FUR TRADER - EXPLORER - GEOGRAPHER
Written by Mark Weadick
No portraits of David Thompson are known to exist. Most
likenesses have been based solely on a verbal description
of Thompson provided by Dr. John Bigsby after the two
had met briely in 1819. In later years, one of Thompson's
daughters stated that her father had looked very similar to
John Bunyan, a 17th century Christian writer and preacher.
One of Thompson's grandsons described him as looking
much like Joseph Curran, a prominent, 19th century Cana-
dian lawyer and Member of Parliament. This likeness is a
composite of the three references.
Pen and ink sketch of David Thompson by Cricket Johnston,
used with permission http://www.rockmanstradingpost.com/DT.html
Working For the Hudson's Bay Company - 1784
"While the ship was at anchor, from my parent and friends it appeared only a few weeks' distance, but when the ship sailed and from the top of the rocks I lost sight of her, the distance became immeasurable and I bid a long and sad farewell to my…country and exile forever." It was September 1784 and David Thompson was 14 years old, standing on the shore of Hudson Bay, at Churchill Factory.
Thompson was born April 30, 1770 in London and schooled for seven years at the Grey Coat School. Being a bright student, he was "graduated" by the school and indentured to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) for seven years. David worked for the Company for the next 13 years.
In 1787, Thompson was assigned to a brigade to establish fur trade with the Blackfeet ("Peagans") on Canada's upper Saskatchewan River where he wintered, and learned their language.
Just before Christmas 1788, at Manchester House, Thompson slipped while pulling a sled of meat and severely broke his right leg. While convalescing over the next several months, he was tutored in celestial navigation by the company astronomer and surveyor Philip Turnor.
He could now compute longitude and latitude. From then on, David had a passion for mapping and surveying the routes he traveled and the locations of the trading posts he established for the company in the far north of Canada. In spite of his mapping for the next nine years, the company had promoted another employee to Chief Astronomer and Surveyor, and detailed Thompson to being a career Clerk.
Working For the North West Company - 1797
The North West Company (NWC), headquartered in Montreal, was the main competitor of the HBC and committed to extending the fur trade further west and across the Rocky Mountains. In May 1797, Thompson quit the company and went to work for the NWC. Thompson wrote, "This day left the Service of the Hudsons Bay Co. and entered that of the Company of Merchants from Canada… May God almighty prosper me."
His new employers wanted him to map their trading posts west of the Great Lakes to determine those that were below the 49th parallel and on U.S. soil. Thompson traveled with a crew of voyageurs from the NWC Grand Portage post during the fall of 1797 to the Red River and on to the Missouri River, wintering with Mandans. In the spring of 1798, he traveled and mapped his way east, locating the headwaters of the Mississippi River and on to Lake Superior, arriving on May 19 at the NWC post on the St. Louis River at the westernmost end of Lake Superior. Changing to a larger 28-foot canoe, Thompson traveled and mapped the perimeter of Lake Superior, arriving back at Grand Portage in late June. He had traveled over 4,000 miles. Thompson also determined that the Grand Portage post was on U.S. soil.
The map David Thompson made of his 1797-98 travels included the big bend of the Missouri River and Mandan Villages. Thomas Jefferson obtained a copy of Thompson's map, and the Louis and Clark Corps of Discovery had this map when they wintered at the Mandan Villages some seven years later.
Thompson Marries Charlotte Small - 1799
After establishing a trading post on Lake Athabasca, Thompson was returning to Grand Portage for the annual meeting in June. Stopping at Isle a la Crosse, he married Charlotte Small, the daughter of Patrick Small and a Cree woman, whom he had met the previous year. Charlotte was almost 14, and he was 29.
Promoted to a Wintering Partner - 1804
In June, Thompson - with fur-laden canoes - returned to the newly constructed NWC field headquarters at Fort William on Lake Superior. Upon arrival, he found out he had been made a Wintering Partner in the company and given 2 shares. Fall of that year found Thompson with Charlotte and their two children at Rocky Mountain House. He was the post factor now, and his mission was to carry the fur trade over the mountains and into the Columbia.
Across the Great Divide to the Columbia - 1807
After some false starts and opposition by the Peagans, Thompson with Charlotte and their three children crossed the mountains in June via Howse Pass. With him were Finan McDonald and a brigade of voyageurs to carry the supplies and trade goods. That summer he built Kootenae House on Lake Windermere, and going south he found the portage leading to the Kootenai River.
With much help from the Kootenae, Kalispel, Coeur d'Alene, and Spokane tribes in guiding and providing food for their annual brigades, Thompson established Kullyspel House on the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille, Saleesh House near Thompson Falls, and Spokane House Near Nine Mile Falls, carefully mapping their locations.
Turned Back By the Peagans - 1810
While Thompson was returning from Rainy Lake House in October, his canoes loaded with trade goods were turned back on the North Saskatchewan above Rocky Mountain House by a war party of Peagans. Thompson was forced to detour north to the Athabasca River in order to get the trade goods to his Columbia posts. In January 1811, they crossed the Athabasca Pass on 20 feet of snow and trudged down to the Columbia. Deep snow forced the small brigade to build and winter in a hut made of split cedar boards.
This winter camp was located on the big northern bend of the Columbia and became known as the Boat Encampment. From that time on, the Athabasca Pass and Boat Encampment were used to supply the Columbia Department with trade goods and for company transportation.
Thompson Builds a Cedar Plank Canoe and Heads South - 1811
Finding the "birch rind" too thin for making a canoe, Thompson felled big cedar trees and split out boards that were lashed to the bent ribs with tree roots. The seams were caulked with melted pine pitch. This was the first of nine such cedar plank canoes he would make while in the Columbia country.
On April 17, Thompson with a crew of voyageurs struggled in snow up the Columbia River in their heavily loaded canoe to the Kootenai Portage. They traveled down the Kootenai to supply Saleesh House, as well as Spokane House, which was built the previous year by Jaco Finlay with a crew of engaged Free Hunters.
On to the Pacific Ocean and Back - 1811
By June 19, David Thompson had visited Spokane House and traveled to Kettle Falls on the Columbia. At the falls, with the help of seven voyageurs, they built another cedar plank canoe. On July 3, Thompson and crew, plus "two Simpoil natives for Interpreters," headed down river for the Pacific Ocean.
This voyage was prompted by the knowledge that the Pacific Fur Company (PFC), an American company, had sent a ship as well as an overland brigade to the mouth of the Columbia in the spring of 1810 to build a fur trading post to compete with the NWC. On July 15, coming around Tongue Point, Thompson and crew saw log buildings on the south shore, and upon landing were met by "Messrs. McDougal, Stuart & Stuart" of the Pacific Fur Company. The trading post was named Fort Astoria.
After a cordial visit, Thompson and crew started back up the Columbia, and were followed by McDougal and company in a heavier boat loaded with trade goods. The PFC was going to compete directly with the NWC for the Columbia fur trade. Being in the lighter faster cedar plank canoe, Thompson outdistanced McDougal and, turning up the Snake River, landed at the Palouse village on August 8. The Indians gifted Thompson with 8 head of horses, and using the horses Thompson traveled north over the existing trail to Spokane House.
Thompson immediately set off for Kettle Falls. On September 2, he and his voyageurs finished another cedar plank canoe and paddled up the Columbia River for Boat Encampment to meet the trade goods coming over Athabasca Pass. This closed the Columbia River loop for David. Thompson had now traversed and surveyed the entire length of the river.
It was now September, and Thompson met the supply brigade - led by William Henry - as scheduled. As there was another load of goods to come over the pass, Thompson sent the first shipment downriver to Kettle Falls. Thompson then brought the remaining trade goods down river in another canoe, arriving at Kettle Falls on October 30. Since there was no one to meet him and the Indian village was deserted, Thompson and his voyageurs had to walk some 60 miles to Spokane House to get horses.
Thompson and his voyageurs then rode north and east to Saleesh House. On November 25, he met J.G. McTavish and J. McMillan with another load of trade goods from Rainy Lake House. David spent the rest of the winter at Saleesh House repairing buildings and making another cedar plank canoe.
Retiring From the Fur Trade - 1812
Thompson - with Finan McDonald and an Indian guide - explored the upper Clark Fork River reaching the Missoula area February 15. As he surveyed the valley from a ridge, he noted the Bitterroot River having been traveled by the American Lewis and Clark expedition. They all then returned down river to Saleesh House.
David had heard of Flathead Lake from the Indians, but still needed to see it and determine its location for mapping. Riding north, he reached the high divide on the south side of the lake on March 1. A view was all he had time for, and surveying the big lake's general location was the best he could do before returning to Saleesh House.
It was time to get the winter furs traded to Spokane House and up to Kettle Falls. On March 13, in two canoes with 42 fur packs weighing some 3780 pounds, Thompson and his voyageurs headed down the Clark Fork, along the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille, and overland on the Skeetshoo Road to Spokane House. They collected more fur packs and rode north to Kettle Falls, arriving March 31.
With the help of Jaco Finlay and the voyageurs, they built four more canoes - two of birch bark and two of cedar planks - to go with the two canoes already at the falls. This task was completed on April 21.
The next day, Thompson left with the canoe brigade upriver. The six canoes were loaded with 122 fur packs, approximately 7,500 beaver pelts, plus 300 pounds of dried provisions in each canoe. As David Thompson left Kettle Falls that day, he was also leaving the Columbia and the fur trade.
David Thompson had worked in the fur trade for 28 years and traveled over 50,000 miles. He was 42 years old.
David Thompson, with Charlotte and their five children, took up residence in the Montreal area. David and Charlotte had eight more children after they left the fur trade. Sadly, two of his children - John and Emma - died of roundworm infections in 1814.
Later in 1814, Thompson sold his map covering western Canada to the Arctic and Pacific as well as the upper Missouri and Oregon Territory to the North West Company. This map, measuring some 10 feet by 6 feet, was hung in the Great Hall at Fort William. This map survives today and is on permanent display at the Provincial Archives of Ontario in Toronto.
Thompson worked from 1816 to 1826 as an Astronomer and Chief Surveyor for the joint International Boundary Commission, surveying the United States-Canadian boundary through the Great Lakes and the boundary waters on through Lake of the Woods.
From a series of failed business investments and loans to "friends" that were never paid back, he and Charlotte were destitute by 1833. His house, farm, and other land holdings were sold to pay down his debts. He continued to do local land and boundary survey jobs but never financially recovered.
In 1843, he was able to sell his revised and updated map of Upper Canada to the Canadian Government for 150L, a fraction of what it's worth for the time and effort to produce the map. That same year, he was forced to sell all his surveying instruments.
In 1845, at the age of 75, Thompson started writing a narrative of his fur trade travels. He and Charlotte from that time on had to live with their daughter Elizabeth and her husband, William Scott. Thompson wrote four drafts of his travels, none of which were fully completed. During his lifetime he was unable to find a publisher. After his death, the family sold the manuscript to a lawyer. Some 30 years later it was found and purchased by J.B. Tyrrell who made edits and finally was able to get it published in 1916.
During the last seven years of his life, David and Charlotte - still living at their daughter and husband's house - did not socialize but spent their time together, often looking at the night sky.
David Thompson died February 2, 1857 at the age of 86. Charlotte died two months later. They are buried together in the Mount Royal cemetery in Montreal.
Sources of the River, by Jack Nisbet
The Mapmaker's Eye - David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau, by Jack Nisbet
Epic Wanderer, by D'Arcy Jenish
Sometimes Only Horses to Eat, by Carl W. Haywood
Columbia Journals, Edited by Barbara Belyea