David Thompson surveys Cape Disappointment, visits a Chinook village near the mouth of Columbia River, and meets Chief Comcomly on July 18, 1811.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 10/13/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9179
On July 18, 1811, Canadian explorer and agent of the North West Company David Thompson (1770-1857) surveys the mouth of the Columbia River after a historic voyage downriver from Kettle Falls. The first European to chart both the headwaters and the mouth of the Columbia, Thompson visits the landmark of Cape Disappointment and the Chinook village of Chief Comcomly. In addition to his scientific work as a geographer, Thompson is the fur agent in charge of the Columbia Department of the North West Company of Canada. He is on a mission to determine whether the Columbia is navigable from its upper reaches to the sea and whether it will provide a viable trade route for the fur company.

Cape Disappointment

"July 18. A very hot calm Day. I went across to the Indian Villages with Mr. Stuart & my Men -- after visiting the Houses we went up a great Hill, where we gratified ourselves with an extensive view of the Ocean & the Coast Southward. From hence I set the Lands: Cape Disappointment S80W 4 Miles" (Thompson, Notebook 27).

On July 15, Thompson and a group of eight voyageurs had arrived at Fort Astoria on the south side of the Columbia River, where they were hosted by the partners of the Pacific Fur Company out of New York. Three days later, taking advantage of a spell of calm weather, he accompanied Astorian David Stuart across the river to the Columbia's north shore to survey the coordinates of Cape Disappointment and view the Pacific Ocean.
"At ebb tide we noticed the current of the River riding in waves over the surface of the sea for about four miles; on all the shores of this Ocean, the agitation of the sea is constantly breaking against the rocky shore with high surges, and my men now allowed the great volume of water forming these high surges to be far superior to those of any Lake" (Thompson, Travels iii.276).

After surveying Cape Disappointment, the party descended to the shore of Baker Bay to visit a Chinook village, home of the prominent chief Comcomly (spelled Kom kom le by Thompson). Comcomly had been greeting white visitors to the Columbia since the arrival of the first trading ships, and Thompson judged him to be
"a strong well made man, his hair short of a dark brown, and was naked except a short kilt round his waist to the middle of the thigh; his Wife was a handsome Woman, rosy cheeks, and large hazel eyes, and being well dressed with ornaments of beads and shells, had a fine appearance, both were in the prime life." (Thompson, Travels iii.278).

While visiting with Comcomly and his wife, Thompson observed their young son in the distinctive head-flattening apparatus employed by the Chinook tribe,

"in their kind of cradle, a flat board at the head of which a narrow board projected, under which was a soft, but firm, compress against which the head of the child was firmly placed so as to flatten the skull, and throw the brain backwards, leaving the forehead only about an inch in height above the eye brows; all the infants I saw were not treated this way, only those families that aspired to some distinction" (Thompson, Travels iii.278).

He also noted that on expeditions along the sea coast, the Chinooks captured young men to work as slaves, employed in hauling seine nets, fishing, and paddling canoes, and were apparently well treated, for "they appeared as well off as their masters" (Thompson, Travels iii.278).

The surveyor was intrigued by the large dugout canoes that the Chinooks carved from driftwood logs,

"some of them fifty feet in length, by four to five feet in breadth; they had fashioned them to be high at the stern but much more so forward; which was decked about ten feet, and rose sloping to the height of full three feet above the rest of the Canoe, the extreme end of which is flat, with a width sufficient for two men to stand on; on this deck, the warriors stand for attack, or defence, each armed with one, or two, long spears" (Thompson, Travels iii.279-80).

Thompson saw no fire arms among the Chinooks, and concluded that the trading ships did not trade guns with the coastal tribes.

When launched on a war expedition, each canoe held between a dozen and 40  paddlers, all dressed in

"well dressed buck Moose [probably elk] Skins which are well tied over the shoulders, and hang loose before them, and in this manner are well calculated to deaden the force of the arrow, or the thrust of the Spear; with both of these weapons they are dextrous, and have courage to use them" (Thompson, Travels iii.280).

Sources: Barbara Belyea, Columbia Journals (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); Dorothy Bridgewater,  "John Jacob Astor Relative to His Settlement on the Columbia River," Yale University Gazette, Vol.  24 (1949): pp. 47-69; Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America ed. by W. Kaye Lamb (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1969); Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813 ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker’s Eye (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); David Thompson, Notebook 27, F443, Archives of Ontario, Toronto; David Thompson, Travels, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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