Even though Euro-Americans didn’t arrive in the Priest Lake region the early 1800’s with the Lewis and Clark expeditions, there is evidence of humans as far back as 10,000 years ago known as Paleo-Indians (Wuerthner, 1995), brought in by good hunting and fishing (Wuerthner, 1995). The Lewis and Clark expeditions in 1804 and 1806 were the first times Caucasian people had set foot in Idaho. They noted massive amounts of beaver and fur-bearing animals present. This later drew hundreds of fur trappers to the rocky mountain region (Wuerthner, 1995). In 1809, David Thompson, who had been already trading with the Indians, set up the first trading post on the shores of Pend Orielle Lake (Wuerthner, 1995). Priest Lake was one of the main food gathering areas for the Kootenai and Kalispel Indians (PLCC, 2000). The wildlife was abundant as well as kinnikinnick berries. They left behind ancient rock art and arrowheads have been found along the shores of the lake (Wuerthner, 1995).
Fur trappers were the first to come in and establish trade with the Indians. In the 1840’s Father Peter DeSmet, a Jesuit priest, lived by the lake and established missions on the Pend Oreille River (PLCC, 2000). The Indians had called the lake Kaniksu but Father DeSmet renamed it “Roothaan Lake” in honor of a childhood friend, Father Roothan (Wuerthner, 1995). People had a hard time spelling and pronouncing this name, and by 1865 Captain John Mullan had renamed the lake back to Kaniksu. The Indian word "Kaniksu" translates in English to “black robe," which is what the Priests wore. From this reference, the name slowly changed from Kaniksu to Priest Lake over time, along with the river flowing from it becoming Priest River (PLCC, 2000). This is because of the Priests such as Father DeSmet who were up there, and I guess it just sounded better so it stuck with the people. Concerning Father Roothan, there is still a mountain near the head of the lake that bears his name (Wuerthner, 1995).
Many of the names of places around the lake have odd origins. Take for example Camp Sherwood and Soldier Creek. These two spots were named for the Calvary soldiers that were sent by Colonel Abercrombie and commanded by Captain Sherwood to calm an Indian uprising. Where the soldiers camped is called Soldier Creek, and the surrounding area is called Camp Sherwood. Since there weren't any Indians, this turned out to be something of a nice vacation for the soldiers (Wuerthner, 1995).
Miners came to the area around the 1860's because of gold that was discovered in neighboring British Columbia. Some of those miners stayed in the area and built up the small communities still found today (PLCC, 2000). Later, in the 1890's, mineral exploration had started in the Priest Lake area, yet nothing of great value was ever really found there (PLCC, 2000).
In the 1880's, the railroad came in and linked northern Idaho to the rest of the United States. This also constituted the need for supply stations along the way, and thus a depot was built on the Pend Oreille River near where it joins up with Priest River. This is where Priest River first began to develop and grow. There were a few of the settlers who traveled north to build cabins near Priest Lake at this time. Around 1900, a small development began established at the southern tip of Priest Lake. As time passed, this became the town of Coolin, Idaho (PLCC, 2000). Shortly thereafter, a road was developed that went between the towns of Priest River and Coolin. The other areas of the Priest Lake were still only accessible with a boat or on a trail (PLCC, 2000).
The Forest Homestead Act was implemented in 1906 and it pushed more families to settle in the Priest Lake area. Shortly thereafter, schools were opened up at Nordman, Coolin, Squaw Valley, and Lamb Creek (Wuerthner, 1995). The Coolin Civic Center and Priest Lake Library are now in two of these original old schoolhouse buildings.
Steamboats played a large role in the early transportation duties of the area. They herded logs, and delivered mail and other supplies to and fro from different places around the lake (PLCC, 2000), since travel by truck was not an option back then, and taking pack animals would have taken too long. The major role they played back then makes these boats an important part of the history of Priest Lake.
In the 1920's, some moviemaking happened at the lake. Silent film actress and screenwriter, Nell Shipman, set up a film production camp on Mosquito Bay (which is now the Lionhead area of Priest Lake State Park). They produced only a few short films while at Priest Lake, but within a couple years, they could not handle the severe winter weather (which is pretty severe at the far north end of the lake) so they moved out and the whole thing was abandoned (PLCC, 2000).
A really good thing happened in the 1930's. A few Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) camps were set up around the Kaniksu National Forest area. These camps were used for a bunch of purposes that included fire fighting, trying to stop disease infestations of trees, also building roads and bridges and trails, and planting small trees, and finally thinning forest areas (PLCC, 2000). They only got $30 per month in pay too.
In 1950 state lands on the eastern side of Priest Lake were claimed as Priest Lake State Forest. Later, in the 1980's, the State did land exchanges with some private companies, adding almost a whopping 13,000 acres to the previous state forest area. These are its present boundaries.
Nowadays there are timber operations, yet the Lake's primary attraction revolves around summer cabins and camping. Can you believe that people have been coming to the lake to vacation since the early 1900's (Wuerthner, 1995)? Resort facilities at the Lake go back to 1914, and that is a lodge on Mosquito Bay (PLCC, 2000). The resorts now have all of the modern goodies expected at a first class resort area, but surprisingly without the crowds, and traffic that usually go with other resort locations. Upper Priest Lake is has very few people on it, even in the best summer days, and it is not developed at all except for a couple campgrounds. Wonderful isn't it!