David Thompson

The Greatest Trailblazer of Them All

In no other country has one man contributed so much to his nation and received so little recognition in return. Across the Medicine Line, the U.S. has plastered the historical landscape with museums, statues, books and broadcasts commemorating Lewis and Clark’s two-year, six-thousand mile journey across the States. Compared to David Thompson, Lewis and Clark were tourists.

David Thompson explored and mapped more of this continent than any other trader and mapmaker and is considered the greatest land geographer of all time. Between 1784 and 1850, Thompson explored and mapped North America by the seat of his buckskin-pants, using dead reckoning with a compass, sextant and two pocket watches. The meticulous maps he created covered an area of 3.9 million square kilometres (1.5 million square miles) and were still being used late into the twentieth century, an amazing testament to his skill. His journals and field notes bear legend to his careful and respectful observations of the First Nations customs, their way of life, their legends and beliefs. Along the way, David Thompson became a legend.

Born on April 30, 1770 to impoverished parents in Westminster, England, at age seven he was enrolled in a charity school for boys, the Grey Coat Hospital, to receive a “mathematical education.” At age 14, he apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a clerk, shipping out to Hudson Bay in September 1784.

His first two years in Rupert’s Land, (now Canada) the company’s territory in British North America, were spent on the shores of Hudson Bay at Churchill and York Factory. He was next stationed at several posts on the Saskatchewan River, ultimately spending the winter of 1787-88 with the Peigan people on the Bow River where he learned much of the language, life and customs of the northern plains.
In the spring of 1788, Thompson returned to one of the company posts, Manchester House. In December, he broke his leg, an accident that changed the course of his life. The break was so severe that he was not completely mobile for more than a year. He spent the winter of 1789-90 convalescing at Cumberland House where Philip Turnor, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s astronomer, tutored him in surveying and practical astronomy.

Surveying and mapping the uncharted West became Thompson’s passion and ultimately his greatest achievement. From this time onward, he surveyed wherever he travelled in the West. Thompson returned inland and traded, explored and surveyed in present-day northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1797, Thompson joined the energetic and venturesome North West Company.

In his first year with the North West Company, he travelled 6000 km to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, to Sault Ste Marie and back to Grand Portage. He located the company’s posts in relation to the newly established international boundary, the 49th Parallel.

Two years after becoming a “Nor’Wester,” Thompson married Charlotte Small, the Métis daughter of a North West company partner, Patrick Small. David and Charlotte remained together for fifty-seven years. Charlotte and some of their thirteen children accompanied Thompson on many of his journeys.

Thompson moved to Rocky Mountain House in the fall of 1800, and spent the years from 1802 to 1806 travelling and trading from the Peace River area to Fort William on the shore of Lake Superior. He returned to Rocky Mountain House in the autumn of 1806, now a partner in the North West Company and anxious to fulfil the “Columbia Enterprise,” the company’s dream of a practical route to the Pacific and China.

For the next three years, he explored, surveyed and established trading posts in present-day British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. It was during this time his legend grew. The Peigans called Thompson koo-koo-sint “You Who Look at the Stars,” from his constant use of his sextant, and they strongly believed that bears were Thompson’s supernatural protectors. On a river journey to the Pacific, near Rocky Mountain House, Thompson and his brigade were attacked by the Peigans and inexplicably during the skirmish three grizzly bears suddenly appeared on the riverbank. The unexpected manifestation of Thompson’s “protectors” unnerved the warriors and the attack ended, saving his life and adding to the Thompson legend.

Thompson’s work in the West was now virtually at an end, culminating in his surveying of the Columbia River from its source to its mouth. He left the West in 1812 and settled in Terrebonne, Lower Canada, where he finished his Map of the Northwest Territory of the Province of Canada.

Following the War of 1812, Thompson was appointed to the commission established to define the boundary between Upper Canada and the United States. Ill health and failing eyesight plagued his last years and prevented him from completing his memoirs of his western travels. Canada’s greatest geographer died in 1857 near Montréal, in poverty, totally blind and forgotten.

During his life, David Thompson earned respect; from the voyageurs who pushed on with him through some of the most treacherous and arduous journeys, to fellow fur traders, explorers, and even his competitors who recorded in their journals the charm of his personality, his intelligence, integrity and his unfailing courtesy to all. The First Nations he met and befriended—even the Peigans who wanted to kill him—respected koo-koo-sint for his wisdom and courage. No known images of David Thompson exist.

In homage to this great explorer, in 2007 – 2011, North America will begin the North American Bicentennials, commemorating David Thompson and his pivotal role in the fur trade and the building of a nation. For more information on the David Thompson Bicentennial, visit www.davidthompson200.org.