All Over The Map: In search of Washington’s ‘Big Bend Country’

May 6, 2022, 10:03 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:21 pm

The Big Bend (or Great Bend) was mapped by David Thompson in the early 19th century. Thompson didn’t use either phrase, but he included a note on his famous map in the shape of the Great Bend, reading "Both sides of the Columbia very bold high rocky Land covered with short Grass mostly bare of woods." Map rotated to ease reading of note.
 (David Thompson ca. 1826; Map of North America from 84 degrees West; Sheet 5 (detail); Courtesy National Archives of Great Britain) Vintage map of the Pacific Northwest, annotated to indicated the "Big Bend" of the Columbia River in Central Washington, from where the Spokane River enters the Columbia, to the confluence of the Snake River and the Columbia. (Public domain)

You may have already visited the Evergreen State’s “Big Bend Country” without even knowing you were there.

“The Big Bend country of Washington comprises all that land lying within the bend of the Columbia River proper, which is west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Spokane river southwest to Wallula, a little below the mouth of the Snake River,” reads “Illustrated History of The Big Bend Country,” published in 1904.

“And besides this, all that land lying west of Deep Creek and south of Spokane river, from the mouth of the former to the mouth of the latter. It is a high rolling plateau, much diversified by butte and coulee and draw, and two thousand feet above the level of the sea. A land of lost creeks and blind springs, in a lava soil that has the knack of growing crops with the aid of minimum rainfall.”

Like the “Inland Empire” nickname for the area around Spokane, “Big Bend Country” is an informal moniker for part of Washington. The boundaries are on the fuzzier side, and you don’t hear it much more nowadays in polite conversation, and you won’t see it on websites for chambers of commerce or tourism bureaus located deep within what was once “Big Bend Country.”

However, the phrase – and one variation – have a history that stretches back 200 years.

“Big Bend” refers to a long stretch of the Columbia River that bends from roughly where the Spokane River joins the mighty flow all the way down to the Tri-Cities, at the confluence of the Columbia and the Snake River. That’s a distance, by river, of about 310 miles. Indigenous people used different names for different stretches of what later became the Columbia, but it’s unclear if there was an Indigenous equivalent for “Big Bend.”

“Big Bend Country” refers to the land adjacent to that part of the river, described by one old history book (“Illustrated History of The Big Bend Country,” published in 1904), as “a close approximation of 10,014 square miles . . . [which] . . . includes the counties of Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin.” It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of Central Washington, right in the heart of the state.

Jack Nisbet is one of the most dogged and devoted historians and writers in the Pacific Northwest. Many of his most popular books focus on the written records – journals and diaries – left behind by early European explorers of what’s now the Pacific Northwest.

Nisbet told KIRO Newsradio Thursday that the first person to document the name “Great Bend” in writing was likely Governor George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). HBC outlasted other

competing fur trade operations and became the dominant economic, cultural and political force in what’s now the Pacific Northwest from roughly 1821 to the 1840s.

Simpson probably didn’t coin the phrase, says Nisbet. He likely heard it from the HBC staff whose job responsibilities had them paddling up and down that stretch of the Columbia River.

And while Simpson wasn’t the most popular guy among HBC staff, historians sure do appreciate how the governor took great notes.

“He was a very hands-on, autocratic boss, and he came and drove everybody crazy moving all the [fur trading] posts around and putting everybody on short rations and making them have goals for the year and efficiency and everything,” Nisbet said. “He was not a real well-liked guy, but his journal gives you a really good look at what the people thought about where they worked and how it was.”

“And by then, they were calling it ‘The Great Bend of the Columbia,’” Nisbet said.

Nisbet is also particularly fond of a note included alongside the Columbia River on a seminal map created by early fur trader and explorer David Thompson, who is the focus of Nisbet’s book, “The Mapmaker’s Eye.” The note provides a clue as to why the HBC fur traders had little to no use for the Great Bend for anything besides a means of getting from one place to another in their vast fur-trading empire.

On Thompson’s 1826 map, “he never uses the phrase ‘Big’ or ‘Great Bend,’ but the way he artfully curled his script to mimic the river course makes it seem like heʼs feeling it,” Nisbet wrote in an email.

And what does Thompson’s ‘artfully curled’ note say?

“Both sides of the Columbia very bold high Rocky land covered with short Grass mostly bare of woods” – as in, not a place where anyone would be likely to trap fur-bearing animals for export and profit.

Sometime during the middle of the 19th century, the phrase “Great Bend” faded away, and “Big Bend” came into fashion. “Big Bend Country” – which, come to think of it, would be a great tagline for a certain kind of music radio station in that part of the state – came to be used to describe the region, perhaps as a way of attracting settlers. This seems to have begun around the early 1880s, though some old newspaper clippings may show use of “Big Bend Country” as early as the 1860s.

Just how either term came into general use at all is not clearly documented. Both Simpson’s journal and a journal by naturalist David Douglas (who uses both “big bend” and “great bend” in his writings) weren’t published until the early 20th century. Perhaps those HBC employees –

many of whom left the company and settled in the area and married Indigenous women and raised families – helped bring the phrases into local discourse.

Nowadays, there are only a handful of institutions operating the old “Big Bend Country” that have “Big Bend” in their name. There’s Big Bend Electric Cooperative in Ritzville; the Big Bend Golf and Country Club and Big Bend Historical Society Museum, both in Wilbur, Washington. Probably the best-known of any is Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.

That public institution was created with state funding in 1961. The suggestion for the name came from Virginia Mitchell of Moses Lake. In October 1961, she was “presented gift certificates from scores of merchants” for suggesting the name. Her husband James Mitchell was chairman of the Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce Junior College Committee – the civic group that led the effort to get state funding to build the college in the first place.

The phrases “Big Bend” and “Big Bend Country” have otherwise almost completely faded away. Phone calls and emails to staff at museums, chambers of commerce, and tourism bureaus along the river in that “Big Bend” stretch indicate – non-scientifically, of course – that consensus appears to be that “Columbia Basin” is a more common name for that area nowadays.

“I’d speculate that many people in the area would agree that it used to be called the Big Bend region, but isn’t anymore,” wrote Freya Liggett, who used to run the history museum in Moses Lake. “Even the Columbia Basin Project was originally called the “Big Bend reclamation project” and was changed shortly after the turn of the 20th century to distinguish it from other areas that share the Big Bend name” – including parts of Texas near the Rio Grande, and an upriver section of the Columbia in Canada.

Historian and author Dr. Richard Scheuerman of the Franklin County Historical Society in Pasco agrees with Freya Liggett, and takes a nuanced view of the specific geography.

“One hears the term ‘Columbia Basin’ rather more than ‘Big Bend,’ but both are still heard,” Dr. Scheuerman wrote in an email. “In my mind – no official authority by any means – the Big Bend has been more associated with the Waterville Plateau and dryland grain districts; the Columbia Basin with the wider region, also irrigation down to the Tri-Cities.”

Dr. Scheuerman has studied and written about that part of Washington for many years, including a long-ago visit by author Zane Grey, and a novel Grey published, which was informed by that trip.

“Zane Grey eloquently references both expressions in the opening of ‘The Desert of Wheat,’” Scheuerman wrote, “describing the ‘immense valley of considerable altitude called the

Columbia Basin,’ and in the same paragraph ‘the prodigious and meandering curve, bordered on three sides what was known as the Bend country.’”

Like so many names on the land that shift and evolve over time, “Big Bend Country” seems increasingly to be, more than anything, a state of mind. Maybe let the phrase artfully curl around your brain on your next trip to the Inland Empire. And, for the perfect soundtrack to accompany your travels, see if maybe you can tune in some drivin’ songs coming over the airwaves from “Big Bend COUNTRY!”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: In search of Washington’s ‘Big Bend Country’