Origins and Alexander Ross

In a story that has been told over and over by tour guide after tour guide, we get the creation of the Grand Coulee. It starts with an ice dam and cataclysmic floods tearing at the land in a time before recorded memories. Cutting deep into the basalt and swirling around massive granite boulders in the cascading flood waters. Over time repeated floods carved landmarks out of the Pleistocene lands. Steamboat Rock, Umatilla… the Lower Coulee. Opened like a huge gash in the land, the Grand Coulee stretched from Electric City to Coulee City, where it fanned out creating the Middle Passage before tumbling off a 400-foot precipice into the monumental Dry Falls. After crashing into the Lower Coulee, the flood waters continued south leaving lakes in its wake. Deep Lake, Park Lake, Blue Lake and Lake Lenore, then over a waterfall into Soap Lake and finally to wash out into the Quincy Basin.

At one time there were writings on the walls of Steamboat Rock that were too old to decipher, maybe they told of the time when the lakes in the lower coulee were filled with great man-eating monsters roamed the depths. Stories told in oral tradition about the lakes in the lower coulee talk about a great battle between the braves and the monsters that lived and swam in the dark green waters. The battle raged on for days, turning the water red with blood and staining the shores and coulee walls. For a while the bones of the slain beasts lay around to be discovered by hunters traveling through the Lower Coulee. The Upper Coulee was no better, a place filled with evil spirits it was to be avoided.

Much later, David Thompson of the North West Company created the Spokane House in 1810, a fur trading post where the Spokane and Little Spokane river meet. This was the first settlement created by white people in what would later become the state of Washington and started a new chapter in the story of the Grand Coulee.

As the fur trade industry spread across the Columbia Plateau, Alexander Ross of the Pacific Fur Company founded Fort Okanogan in 1811. Ross spent the first winter there snowed in, alone and surrounded by indigenous people who didn’t understand him or his culture. Nights were long and solitaire, and days covered with blankets of white. All around the Natives moved about their ways and daily routine, barely recognizing the odd white man in the wood buildings. Nights were lite by candle and warmed by fireplace and extra clothes. The loneliness gnawed away on Alexander, plus the paranoia of being over ran by Natives at any minute lead to many sleepless nights. By the time spring came Alexander’s hair was white as the snow that had covered the land. Due largely in part to the War of 1812, in 1813 the North West Company bought out the Pacific Fur Company and acquired all its employees and holdings, including the Spokane House and Alexander Ross.

Across the river from where the North West Company’s out post was built their rival Pacific Fur Company built a fort and named it Fort Jacob after American fur mogul John Jacob Astor. After the North West Company took over Pacific Fur Company’s holdings the Spokane House moved across the river into the much larger digs of the Fort Jacob, the name Spokane House moved over with the men of the NWC. Here they had dining rooms, and dance halls, meeting rooms, trading rooms, offices, a kitchen, multiple out houses. Pretty soon it became a beacon for fur traders, lonely soldiers, mountain men, traders and trappers of all sizes and colors. The French, British, American, Canadian and Native American all intermingled drinking and dancing with the local ladies. In the spring and summer they had great horse races, people betting money, everyone drinking as the day turned to night, and then into morning. In the winter they offered shelter from the solitude and never ending cold.

In 1814 while stationed at Fort Okanogan Alexander Ross received word that the Spokane House had need of horses and decided to deliver them himself. The route he chose would lead him into the Grand Coulee, a trail that had been utilized by fur trappers from various companies for many years. Alexander Ross knew about the stories of the land being an abode of evil spirits but decided to choose his team of men and venture forth with the herd of 55 horses as soon as possible. 41 years after Ross herded the horses from Fort Okanogan to Spokane House, he wrote some of the first descriptions we have of the Grand Coulee in his classic 1855 book; Fur Hunters of the Far West. Ross and his men herded the horses down into the Coulee and spent a night surrounded by the steep basalt walls and critters hiding in the nights. In his writings Ross mentions great lightning storms in the Grand Coulee, illuminating the sheer basalt cliffs in flashes of bright white lightning and booming endlessly down the coulee on never ending thunder. Ross noted in his writings that the storms happened with more frequency in the Grand Coulee, and more ferocity. He also wrote about the grandeur and beauty of the basalt walls, and the soil composition. He states water is everywhere in springs, except on the coulee floor that looks to be a huge dried up riverbed.

Alexander Ross was following old fur trader trails as he made his way into the Upper Grand Coulee with his herd of horses. The trail was already old and easy to follow, but by no means any sort of road you would want to take a stagecoach or buckboard over. The Upper Grand Coulee in the 1800s was different than it is today. Today it is filled with a huge 27-mile equalizing reservoir named after the Grand Coulee Dam’s Chief Engineer, Frank Banks. In places where there is no water there are oceans of sagebrush and cheatgrass. In the 1800s the upper coulee floor was much different, covered with a lush bunch grass suited to grazing livestock.

Original art “The Fur Trader” by Phee Wonder

Next: A perilous journey into the Upper Grand Coulee.

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