A Crossing-Over Place [Read This Free]
The Life and Death of Seneacquoteen
By Mike Turnlund
It’s grand to live in Idaho, but to quote Abraham Lincoln (who himself was quoting another), “This too shall pass.” Life ends. Death is a fact of life. As I grow older, I’m increasingly confronted with this reality—thus, my need for a cemetery plot. I’m shopping.
And the choices I have here in beautiful Bonner County, in Idaho’s panhandle! There’s Westmond Cemetery, which provides easy access from Highway 95. Whispering Pines is pretty, but a bit off the beaten path. Of course, there’s the popular and beautiful Pinecrest Memorial Park in Sandpoint. But what caught my attention was the unusually named Seneacquoteen [Sin-yak-wa-teen] Cemetery, perched along the southern shore of the Pend Oreille River.
Seneacquoteen is an obscure place in Bonner County. Few can locate it on a map, let alone having heard of it. Anyone who is successful in identifying it as a place name probably will associate it with the cemetery, or with a minor county road there. But in its heyday, Seneacquoteen was the place to be, a place to go to in Idaho. It was the destination for thousands of Indians, pioneers, miners, and explorers. And for some, it was home.
I was among the unknowing until I exchanged my small-town life in Sandpoint for country living in nearby Sagle. That made it more convenient to shop in Priest River than in Sandpoint, and during these trips to Priest River, I encountered Seneacquoteen Cemetery. I assumed, correctly, that the word was Indian, but that was all I knew. It took a couple visits to local libraries to discover the secrets of this place.
Seneacquoteen lies on the southern bank of the Pend Oreille River, equidistant from Sandpoint and the Washington state border and south of Laclede on the river’s opposite side. Here, the river is wide and slow and shallow—or more accurately, it was before the construction of the Albeni Falls Dam, a few miles downriver. Its shallowness was the attraction: Seneacquoteen was a ford. If pioneers or a government surveyor or miners heading to or from the goldfields of British Columbia wanted to go north or south, they passed through Seneacquoteen. Otherwise, the river was almost impossible to cross.
If a record had been kept, the names of people who had used Seneacquoteen would have been a veritable Who’s Who of historical characters. It would have included the British explorer David Thompson and his righthand man Finan McDonald, the resolute and busy missionary Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, and maybe, just maybe, the infamous Wyatt Earp.
Before the coming of the Europeans, Seneacquoteen was used for centuries by native people. The ford lay on the famous Wild Horse Trail, which connected the regions of the Columbia Plateau to points north, extending into the Great Plains and Canada. After horses were acquired by the native groups of these regions, the Wild Horse Trail saw the movement of mounted natives heading for the buffalo grounds to the east. Those from the eastern area of modern-day Washington State and Idaho would have passed through Seneacquoteen, whose name means “crossing of the river” in the Kalispel language. Reportedly, the Wild Horse Trail was originally called the Seneacquoteen Trail.
Seneacquoteen also supported a small year-round native village of the Kalispel Tribe. Kalispel means “camas diggers” and the banks of the Pend Oreille River in the local area were rich with camas fields, which since have been lost to development.
The first white men to come to Seneacquoteen were probably French-speaking Canadian trappers. The entire Pacific Northwest region was rich with fur-bearing animals, and it was only a matter of time before this resource was exploited. Following on the heels of these mountain men were businessmen: people like David Thompson, who in 1809 established the first trading post on Lake Pend Oreille, in the area of present-day Hope. The Kullyspell House would survive less than a year before being replaced by the Saleesh House in the neighborhood of today’s Thompson Falls, Montana. While Thompson worked as an agent for the North West Company, he also was an accomplished cartographer and provided the first maps of this region.
There’s a long-held belief that the Hudson Bay Company, the primary competitor of Thompson’s North West Company, maintained a trading post at Seneacquoteen, but this has not been proven.
Thompson’s associate, Finan McDonald, was even more active than he was in the region, often traveling between the Saleesh House in Montana and the Spokane House, located just north of contemporary Spokane. McDonald probably made frequent use of the Seneacquoteen crossing. He married a local native woman, whom he called Peggy, they started a family, and McDonald remained in the environs, working primarily out of Spokane House, until his retirement in 1826.
In 1860-61, Seneacquoteen served as a base for the International Boundary Commission, which had representatives from the United States and Great Britain. They stayed in Seneacquoteen while the present northern boundary was surveyed.
Also around this time, the first ferry was established. According to Ferry Boats In Idaho (Caxton Printers, 1979) by James L. Huntley, the Irishman Thomas Forde began a ferry and pack train business at the crossing in 1860. While many competing ferries would be established later along these waters from the Washington border to the Montana border, the Seneacquoteen would be both the first and the last, finally ceasing to operate in 1957—almost a full century since its inception—even though the first bridge to cross the Pend Oreille River had been built in nearby Priest River in 1916.
The discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1863, and then later in Montana, brought to Seneacquoteen both a steady flow of miners and the trade goods needed to supply them. This enduring traffic of miners, teamsters, and settlers attracted traders to Seneacquoteen, and its first trading post was established during that time.
These later decades of the 19th Century were the heyday of Seneacquoteen as a settlement. The burgeoning community sported two trading posts, two saloons, and a hotel. Some of the traders who worked there would gain fame elsewhere, such as Miles Moore, the future governor of Washington, who operated a trading post at Seneacquoteen. So did Richard Fry, who would later move north and buy out Edwin Bonner’s ferry business, for whom the community of Bonners Ferry is named.
Seneacquoteen became one of the most well-known communities in all of Idaho Territory. It had the first public school in Kootenai County, which remained in operation for fifty years, until it was consolidated into a county-wide school district. In 1864, the Second Territorial Legislature designated Seneacquoteen the seat of the newly formulated Kootenai County. But unfortunately for the community, not enough qualified voters could be found to ratify the decision, so the county seat honor was given to Rathdrum, about forty miles to the south.
The first steamship to ply the waters of Lake Pend Oreille was built in Seneacquoteen. The 85-ton, 108-foot-long Mary Moody was constructed by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company during the winter of 1865-66 and for ten years transported miners, settlers, and their supplies from Seneacquoteen up the river and across Lake Pend Oreille to a landing near Clark Fork, where the Clark Fork River enters the lake. After a decade, the Mary Moody was dismantled and shipped overland to work the Columbia River.
The coming of the railroad in 1881 began the decline of Seneacquoteen as a community. Although the Northern Pacific Railway still used the site as a base for operations during construction of the railroad, the rails were laid one valley east of the community, cutting it off from this modern lifeblood of commerce. Later, a significant sawmill was built across the river in Laclede, which expanded at the expense of Seneacquoteen. In addition, the ferry faced serious competition from the newly built wooden bridge that had opened in 1910 to reach Sandpoint, the county seat and largest community in the region. These became insurmountable problems.
Today there’s nothing left of Seneacquoteen save for the cemetery—which lies on a bluff overlooking the former site of the community—and a short spur road off the highway that passes through the area. With the construction of Albeni Falls Dam in 1955, the Pend Oreille River became something of a reservoir, submerging the camas fields and low-lying areas where Seneacquoteen once lay. All that remains of the ferry is the road leading to it, appropriately named “Ferry Road.”
As I dug up this history, I realized the story was somewhat sad. Going from being one of the best-known communities in Idaho to almost completely lost in obscurity seemed unfair. The cause of both Seneacquoteen’s success and its failure was geography. Just as shallowness in the river became a natural ford and led to the establishment of Seneacquoteen, so the construction of a railway that followed the natural lay of the land east of town led to its demise.
If I do choose Seneacquoteen Cemetery as my final resting place, I’ll find myself in a lot of good company, historically speaking. For a hundred years, it had its time in the sun. I guess that’s all any of us could ask for.