Opening the Northwest Passage by Land


I’m out doing photographs, so haven’t got around to linking all this together yet…. if you’re interested in any of these locations click on Map…. they may be posted in basic then-now format.


Opening the NW Passage by Land: The travels of David Thompson, Meriweather  Lewis, William Clark and Simon Fraser (1787 to 1812)

Overview – Winter 1787-88: David Thompson  in the Rocky Mountain Foothills – Near Calgary – 1797: Thompson on the Missouri – 1800: On the North Saskatchewan – Red Deer River – 1800: Le Blanc and La Gasse on Columbia and Kootenai Rivers  –  Bow River – 1805: Lewis and Clark at Great Falls – Gates of the Mountains – The Beaverhead – Shoshone on the Salmon River – Bitterroot Valley – Nez Perce on the Clearwater River – October 1805: Lewis and Clark at Confluence of the Snake and the Columbia – Celilo Falls – Reaching Pacific Tidewater in the Columbia Gorge – Winter 1805/06: Lewis and Clark on the Pacific Ocean – July, 1806: Captain Lewis near Missoula – Road to the Bison over Lewis and Clark Pass – Lewis’ Skirmish with the Piegan – 1806: Clark on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone – 1806: Jaco Findlay on the Columbia River – 1807: David Thompson Crosses Great Divide – Kootenae House – 1808: Tobacco Plains and the Kootenae River – 1808: Simon Fraser Descends Fraser River – 1809: Kullyspel on the Pend Orielle River – Descent of the Pend Orielle – Western White Pine – Saleesh House – 1810: Thompson Ascends Athabasca Valley – Future Location of Jasper House – Upper Athabasca Valley – January, 1811: Boat Encampment on Columbia – Spokane House – Kettle Falls – July, 1811: Thompson Descends Columbia to Pacific Ocean – Palouse River to Spokane House – Upper Columbia Kettle Falls to Boat Encampment – 1811/12: Thompson’s Final Winter in the West


Russian, Spanish, British and American navigators had, by the mid-1790s, mapped the northwest coast, and located the mouths of several main rivers- the Columbia, Skeena, and Stikine, but not the Fraser — that drain the waters from the vast inland region east of the coastline. This mapping opened a brisk trade with the Tlingit, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth, Makah, Coastal Salish, and other peoples, centered on the sea otter. Moreover, these sailing voyages did not find saltwater passage across North America. All northern voyages, both from the west and the east had been blocked by sea ice, for these had been done during one of the coldest periods of the Little Ice Age . Moreover, the Straits of Juan de Fuca and complex waterways used by the coastal Salish had been shown to only separate Vancouver Island from the coast, and did not provide a great inlet into the continent. 1

Meanwhile, expeditions by river and land across the continent from the east, primarily by spearheaded by Peter Pond and William Mackenzie, located the principal riverway to the Arctic Ocean, and a difficult route to the Pacific via the lower Athabasca, Peace, upper Fraser rivers, and Bella Coola rivers. The trading posts being established along these routes established trade with a host of First Nations such as the Cree, Assiniboine, Siksika, Chipewyan, Beaver, and Tse’khene (Sekani). These native peoples provided the Hudson Bay, North West and other companies with a rich bounty of beaver, wolf, lynx and other pelts that required canoe-freighting across nearly the whole continent to reach European markets. 2

Also by the 1790s, primarily American sea-faring traders, but also some British captains established a highly profitable business model. Furs obtained on the west coast from Native Americans through trade for iron, muskets and other items were then shipped to China. Here the pelts were exchanged for tea and spices, and these items were in turn then shipped to the east coast of United States or Europe. Here, these were sold for a high monetary profit, and more trade goods procured for trading with North American natives. 3 Thus, American, British, and Canadian traders realized that a greater profit could be made if better connections could be made from the western areas of the continent to the Pacific Coast. This could alleviate many hundred kilometres of hauling materials upriver from the Hudson Bay or Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. Alexander Mackenzie’s 1792 expedition had shown that the Fraser River was likely not a feasible route to the west coast. However, the visits by American Robert Gray, followed by George Vancouver’s navigators up the lower Columbia River clearly showed that this great river could be a “great river to the west” sought by the fur traders from the east. But this created a significant problem for the Americans, for unlike the northlands explored by British and French traders, the central heartland of the North America, lying between the original United States, and the Columbia was little known. 4

The stage was set for a great spurt of land exploration by British, Canadian, and American mappers. Ultimately, the routes they found and the trade they established with native peoples defined the future boundaries of the countries of Canada and United States.




  1. Cook, W. L., Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Northwest, 1543-1819. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973; Beaglehole, J. C., ed., The Journals of Captain Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: The Voyage of the ‘Resolution’ and ‘Discovery,’ 1776-1780. Vol. 3, Cambridge: Hakluyt Society. 1967; Gough, B. M. Fortune’s a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2007; Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World. London: Robinson and Edwards. 2 Vols., 1798
  2. Mackenzie, Alexander. Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793. Vol. 2. Project Gutenberg Ebook. (Accessed January 9, 2014); Mackie, M. S. Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.
  3. Gibson, J. R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Tread of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1992.
  4. Gibson, Otter Skins; Lewis, Meriwether, Clark, William, et al. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Gary Moulton. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, 2005.