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David Thompson is the premier explorer and surveyor of North America. From 1792 to 1812, David Thompson mapped the country west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior, across the Rocky Mountains to the source of the Columbia River, and followed the length of the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Alexander Mackenzie was the first to explore the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean and to travel overland from Fort Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean. The two Canadians, David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie, are the leading explorers of North America.
David Thompson was born in Westminster, England, April 30, 1770. His Welsh father died when he was two years old. At the age of seven, his mother enrolled him in the charitable Grey Coat School near Westminster Abbey. At the age of fourteen, he apprenticed as a clerk to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He arrived at Churchill Factory on Hudson Bay in September of 1784. His first two years were spent on the shores of Hudson Bay at the Churchill and York factories before being stationed at several posts on the Saskatchewan River.
Saukamapee – Indian Warfare
Thompson spent the winter of 1787-88 on the Bow River…not far from Calgary. From a Cree Indian named Saukamapee, Thompson recorded in his narratives the only known Plains Indian history before the arrival of white men (Josephy). During the winter, Saukamapee described two battles between the Blackfeet and the Shoshone (Ewers). The first one occurred around 1720. Saukamapee told Thompson as the warriors approached each other they shouted, leaped, and sang. About a hundred yards apart, each group sat behind their shields. The warriors’ arrows could not penetrate the thick rawhide shields. Having smaller shields, a few Blackfeet were wounded. The fighting stopped at dusk, and the participants went home. During a battle lasting most of the day, there were only a few minor wounds. Not a single warrior was killed.
The second battle occurred ten years later. Saukamapee and nine other Cree were at the Blackfeet camp and offered to help. The Cree had guns from Hudson’s Bay or North West traders. The battle started the same, but when the Cree fired the muzzleloaders, the noise panicked the Snakes (Shoshone). The warriors fled and several were killed with bows and lances.
Horses were not used in the battle, but a few days later, a Snake Indian and his horse were killed. Despite the horse being dead, the people were afraid and would not get too close. The strange animal had carried a man and his possessions, so the Blackfeet called it a Big Dog. Later, mainly because of its size, the name for a horse was changed to Elk Dog.
In December of 1788, David Thompson fell down a steep creek bank and broke his leg. After spending several weeks convalescing at Manchester House on the North Saskatchewan, Thompson was sent downriver to Cumberland House. Located on the Saskatchewan River near Lake Winnipeg, Cumberland House was the first interior trading post built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. From Cumberland House, men with canoes could travel to the Arctic Ocean, Hudson Bay, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. There were many portages on the water routes, but none took more than a day (O’Meara).
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s astronomer, Philip Turnor, was at Cumberland House planning a surveying expedition to the Athabasca country. Turnor tutored the convalescing David in surveying and practical astronomy. During his navigational training, Thompson lost the sight in his right eye, probably from staring at the sun (Gottfred).
Despite a limp and the loss of sight in his right eye, surveying and mapping became David Thompson’s passion. When his apprenticeship expired, Thompson signed on for another seven years. Instead of the customary suit of clothes for reenlisting, Thompson requested the Hudson’s Bay Company furnish him with a compass, watches, thermometers, sextant, an artificial horizon, and Nautical Almanacs. With his new instruments, Thompson spent the next several years exploring and trading around York Factory and in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
David Thompson was dissatisfied with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s emphasis on the fur trade. After his term of service was up in July of 1797, he went to Grand Portage near Lake Superior and joined the North West Company.Thompson’s first assignment was to determine the longitude and latitude of the North West Company posts affected by the Jay Treaty of 1794. The Jay Treaty required the North West Company to respect the boundary set by the Treaty of Versailles following the American Revolution. Enforcing the treaty was difficult because the precise location of the forty-ninth parallel was unclear.
In November, David Thompson and nine men determined the location of the Missouri River Mandan villages. The Missouri River Indian villages of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara were the site of trade fairs between the Plains Indians and the Hudson’s Bay and North West fur traders. From the Mandan villages, Thompson proceeded eastwards to Turtle Lake, which he declared to be the headwaters of the Mississippi…the actual head was a few miles away. Continuing on, he surveyed the south shore of Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie. From there, David Thompson mapped the east shore and most of the north shore of Lake Superior before returning to Grand Portage in June of 1798. In a ten-month period, David Thompson traveled and mapped close to four thousand miles. Based on his survey, the North West Company moved its headquarters at Grand Portage to Fort Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ontario). In 1807, the fort was renamed Fort William .
David Thompson’s Missouri River map was an important resource for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Following instructions of Albert Gallatin, Nicholas King incorporated Thompson’s drawings on a map for the expedition. A tracing of Thompson’s map showing the Great Bend of the Missouri is on display in the Library of Congress.
A notation on the map in President Jefferson’s hand reads: “Bend of the Missouri, Long. 101° 25′ Lat. 47° 32′ by Mr. Thomson astronomer to the N.W. Company in 1798 (Virginia.edu).
On June 10, 1799, David Thompson married Charlotte Small. She was the daughter of a prominent North West Company partner, Patrick Small and his Indian wife. Charlotte bore him five children while accompanying him on many of his travels.
David Thompson spent the years from 1802 to 1806 traveling and trading between the Peace River and Churchill River areas. At the annual meeting of the North West Company partners at Fort Kaministiquia in 1806, Thompson was promoted to a wintering partner of the company. Since Mackenzie’s 1793 route to the Pacific was too far north to be practical for the fur trade, the partners decided to make another attempt…Thompson’s first attempt in 1801 to cross the mountains had failed.
On May 10, 1807, the David Thompson family, Finnan McDonald, and eight voyageurs traveled up the North Saskatchewan River, past Kootenay Plains, and over Howse Pass to a large north flowing river. Because the river flowed north, Thompson was unsure it was the Columbia…from its source, the Columbia River flows along the base of the Canadian Rocky Mountains five hundred miles north before turning south and west to the Pacific Ocean. Going upriver, Thompson built Kootenae House near Lake Windermere.
The following spring (1808), David Thompson left Charlotte and the children at Kootenae House and explored the Kootenay River area looking for the Flathead Indians (Salish). He followed the Kootenay River into Montana and Idaho before returning to Kootenae House. From Kootenae House, Thompson returned the 1808 furs to the North West depot at Rainey Lake and in 1809 to Fort Augustus near Edmonton.
Accompanied by a number of men, including Jaco Finlay and his family, Thompson moved to Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho in 1809, and built Kullyspell House near the mouth of the Clark Fork River on Hope Peninsula. Kullyspell House was the first trading post built west of the Continental Divide in the United States. Thompson spent the fall and early winter exploring in the vicinity before establishing Saleesh House (Flathead Post) on the Clark Fork River near modern day Thompson Falls, Montana.
In the spring of 1810, David Thompson made a number of explorations in Saleesh and Kullyspell house areas. In May, he took his furs over Howse Pass to the North West Company depot at Rainy Lake. While there, Thompson learned John Jacob Astor had dispatched a ship and an overland party to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Thompson had not been given a deadline on reaching the Pacific, but he realized the supply route from the Columbia River Basin to the North West Company depots was too long. From the locations of his Columbia River Basin posts and the surveys of Lewis & Clark, David Thompson knew it was not far to the mouth of the Columbia River–furs from Saleesh House, Kullyspell House, and Kootenae House were transported by canoe and horses over the mountains, down the Saskatchewan and on to Fort William, and from there to Montreal. Furs and trade goods transported to and from a Columbia River post would eliminate the long North West supply route.
David Thompson and several men headed back toward the Columbia River Basin in four canoes. At Rocky Mountain House, he learned a hunting party of Flatheads along with some of his men had gone to the Montana plains to hunt buffalo. In a disagreement with a party of Piegans (Blackfeet), seven Piegans were killed and thirteen wounded (Josephy). The Blackfeet had blocked Howse Pass to keep the white traders from the Kootenay country…the Piegans did not want guns being traded to the Kutenai, Flathead, and Nez Perce.
With Howse Pass blocked, David Thompson retraced his steps to Boggy Hall. After pausing to make dog sleds and snowshoes, Thompson’s party, with an Iroquois named Thomas as a guide, set out for the Athabasca Valley. It is interesting to note what Thompson’s party took with them.
“Gave the Men their Loads for the Sleds–each Sled that has 2 Dogs, B. D’Eau, Coté, Francois, & L’Amoureux have 120 lbs of Goods & Necessaries for the Journey, & Vallade, Battoche, Pareil & Du Nord each 1 Dog & Sled have 70 lbs per Sled. 4 Horses loaded with Meat, havg 208 lbs of Pemmican, 35 lbs of Grease & 60 lbs of Flour also accompany us to ease the Dogs”. On January 6th, they left the horses because of the poor trail and lack of feed, and on January 24th, Thompson cached some of his trade goods. “Part of the Things in the Hoard are 3 fine Capots, 4 do Shirts, 12 lbs of Beads, Garden Seeds, 8 groce of Rings, 3 Rolls of Ribbon, 6 groce of Bells, 3 Jockey Caps, 4 Cotton Shirts, 1 pr of Cloth Trowsers DT, 3 doz Glasses, 6 Bott[les] of Turlington, 1 Roll of Gartg, 2 Bott[les] of Peppermint, 6 Worms, 6 Steels (Baylea).”
David Thompson crossed the mountains through Athabasca Pass (near today’s Jasper, Alberta). At the forks of the Canoe River and the Columbia River, his men refused to go on, and he was forced to spend the winter.
In the spring of 1811, David Thompson constructed clinker-built (overlapping boards) canoes out of cedar. Thompson, five voyageurs, two Iroquois and two Sanpoil interpreters went up the Columbia to Kootenae House and then, portaged to the Kootenay River. Floating down the Kootenae, the Thompson party passed Saleesh House and Kullyspell which were abandoned because of the Piegan threat (Josephy). Leaving the Kootenae, Thompson went to Spokane House, built by Jaco Findley the previous year, before going to Kettle Falls and the Columbia River.
At the junction on the Columbia and Snake rivers, David Thompson planted a pole with a note on it. The note read:
“Know hereby that this country is claimed by Great Britain as part of its territories and that the N.W. Company of Merchants from Canada do hereby intend to erect a factory.”
Thompson reached Fort Astoria on July 15, 1811. This was three months after the arrival of the Tonquin. Thompson told the Astorians:
The wintering partners had resolved to abandon their trading posts west of the mountains and enter into an agreement with us on the condition we promise not to meddle in their trade to the east.
Thompson showed Duncan McDougal, resident partner at Fort Astoria, a letter addressed from William McGillivray, chief of the North West Company in Canada to that effect. If this was the case, why did he post the sign at the junction of the Columbia and Snake Rivers?
After a week of being wined and dined at Fort Astoria by Duncan McDougall, Thompson started up the Columbia River with David Stuart, Alexander Ross, and seven other Astorians. Leaving the Astorians on the last day of July, Thompson and his men continued up the Columbia to their winter camp on the Canoe River. Reaching his previous winter camp, Thompson had travel the entire course of the Columbia River.
With supplies brought over Athabasca Pass, Thompson returned to Spokane House, and then proceeded overland to rebuild Saleesh House for the winter. A week after his party arrived at Saleesh House, John McTavish and James McMillan arrived with a group of men on the way to Astoria.
Astoria was sold to the North West Company in August of 1813 for about one third the value of the fort and its contents, i.e. approximately forty thousand dollars was allowed for furs worth upwards of one hundred thousand dollars (Irving). Two months later, the British war ship, Raccoon, arrived on the Columbia and the Captain Black declared Astoria was a prize of war. Astoria was renamed Fort George. Astoria was returned to Astor in 1818, but Astor had no further interest in the Columbia River fur trade. Fort George remained a North West post until the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Vancouver (1825) across the Columbia from the mouth of the Willamette River.
David Thompson left the Columbia River Basin in the spring of 1812 and returned to Fort William. Retiring from the North West Company, Thompson was allowed his share of the North West Company profits for the next three years. Thompson and his wife, Charlotte, moved to Terrebonne, north of Montreal where he and Charlotte had eight more children.
The David Thompson map was placed in the Great Hall of the North West Company headquarters at Fort William, which was located on Thunder Bay of Lake Superior. In 1814, he revised all of his surveys into a second great map measuring six and a half by ten feet long. The revised David Thompson map showed an accurate location of the North West Company posts.
Following the war of 1812, David Thompson surveyed the boundary between Canada and the United States. Thompson’s measurements were accepted by Canada and the United States without question.
With the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, both Thompson and his work were treated with indifference. The head of Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, Governor George Simpson, supplied Thompson’s survey data to mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith of London. Thompson received no credit for the data on the Arrowsmith’s maps.
David Thompson retired relatively wealthy, but financial reversals left him in poverty. In 1857, David Thompson died blind, penniless, and in virtual obscurity. Charlotte died three months later. David and Charlotte are buried side by side in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
In 1927, J. B. Tyrell edited Thompson’s journals for the Champlain Society and had a monument with a sextant on it placed on Thompson’s grave. This was the first act of public recognition for a man now grudgingly recognized as the worlds greatest land geographer (Gottfred).
David Thompson’s Accomplishments:
—For the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then as a wintering partner for the North West Company, David Thompson traveled fifty-five thousand miles.
—The map prepared by David Thompson filled in the blank spaces on one million nine hundred thousand square miles of northwest Canada.
—Thompson and his men erected the first establishments west of the Continental Divide in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
—Opened the first trade with the northwestern Indian tribes of the United States and Lower Canada.
—Recorded the first information on Northern Plains Indian warfare, guns, and horses (Josephy, Ewers).
—The North West Company map prepared by David Thompson covered an area of two million three hundred and forty thousand square miles from Lake Superior and Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Columbia River.
—Thompson accomplished all of this despite being crippled and blind in one eye
—Much to the chagrin of several North West partners, Thompson would not trade whiskey to the Indians.
Mountains of Stone a historical novel provides detailed information on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the fur trade with the upper Missouri and Plains Indians, as well as, the Hudson’s Bay and the North West Company traders. There is a detailed account of Alexander Mackenzie’s exploration to the Pacific and Alexander Henry (the younger) making pemmican at Pembina on the Canadian border..
The David Thompson article was written by Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.
Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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