Remembering the Valley’s Long-Forgotten First Trading Post

By Beacon Staff

Despite its significance as the Flathead Valley’s first known commercial venture, few people know much about the Howse House, a trading post that was established in 1810 and folded less than a year later.

Minimally referenced in history books and almost entirely removed from local lore, the Howse House, named after fur trader Joseph Howse, has only recently started resurfacing to public attention, thanks to the efforts of a group of history enthusiasts.

Two hundred years after it disappeared, the long-forgotten trading post is getting a birthday party.

On Aug. 6 at Lawrence Park, the Northwest Montana Historical Society in association with the Flathead Valley Muzzleloaders is sponsoring a celebration of the Howse House’s 200-year anniversary. The bicentennial event, featuring a fur trading symposium and mountain man rendezvous, begins at 9 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m. It will include speakers, artifact displays and historical reenactments with period-accurate clothing.

“Not long ago most of us had never even heard of the Howse House,” said Ron Beard, one of the event’s organizers. “Practically nobody has known that this house really existed.”
In November of 1810, a Hudson’s Bay Company team of 17 fur traders led by Joseph Howse set up a trading post along the Flathead River likely in Lower Valley south of Kalispell, though the precise location is unknown. The post is thought to resemble the better-known Saleesh House set up by David Thompson near Thompson Falls.

“To put it in perspective, that was just a few years after Lewis and Clark,” Beard said.

Those 17 men, including Howse, found willing trade partners in the local natives, predominantly the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes and likely the Salish as well, according to Dan Bourne, a buckskinner with the Flathead Valley Muzzleloaders who is participating in the Aug. 6 event.

The Blackfeet Indians from farther east objected to an arrangement that gave their enemies both rifles and a steady white trade partner, Beard said. Howse took the Blackfeet’s threats seriously and folded up his operation in the spring of 1811, ending a brief yet fruitful run.

“I read this letter that Howse wrote later and it said (the trading post) was lucrative but wasn’t worth the risk,” Beard said.

From there, the Howse House began its fade from the region’s collective memory, showing up occasionally in historical documents and in isolated conversations between history buffs and descendents of Howse’s crew. Unlike Thompson, Howse didn’t leave behind detailed journals.

“We can’t find anything from Howse, though we believe he kept journals,” Bourne said.

More information has surfaced in recent years stemming from the research of the late Mark White, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist and historian who passed away in January. The bicentennial celebration is dedicated to him.

White worked for Kootenai National Forest, though Beard said much of his research on Howse was conducted on his own time. White traveled throughout Canada, where Howse was active in fur trading. Beard, Bourne and others have made it a goal to continue White’s research.

“It’s one of those things that’s terribly difficult to research,” Bourne said. “But Mark White went to Canada and did some really amazing research. It was really Mark White who started my interest.”

Among the historically accurate items on display on Saturday, Bourne said, will be blankets, knives, hatchets, rifles and more. Beard said one of the speakers will be Howse’s fourth-generation granddaughter.

Tom Rogers, a local craftsman, will be displaying several one-quarter scale model birch bark canoes, including a sturgeon nose Kootenai variety that likely would have been used at the time.

“I would have to guess that this style has been around for 400 years,” Rogers said.

In honor of the bicentennial celebration, Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher has named August “History Awareness Month” for the Flathead Valley. Beard hopes events like the bicentennial celebration help to spread history awareness throughout the community, including the schools.

“The point is that we would like to emphasize history and make sure people are more attuned to their history,” he said.

For more information, visit www.josephhowsehouse.org.