David Thompson

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He is called the greatest land geographer who ever lived, and my personal favourite Canadian historical figure. His name was David Thompson, and his impact on Canada is nothing short of immense.

David Thompson was born on April 30, 1770 in Westminster, Middlesex to Welsh immigrants David and Ann Thompson.

Sadly, the young child Thompson would never know his father, as his father died when David was only two. This left his mother having to take care of the family, and with nearly no resources, she was forced to place David and his older brother in the Grey Coat Hospital in London, which was a school for the poor and orphaned. As it turned out, that may have been the best thing for him.

Thompson quickly showed that he had a talent for navigation, surveying, and mathematics. His education would include using nautical instruments, making navigational calculations using the sun, moon, and tides, taking land measurements and sketching landscapes.

He would be recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company when he was 14 and set sail in 1784 for Canada, never to return to England. This was accomplished because the treasurer of Grey Coat paid for Thompson, five Pounds or 760 Pound today, to apprentice with the company. Upon joining the Hudson’s Bay Company, Thompson became an indentured servant for seven years to be trained as a clerk. On May 28, 1784, he would leave England, never to return.

It was with the Hudson’s Bay Company, while working as a clerk, that he would find his calling.

On Sept. 2, 1784, Thompson arrived at Churchill and was put to work copying the personal papers of Samuel Hearne, the famous explorer and governor of Fort Churchill. That first year, according to Thompson, was one with little productive activity. He spent most of his time copying Hearne’s book A Journey from Prince Of Wales Fort, which likely helped ignite the imagination of Thompson to explore the interior as Hearne had once done.

In 1785, Thompson transferred to York Factory, taking the 200-kilometre journey by foot with two Indigenous men, learning to live off the land. While at York, rather than spend his time with the other men in the fort and working in the warehouse, he spent his time in hunting camps with the servants.

In 1786, he was sent to Cumberland House, where he would gain a working knowledge of the Cree language, spending the summer there and then leaving in September with 14 others to establish South Branch House, near present-day Batoche, Saskatchewan.

Returning to Cumberland House the next year, he met George Hudson, who had also attended the Grey Coat Hospital. Thompson found him to be a man who had allowed his morals and physical health deteriorate while in the long isolation of the Canadians northwest. This would be a serve as an example for Thompson of the dangers of that isolation.

One experience, that occurred during his time as a clerk at Cumberland House, resulted in a life changing experience for Thompson. In his journal, he would describe an experience that changed him forever. He wrote, quote:

“I was sitting at a small table with the checkerboard before me, when the devil sat down opposite to me.”

According to Thompson, they played, and the devil lost each game. He relates, quote:

“He got up or rather disappeared. My eyes were open it was broad daylight. I looked around. All was silence and solitude, was it a dream or was it reality. I could not decide.”

Thompson soon became a devout Christian, which he would remain as for the rest of his life.

In 1787, when Thompson was 17, he would go to the Alberta foothills to meet the Piikani people. While with the Indigenous, he met Saukamappee, an 80-year-old elder who told him about the Indigenous people of the Plains. He told Thompson that smallpox had killed hundreds, including an entire enemy band who had died before the Piikani people could do a nighttime raid. When they took the possessions from the camp, the smallpox spread to them. Saukamappee would tell Thompson, quote:

“We had no belief that one man could give it to another, any more than a wounded man could give his wound to another. We shall never be again the same people.”

The experience would have a big impact on Thompson, who would become an acute and sympathetic observer to the Indigenous, when most Europeans saw them only as savage people. He would also learn to speak several Indigenous languages.

On Dec. 23, 1788, an event would happen that would change Thompson’s life forever. He suffered an accident and seriously fractured his tibia while at Manchester House. Severe swelling prevented the leg from healing properly and it healed slowly. This resulted in Thompson being forced to stay two winters at Cumberland House. Instead of doing nothing, he worked to refine and expand his surveying, astronomical and mathematical skills with the help of Philip Turnor, a surveyor with the company. He began to study the stars and sky so much, that he would lose sight in one eye as a result. He was also aided by William Tomison, who served as a father figure to Thompson during those years.

Due to this, he was not part of the expedition to Lake Athabasca and was instead sent to York Factory to continue his apprenticeship.

In 1790, with his time as an apprentice coming to an end, Thompson asked to receive surveying tools rather than the typical parting gift of fine clothes. The Hudson’s Bay Company would reward him with both. He was also offered a contract for three years at 15 Pounds a year, or 2,313 Pounds today.

In 1792, he would embark on his first significant survey, mapping a route to Lake Athabasca. The following year, from February to May, Thompson made 34 observations of the longitude of Cumberland House using lunar distances. He would take roughly three hours for each calculation of his observations, resulting in a mean error far below what would have been thought possible at the time. With this, he believed that he would be hired as a surveyor for the company, and at first it did seem that way. He was instructed in the fall to survey the waterways between the Nelson and Churchill Rivers, which was a new area of competition for the company and its rival North West Company. He would establish a post at Sipiwesk Lake, and then surveyed a route to the Churchill by way of the Burntwood River.

Thanks to his skills as a mapmaker and surveyor, Thompson was promoted to surveyor in 1794 and saw his pay increase to 60 Pounds per year, or 8,100 Pounds today. He then continued his surveying and exploration towards Lake Athabasca. He left York Factory on July 18, 1794, reaching the Churchill River before he and his men had to winter. He would complete his trip to Lake Athabasca in 1796, traveling with two Chipewyan guides, and then taking six weeks to return to York Factory. The route proved to be impassable unfortunately due to terrain that was barely passable in the summer.

Thompson would continue to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company until May 23, 1797 when he was given an order to cease surveying and to instead focus on the fur trade. There is some debate about why he left the company, and if there was an order to cease surveying. What is known is that in the summer of 1796, he had been nominated to take over as Master to the Northward, where his primary duties would have been managing the fur trade. He would have received a substantial pay increase and bonuses, so his decision to leave was not financial, and was clearly based on his desire to continue surveying, rather than be relegated to what would be considered a desk job.

Thankfully, another company was more than happy to use the talents of Thompson.

He would walk 130 kilometres in the snow to the nearest North West Company fort, where he was immediately hired on as a surveyor for the company. This was not taken well by the Hudson’s Bay Company, where it was customary to provide one-year notice. For Thompson, what mattered to him was that the North West Company was supporting of his work as a surveyor.

In 1797, the North West Company sent Thompson south to survey part of the Canada-US boundary along the water routes from Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods. This was important because it would solve any unresolved questions that existed over the Jay Treaty that had been signed between England and the United States. Over the course of only 10 months, he completed an exploratory survey of the major rivers and lakes from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, and throughout future southern Manitoba.

He related the experience in his diary, of which I am going to take certain parts from here.

“Nov. 26, 1797. Sunday. A cloudy snowy day. Thermometer four below. My men looking for horses all day but could not find them.

Nov. 29, 1797. Wednesday. A very cold day with a westerly wind and about 7 a.m. thermometer 27 below at 9 a.m. 22 below. Lay by being too cold to proceed.

Dec. 8, Friday, A fine clear day. Would have set off but wished to give my yellow horse in care to the Indians to take the House. At 10 a.m. an old Indian came to whom I gave the horse in care with a note to Mr. McDonnel. Observed the latitude and with sun, moon, NW at night Jupiter. No success hunting. Our provisions all done. Thermometer 10 below.

Dec. 11. Monday. A cloudy day and southerly gale with showers of snow. The snow thawing. At 8 a.m. set off and went about 200 yards to a hummock of oak, ash, and aspens when we put up. A bad snowy day. No success in hunting.

Dec. 13. Wednesday. A very stormy night and day with very high drift wind north clear sky. Could not proceed. Observed for longitude and latitude.”

Jan. 30. Tuesday. A very close thick day. It was almost as dark as night the whole day without ever clearing. At 7 a.m. set off for the Turtle Mountains. Course North 10 West by the compass 24 miles to the woods. We put up at 4:30 p.m. about three miles east-north-east of the place where we took the tent poles. Thank God as we made the woods which did not see until we were within ½ mile of them the weather cleared easterly.”

During 1798, Thompson travelled through the Upper Churchill River, to the Beaver River and then to the Red Deer River to establish the post of Lac La Biche, located in present-day Alberta. He then looked for a new route from the North Saskatchewan River to the Athabasca River using the Pembina River, and then followed the Athabasca River to the Clearwater River in Saskatchewan.

During this epic journey, he would marry Charlotte Small on June 10, 1799. This was not a country marriage as it was often called when a fur trader or explorer married an Indigenous woman, as Small was Metis, the daughter of a fur trader and a Cree woman. Small’s own mother had been abandoned by her father when he left the country following his term of employment. The couple would be married for 58 years, the longest pre-Confederation marriage on record. The couple would have 13 children, five of which were born while the couple were out exploring, and two of which would pass away following his exploration years. Thompson would often take his wife and children on trips, venturing into the unknown and in his reports, he would name his wife by name, something that was uncommon at the time.

The next few years would see Thompson slowdown in his exploration and surveying as he had duties to attend to at Fort George, Rocky Mountain House, and Peace River. He would complete two short surveying trips in 1800 and 1801.

In 1802, John Jeremiah Bigsby, a British geologist, was at a dinner party in Montreal when he met David Thompson, giving us one of the best descriptions of the man. He would state quote:

“He was plainly dressed, quiet and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardener’s ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look.”

Bigsby would travel with Thompson afterwards and grew to have a great deal of respect and admiration for him. He would state quote:

“No living person possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson’s Bay countries. Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair, he has a very powerful mind and a singular faculty of picture making.”

Near Jasper, Alberta, he would record finding large footprints, describing them as, quote:

“measured fourteen inches in length by eight inches in breadth”

While some suggest that these were left by a sasquatch, Thompson stated that there was a small nail at the end of each toe, and that the tracks resembled a large bear’s track.

On July 10, 1804, Thompson was made a full partner of the company. Known as a wintering partner, he was based in the field rather than Montreal, and he received two of the 92 shares in the company, worth 4,000 Pounds, or 409,000 Pounds today.

During this time, he was becoming dissatisfied with his career, as other duties were taking him away from surveying. This may have been the end of his career, but something would happen that would cement his legacy through the explorations he is most known for.

After the annual general meeting of the company in 1806, the North West Company was worried about the overland expedition to the Pacific Coast by Lewis and Clark that same year. The company wanted to establish a route to the Pacific Coast and Thompson was told to journey out and find a gateway to the new territory.

He would travel up the North Saskatchewan River with Finan McDonald and eight other men, as well as his wife and three children. Spending time at Rocky Mountain House during the winter, he then crossed the Rocky Mountains on June 25, 1807.

He would say quote:

“At length, the Rocky Mountains came in sight like shining white clouds on the horizon, but we doubted what our guide said. But as we proceeded, they rose in height, their immense masses of snow appearing above the clouds and formed an impassable barrier, even to the Eagle.”

He would also write, on June 22, 1807, quote:

“May God in His mercy give me to see where the waters of this river flow to the western ocean.”

Thompson then descended the Blaeberry River, to a river he called the Kootana, which was in actuality the Columbia River. To navigate the river, he used a rough log raft, which was safer than a canoe. Using two long logs over a dozen spruce rollers, with a sapling tree for a pole, packs were put in the centre of the raft to keep them free from becoming wet.

For the next two seasons, he would map and establish trading posts in the future states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and in Western Canada. The establishment of these posts allowed the North West Company to begin trading in the Columbia Basin drainage area. The maps that Thompson produced in this area were of such high quality that they were still used in the 20th century.

In 1810, Thompson was heading towards Montreal when he was given orders on July 22 to return to the west and establish a route to the mouth of the Columbia. The North West Company was worried that John Jacob Astor was sending an American ship around the Americans to establish a fur trading post for the Pacific Fur Company on the coast.

While staying in Rocky Mountain House, Thompson would relate his desire to be out of the bush for a while in a letter to his friend Macdonald of Garth. He writes, quote:

“If all goes well and it pleases Good Providence to take care of me, I hope to see you in the civilized world in the autumn of 1812. I am getting tired of such constant hard journeys. For the last 12 months I have spent barely two months under the shelter of a hut, all the rest have been in my tent, and there is little likelihood the next 12 months will be much different.”

Navigating through the Athabasca Pass during the winter, he and his men would winter in a small hut on the banks of the Columbia River near Canoe River, B.C. In April, he and his men made their way south to Saleesh House, and then on to Spokane House near Spokane Washington, then north to the Kettle Falls. There, he would build a canoe for the last leg of the journey. Leaving on July 3, he proceeded down the river and along the way, he would visit Indigenous villages and establish good relations with them.

On July 9, 1811, near the Snake River, Thompson writes, quote:

“I erected a small pole with a half sheet of paper tied about it with these words. Know hereby this country is claimed by Great Britain and the NW Company from Canada do hereby intent to erect a factory on this place for the commerce of the country.”

At 1 p.m. on July 15, 1811, Thompson reached the partially constructed Fort Astoria. Thompson had arrived two months too late to set up a post for the North West Company.

Gabriel Franchere would write on that day upon seeing Thompson arrive, quote:

“Toward midday we saw a large canoe with a flag displayed at her stern, rounding the point which we called Tongue Point. We knew not who it could be, for we did not soon expect our own party, who were to cross the continent by the route which Captains Lewis and Clark had followed.”

He continues, quote:

“The flag she bore was the British and her crew was composed of eight Canadian boatmen and voyageurs. A well-dressed man, who appeared to be the commander, was the first to leap ashore and addressing us without ceremony, said that his name was David Thompson and that he was one of the partners of the North West Company.”

 He would stay at the fort for a short time, where he and his men were seen as competitors, but he was treated well.

Franchere relates, quote:

“Mr. Thompson kept a regular journal and travelled, I thought more like a geographer than a fur trader. He was provided with a sextant, chronometer and barometer and during a week’s sojourn, which he made at our place, had an opportunity to make several astronomical observations.”

On July 22, 1811, he set off on the Columbia River, joined by a Pacific Fur Company boat before they parted ways as Thompson moved north. He would eventually reach Canoe River, completing the survey he had started in 1807, four years previous.

After wintering at Saleesh House until 1812, he then crossed over the Rockies for the last time, and traveled to Montreal where he would officially retire from surveying.

Retiring with a generous pension worth 100 Pounds, or 7,274 Pounds, plus a full share of company profits for three years. At this point, Thompson began to work on creating his great map, which would be a summary of his lifetime of exploring the continent. It covered Lake Superior to the Pacific. The map would prove to be so accurate, it was still being used by the Canadian government over 100 years later.

In 1815, the family moved to Williamstown, Upper Canada and lived on a farm he purchased from Reverend John Bethune. A few years later he was employed to survey the new border at the Lake of the Woods that had been established after the War of 1812. Over the next five years, he conducted surveys along the St. Lawrence River towards Sault Ste Marie. Through these years, his responsibilities increased to the point where he was managing field operations of the survey crews. His skill won over scientific observers and political appointees on both sides of the border.

After completing an atlas that showed the region from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean, Thompson would return to his life as a landowner, and served as the Justice of the Peace beginning in 1820.

Sadly, most of his money would be lost in 1825 when the North West Company agent, McGillivrays, Thain and Company went bankrupt. Most of his remaining wealth was invested in land, and he was mostly unsuccessful in making money off the land he owned. To find income elsewhere, he would invest in a potash production company and two general stores, but these all failed as well.  

By 1831, his capital resources were mostly gone and in 1833, he was so deep in debt that he had to assign the lands he still owned to his creditors to avoid bankruptcy.

For three years, he found work carrying out hydrographic surveys for canal projects for the British North American Land Company, and in 1837, the government employed him in doing a survey of the waterways between Lake Huron and the Ottawa River. By this point, he was in his late-60s doing the work he had done as a young man.

Over the next eight years, work opportunities would become less and less, and he was relegated to doing street surveys in Montreal. He and the family also moved from their home in Williamstown to a rented house in Montreal, and they would be forced to move several times. Eventually, Thompson was forced to pawn his surveying tools and winter coat.

To pay the rent, Thompson took whatever odd jobs he could find. He became desperate enough that in August of 1840, at the age of 70, he applied for a position to be a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

At the same time, he was unable to find a publisher for his maps, but the British Government did buy a map of the northwest from 1843 for 150 Pounds, or 15,000 Pounds today. The map would be published without mentioning Thompson’s name on them.

One of the final jobs for Thompson was surveying the vast estate of fellow explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

In his last years, he lived with his daughter and son-in-law, working on his journals, consisting of 77 field books, in the hopes they would be published. His good eye began to fail and by 1851, he was completely blind and his manuscript was unfinished.  

On Feb. 10, 1857, he died in poverty and obscurity. Charlotte, his lifelong companion, died three months later.

During his life, he mapped 3.9 million square kilometres, one-fifth of the continent and Sir Alexander Mackenzie would state that Thompson could do more in ten months than he thought possible in two years.

Thankfully, his name was not lost to history and for that we owe J.B. Tyrell a debt of gratitude.

In the 1890s, J.B. Tyrrell found the notes of Thompson and in 1916 they were published as David Thompson’s Narrative. New editions of his notes would be published in 1926, 1971 and 2015. It was also Tyrell that ensured Thompson’s unmarked grave at Mount Royal Cemetery was given a tombstone. In 1926, he was named a National Historic Person.

Historical plaques honour Thompson in several places in Alberta and British Columbia. At Lac La Biche, a statue exists to honour when he landed there on Oct. 4, 1798. Other statues and monuments honour him in North Dakota, Montana and British Columbia.

In 1957, Thompson was honoured with a postage stamp and the David Thompson Highway was named for him, as is a high school in Leslieville, Alberta. There are also two secondary schools named for him in Invermere and Vancouver.

In 1958, Charles Sandell, the great-grandson of David Thompson, opened the David Thompson Stampede in Rocky Mountain House, where his great-grandparents had wintered 160 years previous.

In 2007, a commemorative plaque was placed on the wall of Grey Coat Hospital to honour the time that Thompson attended there.

Parks Canada also announced that its new research vessel would be called the RV David Thompson.

Today, Thompson is considered to be the greatest land geographer that the world has ever produced. The Indigenous, who respected him and whom he respected, would call him the Man Who Looked At Stars.

I will end this episode with a quote from The Hudson Bay Road.

“The world can never be allowed to forget the discoverer of the sources of the Columbia, the first white man who ever voyaged on the upper reaches and main upper tributaries of the mighty river, the pathfinder of more than one way across the Continental Divide from Saskatchewan to Columbian waters, the greatest geographer of his day in British America and the maker of what was then by far its greatest map.”

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, David Thompson Country, Wikipedia, Biographi, Canadian Museum of History, British Columbia From Earliest Times To The Present, Fort Vermilion Before Alberta, The Hudson Bay Road, Days Before Yesterday, The Conquest Of The Great Northwest,

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