David Thompson’s lonely crusade to open the west

With Bible and sextant he ranged the wilderness and charted half of Canada. He was one of the greatest map makers who ever lived, but he died in poverty, spurned by the nation he helped create

Frank Croft November 9 1957

David Thompson’s lonely crusade to open the west

With Bible and sextant he ranged the wilderness and charted half of Canada. He was one of the greatest map makers who ever lived, but he died in poverty, spurned by the nation he helped create

Frank Croft November 9 1957

David Thompson’s lonely crusade to open the west

With Bible and sextant he ranged the wilderness and charted half of Canada. He was one of the greatest map makers who ever lived, but he died in poverty, spurned by the nation he helped create

Frank Croft


Working largely on bootlegged time with handed-down instruments a fur trader once surveyed a two-million-square-mile block of the most hostile terrain in western North America. He produced a chart that was the basis of every Canadian government map for a hundred years and still can't be improved for accuracy; the range of his exploration leaves Stanley of Africa in his shadow and the precision of his work has led at least one authority to call him the greatest land geographer in history. For his efforts he died near Montreal as hungry as he grew up in the London slums. Few men have contributed more to building this country but the historians of the time plowed him under and he had to be “rediscovered" half a century later. And even this summer, when his name and buckskinned likeness were reproduced on a five-cent stamp commemorating the centennial of his death, few people who licked the gum on one side had any idea why David Thompson. 17701857. was imprinted on the other.

The handful who linked his name with the chief tributary of the Fraser River were only perpetuating one of the ironies that dogged Thompson's life; the ThompsonFraser system was almost the only major river complex in the western half of Canada he didn't chart—in fact, he never laid eyes on it. Simon Fraser named the Thompson in salute to the man who mapped the Columbia to its mouth, fixed the headwaters of the Mississippi, and surveyed most of the waterways between, the heights of the mountains that cradle them, and the breadth of the prairie tlatlands.

But young David Thompson was not engaged by the Hudson's Bay Company to make maps or indulge in amateur scientific research. He was brought out to trade in furs with the Indians. His surveys were a hobby frowned on by his superiors. He had been trading through what are now central Manitoba and Saskatchewan a short time when the chief factor at York Factory, Joseph Coien, got wind of his surveying. He told Thompson to pack up his instruments and get down to business. Except for a year or two after he went over

to the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s rival, in 1797, he was nagged by similar discouragements during the entire twenty-seven years he spent in the west.

Very little is known of Thompson's boyhood in London, but from the few recorded facts it is obvious that he started life under the same harsh penury that harassed him during his final years.

He was left fatherless when an infant. But he had one lucky star, for he managed to become enrolled at Grey Coat School in his parish of St. John the Evangelist. near Westminster Abbey.

Grey Coat was known as a parish charity school, but in the vernacular of the day was called a “ragged school"—for children of the poor. Two geography texts used by Thompson were nearly a hundred years old when he and his classmates first saw them.

Even so. Thompson satisfied the Hudson's Bay Company when it came to the school looking for new blood. In the school minutes there appears: “On the 20th of May David Thompson, a mathematical Boy belonging to the Hospital (school) was bound to the H. B. Coy. and the Treasurer then paid Mr. Thos. Hutchins. Corresponding Secretary to the said Company, the sum of five pounds for taking the said Boy apprentice for seven years.”

The young apprentice did not sail into Hudson Bay with a burning compulsion to map this new country. The spark that kindled that ambition was struck by another Englishman whom Thompson met during his fifth year in the west.

In the winter of 1789-90 at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River, the Hudson's Bay Company’s first inland trading post, Thompson met Philip Turnor. Turnor was a professional astronomer and surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company. Thompson showed interest in Tumor’s work, and Turnor, a willing tutor, taught the youth all he was to know or needed to know about astronomy and triangulation. Thompson’s diary never becomes emotional, but it is clear that a warm friendship developed. Thompson acquired a Dollond sextant that winter; it was probably a parting gift from Tumor.

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“The two Indians hauled him up the bank. He was naked but for his shirt. One leg was tom.”

From the spring of 1790 on, Thompson’s instruments were always beside him. He took countless positions by day and

night, jotting down the fixes and locations in notebooks—information which years later he was to transfer to his master map of the country. The Indian guides and voyageurs who frequently traveled with Thompson watched these rituals in

silent wonder. Within a few years Thompson was known to most of the Indians of the northwest—including many who had never seen him—as Koo-KooSint: “The Man Who Looks at the Stars.”

Besides making astronomy readings wherever he went, Thompson put his inquisitive mind to work on every natural phenomenon he encountered. When his mates were cursing and squirming under the first attacks of mosquitoes in the spring of 1785, Thompson stoically bared his arm and studied the insects’ attack under a magnifying glass.

Leaving entomology he would delve into etymology, studying and comparing the many Indian languages. He learned French from the voyageurs and compiled vocabularies of ten Indian tribal languages of the plains and coastal regions. Of these he could speak adequately in four — Chipewyan, Mandan, Piegan and Kootenay. It was from his Chipewyan friends that he learned of a short route into Lake Athabaska, by way of Reindeer Lake (in what is now northeast Saskatchewan). It offered quicker passage than the one then in use, via Ile à la Crosse and the Athabaska River. When Thompson asked to be sent on an exploratory trip over the new route, Colen hemmed and hawed about it for four years. Then, in 1796, he grudgingly gave his consent, but little help.

Thompson started from Fairford House, on the upper Churchill River. A fowling piece, shot and powder, a blanket, cotton tent, hatchet, fishing net and three flints were his complete kit for a journey of just under one thousand miles into unknown country.

Two Chipewyan Indians, who said they knew the Reindeer Lake route, offered to accompany him. The three men built and launched a canoe. From the west shore of Reindeer Lake they cut across to Wollaston Lake through a series of narrow creeks and ponds. The water was so low that this part of the trip entailed fifty miles of portaging.

Passing from Wollaston Lake into Fond du Lac River brought them out of the forest into the grey and silent world beyond the tree line. Barren rocky hills rolled up from the river, with here and there a tuft of stunted spruce or birch to accentuate the baldness of the country. A few derisive loons were the only sign of life above water, and the fish net yielded little. By the time they reached Lake Athabaska each man had lost ten pounds.

It was a contrast with the times when Thompson had seen the skies clouded with huge flocks of wild fowl — geese, ducks, curlews, brant. He had watched herds of deer such as no man had seen since the building of the railways—two hundred to three hundred in a herd drinking from the Saskatchewan River. North of the Ile à la Crosse country he once saw a herd of caribou which he estimated to number more than three million.

On the return trip Thompson decided to shorten the carrying distance by "tracking” the canoe through a long rapids which ended in a cascade; he would stay in the canoe and guide it while the Indians hauled it by a line as they worked their way along the bank.

They had barely started when the canoe swung across the current. Thompson shouted to let go the line. He

straightened the canoe but as it hung poised on the brink of the falls it swerved again, pitching him into the roaring waters. Thompson was forced to the riverbed but by bracing his feet on the stony bottom he managed to give himself a shove which brought him to the surface, close to the upturned canoe. He grabbed the craft and reached shore about a hundred yards below the falls.

The two Indians hauled Thompson and the canoe up the bank. He was naked except for his shirt and one leg had been torn open to the bone. While Thompson lay on the bank, bleeding, exhausted and tormented, the guides went down river to see what could be salvaged. They returned in half an hour with the precious instrument case, the map and three paddles; the gun, hatchet and tent had been fastened inside the canoe. The powder, flints and ammunition were lost.

One of the Indians, whose name was Kozdaw, ripped up the tent and wrapped the pieces around Thompson. His shirt was used to bind the leg wound. They made fire by using the flintlock of the gun. Although Thompson was not sure whether he would live or die, he sent the Indians to find birch bark and pine gum to mend the canoe. By morning they were ready to go on, although Thompson had to be lifted into the canoe.

Was it the eagle fat?

For two days they had nothing to eat. Early on the third day the Indians trapged a couple of gulls, their only food until the fifth day when they were re-entering the forest zone. Then they found an eagle’s nest containing three young eagles, and ate them. Kozdaw ate the lean meat only; the yellow fat he rubbed into his chest and arms. Thompson and the second Indian, Paddy, devoured both fat and lean. That night they were both awakened by severe attacks of dysentery. As they rolled on the ground in agony, Kozdaw pointed out that this was the result of eating the fat of predatory birds. Thompson asked why Kozdaw hadn't warned them. The Indian’s only reply was a shrug.

In his already weakened and battered condition. Thompson thought it was the end. At dawn he was writing a message on a piece of birch bark which Kozdaw was to take back to civilization, when a small hunting party of Chipewyans discovered them. The Indians prepared a herbal broth for the sufferers and gave them as much ammunition as they could spare.

By the time they reached Wollaston Lake, Thompson was able to carry some of their gear as he limped over the portages. They reached Fairford House just thirty-one days after they set out.

The results of this trail-blazing trek were double-edged: Colen showed the company’s favor by sending Thompson back into the newly opened country to open a trading post, then jumped him with orders to cut out his scientific timekilling and stick to trading furs. Thompson met him half way. He piled up pelts all winter, but stuck to his scientific sidelines whether the company liked it or not. That winter—1796—he made four thermometer readings a day on an instrument accurate to one hundred and ten degrees below zero. Until the first government weather bureau was opened in Toronto in 1839 Thompson’s records were the most complete temperature logs kept in Canada.

But it was against his honest nature to make observations and keep weather records when he had been ordered not to. After a winter of arguing with himself he came back to Fairford House in May 1797 with his mind made up. Even though it meant his job, he would not forsake his ambition to map this vast country whose rages, smiles and chilling aloofness he had come to love.

After turning in his furs and all company belongings at Fairford House, he bought a blanket, hatchet, kettle, ammunition and tea (like any Indian) at the post’s store and struck off into the bush to walk seventy-five miles to Fraser’s House, the nearest post of the rival North West Company. He was canny enough to wait until he had found out the kind of reception the Nor'Westers would give him, before quitting the job he had. He was warmly received at Fraser’s House and there he wrote his resignation to Colen.

Thompson wrote, in part: “How is it. Sir, that everyone who has once wished you well should turn to be indifferent to you, and even some to hate you, although they are constant in their other friendships—there must be a defect somewhere.” Leaving Colen to chew on that, Thompson went to work for the North West Company as official surveyor at twelve hundred dollars a year, four times what the Hudson’s Bay Company had been paying him. For two years he was excused from fur trading. He traced the Red Deer and Assiniboine rivers to their sources, descended the Assiniboine to the .Souris and followed it to the elbow (North Dakota), then set off by dog sled down the river to its junction with the Red—the present heart of Winnipeg.

In all his travels Thompson never allowed a day to pass without prayers and reading from the Bible. Everyone in the

party had to take part. He would read to the voyageurs in their own language, translating as he went, and cross-examine them afterwards. The phrase “God be praised” occurs frequently in his diary, and “with the help of God” appears where some future project is mentioned.

He was twenty-eight when he started down the Red River in 1798 on orders to find the source of the Mississippi. The gangling apprentice had matured into a slim wiry man. He was a good storyteller when anyone could draw him out, but his shyness made him a late-blossoming flower among strangers. His face was usually frozen in a solemn expression. His natural coloring, enhanced by wind and sun, made him indistinguishable from his canoemen. Thick black hair was cropped evenly around his head, covering his forehead as though whoever cut his hair used an inverted bowl. An English scientist with one of the international boundary commissions who met Thompson in Montreal during the 1820s said, “Never mind the Bunyan-like face. He has a powerful mind.”

David Thompson was tolerant about most things, but hated liquor to the point of fanaticism. He wrote a solemn account in his journal about an English soldier at Fort Churchill who used to drink with his tame polar bear, raised from a cub. One night they entered the canteen together and started drinking double brandies. The bear became sleepy and shuffled off to the sleeping quarters where he climbed up on the soldier’s bed. When the Englishman was ready to go to bed the bear woke up and wouldn't let him come near. For the first time in their long friendship the bear growled at his master and even took a couple of swipes at him, whereupon the soldier reached for his musket and despatched his drinking companion. Thompson gravely pointed to the bear’s death as the ultimate result of drinking.

Years later when he was leading North West Company brigades over the Rocky Mountains, a couple of kegs of rum showed up in a shipment of supplies. Thompson decided that the Kootenay. Snake and Salish Indians west of the Rockies would not be given the stuff if he could help it. He chose a particularly vicious pack horse for the rum. When the kegs had been secured to the animal, the half dozen men holding it sprang hack and the horse went into action. After ten minutes of bucking, kicking, and barging up against rocks and trees, only a few keg staves dangled from the horse's back; the ground for a hundred yards around was soaking up the rum. Thompson wrote a truthful report of what he had done and added that as long as he was in charge of the mountain brigades he would handle liquor consignments in the same way. Until 1812. when David Thompson left the west country, what is now British Columbia was bonedry.

One of the North West Company's reasons for giving the fur trader-surveyor such a warm welcome had been the general uncertainty about where the Canada-U. S. border would be fixed in the west. By this time it was apparent that it would either follow the 49th parallel, or a line running due west from the headwaters of the Mississippi. But no one knew where the source of the Mississippi was, and the parallel hadn't been surveyed in relation to the scattered trading posts of the fur companies. Some of the Nor’Wester's southerly posts might wind up on American territory, and the company wanted to know which ones. Thompson was assigned to find out.

In the spring of 1798 he started up the ice of the Red on foot, with the usual meagre pack and three French Canadians and an Indian. On the second day the thermometer fell to thirty below /ero; that night snow filtered through the tent walls. The men crouched near their fire all night in bone-aching cold while Thompson tried to keep their spirits up with alternate readings from the Bible, through chattering teeth, and stories (told in French) from the Arabian Nights.

Fate in March they reached a company post at Red l ake Falls in what is now northern Minnesota. Thompson obtained a canoe, thinking there should be enough free water from then on.

Two weeks later they were caught by a quick freezeup which sealed the rivers with midwinter temperatures. Thompson was too near his goal to willingly suffer delay. He built a sled, placed the canoe and supplies on it and then, with his men and himself in the traces, hauled the outfit twenty-one miles to Turtle l ake. Here, he decided, was the watershed of the area and the source of the Mississippi.

But the source of the Mississippi w'as to become the subject of much argument and even now the experts can't agree. I he Fncyclopedia Americana, for example, nominates Fake Itaska, a few miles south and west of Turtle Fake, as the true source. But the Britannica fixes it at I ittle Flk I ake, even closer to Thompson’s candidate.

I hompson went east from Turtle I ake and came out on Take Superior at Fond du Fac. now Duluth, Minn. There he found an abandoned twenty-eight-foot freighter canoe, which he patched up. He enlisted some help at the post and started on a survey of the entire shore of l ake Superior, reaching Grand Portage on June 7. An idea of the pace Thompson set for himself can be gained from the ilatcs of his travels. From the time he left the upper Churchill for his dash to the Athabaska country, to his charting of the Fake Superior coast was just under tw'o years. And from those two years must be taken the eight months spent at Reindeer Lake.

His sketch maps were now filled in with all the important lakes and rivers, heights of land and trading posts in what are now Manitoba, Saskatchewan, southeastern Alberta, northern Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

From Grand Portage he was sent to Fac la Biche (near what is now Edmonton). He reached Fac la Biche by way of Ile à la Crosse, where he fell in love with Charlotte Small, the beautiful fourteen-year-old daughter of a Scottish trader and half-breed mother. Thompson married the girl in 1799 and for several years his wife accompanied him on his voyages. Even when the family started to arrive—they had thirteen children—it was common to see Thompson, his wife, and two or three toddlers paddling through the wilds of the Columbia, Athabaska or North Saskatchewan countries.

Thompson was not the first white man to penetrate the Canadian Rockies, but it was characteristic of him that by exploring north of the well-known Howse Pass he should find an entrance offering easier passage to the Pacific — the Athabaska Pass. He discovered the pass in 1811 and from then until the coming of the railways it was the one most frequently used by traders, settlers and hunters.

Once over the Great Divide. Thompson surveyed the Columbia River through every inch of its twelve-hundred-mile course. The Kootenay, Clark Fork, and the Snake and Spokane Rivers followed, between 1807 and 1812. In the same period he added the Smoky River and large sections of the Peace River to the map.

In 1812 Thompson left the northwest for Montreal where the master map was drawn from his notes, sketch maps and observations. He returned it to the North West Company and it hung in the main hall of Fort William until 1821 when that company was absorbed by the Hudson's Bay Company. The map. Thompson’s journal and a few silver teaspoons from his household are now in the Ontario provincial archives, though no one seems to know' just how or w'hen they got there.

From Montreal, Thompson took his family to Williamstown. a small town in eastern Ontario. His savings from the fur trade had left him well-off, but money troubles were soon plaguing him. He set his older sons up in business. All failed, and Thompson had to pay off their creditors. He had been brought up in the Anglican Church but when he settled in Williamstowm he became a Presbyterian. He advanced money for a new church: when it became obvious that his fellow communicants were having a hard time to pay him back, he tore up the mortgage.

No one—friend or stranger—ever appealed to Thompson for help without getting it. As his money melted, jobs were given him. but never for long enough to enable him to regain his losses. He was a member of the British International Boundary Commission for a while, determining the course of the boundary line through the Thousand Islands in the upper St. Lawrence and as far west as the Lake of the Woods. He took a few surveying jobs for private concerns in the upper St. Lawrence valley, but his funds kept draining away.

He and his wife spent their final years in want. They moved to Longueuil, near Montreal, thinking Thompson would have a better chance of getting work. But no one wanted his services. His diary notes tell the grim story of his last days: "Borrowed two shillings and sixpence from a friend. Thank God for this relief”; and “offered Lake Superior chart to a friend tor five dollars. He would not take the chart but gave me the five dollars. A good relief, for I had been a week without a penny." David Thompson sold his coat in a Montreal secondhand shop to buy food. Then, rapidly, his precious instruments followed. He died in 1857 at eighty-seven.

J. B. Tyrrell, a later dean of Canadian geographers and geologists, has to be credited with the “discovery” of David Thompson. When Tyrrell followed Thompson’s trail from 1883 to 1898 he was so impressed with the trader’s achievements that he edited an autobiographical version of Thompson’s journals, which was published by the Champlain Society in 1916. Tyrrell described Thompson as the “greatest land geographer who ever lived." Since then other writers, notably Burpee, Cochrane and Laut, have delved into the Thompson story. A few monuments and bronze plaques have been put up—one stands over his grave in Mount Royal cemetery, another at Lake Windermere, B.C., where Thompson spent his first winter west of the Rockies. There is also a monument at Vérendry, North Dakota, near the site of a Mandan village he visited in the winter of 1797-98.

But Thompson’s greatest monument is his map. And his best epitaph was written by himself a few years before he died.

It is in the third person and is part of a prospectus he prepared, describing a new edition of the map which he hoped to publish (but which never was produced). Speaking of himself, he says: “In early life he conceived the idea of this work, and Providence has given him to complete, amidst various dangers, all that one man could hope to perform.” ^