Kettle Falls (map) in present-day northeastern Washington was one of the most important Indian fishing sites on the Columbia River. Historical eyewitness accounts suggest the fishery at Kettle Falls might have been larger than the one at Celilo Falls several hundred miles downriver
Between 1,000 and 2,000 Indian fishers regularly used the site. In July 1810 David Thompson observed fishing at Celilo Falls, The Dalles, the Cascade Rapids, the mouth of the Sanpoil River, at various locations on the Spokane River and on the Methow River. Later, he wrote that “Kettle Falls had by far the largest population of Indians all heavily dependent upon the salmon.”
Kettle Falls was located about 50 miles south of the Canadian border. The Kettle River flows into the Columbia from the west just above the falls, which today are under water. Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, flooded the falls in 1940.
For centuries, Kettle Falls was the site of a vibrant fishery. Local Indian bands caught salmon and steelhead for their own use and also to trade for buffalo robes, horses and other goods brought by Indians who traveled to the falls from as far away as present-day Montana.
In the summer of 1811, Thompson, director of the North West Company’s Columbia Department, became the first European to view Kettle Falls. Intent on traveling to the mouth of the Columbia, Thompson, a fur trader, journeyed from the headwaters region of the river in present-day British Columbia overland and eventually encountered the Columbia again at the confluence of the Colville River. From that point he traveled upriver a short distance to view the falls he had heard about.
He named the falls Ilthkoyape Falls and the Indians who fished there Ilthkoyape Indians. These are among the forebears of Indians who are today organized as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The origin of the word Ilthkoyape is unclear, but it probably came from “Ilth-kape,” the Salish word for “kettle,” and “hoy-ape,” the Salish word for “trap” or “net.” At the falls, Thompson observed Indians fishing with basket-like nets, catching the salmon as they fell back after trying to leap the falls. Thompson was the only one to use this designation. Other explorers who came later, among them Ross Cox, Alexander Ross and Gabriel Franchere, called the falls La Chaudiere (the caldron) because of the boiling appearance of the water as it plunged into pools below the falls.
Thompson found the local Indians friendly; they shared their food. But it wasn’t enough for Thompson’s hungry men, he wrote:
“On our arrival, the Chief presented us with a roasted Salmon and some Roots, but what was this small supply to nine hungry men, and as we found the Village had no provisions to spare we had to kill a Horse for provisions; this was a meat I never could relish, but my Canadians had strong stomachs, and a fat Horse appeared as much relished as a Deer.”
Thompson observed that the stomachs of salmon caught at the falls were empty. This he ascribed to their presence in freshwater, “which now has no food adapted to them [as they] ascend to the very place where they became alive.” And he recognized the importance of salmon in the diet of the Indians:
“The Salmon are about from 15 to 25 to 30 pounds weight here, well-tasted, but have lost all their fat, retaining still all their meat. Their flesh is red, and they are extremely well-made. . . .Whatever the history and the habits of the Salmon may be, they form the principal support of all the Natives of this River, from season to season.”
In 1841 Explorer Charles Wilkes observed Indians trapping salmon in baskets at the falls. He wrote that the Indians frequently caught as many as 900 salmon in 24 hours. That same year, 1841, Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet established the St. Mary’s Mission in the Bitterroot Valley of present-day Montana, one of six missions he ultimately would found. In the summer of 1845 De Smet traveled to Fort Vancouver for supplies. His return journey took him past Kettle Falls. “The beautiful falls of the Columbia,” as he called them, were a two-day journey over the mountains from the St. Ignatius mission in the Flathead valley, and Indians from that area were among those who fished at Kettle Falls. De Smet estimated 800-900 Indians were gathered at the falls that August to fish for salmon. He spent nine days there. The respite afforded him the opportunity to carefully observe the salmon fishery. In a letter dated August 7, 1845, he wrote about his travels through the Oregon country, and described the Kettle Falls fishery:
“My presence among the Indians did not interrupt their fine and abundant fishery. An enormous basket was fastened to a projecting rock, and the finest fish of the Columbia, as if by fascination, cast themselves by dozens into the snare. Seven or eight times a day, these baskets were examined, and each time were found to contain about two hundred and fifty salmon. The Indians, meanwhile, were seen on every projecting rock, piercing the fish with the greatest dexterity.”
Colville Indians and others from the upper Columbia River continued to fish at the falls until the late 1930s, when Grand Coulee Dam finally exterminated the upper Columbia salmon runs and the falls were inundated by Lake Roosevelt. In June 1940, the Colville tribe feted the annual spring return of the salmon for the last time at an event they called the Ceremony of Tears . From time to time, when the level of Lake Roosevelt is extraordinarily low, the river again plunges over the rocks, creating a brief reminder of the falls that once were there.