Cultural and Historical Heritage of Ferry County, Washington

From the Folks at Hansen Woodland Farm....

Near Ferry County's Sherman Pass Ferry County has a rich cultural history, starting with its original inhabitants, continuing with exploration by European traders, followed by a rush of mining operations and later timber and agricultural endeavors, and continuing to present day. Scientists have determined that people were living and fishing in this area, part of the Southern Columbia Plateau, for 10,000 years -- one of the longest known inhabitations in the United States.

Native American Inhabitants of Ferry County

Numerous Native Americans from the Interior Salish speaking tribes used parts of Ferry County, especially the areas around Curlew Lake and the Kettle River, as key habitation, hunting, fishing, and food-preparation sites for thousands of years. Each tribe occupied traditional territories. Territorial boundaries were flexible and tribes shared some resource areas. In those times, the Colville and Arrow Lakes (Lakes) tribes occupied the north-northeast part of the county; the northwestern part of the county was in Okanogan territory. Okanogans grazed their animals on the bunch grass along the Toroda Creek during the winter months. The Sanpoil Tribe inhabited southern Ferry County, particularly near the confluence of the Columbia and the Sanpoil rivers. Many tribal members still live in their homelands.

Tribes followed a cyclic subsistence lifestyle, moving from one place to another, following the seasons and seasonal harvests of fish, deer, fruits, and edible roots. By the time winter approached, tribal members preserved enough of the year's supplies to move to winter villages along the major waterways, such as the Kettle and Columbia Rivers.

According to tribal traditions, historians, and archaeologists, evidence exists that the Kettle River area has been occupied for more than 9,000 years -- and had a concentration of members of the Lakes Tribe. At least part of Curlew Lake had a spring encampment by a band of Colvilles. Furthermore, the Colville Tribe had a main settlement near Kettle Falls, as well as smaller encampments all the way to Inchelium along the Columbia River. The Lakes fished and camped along the Columbia River all the way down to Kettle Falls. After the establishment of Fort Colvile by the Hudson's Bay Company in Kettle Falls, some Lakes began wintering there. Ultimately, the Lakes people were driven from their tribal home in Canada by government policies and displacement by pioneers; most Lakes tribal members moved to the Columbia and Kettle Rivers in Washington state.

The Indian people established numerous east-west and north-south trails -- connecting key living, fishing, hunting, and trade routes -- many of which became roadways still used today. These routes connected Lake Okanogan with the San Poil and Curlew Valleys, as well as to the great fishing grounds at Kettle Falls, and then into fertile areas in what is now British Columbia, Canada. Native Americans used these routes for gatherings with other native peoples for activities such as food harvesting, feasting, trading, as well as celebrations that included sports and gambling.

Horses, introduced into North America by the Spanish, arrived in the Columbia Plateau region in the mid-1700s, which dramatically increased tribal mobility.

With the introduction of traders and trappers, many Native Americans became accustomed to trading furs (from beaver, otter, muskrat, bear, marten, and other animals) and native goods for European or other foreign commodities, such as weapons (knives, guns, and ammunition), tools (traps, axes, and fire steels), domestic items (wool blankets, cotton cloth, mirrors, and beads), and tobacco. Furthermore, because of the fur trade, marriages of Lakes and Colvilles with French Canadians, Metis, and Iroquois became commonplace.

In April 1872, the Colville Reservation was established by executive order. This first reservation was on the east side of the Columbia River; pressure from non-native people led to moving the reservation to the west side of the Columbia in July of the same year. The Colville reservation was steadily reduced as a result of pressure from settlers and miners who had swarmed the area, particularly in the Okanogan and Columbia River areas, as well as the Colville River Valley. The Colville Reservation currently comprises the southern half of Ferry County and parts of Okanogan County, encompassing 1.4 million acres, with the headquarters of the Colville Confederated Tribes at Nespelem.

Okanogan Chief Joseph Tonasket One notable Native-American of the time was Okanogan Chief Joseph Tonasket (approx. 1822-1891), one of the first men of importance in Ferry County. After years of ranching (he owned large herds of cattle and horses) in Okanogan, he sold that land and moved to Ferry County, establishing a ranch on the left bank of the Kettle River, about a mile from Curlew -- the first real ranching operation in the area -- in which he raised livestock (sheep, cattle, and horses), hay, and oats. Besides ranching, he had a small general store that carried considerable stock of goods, while on the bench land above the river and across from the mouth of Curlew Creek, he maintained a mile-long race track. He also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for farming equipment for the area. The inscription on his headstone reads, "He proved himself a strong and able leader, and although his was not an inherited Chieftain-Chief, he was officially recognized as Chief of the Okanogan Indians in about the year 1858. His whole life was a series of accomplishments for his people."

Sinixt (Lakes) Chief James Bernard Another notable Native-American was a Sinixt (Lakes) Chief James Bernard (1870-1935), who lived in the Kelly Hills area, near Colville, for more than 30 years. The Lakes, so named because their territory was centered on the waterways of the Arrow Lakes regions, were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Upper Columbia Basin. Interestingly, "Sinixt" translates as "Place of the Bull Trout;" Bull trouts, currently on the endangered species list, are ancient inhabitants of the Upper Columbian Basin. Chief James Bernard was very outspoken about the devastation brought to their lands from the invasion of non-native settlers. Like Chief Joseph Tonasket, Chief James Bernard also traveled to Washington, D.C., on behalf of his people. He described their abundant homeland thusly: "We had camas, huckleberries, bitter root... When I walked out under the stars, the air was filled with the perfume of wild flowers. In those days, the Indians were happy."

Today, thousands of descendants of 12 aboriginal tribes of Indians are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, including the Colville, the Nespelem, the San Poil, the Lake (Sinixt), the Palus (Palouse), the Wenatchi (Wenatchee), the Chelan, the Entiat, the Methow, the southern Okanogan, the Moses-Columbia (Sinkiuse-Columbia) and the Nez Perce of Chief Joseph's Bands.

European Exploration into Ferry County

While many trappers and explorers probably ventured into the area that is now Ferry County, one of the best known -- because of his well-kept diaries -- is fur trader, surveyor, and map-maker David Thompson, known to some native peoples as "Koo-Koo-Sint" or "the Stargazer." In 1811, working for the North West Company, he navigated the entire length of Columbia River, stopping at many places along the river, including areas that border Ferry County.

A decade or so after David Thompson's historic foray into the area, noted Scotish botantist David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir is named, ventured into the area, exploring nearly 4,000 miles of territory in the Northwest, including areas around the San Poil River. During his travels, he discovered 50 species of trees and more than 100 kinds of shrubs, ferns, and other plants.

Andrew C. Anderson, who like Thompson worked for the Hudson's Bay Company -- including a stint as Chief Factor at Fort Colvile -- explored the area that is now Ferry County in the 1830s and 1840s looking for more fur trade routes, according to noted author Jack Nisbet. His map, shown to the right, shows two trails from the Kettle River and Fort Colvile west to the San Poil, and the Camp Flying Squirrel. Note that the lake Anderson identifies as Lake Eliza is Curlew Lake (which in another later survey is also identified as Karanip Lake). Nisbet adds that these routes Anderson and his men took to explore the area were clearly well-known Indian trails.

One other notable person during this time period was Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), who panned the creeks flowing into the Kettle River and Boundary Creek in search of gold, and who is buried in Ferry County, about 18 miles northwest of Curlew Lake, in a plot overlooking the Kettle River. (His burial site was named a Heritage Site, by the State Parks and Recreation Commission.) He was the son of a Hudson's Bay Company fur trader (Archibald McDonald) and a Chinook Indian (Princess Raven) who became a sailor after suffering from racial prejudice in banking because of his Chinook blood -- and traveled the world (including to Japan in search of a relationship between the Japanese and his Native American ancestors), before returning to a homestead near Fort Colville.

Pioneers (Mining/Timber) in Ferry County

With the discovery of gold deposits in the late 1800s, Ferry County quickly became the gold capitol of the region.

The first white settlers -- prospectors -- arrived in Republic and surrounding areas in 1896 when the north half of the Colville Indian reservation (of which the north half of Ferry county was a part) was opened to mineral exploration. These early settlers found mostly gold, but also copper, silver, and pyrite. In 1897, Patrick Walsh established the first sawmill in Ferry County.

In 1899, after a petition from residents, Ferry County was split off from Stevens County. Original settlers wanted to name the County Eureka (from the gold finds), but the legislature, in approving the new county, changed the name to Ferry to honor Washington's first governor, Elisha P. Ferry.

When the town incorporated in 1900, the U.S. Postal Service rejected the chosen name Eureka, which had already been claimed by a community in Clark County. Citizens decided to go with the name Republic in honor of the highest producer of gold at the time, the Great Republic mining claim. The town was then relocated slightly southeast of its original location and now overlooks the San Poil River Valley to the south, and the Kettle Mountain range to the east.

Lone Pine Mine Republic was the site of the most productive gold mines of the 20th century. Names of just some of the early mines include: Golden Harvest, Tom Thumb, Belcher, Insurgent, Republic, Butte, Princess Maud, Sans Poil, Black Tail, Lone Pine, Surprise, Ben-Hur, Black Tail, Quilp, Morning Glory, Knob Hill, Little Cove, Mountain Lion, Trade Dollar, Gold Ledge, Peacemaker, Copper Bell, Ruby, Last Chance. (In 1960, the Knob Hill Mine was the most productive mine in America.)

Besides Republic, other key towns that developed in the west side of the county -- and developed along the Great Northern railroad line, getting their starts in similar fashion -- include Malo, which started with a county store built in 1903 by David Olson right along the railway line; Curlew (named for the long-curved-beaked wading bird prolific in the area), which became established when trader Guy Helphrey and J. Walters opened a store in 1896 at an old ferry crossing near the junction of Curlew Creek and Kettle River, a popular crossroads used by native tribes; and Danville (originally called Nelson, but renamed by the railroad to avoid confusion with Nelson, Canada) -- the first town of record in Ferry County -- which started with a store opened in 1889 by Peter B. Nelson and his brother. Of these other towns along the rail line, Curlew became the most notorious because of major bootlegging and liquor smuggling operations during Prohibition. (In fact, every year during Barrel Derby Days, townsfolk re-enact when smugglers put barrels of illegal whiskey from Canada and floated them down the Kettle River to Curlew.)

The success of the mining operations on the west side brought two competing rail lines into Ferry County -- the Kettle Valley line (colloquially known as the "Hot Air" line because of its many promises and suspect financing) connecting with the Canadian Pacific at Grand Forks, British Columbia, and the Washington & Grand Northern connecting Republic to Marcus, and extending to Midway, British Columbia. After the Kettle Valley railroad finally went bankrupt in 1919, part of the right-of-way between Curlew and Danville eventually became State Route 21, while another part became the route of West Curlew Lake Road.

In 1900, the northern half of Ferry County was also opened to timber claims and homesteading.

This mining boom, timber opportunities (logging, sawmilling), and homesteading brought thousands to Ferry County, and in the early 1900s, the population was reported to be around 4,500.

From 1904 until 1928, Ferry County led Washington in total production of gold -- and from the first operations in 1896 until 1959, mining operations produced about 839,000 ounces of gold; the vast majority from the Republic mining district. At one point, there were 164 lode mines and 35 placer mines in Ferry County. Gold-mining operations continue today -- the last remaining operational gold mine in Washington state -- with the Kinross Gold Corporation's Kettle River-Buckhorn properties.

On March 1, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside 870,000 acres of land as the Colville National Reserve -- which later became the Colville National Forest.

Continue reading the story of Ferry County...

  • Railroad and Rail-Trail History of Ferry County
  • Natural Resources of Ferry County
  • Other Resources Unique to Ferry County
  • Go back to ... History of Rural Ferry County, WA: A County Without Traffic Lights

    Hansen Woodland Farm is part of EmpoweringRetreat.com.


    Hansen Woodland Farm sign