Finlay, Jacques Raphael "Jaco" (1768-1828)

  • By Jack Nisbet
  • Posted 12/14/2007
  • Essay 8411

Jacques Raphael Finlay, a Canadian fur trader commonly known as Jaco, crossed the Continental Divide in modern-day Alberta and reached the upper Columbia River during the summer of 1806. Working as an advance scout for the North West Company of Canada, he had orders to prepare the way for an 1807 expedition to establish trade with tribes west of the Rockies. During the next 20 years, Finlay explored and traded throughout the Inland Northwest, both as an employee of the North West Company and as an independent trapper. In 1810 he sited and built Spokane House, the first trading post in the present-day state of Washington.

A Man of Courage

Jacques Raphael Finlay was born in 1768 at Fort Finlay, a fur post established by his father, James, on the Saskatchewan River. A native of Scotland, James Finlay had shipped to lower Canada as a young man and joined a group of independent traders who eventually coalesced into the North West Company. While living on the Saskatchewan, over a thousand miles west of his wife and young son in Montreal, Finlay took a "country wife" of the Cree Tribe of the Eastern Woodlands. Their only known child was Jacques Raphael, who in time acquired a nickname that was probably pronounced in the French way, "Jocko," but usually spelled as Jacco or Jaco.

By the mid-1780s, James Finlay was retired from his trader’s career and living in Montreal with his Scottish wife, the mother of six of his children. While there is no record that Jaco ever visited that city, his father apparently made certain provisions for his mixed-blood son. The youngster must have learned the basics of reading and writing because, along with his half-brothers, he was commissioned into the North West Company as a clerk.

Jaco Finlay’s first appearance in the fur-trade record occurred in 1794 as a 26-year-old clerk stationed at the North West Company’s Upper Bow House on the South Saskatchewan River (near modern Medicine Hat, Alberta). In June of that year, the Hudson’s Bay Company post a short distance away came under attack by a Blackfeet raiding party that killed and captured the inhabitants, pillaged goods, and torched the buildings. The attackers then moved on to the North West Company post, where the handful of men in residence, including Jaco Finlay, fought them off. Louis Chastedelain, the factor in charge of Upper Bow House, later described the scene:

“The Indians kept up a heavy fire under shelter of the bank and likewise from the wood side (which was briskly returned from the log house). A Black foot Indian bolder than the rest got above the bank animating the others to come on and fire the stockades, he was instantly shot from the log house by Finlay. This finished the Action, for they were seen to file off immediately” (York Factory). 

North West partner John McDonald of Garth, describing the event years later, wrote: “Our fort was in charge of one Jaccot Finlay, a man of courage" (McDonald). Although McDonald misremembered Finlay’s position at Upper Bow House, he was apparently correct in his character assessment, for after making certain that the Blackfeet had departed, Jaco and one of the other Nor’Westers took the risk of riding upriver to warn other posts of the danger. 

Across the Divide

Two years later, Finlay was posted on the North Fork of the Saskatchewan, where he apparently manned several posts for the remainder of the decade. In 1799, Jacques Raphael Finlay appeared on the company’s pay list as a clerk receiving one of the highest wages on the chart -- the same as that of veteran fur agent and surveyor David Thompson (1770-1857), who had recently been hired by the North West Company.

The 1804 pay list retained Jaco at the same level he had held in 1799, and he apparently continued to ply the upper Saskatchewan as the company added new posts farther upriver. He was married by then to a woman often identified with his mother's Cree tribe. In the fall of 1806, John McDonald of Garth, the agent at Rocky Mountain House, instructed Finlay to clear an old Kootenai trail across the Continental Divide in anticipation of a trading party that would cross in the spring to establish trade with the Kootenai Indians and other tribes west of the Rockies.

By October, Jaco, accompanied by his family and several in-laws, had crossed the Divide and descended to a large river, where he was to build canoes and cache them for use the next spring. Late in the month he sent two of his helpers back across the mountains to fetch more supplies and tobacco. In mid-November he returned to Rocky Mountain House for a week, and it may have been during that visit that he drew a rough map containing much accurate information about drainages and trails on both sides of the Rockies. This sketch was later found among the papers of Hudson’s Bay Company agent Peter Fidler with the inscription “Drawn by Jean Findley, 1806” (Fidler).

Jaco Finlay was not part of the expedition that crossed the Rockies in June 1807 under the leadership of North West Company agent David Thompson. The party ascended present-day Howse Pass and then staggered down the west slope of the Rockies along the Blaeberry River, which was running wild with melt water. As they proceeded, Thompson became increasingly unhappy with Finlay’s work of the previous fall. The trail had not been cleared wide enough for packhorses, and although Jaco had assembled the parts for two small canoes, he had failed to cache proper timbers for a cargo canoe, or suitable birch bark for sheathing the boats, or gum for caulking the seams. In a report on his journey, Thompson complained:  

“From what has been said of the road on the Portage, it is clearly seen that Jaco Finlay with the men engaged last Summer to clear the Portage Road, has done a mere nothing ... and it is the opinion of every man with me, as well as mine that Jaco Finlay ought to lose at least half his wages for having so much neglected the Duty for which he was so expressly engaged" (Thompson, “Narrative”)  

While overwintering at Kootanae House, his new trading post at the source lakes of the Columbia, Thompson’s anger began to cool. In a letter written in March 1808 he referred to the trail-clearing fiasco, but admitted that his own incomplete knowledge of the country had contributed to his problems, and he left open the possibility of working with Jaco again: “Jaco has behaved like a scoundrel,” Thompson wrote, “but all is now over” (Thompson to McTavish).

Free Hunter

By this time Finlay had given up steady employment as a clerk for the life of a “free hunter.” He traveled with tribal and mixed-blood trappers, who frequently took on temporary employment with the company as scouts, hunters, or interpreters. He and Thompson continued to work together, off and on, for the next five years. Since the surveyor left behind a wealth of field journals and Finlay did not, almost everything known about him during this period comes from the pen of David Thompson.

On a snowy afternoon in November of 1808, the Finlay family arrived at Kootanae House with a cadre of Iroquois trappers who had come to work the Columbia District. During the winter, Jaco set trap lines in the surrounding area, occasionally stopping by the trading post to purchase supplies and to report on the number of wild horses he had succeeded in capturing and taming from among the herds that grazed the hills above the Columbia’s source lakes. That spring, the wife of a Kootanae House voyageur suddenly passed away, leaving four small children, the youngest only six months old. A week later, as Thompson and his crew began the long trip across the Divide to deliver the season’s furpacks, they paid a visit to “Jaco’s Campment” and left the orphans in the custody of Jaco’s wife, who already had several small children of her own to care for.  

During the following summer, marauding Piegan Blackfeet raided Jaco’s camp and made off with his entire string of horses as well as most of his other property.  Upon learning of the Finlays’ plight, David Thompson supplied them with horses, and the family joined the North West Company brigade on a journey down the Kootenai River through what is now western Montana and northern Idaho. Jaco speared fish for the furmen along the way and brought them meat as they were thatching the roof of their new Kullyspel House on Lake Pend Oreille.

The Finlays continued east to winter among Flathead and Kalispel camps along the Clark Fork and Flathead rivers, spending at least some time in the drainage later named the Jocko River (near the National Bison Range and Dixon, Montana). The following spring, 1810, Thompson put Finlay back on the company payroll "in his old Capacity as Clerk and Interpreter," and before departing on his annual trek east, he gave Jaco instructions to travel to the Spokane drainage and build a post to serve the people there.

Clerk and Interpreter

According to their oral traditions, members of the Spokane Tribe guided Finlay to a village on a wedge of land formed by the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers. The salmon and steelhead fishery at the spot attracted a wide variety of visitors and provided a natural location for a new trade house. Jaco oversaw the construction of the post and, with some help from Finan McDonald, managed its operations until June of 1811, when David Thompson arrived with a fresh supply of trade goods and entered Spokane House into written history: "Thank Heaven for our good safe journey, here we found Jaco &c with about 40 Spokane families" (Thompson, June 14, 1811, Notebook 22).

Over the next 10 months, Jaco’s trading post served as a hub for exploration, transport, and messages. When Thompson returned that fall from his epic trip to the Pacific Ocean, he dropped off a Hawaiian voyageur named Coxe so that Jaco could mentor him in the trade.

Jaco apparently remained at Spokane House during the winter of 1811-1812, and in March 1812 he joined Thompson near Kettle Falls, where the men built four large cargo canoes to transport pelts. Thompson oversaw the construction of two cedar bateaus while Jaco took charge of a pair of birch bark canoes. Boards were knifed and split, bent and sewed. Thompson’s journal recorded dogged progress on the boats for the next nine days:

“April 11 -- Jaco turned part of the timbers -- split out lathes ... 

April 12 -- Jaco split out all his inside lathes and has nothing now but to knife them. Turned about half his timbers and knifed many of them ... 

April 13 -- Jaco knifing splinter & timbers - arranging birch rind & laid the bottom of a canoe on the bed ... 

April 14 -- Birch rind canoe sewed at bottom & the gunwales placed. 

April 15 -- Jaco’s second canoe the side seam sewed only. 

April 17 -- Jaco has now today his two canoes to gum on the inside and to timber up &c. 

April 18 -- Jaco timbered up his canoes”

(Thompson, Notebook 27) 

By April 22, all four vessels were in the water above Kettle Falls, packed with more than 9,000 pounds of furs, ready to depart on the long journey upstream to the trail east across Athabasca Pass. David Thompson, whose path had crossed and recrossed Finlay’s for 13 years, stepped into one of the vessels bound for Montreal and paddled out of Jaco’s life forever.

Within a month of Thompson’s departure, Finlay had introduced himself to the rival Pacific Fur Company, the American venture that was expanding its business upstream from Astoria. An agent at Fort Okanagan received instructions that if a Mr. Jacques Finlay sought trade goods on credit, he should be accommodated with anything he requested, except liquor. A sales slip from the company records indicates that Jaco did indeed visit the American post.

“Received of Mr. Donald McGillis, the following Goods -- 8 Half and 4 Small, etc. to lay out in the Indian trade for the interest & good of the P.F.C. [Pacific Fur Company] duly received by me"

      (signed) Jacque Finlay” (Ross) 

The signature on this chit preserves the only known stroke of Jaco Finlay’s pen, executed with apparent relish. He added a fat double flourish to the final Y, which swings back across several previous letters -- the autograph of a man who was comfortable with a pen.

Jaco Land

Jaco’s switch of allegiance was short-lived, for with the outbreak of the War of 1812, the Pacific Fur Company quickly sold its holdings to The North West Company, which immediately resumed its role as lord of the Columbia District. The partners apparently held no ill will toward their wandering clerk or his sons, because the company’s employment list for the winter of 1813-1814 included Jaco Finlay and his sons Raphael Jr., Bonhomme, and Thorburn (List).

The clerk at Spokane House became so closely associated with his posting that the vicinity was called “Jaco Land” by fellow fur traders (Oakshott). His contract there extended until April 1816, with a wage of 1,800 livres, 600 more than other established clerks like Finan McDonald and six times that of his son Thorburn, who was hired as a hunter and milieu (paddler in the center of a boat).

Although he was not listed as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company after its merger with the North West Company in 1821, Jaco apparently stayed close to his old haunts in the Spokane country, along with his Spokane wife, Teshwentichina, with whom he had at least two children. In 1825, when the Hudson’s Bay Company closed Spokane House and built the new Fort Colvile near Kettle Falls, Finlay took over the old fur post as his home.

When the Scottish naturalist David Douglas (1799-1834) damaged the firelock of his musket in April 1826 while visiting Kettle Falls, the factor at Fort Colvile advised him that Jaco Finlay was the only person within several hundred miles who might be able to repair it. Two of Jaco’s sons were at Fort Colvile at the time, and they escorted the botanist south to old Spokane House. Douglas wrote that he was very kindly received by Jaco, who apologized for his meager hospitality, having only some cakes of baked lichen to offer for food. Despite Douglas’s limited knowledge of the French fur trade dialect spoken by Jaco, the two men were able to converse a bit about local currants and mountain sheep. Douglas spent an afternoon botanizing along the Spokane River and returned to discover that Jaco 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, May 11, 1826). When Douglas revisited the old post later that summer,  Finlay emerged to offer his guest fresh salmon from a weir he maintained in a branch of the river.

Two years later, in May 1828, Jaco Finlay died at approximately 60 years of age. According to fur-trade lore, he had asked to be buried beneath the old bastion that marked the southeast corner of the palisade that had surrounded Spokane House.

Over the summer, news of his demise traveled the river, touching his many children and relatives, plus the clerks, voyageurs, free hunters, and tribal members who had smoked with him during his time. He was survived by at least one wife and more than a dozen children.

When Catholic missionaries arrived in the Inland Northwest in the 1840s, they encountered Jaco’s children and grandchildren in western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington near Spokane and in the Colville Valley. Father DeSmet, always curious about genealogy, was probably responsible for a Finlay family tree drafted on a piece of foolscap paper that was found among his notebooks and maps.

The name “Jaco Finly” climbs a stout genealogical trunk. Fifteen branches spread elegantly from his stem, each one tagged with a son or daughter’s name: James, Jodette, Augustin, Pichinna, Kiakik, Jennessie Francois, Jaco Migwham, Isabelle, Nicolas, Baptist, Marguerite, Rosette, Basil (DeSmet). At some point, most members of the family changed the spelling of their last name to “Finley.” Many of Jaco’s descendants still live in the Inland Northwest and now number in the thousands, according to the research of a family genealogist.  


Pierre DeSmet, “Finly Family Tree,” Special Collections, Foley Library, Gonzaga University; David Douglas, Journal Kept by David Douglas During His Travels in North America, 1823-1827 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914); Peter Fidler, “Journals,” E.3/4 fos 16d, 17, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; “List of People on the Columbia for Winter 1813/14,” F.4/61, fos. 6-7d, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; John McDonald of Garth, “Autobiographical Notes,” in L. R. Masson, Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, Vol. 2 (Quebec: Impr. generale A. Cote, 1889-90; New York: Antiquarian Press, 1960), 21; 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, p. 4-5; Alexander Ross to Hugh McGillis, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; David Thompson to Donald McTavish, March 3, 1808, A 67/1, fos. 12-13d, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; David Thompson, “Narrative of the Establishment on the Scources of the Columbia,” 1807, RCMS 249,  Royal Commonwealth Society Library, Cambridge, England; David Thompson, Notebooks, F443-1, Archives of Ontario, Ottawa, Ontario; York Factory, Correspondence, B.239/b/110, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This essay was revised slightly on February 27, 2017.

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