Ferry County History

Here is a view of the town of Curlew on the banks of the Kettle River in a photograph from the early 1900's, which I have restored for the Kettle River History Club.
At the bottom of this page are some links to websites for a deeper look at the history of Ferry County:

Ancient Landscapes:
Approximately 500 hundred million years ago an assembly of collisions was in motion triggering an event on the western reaches of what is now North America. Deep in the ocean basin, between a chain of volcanic islands and the continent, marine hotsprings deposited the heavy metals - gold, silver, zinc and copper. The ever moving Pacific plate pressurized against North America 450 million years ago compressing rocks against and often over the shoreline. This thrust extended from what is now southeastern Nevada thru central British Columbia. Thus the birth of the Kettle River Range and many other mountainous groups within the inland Pacific Northwest.

Sanpoil Volcanism:
The collisions and subsequent compressions changed 45 to 50 million years ago creating a very dynamic time for this area. The resulting pile of lifted rock was so thickened and unstable it fell apart under its own weight. Massive sliding planes of blocks reversed direction. The entire Kettle River Range slid west and rose in a band that runs the length of what we now know as Ferry County. In the foothills of the Kettle River Range, the mountains now known as Johnny George Mountain to the south, Storm King Mountain to the west and Vulcan Mountain to the north all shouldered up during that slide forming domed blocks and creating valleys filled with debris eroded from rising mountains. Volcanic vents spewed hot basalt allowing gold and silver to deposit near the surface. Under layers of volcanic ash fossils of Dawn Redwood (metasequioa) and the world’s oldest rose family leaves were entombed in lake beds near Republic WA.

Fast Forward the Clock:
The Kettle River Range, like the Okanogan Range, and the Selkirks - are foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of the last two million years, from what is now the Canadian north, the mile-high ice sheets of the piedmount ice flow encompassed all but the tallest peaks of these mountains. Ice Age glaciers carved valleys in these predominantly north to south mountain ranges, the ice grinding off sharp edges, leaving rounded mountain summits.

What we know as the topographic landscape of the Kettle River Range emerged from the ice 10,000 years ago. The troughs between the mountains channel water into the Columbia River system. Flora and fauna followed the retreating glaciers northward, and humans were not far behind. The historical record indicates the first indigenous people began hunting, fishing, and gathering in the area about 9,000 years ago.

Populated History:
With the retreat of the glaciers a lush rich landscape emerged. Salmon followed the rivers to their headwaters spawning in each stream, creek and tributary. Mountain forests and meadows became home to moose, deer, and elk. Berries thick on the bushes attracted the black bears. The Kalispel tribal legend tells of scouts who once mistook a valley for a huge lake because it was so thick with blue camas blossoms.

On the eastern slope of the Kettle River Range is a very special location where the Kettle River and the Columbia River meet. Here was what we call Kettle Falls, Shonitkwu in the Salish tongue meaning ‘Roaring Waters’. Tribes of Native Americans met each year at Shonitkwu in the shadow of the Kettle River Range to fish and trade. Travel routes were worn into the ridge tops by centuries of yearly migration to the area. Many tribes harvested the bounty, coming from as far away the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains during salmon runs.

According to archeological studies it is estimated that Indians caught more than 1,000 salmon a day at Kettle Falls during peak runs. Kettle Falls was a low falls interspersed with rock outcroppings where the salmon congregated. While the fish labored upstream, fishermen either stood on rocks or constructed wooden platforms to spear and net the fish. Large camps of people near the falls smoked and dried the fish, a staple for winter use.

Local tribes welcomed the salmon back to the river each year with a First Salmon Ceremony. The nearby mountains of the Kettle River Range was a sacred area where young people entering adulthood pursued vision quest. Even today with the falls submerged under the impeded Columbia River, the First Salmon Ceremony is still celebrated at an intertribal event at Kettle Falls, and modern young Indians may spend time in the mountains seeking to connect with their spiritual roots.

In 1809 David Thompson, the first non native fur trapper came into eastern slopes of the Kettle River Range from Canada. Thompson’s exploration opened the door for the many trappers who followed hunting beaver, marten, and other animal pelts for European fur hats and coats. Over the course of a short few years the trade established with the local tribes introduced beads, tools, and alcohol.

Dark Times:
Within two to three decades of the trade mentioned above, up to three-quarters of the native population perished to smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles, diseases to which they had no resistance. Simultaneously missionaries came to save Indian souls, forcing native religions and language underground.


In the late 1800's the Indians were confined to reservations. Soon after American fur traders were living in Fort Colville, near the Kettle Falls combined efforts with the settlers, the military and missionaries to restrict native access to fishing at Kettle Falls.

What is now the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway was at first a historic route used by Native Americans as they made their way to fishing grounds of the Columbia River. The trail later became a pioneer wagon route and was named after Civil War General William T. Sherman, who passed through the area in the 1883.

Gold Rush / Land Rush:
“There’s gold in them there hills” and “free land” was the cry that lured further settlement to the valleys surrounding the Kettle River Range and while the miners and homesteaders were plentiful the promises of quick riches and easy living did not hold true. The peak settlement population of this area which had established by 1910 had dropped by half when the year 1920 arrived. The only gold found in quantities rich enough for commercial mining was in the area of Republic WA. Today, according to the Colville National Forest, empty mines pock the hillsides, and rotting cabins stand in abandoned fields throughout the Kettle River Range.

Colville National Forest also notes: loggers and ranchers found good supplies of trees and grass on public land. Early land use was unregulated, but when the Colville National Forest was established in 1906, rangers began overseeing private resource harvest. After a hostile beginning, a working relationship evolved between the Forest Service and those who used the national forest lands. The Kettle River Range lies primarily within the confines of the Colville National Forest.

During record dry periods between 1910 and 1920 much of the Kettle River Range forests burned in wildfires started by dry lightning storms and scorching the landscape south to north.

The Colville National Forest underwent another change with the coming of The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs) in the 1930s. CCC workers built roads, trails, camps, fire lookout towers and buildings, some of which are still in use today. The CCC Camp Growden, was built in the Kettle River Range on Sherman Creek west of the Columbia River.

What appears to have closed the last historical chapter to this area happened in June 1940 when the waters behind Grand Coulee Dam rose 380 feet, flooding 21,000 acres (85km2) and creating Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake with nearly 600 miles of indented shoreline. At this time Kettle Falls (Shonitkwu), the prominant and sacred waters of the local tribes was silenced under the flooding waters.

Contemporary Times:
The Kettle River Range today is a mixture of land use schemes. Recreationists value the area for it’s trails, remote beauty and as a platform for outdoor experiences from simple to advanced in scale. Hunting and fishing make up a large part of the recreational activities in this area. Conservationists have movements afoot to establish what they have classified as critical landscapes set to be aside in roadless and wilderness areas. Development of private lands on the lower slopes and in the foothills of the Kettle River Range continue unchecked causing a situation fire managers call the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) where land conversion is occurring in the fire-prone forest areas. Timber is still harvested, gold is still mined, livestock are still grazed and the local communities depend on these resource extractions for their economies.


 I’ll close this history portion of the Kettle River Range page with words from the Colville National Forest, the primary keeper of these unique and rich mountain landscapes, “The Colville National Forest has not been entirely tamed into an urban playground like some national forests closer to large cities”.

The Ferry County Historical Society

Kettle River History Club/Friends of the Ansorge

History Link, Ferry County, A Thumbnail History

Secretary of State, Legacy WA, Ferry CountyXX

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