Why is the valley called the Tobacco Valley? In 1808 the first European to explore the area, David Thompson, began his journey down the Kootenai River. As he descended the river into the northern portion of the Tobacco Plains near Fort Steele he noted “the first ground that I have seen that has sufficient moisture to form a Garden for Herbs.” On April 25, 1808 David Thompson crossed the 49th parallel, but his canoe began to take on water and he stopped at one of the beautiful meadows that line the side of the river. He's recorded this description, “Beautiful meadows on both hands, even to the very mountains on the left, nor have the mountains any great degree of elevation; and appear through my telescope to be covered with grass to great extent. A very fine country. Beaver very scare today, and saw no animals. This is the place where the Indians speak so much of growing their tobacco and we named them on that account the Tobacco Meadows.”
The above quote was from a journal rewrite done sometime later; his original journals call the area Fine Meadow Creek. His first entry calling it the Tobacco River is on his return in the fall on August 24, 1810. David Thompson learned some about how the Kootenai grew tobacco. They had told him about their practice of burying a dead fish beneath each seedling at planting time. In actuality the process was much more complicated.
The gardens where the Kutenai cultivated and harvested their only crop, tobacco, were scattered throughout their territory. Some locations where tobacco was cultivated were near the mouth of the Tobacco River, at McGinnis Meadows near the junction of the West Fisher and Fisher Rivers near Libby, Montana, two others were near Michel, British Columbia, and near Spotted Bear in the South Fork of the Flathead. Chief Paul David, in 1935, identified a site south of Polebridge in Glacier Park, probably Lone Pine Prairie.
The seeds were planted before the spring buffalo hunt and harvested before the fall hunt. In between planting and harvesting the chief dispatched runners to hoe and weed the plots. The leaves were harvested and sun dried or placed on a rock near a fire. After the leaves dried each tribal member was given his share of tobacco and a quantity was kept for ceremonial use. Commercial tobacco was introduced by the Cree Indians years before the first white trader arrived in Kutenai lands. At first they would not smoke the stronger tobacco until the Cree Indians taught them to mix it with Kinnikinik. Our present knowledge of Kutenai tobacco is limited because with the introduction of European tobacco in about 1710 the Kutenai quit cultivating their sacred tobacco and no specimen is known to have preserved, but the name Tobacco Valley is a reminder of their crop.