rivers to the source of the Kootenay, then north along the Beaverfoot River to another river and pass. Here, while retrieving his escaped horse, he was kicked in the chest, henceforward establishing the name of that place—the Kicking Horse River and Pass. This pass would be the through-route for the new transcontinental railway in 1885, shortly after the establishment of the new Dominion of Canada in 1867.
To date, most of the people arriving in the Kootenay-Columbia region near modern-day Invermere, excluding the fur traders at “Kootenae House”, were just travelling through. This changed drastically in 1864, impacting the region and the Kootenay First Nations that lived there almost overnight. The Kootenay Gold Rush began as gold was discovered in Wild Horse Creek near the Kootenay River at Fort Steele. Thousands of settlers arrived, mostly from the United States, to stake their claim, and many would stay. In 1880, John McKay staked his homestead along the Columbia River, near modern-day Radium Hot Springs, and in 1890, Roland Stuart, a British squire, would buy the land around the Radium hot springs to invest in this commercial venture. The first road was built around the hot springs in 1911 as Charles Crook claimed his homestead in the Kootenay Valley just over Sinclair Pass from the springs. Development was expanding and shortly after discovering that radium was indeed in the hot springs, the original bathing pool and bathhouse was constructed there in 1914. Kootenay National Park was established in 1920, relinquishing to memories and place-names the long history of the Kootenay natives in the area. In 1923, the townsite of Radium Hot Springs was surveyed and the Banff-Windermere road along the Kootenay River was officially opened, becoming the first road through the Rocky Mountains.
As change increased and hastened for the original peoples of the Kootenay, Cross, and Columbia River region, the year 1933 signaled the end of a very long, rich, and formidable era as the Chinook salmon made their final run up the Columbia River to Columbia Lake. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State stopped the salmon run and the Ktunaxa, especially the Upper bands, lost a major source of life and subsistence forever. The salmon were a staple in the diet of the Upper Ktunaxa bands, who were master fishermen. Some old oral histories even mention that it was the Ktunaxa who taught some of the other tribes in the region how to fish, such as the Piikani (Peigan) Nation (thank you to Piikani Elder, Dila Houle, for kindly sharing this information with me). The Ktunaxa also helped teach David Thompson himself, as well as other Europeans at Kootenae House, some key points for efficiency and success with fishing nets. The salmon’s sudden disappearance solidified the relatively sudden shift in the Ktunaxa way of life, as government talks, treaty negotiations, residential schools, and land reservations persisted on to deal with the “Indian issue.” In 1948, the final campgrounds in Kootenay National Park were built and three years later the new aquacourt and pool were finished at Radium Hot Springs. Reconstruction and upgrading of the Banff-Windermere highway, as well as the installation of the Iron Gates Tunnel near Sinclair Canyon, was completed in 1965. This heralded the procession of people, tourists from all around the world, who would visit and enjoy the Kootenay-Columbia region forevermore, as its silent history continued to unfold in the arms of its beautiful landscape.
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