Several trading companies became established in Thompson country following the initial visit of non-Indians in about 1809. Miners flooded in after an 1858 gold strike, taking over land, disrupting subsistence patterns, and generally forcing the Indian population to the brink of ruin. Disease, too, took a heavy toll during the nineteenth century, killing as many as 70 percent of the pre-contact Indian population. The government of British Columbia confined the Thompson Indians to reserves in the late nineteenth century.
The Thompson Indians recognized two geographical divisions, located downstream and upstream of approximately the location of Cisco on the Fraser River. Within the divisions, bands were autonomous, consisted of related families, and were led by hereditary chiefs whose powers were largely advisory. A council of older men wielded real authority.
In the winter, people lived in circular, earth-covered pole-frame lodges built in pits. Each lodge was about twenty to forty feet in diameter and could hold between fifteen and thirty people. Entry was via a notched ladder inserted through the smoke hole. In the summer, people used oblong or circular lodges consisting of rush mats over a pole frame. Both men and women used domed sweat houses for purification. Sweat houses were also homes for youths during their spirit quest period.
The Thompson Indians subsisted on the typical Plateau diet of fish, especially salmon; some large and small game; and plant foods that included many roots, berries, and nuts (especially camas and bitterroot).
Men caught fish by using weirs, seine nets, traps, dip nets, and hook and line. They also carved soapstone (steatite) pipes. Bows were often made of juniper. Women made cedar-root or birchbark baskets decorated with geometric designs, as well as birch and spruce bark containers. Some were woven tight enough to hold water. Women also wove blankets of goat wool or strips of rabbit fur, and they sewed tule mats with Indian hemp cord. Digging sticks featured antler or wood cross-handles. Other tools and utensils were also made of stone, antler, and bone.