Arrow Lakes

Lower Arrow Lake

Looking northward up the Lower Arrow Lake toward the modern-day “Narrows”

The Arrow Lakes, as they existed before the waters of the Columbia River were raised by the dams along its length, must have been a spectacular place, with its two long narrow lakes connected by a thin stream of winding river. From some of the York Factory Express journals I have learned more about these two British Columbia lakes than anywhere else along the route. We will begin John Work’s story, as he enters the territory west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, in 1823:

[October] Thick fog in the morning… Continued our journey early [from immediate area of modern-day Revelstoke]. And in the evening encamped in the upper end of the upper Lake… Where we encamped we found two lodges of Indians containing two men and some women and children. These are the first Natives we have seen in this side of the mountain. The children were quite naked, & the men had no clothing except a robe or blanket of skin which they had wrapt about them, the women were better covered, and had their hair ornamented with beads. They had scarcely any European articles of cloathing about them. One of the lodges was of oblong form and constructed with poles and the external covering cedar bark, this appeared to be not only a dwelling but also a kind of a store as considerable quantities of dried salmon and other articles were deposited here. The other lodge was of a circular form composed of poles covered with kind of mats made of bullrushes sewed together. Their utensils & vessels were made of birch bark some of skin and some of small roots of trees platted together. They had a number of small dogs. Some beaver skins were traded from them, also a few dried salmon & a little dried meat, some very good nuts were also got from them. The meat was not well cured and the salmon were very poor. These people use birch bark canoes which are of a different construction from those in the other side of the mountains.

This is a very good description of the summer houses of the Sinixt, and other Natives, who hunted along the lakes. (The Colvile Indians also came upriver to hunt, and one of these two houses might have belonged to someone other than the Sinixt). In 1823 Fort Colvile had not yet been built, and the Sinixt , who lived on the lakes, were distant from the post of Spokane House, well downriver and some sixty miles inland from the main river. Kamloops was, perhaps, closer, but still a good distance away.  At this time it appears the Sinixt had little contact with the HBC traders, but were familiar with the brigades and expresses that traveled up and down the Columbia River.

The lodges as described here would have been the summer houses, as in the winter the Sinixt, at least, lived in warm underground houses. The immediate questions I have are these: Were these dogs Salish Wool Dogs? Apparently not, as the Sinixt used their dogs for hunting. I presume, also, that the canoes that Work saw were Sturgeon-nosed canoes similar to those used by the First Nations on the rivers and lakes to the southeast, with whom the Arrow Lake Sinixt were closely related.

Foggy in the morning cloudy afterwards. Embarked at break of day and encamped late a little below the lower end of the Lake which is reckoned about 30 Miles in length. Our course through the Lake was about S by E. This Lake is not very wide, it is surrounded by steep hills generally covered with wood to the tops, some of their summits have no wood but are covered with snow. The shores are generally bold & rocky, except some coves and low points which has wood of a larger growth, than what is on the sides of the stoney hills.

On the opposite of the river where we encamped there was an Indian lodge, from which two Indian Men a woman & boy came & brought 5 salmon which would weigh 20 to 30 lbs each. We had some of it dressed for supper but it was not good. The salmon come out of the sea in immense numbers & are said never to return, they are remarkably fine when they first enter the river but in a short time get quite lean and finally get so emaciated that they die, they continue still struggling against the stream while they have life. Notwithstanding that the mountains are reckoned 1,000 Miles from the sea, yet many of the salmon get that length before they die. The natives are now splitting and drying these dead and dieing [sic] fish for their winters provisions. A couple of beaver skins & a small piece of fresh meat were traded from the above Indians.

The meat is interesting — the First Nations along the Arrow Lakes hunted for Bear, Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goat, Whitetail Deer, and Caribou. Work has more to say on this subject, below:

[October] Saturday 18. Raw cold weather with fog in the morning, fine weather afterwards. Embarked at daylight, and encamped when it was late in the second Lake near its lower end… The appearance of the shores near the same as yesterday. The wood is getting thinner, several of the hills we passed had a very scanty crop. In the short piece of river between the two Lakes is current is not very strong. We pass three or four lodges of Indians and met two canoes in the Lake, from one of them we received part of two shwua, a kind of deer of small size, they are of a dark grey colour with ears as large as those of an ass, the bucks have horns. The flesh of these animals is excellent food.

John Work is perfectly describing the mule deer. It seems that the hunters would take their dogs up into the hills to drive the deer down to the lakeside, where they were killed by the women with knives on the ends of spears. Mule deer are one of the two types of deer they hunted. These animals are of a similar size to the whitetail, but they have large ears — like a mule’s ears — set at a wide angle from their head. Their coat is grey-brown rather than reddish-brown, like the whitetail (in summertime, at least, and this is October). The Mule deer has antlers that fork, meaning the main beam splits in two directions and then four — unlike the whitetail, which have one main antler with tines. A minor difference, perhaps, but a difference. Mule deer also have more white on their face, and whiter rumps, too, than the white-tail.

John Work did not mention the Arrow Rock which gave the lakes their name, however. Perhaps he did not hear the stories of this rock or paid no attention to them. But Aemilius Simpson who came downriver in 1826, did.

The communication between the lakes is a continuation of river for about 6 leagues. On entering the Arrow Lake it runs to the SW and gradually turns to the SSE and on passing the Arrow Rock, a remarkable cliff on the left it turns to the ESE & SE. The Arrow Rock, so named on account of a round hole in its face full of arrows, said to have been fired at it by Indians, when practicing the bow & arrow before a war excursion. (B223/A/3, HBCA)

Alexander Caulfield Anderson also mentioned Arrow Rock, in his now lost 1842 York Factory Express journal (I actually now believe he did not keep a journal. Not everyone did.) This is the only phrase from that journal, and it was saved by his son, James, who said his father:

…mentioned the fact that on arriving at the rock in question the Indian Canoe men all shot arrows at the rock, many of which stuck in the moss, which I believe was considered to be lucky.

If that happened, then all of these gentlemen would have seen the same tradition and chose not to mention it. Edward Ermatinger made no mention of the rock and he passed it three times in the journals I have. George Traill Allan didn’t mention it, nor did James Douglas. In 1847 Thomas Lowe, who speaks of the traditions of the York Factory Express more than others, did not speak of it. In 1849 John Charles tells us that “a party of Colvile Indians gone to the Lakes to hunt deer,” in April. On the 23rd of the same month he learned that the lakes were supposedly still frozen over, but on reaching the upper lake he “encountered no ice.” Needless to say, he did not mention the Arrow Rock!

But Aemilius Simpson also mentioned that the lower lake had “a Sea Green colour, from which I would infer that it has a great Depth…” Does it still have a sea-green colour? No one else has mentioned this.

The weather on these two lakes is what most gentlemen speak of. On his outgoing journey of 1849, John Charles made his way up the lower lake without description, but on the Upper Lake he said:

Blowing furiously all of last night and this morning. Breakfast at the end of the Grand Lac and camped a little after sundown [in the river above the upper Lake].

Thomas Lowe said that, in 1848, “When we got to the Lower Lake had a light favourable breeze, and encamped about 15 miles from its entrance.” The next camp was in the river between the two lakes, Then: “Had a head wind in the Upper Lake, and got a good distance up the River.” In 1847, he wrote of his incoming [downriver] journey:

November 1. Fine weather. Breakfasted at the entrance of the [Upper] Lake and had a sail wind during the day. Encamped near the end of the Lake.

Tuesday 2nd. Snowing in the morning, but fine weather afterwards. Got to the commencement of the Lower Lake to breakfast. Calm today. In the evening put ashore about the middle of the [Lower] Lake for supper.

Wednesday 3rd. Last night started about 10 o’clock and pulled all night. Had a favourable breeze in the day time, which took us through the remainder of the Lake about noon. Has been a fine day. Encamped a little below the Pend’Oreilles River.

James Douglas wrote of his outgoing journey in 1835:

Entered the [Lower] Lake at 11 o’clock and encamped on a pretty gravelly point which may be considered half its length. High, snow covered hills on both sides.

Tuesday, 7th. April. At four o’clock proceeded and our journey and we arrived at the upper end of the Lake at 11 o’clock including one hour’s detention for breakfast. Encamped at the entrance of the 2nd Lake. Passed a few Indians during the day. 13 hours, lake; 8 hours, Narrows; 10 1/2 hours, 2nd Lake.

No details, and no descriptions. Edward Ermatinger was a little more descriptive, perhaps. In 1828:

Fine weather. Embark at 1/2 past 4 o’clock. Enter the 1st lake between 7 and 8 am. Continued paddling all day and encamp at 7 pm near the end of the Lake. Trade a pair of snow shoes and  small piece dried meat from an Indian.

24th [April]. Fine weather. Start at 4 am having got thro’ the first Lake we proceed up the Narrows and encamp at the end of the 2nd Lake at 7 pm.

In 1827 as he goes upriver Ermatinger says this:

Enter the first Lake at 8 o’clock and take breakfast. Afterwards hoist sail with a light breeze. Continue sailing all day and encamp at the end of the Lake at 7 pm. An Indian comes to our camp with a few fish (Suckers and Tidubee) and a small piece of cabris [mountain sheep, probably] which we exchange for a piece of dried meat. [Tidubee is whitefish of sorts].

21st Saturday. Fine weather, but wind strong ahead. Embark at 5 am. Pass the narrows and continue up the River to the entrance of the 2nd lake where we encamp at 7 am. Our track this day, with the exception of a short narrow of about 1 mile, may all be said to be Lake way, comparing it with what we really called the Lakes — generally not more than 1 mile wide. [This is the Narrows]. Passed several camps of Indians in course of the day and traded 7 pairs of Pas d’ours [bear-paw snowshoes] for our journey across the mountains… Country still mountainous and covered with snow on the hills.

Sunday 22nd. Fine weather. Start at 4 am. Paddle thro’ the 2nd Lake. Re-enter the river at 4 pm…..

So in the end, it is John Work and Aemilius Simpson which give us the best descriptions of the Arrow Lakes, and they are very good descriptions indeed. In 1824 Fort Colvile would be constructed — by John Work, in fact. Aemilius Simpson would arrive at the fledgling fort three years later, and describe it:

We arrived at Fort Colvile at 4.30 pm. We were received here by a number of Indians, the chiefs Mounted on horses, whom we were obliged to Shake cordially by the hand, in return for this complement… We found this post merely in progress, a few Houses only being completed, & no Stockades up for defence. The ground about here appears well calculated both for grazing & agricultural purposes, & produces, at present, potatoes of an excellent quality…

The Sinixt did come down to Fort Colvile often, and they were the best trappers and traders of all the Natives who traded at Fort Colvile. In fact, when the Sinixt people arrived at the Native village outside Fort Colvile, to fish at the Spokane Falls, the Colvile people held a three-day celebratory dance for them — one of the many celebrations the fur traders complained about at Fort Colvile!

But in the 1840’s, the number of Sinixt people plummeted: probably they were hard hit by the measles infection of 1847-48. They may also have been killed by the influenza that killed 30 of the the best Kootenais [Ktunaxa] hunters, as Alexander Caulfield Anderson reported in April 1850. They may possibly have taken work with the American goldminers that were now flooding the area and changing the fur trade: it is more likely that they worked to prevent the gold miners from coming up the Columbia River into their territory. Whatever happened in these years, things changed for the Sinixt of the Arrow Lakes.

In 1856, Fort Shepherd was built north of the 49th parallel, supposedly to replace Fort Colvile. It served the American gold-miners at Pend-d’Oreille River, and hoped to serve the Natives along the Arrow Lakes. Whether its presence affected the Sinixt, I do not know, but Fort Shepherd did so poorly at trading for furs that it was closed in 1860. It was re-opened when the HBC discovered an American trader in the area, and closed for the last time in 1870. Fort Colvile was finally closed in Spring 1871. It seems that for a while the Sinixt left the lakes [except for visits], but have since returned and are living in the Slocan.

But the Arrow Lakes have changed, and the Columbia River, too. The water levels are higher, and some of their village sites have disappeared: Inchelium, WA, for example, had to be relocated. Other traditional places on the lakes themselves must have been inundated, to a degree at least. The channel between the two lakes, that is described by the York Factory Express men, is wider than it used to be, and the lakes themselves are wider, too. Here nothing is as it used to be — which is why preserving the old stories is important, even if the stories are told by the HBC men.

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Arrow Lakes

  1. Sam Pambrun


    Have you run across Candace Wellman of Bellingham, WA who found a “stuffed” wool dog at the Smithsonian and got it removed to the Bellingham Museum?