The first white men who came to the Grand Coulee were adventurous souls who were on their way to or from someplace more important in their lives than this dry desert land.
A crude indication of the coulee shows up on Charles Wilkes’ map dated 1841, and on a map of 1881 is the notation "Alkali Lake" which pinpoints our small lake at the mouth of the coulee.
The wild west was being explored and mapped in preparation for taming, but those who saw the area didn’t hold out much hope for its future. "It is a vast, sandy plain and even the most hopeful and sanquine can see no future for it," wrote Lieutenant Simons in 1878 in his report to the Northwest District of the Corps of Army Engineers.
It was still Indian land and the U.S. War Department was reluctant to open it to homesteading. Cattlemen found it first, though, and for a time enjoyed free use of the open rangeland. The terrain was fairly flat and tree-free, there were wild horses for the taking to use as cow-ponies, few homesteaders or towns interrupted the sagebrush, and even though the climate was dry, water-holes were not too hard to find.
The expanse of the rangeland made up for the sparse vegetation, so the "buckaroos", as the cowboys of this area were known, traveled over many miles to tend their herds. This period of white man’s history in the Columbia Basin coincided approximately with the territorial days of Washington: 1853-1889.
When the railroads crossed the country all this changed. The land grants given to them by the government to finance construction suddenly made this land valuable to someone, and the transportation provided by the trains made it easier for people to settle out west. The first deed recorded for land in Grand Coulee was dated 1885. The land boom was on.
For a time the stock men and the homesteaders co-existed, although more peacefully than the movies would have us believe. The biggest and most influential stock man in the area was "Lord" Blythe, an English gentlemen who was always gracious in his dealings with all who crossed his path.
He may have been eccentric, but those who knew him personally admired him greatly. There are stories of his giving cattle to struggling homesteaders to keep their families from starving over the winter. Perhaps he did much to set the general tone of the relationships between cattlemen and settlers.
In time, of course, free range land diminished to the point where running stock was not profitable. "Lord" Blythe and a few others had the foresight to purchase large ranches and continue the cattle business in a concentrated area, but agriculture was creeping in as a more profitable use of the land.
The bands of wild horses continued to roam the land until the last big round-up in 1906. The buckaroos knew about Soap Lake and used the water for their animals as well as themselves.
In fact, they are probably the first ones to start calling it by that name. It would be only natural to call a body of water in which one can work up a lather on ones body while bathing, and one that is surrounded by suds on a windy day, "Soap Lake.
Later efforts by various entrepreneurs to change the name to something a little more sophisticated and indicative of the medicinal qualities of the water failed. The name "Soap Lake" stuck.
Sheep were driven through the healing water to rid their thick wool of parasites. Precious cow-ponies and their blankets were bathed regularly in Soap Lake to prevent saddle sores, and an occasional dip by the buckaroos helped make them more presentable to other folks.
"Doctoring" in those days was all do-it-yourself and no doubt Soap Lake water played a large part in many home remedies. Snake bites were a common occurence and the healing water was a well touted cure for both man and beast.
It is likely that one of the pastimes of the buckaroos around the campfire at night was spinning tales of the miraculous cures effected by Soap Lake water, because many of these tales have been passed down to us.
The most fantastic of all must be the story of the buckaroo who died and was buried by his friends on the shore of our lake. A few days later they were astonished to see him ride into main camp fit as a fiddle on a cayuse he had picked up on the range. He explained that the healing minerals had seeped into his body, restoring life and health.