The Mapmaker of the West
Also titled "David Thompson in the Athabasca Pass, 1810"
In 1770, when Alexander Mackenzie was a six-year-old boy, growing up on the wild sea coast of the Hebrides in far northern Scotland, there was born in the heart of London, another boy, whose name was to stand with his own in the history of exploration in western North America. His name was David Thompson, and though his career has many striking resemblances to that of Mackenzie, his personality and fortunes present an equally striking contrast. His parents were of Welsh ancestry, and thus both he and Mackenzie were alike in their Celtic origin. Like Mackenzie, too, he was thrown on his own resources early in life, for David was only two years old when his father died, and his mother was left in poor circumstances. At the age of seven she had him admitted to the Grey Coat School in Westminster, an institution designed "to educate poor children in the principles of piety and virtue, and thereby lay a foundation for a sober and Christian life." In this old school, situated within a short distance of Westminster Abbey, David passed the next seven years.
In 1784, the school bound him as an apprentice for a term of seven years to the Hudson's Bay Company, which had applied for boys proficient in mathematics and navigation for their service in Canada. Evidently David had made sufficient progress in these studies to be qualified for the situation, and he was selected. So, at the age of fourteen, the boy whose farthest travels hitherto had extended only to the neighbouring streets and the precincts of the ancient Abbey, set out upon a life that was to lead him for thousands of miles on the wild rivers, across the lonely lakes and unknown mountains of western Canada.
In May, 1784, he sailed from London for Hudson Bay. It was September before he set foot ashore at Churchill, where Samuel Hearne, the explorer of the Coppermine River, was in charge of the Company's post. Thompson spent his first winter under him, and no doubt the association with the adventurous traveller, whose story he probably heard from his own lips, strengthened the boy's own inborn desire to be himself an explorer.
The next year he made the first of his many journeys: he was sent to York Factory, a hundred and fifty miles away to the south. It must have been a thrilling experience for the fifteen-year-old city boy. The journey was made on foot, along the low-lying shores of the bay. Two Indians went with him as guides and hunters. It was autumn, the days were bleak and chill, the wild geese were flocking south, in the woods were deer and rabbits. The travellers had to subsist on the game they killed by the way, for they carried no provisions with them, and it is probable that it was on this journey that Thompson got his first practice in the use of the musket, an art in which he later excelled, becoming an excellent shot and an indefatigable hunter.
This journey was the beginning of some twenty-eight years of travel in the wilds, on foot, on snowshoes, on horseback, by canoe, in which he traced a tangled trail over all the country between the Great Lakes and the Pacific. His main employment was fur trading, he was sent from post to post, or directed to open up untouched territory for new business; but where ever he went, he carried his sextant and compass and notebooks. Year after year he made his observations, calculated his positions and distances and altitudes, and set down the topographical character of the country, until he had pieced together a map of north-western America that is the basis of all our later maps, and so accurate that modern surveys have revealed only minor errors of detail. The magnitude and excellence of his work is only now being realized; his painstaking explorations did not possess the dramatic features of Mackenzie's dashing expeditions, but they were every whit as adventurous, and the growing knowledge of Thompson's achievements has placed the charity school boy among the world's greatest geographers.
It is impossible in a brief sketch to give more than a bare outline of his career; but he has left the record of his life-work not only on the map of Canada and in his field notes, but also in the 1Narrative of his travels which he wrote late in life. It is crowded with marvellously interesting adventures, full of the most valuable observations of Indian life and the physical features of the country, told in a way that reveals his own quaint, and altogether admirable personality.
During the years of his apprenticeship, in the scant leisure left him by the absorbing business of fur trading, he took advantage of every opportunity for the study of surveying, and the observation of nature. It has been well said of him that he knew the stars as well as he knew the Indians. He remained in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company for thirteen years, his duties taking him to the prairie country, the wooded and swampy lands between York Factory and Lake Winnipeg, the lower Saskatchewan and the Churchill Rivers. He had gained much experience; but his desire for wider explorations, and dissatisfaction with some of the Hudson's Bay Company's officers decided him in 1797 to leave their service, and to join the North West Company, whose field of operations extended farther inland, and whose policy seemed to promise more scope for his special talents.
With the new company he extended his surveys to the Missouri, where he met the Mandans, that strange tribe which La Verendrye had visited fifty years earlier, to the head waters of the Red River, the Mississippi, and the Saskatchewan, to Lesser Slave Lake and Peace River, then through the Rocky Mountains, to the Kootenay Country, across the present states of Idaho, Montana and Oregon, and finally to the mouth of the Columbia River; and all this while actively engaged in the fur trade and establishing new posts for the company throughout the territory he explored.
Thompson had grown up in the wilds: for twenty-eight years he had lived among Indians, half-breeds and fur traders; these he knew intimately, but since his boyhood days in London, he had seen nothing of towns or cities. In 1812, at the age of forty-two, he left the West for ever. In the spring of that year he set out from his post in the present-day State of Montana on his way eastward. After a toilsome journey, and a narrow escape from capture by the Americans, who had declared war early in the summer, he reached Montreal safely in September.
He had married a half-breed girl in 1799, and, unlike many of the fur traders, he did not abandon her when he returned to civilization. She had been his frequent companion on his travels, five children had been born to them, and now, with his wife and family he made his home in Terrebonne, near Montreal, a village where many of the North-West traders settled when they retired from active service.
During the years 1813-1814 he was at work on the great map of the Western Country, which he drew for the use of the company. For some years it hung in the banqueting hall of the post at Fort William, and is now in the possession of the Ontario Archives at Toronto. During the War of 1812 he served as ensign in a regiment of Canadian Militia, commanded by Lieut-Col. Roderick Mackenzie, in which his old companion in the west, Simon Fraser, the explorer of the, Fraser River, was also enrolled. In 1816 he was appointed by the British Government as their "astronomer," or surveyor, to the Board of British and American Commissioners for the definition of the boundary line between the United States and Canada. On this he was engaged for ten years, his work extending from the St. Lawrence through the Great Lakes to the north-west angle of the Lake of the Woods. Surveys on the St. Lawrence, of the route between Lake Huron and the Ottawa, and of the streets of Montreal rounded out his public work. Probably no one man has surveyed geographically so large an extent of Canada's territory.
Thompson's character was marked by those "principles of piety and virtue" which it was the aim of the Grey Coat School to establish in its pupils; and this early influence undoubtedly strengthened his moral nature throughout his life. He was a sincerely devout man: his simple faith shows itself frequently in his journals by such phrases as "thank Good Providence," and similar expressions of gratitude for Divine protection and the success of his work.
He strongly opposed the use of spirituous liquors in traffic with the Indians, and refused to take them into his western posts. He tells in an amusing way how he circumvented his partners when he was compelled by them on one occasion to carry some spirits with him for trade. "I placed the two Kegs of Alcohol on a vicious horse; and by noon the Kegs were empty, and in pieces, the Horse rubbing his load against the rocks to get rid of it; I wrote to my partners what I had done; and that I would do the same to every Keg of Alcohol."
Those who knew him bear witness to his interesting and estimable character. Dr. Bigsby, his associate on the Boundary Commission, gives us many graphic details. "His figure was short and compact, his hair was long all round, and cut square just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardener's ruddy brown, the expression friendly and intelligent; but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he has a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture making." On Sundays, in camp, he conducted religious service for the French-Canadian voyageurs. "Our astronomer, Mr. Thompson, was a firm churchman"; says Dr. Bigsby, "while most of our men were Roman Catholics. Many a time have I seen these men most attentively and thankfully listen, as they sat upon some bank, to Mr. Thompson, while he read to them, in most extraordinarily pronounced French, three chapters out of the Old Testament, and as many out of the New, adding such explanations as seemed to him suitable."
Unforgettable is this glimpse, a Canadian "Saint Jerome in the Desert" picture. The Boundary Commission was on the north shore of Lake Superior, and Bigsby had gone into the hills in search of geological specimens. He says, "I came to a ravine some five-hundred feet deep, young shrubs clung to its shelving and shattered sides, great blocks fallen from above, filled its bottom. The lake was white with foam and the few stunted trees bent before the gale. I saw in the depths of the chasm, a figure kneeling, bare headed, on a flat rock. His back was turned to the wind, his iron-grey locks streamed before his face. It was our astronomer who, like Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, had escaped from the camp to worship the Lord."
Thompson's closing years were in painful contrast to those of the prosperous and honoured Mackenzie. After living for a while at Terrebonne, he removed to Williamstown, in Glengarry County, Ontario, where he bought a comfortable estate and passed some years in easy circumstances. His family had increased to thirteen; as his sons grew up he established them in business; but evil days came, they failed, and Thompson exhausted his means in paying their debts. He moved again to Longueuil, opposite Montreal. For a time he was able to work and support himself, but his eyesight failed. He fell into dire poverty. he had to sell his instruments, to pawn his clothing and was glad to accept small loans to provide the necessities of life. Some of the entries in his notebooks are pathetic: "Borrowed two shillings and six pence from a friend. Thank God for this relief." "He loaned me five dollars. A good relief, for I had been a week without a penny." He lived on until his eighty-seventh year. He died at Longueuil in 1857. His wife died three months later. They were buried together in Mount Royal Cemetery, and for many years no stone marked their grave. Today a simple monument stands to commemorate Thompson's work for Canada, and indicates the final resting place of the long life-journey that began in ancient Westminster.
1 Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America,1784-1812.
- Jefferys, Charles W. (1934) Canada's Past in Pictures, p.105
- Gibbon, John Murray. (1939) New World Ballads, p. 34
- Jefferys, Charles W. (1945) The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Vol. 2 , p.147
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Jenish, D’Arcy. Epic wanderer: David Thompson and the mapping of the Canadian west. Lincoln, U of Nebraska Press, 2003. 309 p. Illus. p. 166 - “Thompson in the Athabasca Pass, January, 1811”
Binning, Alexander. “Samuel Hearne and David Thompson, trekking in the footsteps of the Enlightenment: a retrospective review essay.” In Manitoba History, no. 49, June 2005. 7 - “David Thompson in the Athabaska Pass, 1810. Drawing by C.W. Jefferys. Source: Library and Archives Canada”
Carter-Edwards, Dennis. David Thompson, George E. Shaw and Peterborough. Peterborough, Peterborough Historical Society, 2010. 24 p. Illus., p.7 - “C.W. Jefferys, David Thompson, Mapmaker of the West, in Jefferys, Canada’s Past in Pictures”