Jaco Finlay dies in May 1828.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 2/27/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20299

In May 1828, Jacques Raphael ("Jaco") Finlay (1768-1828), dies at Spokane House, which he established in 1810, at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers, as the first fur-trading post in what will become the state of Washington. Having traveled widely across the region during the tenures of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, Finlay is well known throughout the Inland Northwest as a fur trader, scout, interpreter, and gunsmith.

At Home in "Jaco Land"

Jacques Raphael Finlay, the son of a Scottish fur trader and a Cree mother, was born in 1768 on the Saskatchewan River. His nickname was usually spelled as Jacco or Jaco and was probably pronounced in the French way, "Jocko." Young Finlay succeeded his father in the trade, working as a clerk for the North West Company, a Canadian fur enterprise headquartered in Montreal. His assignments took him farther and farther into the Canadian Prairies as the fur trade advanced westward. In 1806 he crossed the Continental Divide and scouted the upper Columbia River in preparation for the expedition that David Thompson (1770-1857) led the next year to establish trade with tribes west of the Rockies. Three years later, in 1810, Thompson instructed Finlay to establish Spokane House, the first trading post in what would eventually become the state of Washington.

During the ensuing two decades, Finlay explored and traded throughout the Inland Northwest. He remained so closely associated with his posting at Spokane House that the surrounding area became known as "Jaco Land" (Oakshott). The North West Company valued his services sufficiently to pay him substantially more than other established clerks. Although he was not listed as an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company after its merger with the North West Company in 1821, Finlay apparently stayed close to his old haunts in the Spokane country. In addition to several children from a previous marriage, he and his Spokane wife, Teshwentichina, had at least two children. When the Hudson's Bay Company closed Spokane House in 1826, moving operations to Fort Colvile, a new post at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River some 70 miles to the north, Finlay and his family remained at the old fur post.

Helping David Douglas

In the spring of 1826 not long after the move, Scottish naturalist David Douglas (1799-1834) was visiting Fort Colvile when he damaged his musket. He learned that his best chance of having it repaired lay with Jaco Finlay at the old Spokane House, a man who also possessed "extensive information as to the appearance of the country, animals, and so on" (Douglas, Journal ..., 169). Guided by two of Finlay's sons, the naturalist journeyed south.

"Reached the old establishment at Spokane at eleven o'clock, where I was very kindly received by Mr. Finlay. He regretted exceedingly that he had not a single morsel of food to offer me. He and his family were living for the last six weeks on the roots of Phalangium Quamash (called by the natives all over the country Camass) and a species of black lichen which grows on the pines. ... As the principal object of my journey was to get my firelock arranged by him, being the only person within the space of eight hundred miles who could do it, and being an item of the utmost consequence to have done soon, I lost no time in informing him of my request. ... In the afternoon I made a walk up the river and returned at dusk, when I found he had obligingly put my gun in good order, for which I presented him with a pound of tobacco, being the only thing I had to give" (Douglas, Journal ..., 171).

Before Douglas departed, Jaco Finlay promised to collect seeds of two currants blooming in the vicinity and of an interesting onion that grew upriver. When Douglas inquired about the intriguing bighorn sheep that he had yet to see, "Mr. Finlay gave me hopes that when he visited the high mountains farther up the country in autumn, he might be able, notwithstanding the shyness of these animals, and the inaccessible places to which they generally betake themselves when disturbed, to procure me a specimen of this highly interesting creature" (Douglas, "A Sketch ...," 110).

When Douglas stopped briefly at Spokane House that August, his journal made no mention of seeds or sheep, noting only that he and his party were kindly welcomed by "old Mr. Finlay, who gave us abundance of fine fresh salmon from his barrier, placed in a small branch of the main river" (Douglas, Journal ..., 203).

Two years later, in May 1828, Jaco Finlay died at approximately 60 years of age. At least one wife and more than a dozen children survived him. Over the summer, news of his demise traveled the river, touching his many relatives, plus the traders, clerks, voyageurs, free hunters, and tribal members who had smoked with him during his years west of the Divide. In the twenty-first century, many of his descendants still live in the Inland Northwest and now number in the thousands, according to the research of a family genealogist.

Buried Beneath the Bastion

Fur-trade lore held that Jaco Finlay, in accordance with his wishes, was buried beneath the bastion at one corner of the stockade surrounding Spokane House. When American businessman Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856) passed the site in 1835 he noted that the only remaining structure was a bastion "which is left by the Indians from respect to the dead[,] one clerk of the Co. being buried in it" (Wyeth, 186).

More than a century later, in 1951, National Park Service archaeologist Louis Caywood (1906-1997) was excavating the Spokane House compound when one of his crew uncovered a gravesite that contained a comb, a drinking cup, a hunting knife, part of a pair of spectacles, and five tobacco pipes. Upon finding the faint initials "JF" scratched into one of the pipe bowls, Caywood concluded that the grave must be that of Jaco Finlay, resting beneath a bastion of the trade house that he had built.


Louis R. Caywood, "Spokane House," The Beaver, Vol. 36 (Winter 1956), 44-47; Finlay genealogical data, in possession of David Courchane, Wenatchee, Washington; David Douglas, Journal Kept by David Douglas During His Travels in North America, 1823-1827 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914); David Douglas, "A Sketch of a Journey to the North-Western Parts of the Continent of North America During the Years 1824, 5, 6, and 7," Companion to the Botanical Magazine, Vol. 2 (1836), 82-177; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Finlay, Jacques Raphael 'Jaco' (1768-1828)" (by Jack Nisbet), http://www.historylink.org (accessed December 12, 2016); Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker's Eye (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); Jack Nisbet, Visible Bones (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2003); Tom Oakshott, "Koo-Koo-Sint and Red Hair and Jaco," Spokesman Review, June 30, 1957, pp. 4-5; Nathaniel J. Wyeth, The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-36 ed. by F. G. Young (Eugene, OR: University Press, 1899).

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