Art. I. The Life of David Thompson, by J. & A. Gottfred.
The travels and explorations of this intrepid explorer are recounted.
David Thompson was born in London, England, on April 30, 1770. His parents were Welsh, and of little means. His father died when he was two, and at the tender age of seven, he was enrolled by his mother in the historic 'Grey Coat' charity school near Westminster Abbey.
Having shown an aptitude for mathematics, his education was oriented towards preparing him for life as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. His studies included algebra, trigonometry, geography, and navigation using 'practical astronomy'.
Over the years, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) made periodic requests to the school for students to be apprenticed to the North American fur trade. Many of these students would later receive training from Philip Turnor, the HBC's first chief surveyor. Among these pupils were Joseph Hansom, George Hudson, John Hodgson, and George Donald.
As Thompson neared the end of his education, the Hudson's Bay Company asked for four more apprentices. Only two were eligible at that time ; one of them was the fourteen-year-old David Thompson. In May 1784, he set sail for Hudson's Bay aboard the Prince Rupert. He never saw his mother or England again.
It is not known what duties he may have performed during the voyage, but he owned a Hadley's quadrant when he left England, presented to him when he finished school. The Hadley's quadrant was a double-mirrored navigational instrument which could measure angles up to ninety degrees. In 1785, he had to leave this quadrant behind at Churchill when he was transferred to York Factory, expecting it to be forwarded to him eventually. He apparently never used it again, since in 1790 it was requisitioned by Joseph Colen for use aboard the York Factory sloop. Thompson's early work in America did not include surveying. He later wrote '[in 1789] I regained my mathematical education...', suggesting he had become quite rusty (Glover, 55).
In 1786 Thompson journeyed inland along the North Saskatchewan River to Manchester House (northwest of today's North Battleford), where he spent the winter. In 1787 he traveled across country to spend the winter with a band of Peigans encamped along the Bow River in the Calgary area, returning to Manchester House in the spring of 1788. Thompson did not make surveys of these travels.
On December 23, 1788, about a mile from Manchester House, the eighteen-year-old Thompson fell down a bank and broke his leg. The break was serious, and the injury life-threatening. William Tomison, who ran Manchester House at that time, bound the leg, and a 24 hour vigil was kept for three weeks before it was deemed safe for Thompson to be alone at night.
Thompson's condition remained grave. Four months after the accident, Tomison noted in his journal that he was afraid Thompson could die. On May 1, 1789 he wrote 'David Thompson's leg I am afraid will turn out to be a mortification as the joint of his ancle has never lowered of the swelling' (Glover, xxiii).
Tomison decided to send Thompson to York Factory that same spring, presumably in an attempt to remove Thompson to better medical care. However, the brigade was forced to leave him at Cumberland House, about two weeks' travel dowriver from Manchester House. It was another two months before Thompson was again able to sit up in a chair (August 10, 1789). By the end of August, he was taking his first feeble steps with the help of crutches. It took him a full year to recover, but he would limp for the rest of his life.
It was at Cumberland House that Thompson's life would take a new path. In October, 1789, Philip Turnor arrived to plan a surveying expedition to the Athabasca country with the man in charge of Cumberland House, Malchom Ross. The study group included Turnor, Ross, George Hudson, and the young Peter Fidler. The invalid Thompson was invited to join in Turnor's lessons. He later wrote with remembered pride & pleasure that 'during the winter [I] became his only assistant and thus learned practical astronomy under an excellent master of the science' (Glover, 55).
By 1789, Philip Turnor had been the HBC's official surveyor for over ten years. His work had been included in the nautical almanacs, which seems to have impressed and possibly inspired Thompson. Turnor may also have influenced another great explorer. He bumped into Alexander Mackenzie shortly after the North West Company (NWC) explorer returned from his journey to the Arctic Ocean, and it seems that Turnor's skeptical reception caused Mackenzie to return to England and brush up on his navigational skills before he made his journey to the Pacific (Lamb, 18-19).
On February 1, 1790, Thompson recorded his first navigational measurement. It was a lunar distance measurement for the longitude of Cumberland House. Over the next four months, Thompson made thirty-four such measurements, and six observations for latitude. His final results placed Cumberland House at latitude 53° 56' 44" N by 102° 13' W. This position is only 1.5 miles south and 2.7 miles east of the modern value.
In the letter to the London Committee of the HBC that year, Philip Turnor wrote
'I have inserted some Observations which were made and worked by Your Honors' unfortunate apprentice, David Thompson. I am fully convinced they are genuine, and should he ever recover his strength far enough to be capable of undertaking expeditions I think Your Honors may rely on his reports of the situation of any place he may visit.' (Nisbet, 35)
During his navigational training that winter, Thompson became blind in his right eye, probably due to observing the sun without proper eye protection. (See 'A Theory on the Cause of David Thompson's Blindness', Northwest Journal Vol. II, pp. 23-26) In the spring of 1790, Thompson was still too weak to accompany Ross, Turnor & Fidler on the Athabasca journey. Instead, Thompson was ordered to accompany a brigade to York Factory. They departed Cumberland House on June 9. He surveyed this route as he traveled, using a sextant and watch borrowed from Philip Turnor. After a short stay at York Factory, Thompson returned to spend the winter at Cumberland House, where he returned Turnor's instruments.
It was in 1790 that York's Governor, Joseph Colen, requisitioned Thompson's quadrant, possibly after discussing it with Thompson. By then, Thompson would have known that a quadrant was an impractical instrument for land navigation since it did not measure sufficiently large angles.
Thompson's apprenticeship was due to end in 1791. HBC apprentices were usually given a suit of clothes when they completed their apprenticeship. Thompson appealed to the company to provide him with surveying instruments instead, and to charge any excess against his future pay. That August, Thompson ordered 'a Brass Sextant of not less than 10 Inches Radius, the Index Glass, part blacked, part Quicksilvered, with two pair of Red, and one pair of Green Shades, the Shades to be fixed to the Instrument. (as the shades to slide in, are frequently inconvenient when their clouds are flying).' from Peter Dolland, of St. Paul's Churchyard, London (Smyth, 5). He also ordered an artificial horizon, a device that land navigators use to replace a sea horizon, which was described as 'a pair of Parallel Glasses, 3½ Inches by 3½ Inches of the foldings to have Brass Hinges, in a neat Shagreen Case.' (Smyth, 6).
The following year, Thompson received the fine sextant he had requested, which was accurate to 15 seconds of arc. He also received the artificial horizon and a new suit of clothes. Everything was at the Company's expense.
In the summer of 1791, Thompson again traveled to York Factory, where he spent the winter. (This is presumably where he took possession of his new instruments.)
That September, he ordered 'a brass compass as per boats, cut shoal for taking azimuths for variation', 'a Fahrenheit's Thermometer for correcting the refraction on the celestial Bodies, which is very erronious in the Winter occasioned by the great density of the air,' various drawing instruments, and the latest two volume set of Robertson's Elements of Navigation, the standard text of the time (Smyth, 6,7). All of these items arrived during the summer of 1792. During this time, Thompson also received two watches, but the type and maker are unknown.
In September 1792, equipped with his new instruments, Thompson left York Factory under orders to find a newer, shorter route to the fur-rich Athabasca country by way of the Churchill River. Joseph Colen, the governor of York Factory, had hoped Thompson would be able to winter at Reindeer Lake, but instead Thompson spent the winter at a trading house that he and his men built at Sipiwesk Lake. There they were often short of supplies.
Joseph Colen - Governor of York Factory
The next spring, 1793, he left Seepaywisk House, ascended the Burntwood River, and crossed to the Churchill River, in another attempt to reach Reindeer Lake. After failing to rendezvous with the Natives that he hoped would be his guides to the Athabasca, he was forced to turn back at 55º 25' 20" N, 102º 10' 49" W. He reached York Factory on July 21. Both of his watches had apparently become troublesome after he left York Factory the year before, because now he sent two watches to England for repair. To replace these vital navigational instruments, he borrowed a pair of watches from Joseph Colen. After a short stopover, he set out again up the Nelson River, reaching Cumberland House on October 5. Two days later he continued up the Saskatchewan, and reached Buckingham House (near today's town of St. Paul, Alberta) on October 31. Later that fall he rode to the Beaver Hills, close to where Fort Augustus would later be built (near Edmonton), and finally returned to winter at Buckingham House on November 29. At Buckingham House, he found at least one old friend. William Tomison, who had watched over him the winter that he broke his leg, was 'master' of Buckingham House. Tomison was also the HBC's 'Chief Inland', responsible for all of the company's North American operations, and was firmly opposed to expanding trade into the Athabasca.
Just a hundred yards from Buckingham House stood Fort George, the new North West Company post built the previous year by Angus Shaw. At this time, Fort George was operated by Angus Shaw and John McDonald. (Historians refer to the latter gentleman as 'John McDonald of Garth' in order to distinguish him from many other John McDonalds also active in the fur trade.) McDonald of Garth was later to be Thompson's brother-in-law and business partner. Since relations were fairly harmonious between the two establishments, it is possible that they became acquainted at this time.
On May 16, 1794, Thompson left Buckingham House for York Factory. On June 2, as he descended the Saskatchewan, he met Malchom Ross at Cumberland House. Ross had promised to build a new fur post at Reed Lake (in today's Grass River Provincial Park, Manitoba), and Thompson traveled with him to the site. Thompson left Ross and his men busily building at Reed Lake House on June 20 and continued on to York, reaching there on July 5. On his arrival, he returned the two watches that he had borrowed from Colen, and took possession of his two watches that had returned from repair, as well as 'a new one of Twelve Guineas Value made by Jolly' (Smyth, 8). He also took possession of 'a second & Stop Watch with 2 Case Val £12.12—with Spare Glasses & Keys per Jolly ordered No. 310' (Smyth, 8). This last number refers to the serial number of his watch (Fidler's was No. 291, and Ross' was No. 292). The watchmaker was Joseph Jolly, 11 Dean Street, Fetter Lane, London.
On July 26, 1794 he again set out, reaching the site of Reed Lake House on September 2. He brought with him three canoe loads of trade goods for the new fur post. He spent the winter at Reed Lake House with Malchom Ross.
The next spring, he and Ross returned to York Factory with the furs from the Reed Lake House, arriving on July 5, 1795. Thompson and Malchom Ross left York Factory two weeks later (July 18), and on September 6 they arrived at Duck Portage on the west end of Sisipuk Lake. They then split up ; Ross continued up the river, to build Fairford House at the confluence of the Reindeer and Churchill rivers, and Thompson stayed to build Duck Portage House at 50º 40' 30" N, 102º 7' 37" W. There he spent the winter of 1795 competing with a Canadian fur post and a second HBC house, both of which had been built after he had arrived.
In the spring of 1796, Thompson ascended the Churchill and Reindeer Rivers to Reindeer Lake, then went across to Wollaston Lake and up the Black River to the east end of Lake Athabasca. He had found the more direct route to the Athabasca country that Colen and Ross had been looking for. In the fall he returned to Reindeer Lake, where he wintered with Malchom Ross at Bedford House.
It was sometime during these years that he received a four foot achromatic telescope from Dolland, for observing the satellites of Jupiter 'and other phenomena', and in 1796, he received '2 Brass patent Compasses the Card of each 4 Inches Diameter' (Smyth, 7). His kit of surveying instruments was now complete.
The winter of 1796-97 was one of momentous decision for Thompson. Unhappy with the strong emphasis on trade that the Hudson's Bay Company insisted upon, Thompson decided to 'cross the floor' to join the rival North West Company. On May 8, 1797, at the age of twenty-seven, David Thompson arrived at Alexander Fraser's establishment on the south end of Reindeer Lake, having traveled by foot from Bedford House with most of his instruments and books. (The remainder were later sent on to him, an action which William Tomison detested.) On June 7, he set out for Grand Portage. He arrived at the North West Company's headquarters on Lake Superior for the first time on July 22, 1797.
Receiving the encouragement for exploration that he sought, Thompson left Grand Portage on August 9 on a remarkable journey of exploration. He was charged with discovering the positions of the North West Company houses which were likely to be affected by Jay's Treaty, which established the new border of the United States. The treaty required British posts operating in American territory to close.
Traveling with Hugh McGillis, an experienced Nor'wester, he went down the Rainy River to Rainy Lake, then to Lake of the Woods and on to Lake Winnipeg. He ascended the Dauphin River to Lake Manitoba, then pushed on to Lake Winnipegosis. The party split at the mouth of the Shoal River on September 17. McGillis proceeded on to Red Deer Lake, while Thompson ascended the Shoal River to Swan River House. Thompson and Cuthbert Grant Sr. borrowed horses from the Hudson's Bay post there, and traveled along the valley of the Swan River, then across country to Grant's house on the Assiniboine River. For the next two months he explored and surveyed the Red Deer and Assiniboine Rivers, arriving at McDonnell's house at the mouth of the Souris River in November.
Not content with this exploration, on November 28, 1797 he set out with nine men to try to discover the location of the Mandan Villages, where the natives were known to live by cultivation in permanent settlements. He found the Mandan Villages on the Missouri River, along what is now known as Lake Sakakawea. He remained with the Mandan until January 10, when he set out to return to McDonnell's House at the mouth of the Souris River. He arrived there, after much hardship in the winter weather, on February 3, 1798.
Thompson had tried to convince the Mandan to travel to the posts to trade in the spring, but the Mandan did not wish to risk meeting the Sioux, under whom they had suffered many depredations. Although unable to convince the Mandan to come to trade, Thompson did record a three hundred and seventy-five word vocabulary of the Mandan language.
Still not content with what he had already accomplished in such a short time, he set out from McDonnell's House on February 28, to discover a connecting route between the Red & Mississippi Rivers and Grand Portage. He surveyed the rest of the Assiniboine to The Forks (present day Winnipeg), then ascended the Red and Red Lake Rivers to Red Lake, reaching the house of Baptiste Cadotte on March 24. Forced to wait there until the spring breakup, he was able to continue on April 9, when he proceeded eastwards to Turtle Lake, which he declared to be the headwaters of the Mississippi. It was later found that the true headwaters were a few miles further south. J. B. Tyrell remarked that 'the two lakes are so near together that it may be said that to this indefatigable, but hitherto almost unknown, geographer belongs the virtual credit of discovering the head-waters of this great river.' (Glover, lxxxiii) He then pressed on to Lake Superior, surveying the south shore to Sault Ste. Marie, and hence on to Grand Portage, reporting back to headquarters on June 7, 1798.
During this sojourn he located the positions of many North West Company trading houses, some of which were located south of the new dividing line between Canada and the United States.
On July 14, 1798, Thompson was off again, this time through Rainy Lake to Lake Winnipeg. He then went up the Saskatchewan River to Cumberland House, arriving on August 9. His fellow student, Peter Fidler, was then in charge of the Bay's post there, and Thompson did not set out again until August 19, heading up to Lac La Biche. For this trip, he traveled by way of the Churchill river, through Lac La Ronge, on to Lac Ile-à-la-Crosse, then up the Beaver River, arriving at Lac la Biche that September.
Thompson spent the winter of 1798-99 at Lac la Biche, and in March, 1799 he set out on an exploration of what is now northern Alberta. He traveled first to Fort Augustus (near present day Edmonton), then along the Pembina and Athabasca Rivers to Lesser Slave Lake. He continued down the Athabasca to the Clearwater River (at the site of present day Ft. McMurray). He then traveled up the Clearwater (then called the 'Methy Portage' River), portaged to Methy Lake, and hence back to Lac Ile-à-la-Crosse, arriving there on May 20.
At Ile-à-la-Crosse, on June 10, 1799, Thompson married Charlotte Small. She was the mixed-blood daughter of Patrick Small, a prominent North West Company partner who had worked with Peter Pond. We know little about Charlotte or their relationship. We do not know when Thompson first met Charlotte ; it may have been the previous year during his first visit. Theirs was to be a lasting union, and perhaps a partnership as well. Years later Thompson wrote 'My lovely wife is of the blood of these [Cree] people, speaking their language, and well educated in the English language, which gives me a great advantage' (Nisbet, 49). Charlotte was to bear him thirteen children, accompany him on many of his travels, and return with him to Montreal at the end of his career of exploration. After his wedding in 1799, Thompson traveled to Grand Portage, returning with John McDonald of Garth (who married one of Charlotte's sisters), as far as Fort George (near St. Paul, Alberta), he spent the winter there.
In the spring of 1800, Thompson traveled to Rocky Mountain House, which had been built the previous fall by order of John McDonald of Garth. He left Rocky Mountain House on May 8, arriving at Lake Winnipeg on June 7. He continued on to Grand Portage with that season's furs, and returned to winter at Rocky Mountain House with Duncan McGillivray. McGillivray was a senior partner and the brother of future North West Company head William McGillivray. He was planning to cross the mountains the following year, taking the clerk Thompson as surveyor.
That fall, Thompson engaged in two reconnaissances in preparation for the journey. In October, he traveled by horseback up the Clearwater River to the foot of the mountains. There he met a group of Kootenay Indians who were attempting to evade the Blackfoot and reach Rocky Mountain House in order to trade. The Kootenay were very interested in getting guns ; their enemies, the Blackfoot, were determined to keep them from getting them. Thompson returned to Rocky with the Kootenays, and later sent two men, La Gassi and Le Blanc, to escort the Kootenays on their return journey. These two men were probably the first Europeans to cross the mountains at the headwaters of the Saskatchewan.
In October, with Thompson as surveyor, Duncan McGillivray led an expedition on horseback to the Bow River (Calgary) area, then west to the foot of the mountains, returning to Rocky Mountain House on December 3. That November, McGillivray (this time without Thompson) conducted another journey up the Saskatchewan, but he was forced to return due to impassable conditions. The strain of these explorations took their toll on the health of Duncan McGillivray, who suffered 'rheumatism' for the rest of the winter.
In June 1801, after wintering at Rocky Mountain House, Thompson attempted to penetrate the formidable barrier of the Rockies. McGillivray's failing health prevented him from participating in this adventure. Thompson traveled up the Saskatchewan and Sheep rivers, only to be forced back in the end by insurmountable walls of rock. He arrived back at Rocky Mountain House on June 30, to discover that on June 10, Charlotte had given birth to their first child, a girl they named Fanny. The failed summer journey had taken a toll on the stamina and morale of the men, and Thompson was unable to mount a further expedition that year. Except for a short trip to Fort Augustus in the fall, Thompson remained at Rocky Mountain House for the rest of the year and all that winter.
In May 1802, Thompson descended the Saskatchewan all the way to the new North West Company inland headquarters at Fort Kaministiquia on Lake Superior. (Renamed Fort William in 1807, Fort Kaministiquia was at the site of modern Thunder Bay, Ontario.) He then returned up the Saskatchewan, went up to Lesser Slave Lake, and finally to a post near the forks of the Smoky and Peace rivers, where he wintered. For the next few years, Thompson combined trading and surveying in his routine work as a North West Company clerk.
Thompson spent 1803 trading at the Fort of the Forks on the Peace River, and, except for one quick trip to Lesser Slave Lake by dog sled in December, he wintered there as well. From February to March, 1804, Thompson made one foray by dog team to Rocky Mountain House. On March 5, 1804, at Fort of the Forks, Charlotte gave birth to their second child, a boy named Samuel. On March 15, Thompson and his family again began the long journey to Fort Kaministiquia.
They returned to Cumberland House on September 8, then struck off northwards to a post on the Churchill River called 'Musquawegan', or the Bear's Backbone, arriving on October 6. This post was somewhere in the vicinity of modern Russell Lake, in northern Manitoba. Here they spent the winter. This was the area which Thompson called 'the Muskrat Country', and he spent the next year in the area, traveling to Reindeer and South Indian Lakes, as well as to Cumberland House in short trips related to the business of trading furs.
It was at Cumberland House, on June 17, 1805, that Thompson learned of the merger between the XY Company of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and the North West Company. The agreement had been made on November 5, 1804, and eased the intense competition for furs that had already seen many rich areas trapped out.
Thompson spent the winter of 1805-06 at Reed Lake, not far from the spot where he had wintered in 1794. Their fourth child, Emma, was born there in March 1806. She may have been named after Thompson's mother, Elizabeth.
On June 10, Thompson left his Muskrat Country and traveled to Fort Kaministiquia by way of Cumberland House. There, at the annual meeting of North West Company partners, Thompson was promoted to wintering partner and given two shares in the company. It was decided to make another attempt to open trade with the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains. Charged with this task, Thompson set out once again for Rocky Mountain House. He arrived there on October 29, with Charlotte and the children, to spend the winter.
On May 10, 1807, the Thompson family, Finan McDonald, and eight voyageurs set out to cross the Rocky Mountains. They traveled up the North Saskatchewan River, past Kootenay Plains, and over what would later be known as Howse Pass. They descended the Blaeberry River to what later turned out to be the Columbia River, arriving on June 30. The previous year, Jaco Finlay had cached a canoe for them at this spot, but the vessel was smashed. The party spent the next week building boats for the next stage of the journey.
At this location the Columbia flows north, away from its mouth on the Oregon coast. Thompson decided that the river he saw was not the Columbia. However, they ascended the stream, arriving at Lake Windermere on July 18. Near the south end of the lake the men built Kootanae House, where they spent the winter trading with the Kootenays.
In a letter to Donald McTavish written during Thompson's stay at Kootanae House, he implores McTavish to 'take my little child from his mother...you might send him to Fort Augustus or contrive some way or other to put him in my hands — at least see him well clothed and of course charge it to my account' (Nisbet, 111). Since Charlotte was with Thompson at Kootanae House, this letter implies that Thompson had had a child by another woman in the Athabasca District, and he was now attempting to get custody of the child.
The following spring (1808), Thompson left Charlotte and the children at Kootanae House, and went south across the portage to the Kootenay River. He named this 'McGillivray's River', perhaps in memory of his old traveling companion, Duncan McGillivray, who died in April 1808 without ever crossing the Rocky Mountains. His plan was to explore the Kootenay River as far as possible, and find the 'Flat Head Indians' [Interior Salish] to invite them to trade. He went down the Kootenay into Montana and Idaho to near the site of today's town of Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. From there he crossed to near the site of Cranbrook, and then returned to Kootanae House, arriving on June 5. Picking up the rest of the family, they descended the Columbia to the Blaeberry, crossed back over Howse Pass, and on down the Saskatchewan to Boggy Hall (located north of Rocky Mountain House). At Boggy Hall, he left the children and Charlotte with her brother, Patrick Small, Jr., who was working there. Charlotte was expecting their fourth child. Thompson carried on to Rainy Lake, arriving on August 2. Two days later, after he had delivered the furs from the Columbia district and picked up the trade goods, he started his return journey.
On August 18, in Lake Winnipeg, he met Alexander Henry the younger, with whom he traveled to Fort Vermilion (at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Vermilion rivers, east of Edmonton). Thompson rejoined Charlotte at Boggy Hall on October 3. There he saw his six-week-old son, John (born August 25, 1808), for the first time. Pressing on, he ascended the Saskatchewan once more, crossed the Rockies at Howse Pass, and arrived to winter at Kootanae House on November 10.
In the spring of 1809, Thompson again set out to take back the furs traded the previous winter. He departed Kootenay House on April 17, arriving at Fort Augustus (near Edmonton) via Howse Pass on June 24. Having seen the furs safely shipped off, on July 18, he departed, reaching the Kootenay River on August 20. With a number of men, including Jaco Finlay and his family, he pressed on to Bonner's Ferry, where he had been the year before. Then, continuing south by horse, the party reached Pend Oreille Lake where they started building Kullyspell House on September 10. Thompson spent the remainder of the fall and early winter exploring in the vicinity, and ended the year by establishing Saleesh House on the Clark Fork River near modern day Thompson Falls, Montana. He spent the winter there.
In the spring of 1810, Thompson made a variety of explorations in and around the area of the Saleesh and Kullyspell houses. On May 9, he left to again take his furs back to the Saskatchewan. He returned once more by way of Howse Pass, reaching Cumberland House on July 4, and the North West Company depot at Rainy Lake on July 22. With a brigade of four canoes, he returned to the west, reaching Fort Augustus in late September. Leaving Charlotte and the children there, he continued up the North Saskatchewan toward the Columbia district. When they parted, he may have known that Charlotte was expecting their fifth child. (Joshua was born at Fort Augustus on March 28, 1811.) When he arrived at Rocky Mountain House, he discovered that the Blackfoot were determined not to let the white traders into the Kootenays' country again.
Thompson retraced his steps to Boggy Hall then set out westwards to the valley of the Athabasca River, where, according to the journal of Rocky Mountain House's Alexander Henry the younger, he planned to 'endeavour to open a new road from North branch [of the Saskatchewan] by Buffalo Dung lake [Chip Lake] to Athabasca river, and thence across the mountains to the Columbia — a route by which a party of Nepisangues [Ojibway] and freemen passed a few years ago.' (Henry, 652). Thomas, an Iroquois, would be his guide.
After pausing to make dog sleds and snowshoes, Thompson set out from Boggy Hall on December 29. After much hunger and hardship, he crossed the mountains via the Athabasca Pass (near today's Jasper, Alberta), reaching the forks of the Columbia and Canoe rivers on January 18, 1811. He attempted to press on up the Columbia to reach Kootanae House, but his men refused to go on, and he was forced to spend the winter at the Canoe River.
In the spring of 1811, Thompson's party constructed clinker-built canoes out of cedar — no suitable birchbark existed in the warm Columbian climate. He then ascended the Columbia, portaged to the Kootenay River, and continued to Saleesh House, and on to Spokane House (established near modern Spokane, Washington in 1810 by Jaco Finlay under Thompson's orders). He arrived, by horse, at Kettle Falls (Ilthkoyape Falls) on the Columbia River at the end of June.
Supply lines to and from the Columbia District of the North West Company were getting incredibly long. Furs from Spokane House, Saleesh House, Kullyspell House, and Kootanae House went over the Rockies, down the Saskatchewan, and on to Fort William and Montreal carried all the way by horseback and canoe. Only a trickle of furs and trade goods could make the long journey. But Thompson knew the geographical positions of his Columbia posts and he had the surveys of Lewis & Clark and Captain Cook ; he knew that the Pacific and the mouth of the Columbia were not far away. If a post was established on the Pacific coast, it could be supplied by ship with great quantities of trade goods, and equally large numbers of furs could make the return trip. The North West Company's plan was 'to explore [the Columbia River] in order to open out a passage for the interior trade with the Pacific Ocean' (Glover, 339n). On July 3, in another clinker-built cedar canoe, Thompson, Michel Bourdeaux, Pierre Pareil, Joseph Coté, Michel Boulard, François Gregoire, two Iroquois called Charles & Ignace, and two Sanpoil interpreters started down the Columbia. They arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean on July 14, 1811. Three months earlier, the Tonquin had landed at the mouth of the Columbia, and Thompson found himself a guest at Astoria, the new post of American John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company.
Much has been written about Thompson's failure to beat the Americans in a 'race' to reach the mouth of the Columbia and establish a British claim to the territory by establishing a post there before the Americans did. Thompson has been accused of destroying journals so as to leave no evidence of his failure, of lying by omission in his Narrative, and of dragging his feet on the trail. It is now known that Thompson was not under orders to run such a 'race to the sea', and in fact, his latest information was that the North West Company and the Pacific Fur Company were planning on working together. The fact that the deal had fallen through did not reach Thompson until after his return from Astoria. In fact, the Astorians themselves saw no reason to disbelieve Thompson when he arrived bringing news of the deal. In a letter to Thompson on his arrival at Astoria, Duncan McGougall, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart wrote that 'We have the pleasure to acknowledge...your Note...communicating the pleasant intelligence of the Wintering Partners of the North West Company having accepted of Mr. Astor's offer, of one third share of the Business we are engaged in...' (Belyea, 278n).
In October 1813, during the War of 1812, Astoria was purchased from the Pacific Fur Company by the North West Company for $40,000, giving them the long-desired coastal establishment. Two months later, the British sloop-of-war Raccoon sailed up the coast and would have captured Astoria had it not already been in friendly hands. Her captain (Black) settled for the next best thing, and renamed it Fort George. It remained a NWC post until the NWC merger with the HBC in 1821.
A week after arriving at Astoria, Thompson returned up the Columbia. For the first few days, he traveled in the company of nine men from Astoria who were going to establish an inland post. On July 31, the party split, and Thompson continued up the Columbia as far as the Snake River, which he ascended to the 'road' leading to the Spokane River. He crossed to Spokane House on horseback, built another canoe, and ascended the Columbia all the way to the Canoe River on the west side of the Athabasca Pass. Thompson had established the entire course of the Columbia River, from its source at Columbia Lake to its mouth at the Pacific.
After collecting additional supplies carried to them over the Athabasca Pass, Thompson again descended the Columbia to Spokane House, and then proceeded overland to Saleesh House, arriving on November 19, where he settled in for the winter.
In the spring of 1812, Thompson made a couple of surveying journeys in the vicinity of Saleesh House. He traveled to the site of present day Missoula, Montana, to see the route that had been traveled by Lewis and Clark. Later, he made a journey to the south end of Flathead Lake.
On March 13, he left Saleesh House, and proceeded to the vicinity of Spokane House to build canoes for the trip to Fort William. On April 22, Thompson left Spokane House. He traveled up the Columbia to the Canoe River, then over the Athabasca Pass reaching the house of William Henry on the Athabasca River on May 11. ('Henry's House', was in the Jasper, Alberta area.) He reached Lac la Biche on May 27, and then traveled to Cumberland House by way of Ile à la Crosse and the Churchill River, arriving on June 18. He was at Fort William on Lake Superior by August.
On August 24, 1812, Thompson left Fort William. He surveyed the north shore of Lake Superior on his way east and finally he arrived at Terrebonne, north of Montreal, that fall.
Never again would he travel farther west than Rainy Lake. After twenty-eight years in the Northwest, twenty-two of them as a trained surveyor, he had traveled 55,000 miles, and surveyed 1,900,000 square miles of wilderness. His great exploration of the Northwest was done. He was forty-two years old.
When he arrived in Montreal, he was a fairly well-to-do man. He had been reasonably well rewarded by the North West Company for his efforts ; and since he had had no place to spend much of his wages, he had amassed a tidy sum. No doubt he looked forward to a comfortable retirement. At that summer's meeting of the North West Company partners at Fort William, it had been decided that 'Mr. David Thompson now going down on Rotation should be allowed his full Share [in the profits of the NWC] for three years after the outfit and one Hund[re]d Pounds besides — that he is to finish his Charts, Maps &c and deliver them to the Agents [of the North West Company in Montreal] in that time...the Hund[re]d p[ounds] p[er] an[num] is meant for compensation for making use of his own Instruments &c &c and for furnishing him with implements for drawing, writing &c' (Belyea, 290).
Over the next few years, Thompson kept his part of the bargain. Less than a year after he arrived at Terrebonne, he sent William McGillivray a sketch map of the country around Saleesh House, Spokane House, Kullyspell House, and Astoria. This was soon followed by a large map of the entire Northwest, from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific. This was hung in a prominent position in the Great Hall at Fort William. In 1814, he revised this map, compiling all his surveys into a second great map, measuring 6½' high by 10' long, and showing every North West Company post. This revised map may have replaced the first one in Fort William's Great Hall. Many years later, he also compiled an atlas which covered the same terrain as his great map in greater detail. He hoped to sell it to a publisher. The great map was to have a place of honor in Fort William for years, but there were no takers for his atlas of the west.
The domestic side of Thompson's life had its joys and sorrows during this time. Soon after his return, Thompson arranged to formalize his marriage to Charlotte, which had, by necessity, taken place without benefit of clergy. At the St. Gabriel Street Presbyterian Church in Montreal, on October 30, 1812, Charlotte and David Thompson exchanged formal wedding vows. Three of their children were later baptized in the same church. Their first child to be born in the 'civilized' world was Henry, born on July 30. 1813 in Terrebonne. On January 11, 1814, John, born at Boggy Hall five years before, died from a respiratory affliction. A month later, on February 22, seven-year-old Emma also died. She had survived the rigors of the fur trade life, including getting lost at age two while crossing Howse Pass, to succumb to a common childhood disorder. In recording her death in the family bible, Thompson wrote that she was 'An Amiable innocent girl, too good for this world.' (Bond, 188). Over the next fifteen years, David and Charlotte Thompson had seven more children.
Thompson moved his family from Terrebonne to the Williamstown, Ontario area in 1815. Two years later, in 1817, perhaps itching to get back to work after completing his maps for the NWC, Thompson found employment with the International Boundary Commission, establishing the boundary between the United States and British North America from the Lake of the Woods to Quebec.
Even after the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, Thompson and his work were treated with indifference by the HBC, who apparently never forgave him for leaving in 1797. The HBC's George Simpson continued to send Thompson's survey data, including the work he had done for the North West Company, to mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith of London. Arrowsmith used Thompson's data without giving credit to the explorer.
Thompson's financial situation then began to take a turn for the worse. He lost £400 in 1825 when the remnants of the amalgamated North West Company went bankrupt. He funded a variety of his children's unsuccessful business efforts, and in 1829 he lost the rest of his capital in a venture to supply the British Army with cordwood. By 1833, at age 63, he was bankrupt. He eked out a living doing various surveying jobs, while he continued to petition the government for recognition of his work.
After Thompson's protests, the British foreign secretary paid Thompson the paltry sum of £150 to compensate him for the information that had been sent to Arrowsmith. Maps, and the completed atlas that Thompson had sent to the Foreign Office in 1843, were never returned or paid for.
In 1846, at age 76, his vision became so bad that he could no longer work. The following year, he began to write his Narrative. Over the remaining years, he was forced to sell all of his possessions, including his instruments, to support his family.
The end came on February 10, 1857, two months before his eighty-seventh birthday. Charlotte, his faithful companion for most of her life, followed three months later. They are buried side by side in Montreal's Mount Royal cemetery.
No likeness of Thompson survives, and the only description of the man is by J. J. Bigsby, who met him at a North West Company dinner in 1820.
'He was plainly dressed, quiet and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn short all around, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of a gardener's ruddy brown, while the expresion of deeply furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look.' (Nisbet, p250).
Of Thompson's personal possessions, apart form his 'Great Map', trail-worn journals, and his manuscript for the Narrative, only a desk remains. The house that he lived in from 1815 to 1835 still stands. It is a private residence.
In 1927, J. B. Tyrell erected a fluted column topped with a sextant over Thompson's grave. This was the first act of public recognition of the years of hard work completed a hundred and fifteen years earlier by a man now grudgingly recognized as the worlds greatest land geographer.
Belyea, Barbara (ed.), Thompson, David; Columbia Journals. McGill-Queen's : Montreal, 1994.
Bond, Rowland S. The Original Northwester : David Thompson.
Brown, Jennifer S. H. 'The Presbyterian Métis of St. Gabriel Street, Montreal', pp. 195-206 in Peterson, Jacqueline, and Jennifer S. H. Brown, The New Peoples : Being and Becoming Métis in North America. University of Manitoba : Winnipeg, 1985.
Glover, Richard (ed.), David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.
Henry, Alexander (the younger). Coues, Elliot (ed.). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Reprint : Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Lamb, W. Kaye (ed.) The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Cambridge University Press: London, 1970.
Nisbet, Jack. Sources of the River : Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America. Sasquatch Books : Seattle, 1994.
Ruggles, Richard I. 'Hudson's Bay Company Mapping,' pp. 22-36, in Judd, Carol M. and Arthur J. Ray (eds.), Old Trails and New Directions : Papers of the Third North American Fur Trade Conference. University of Toronto : Toronto, 1978.
Smyth, David. 'David Thompson's Surveying Instruments and Methods in the Northwest 1790-1812.' Cartographica 18 no. 4 (1981), pp 1-17.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?