Cultural History

Several tribes living in the areas now occupied by Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt have called this place home for over 11,000 years. These tribes include the Sanpoil, Nespelem, Colville, Lakes and Spokane. For these tribes and others that lived along the Columbia River, salmon was the primary source of food and the basis for trade. Kettle Falls, located 100 miles north of Grand Coulee Dam’s current location, was the second largest salmon fishery on the Columbia River. When fish migrated to Kettle Falls each year beginning in May, tribes from around the Northwest (Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Canada) gathered to share in the abundance of salmon and to engage in trade. Little Falls and Spokane Falls, both located on the Spokane River, were also important salmon fisheries for the Spokane Tribe and other tribes.

In the late 1700s, European and American fur traders visited the Northwest Coast and joined in the regional trading system that Native Americans had established thousands of years before. These traders specialized in the exchange of manufactured goods, especially metal, for pelts obtained by the tribes. In June 1811, David Thompson, a fur trader and explorer with the North West Company, traversed the Columbia River from Kettle Falls to the Pacific Ocean. Thompson recorded his journey down the Columbia River and left extensive journals and maps documenting what he observed during his travels. His entries include a description of the Kettle Falls fishery and his encounters with the Sanpoil, Lakes and Colville tribes.

Throughout the 1800s, settlers and gold miners from America and around the world moved into northeastern Washington State. In 1872, President Grant established the Colville Reservation by Executive Order and eventually 12 tribes would be consolidated onto the Reservation. It would become known as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Nine years later, in 1881, President Hayes established the Spokane Reservation through another executive order. It is the home of the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

By the late 1880’s, a few ranchers inhabited the Grand Coulee Dam region. The ranchers encountered severe winters and hot dry summers that made agriculture difficult. The only respite they found was at select flats along the Columbia and Spokane rivers where water could easily be drawn of the river. The early farms and orchards developed at these locations quickly demonstrated the potential productivity of local agriculture where water was available. Building upon this potential, settlers and tribal members developed ten towns along the Columbia River stretching from the Grand Coulee to the Canadian border during the period from 1870 to the 1920s.

The success of irrigation was noteworthy and as early as 1918, locals began proposing two different plans for irrigating central eastern Washington with water from the Columbia River. One plan, the “gravity plan,” involved transporting water by a canal system from Lake Pend Oreille. The other plan advocated building a dam at the head of the Grand Coulee, a large canyon that resulted from the Ice Age Floods, and pumping the water from the Columbia River into the northern half of the Grand Coulee. The federal government chose to pursue the latter “pumping plan” and the Bureau of Reclamation began construction of Grand Coulee Dam in 1933.

The construction of Grand Coulee Dam drastically changed the salmon-based culture of the native peoples. It blocked spawning salmon from returning to the upper Columbia River. Rising waters behind the dam submerged landforms like Kettle Falls. This loss of resources greatly impacted the tribes who centered their life on seasonal runs of migratory fish. The dam and resulting reservoir also impacted orchard-based agriculture. Towns like Peach and Plum, originally build along the Columbia River to take advantage of the river irrigation, disappeared beneath the rising water of Lake Roosevelt.

At the damsite, the Bureau of Reclamation and contractors building the dam developed towns to support the construction. These towns, though not as numerous today as they were during the boom days of the original construction, have continued to provide homes for workers who operate and maintain the dam. Today, the economy of the Grand Coulee Dam area is dependent upon the dam for its power and irrigation and for the tourism that Lake Roosevelt and Banks Lake have generated.

Related Links
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Spokane Tribe of Indians
Grand Coulee Dam: The American Experience (
Spokane Historical
Grand Coulee Dam: Leaving a Legacy
National Park Service

Bureau of Reclamation
Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region
1150 North Curtis Road, Suite 100
Boise, Idaho 83706-1234

Last Updated: 10/2/23