The HBC Years

David Thompson’s achievements as an explorer and surveyor have earned him the reputation as one of the best pioneering geographers in Canadian history. Each day, regardless of where he found himself, he would faithfully write down the latitude, longitude, temperature and the geographical characteristics of his location. In this way he mapped almost half of North America between the 46th and 60th parallels, from the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes all the way to the Pacific.

David Thompson was born in London in 1770. He was enrolled in the Grey Coat Hospital, a charity school established for underprivileged children, at the young age of seven. In 1784 Hudson’s Bay Company hired him as an apprentice for a seven year term. Setting sail aboard the Prince Rupert, he arrived at Fort Churchill and spent his first year of service there. He then received the order to head to York Factory to work as a clerk.

From 1786 to 1788, the young apprentice was dispatched to various inland regions. During this time he learned the Cree language. Having spent one winter season with the Piikani (Peigan) people in the Rocky Mountains foothills, he learned the Blackfoot language as well.

Philip Turnor Surveying Lake Athabasca, oil sketch by Lorne Bouchard

On December 23, 1788 at Manchester House (near modern North Battleford, SK), Thompson seriously fractured his right leg in a sledding accident. This event would be a major turning point in his career. As his recovery was slow, he was transported to Cumberland House in the spring. The following winter, still recuperating, Thompson met Philip Turnor, Hudson’s Bay Company’s official surveyor. Turnor and his team were headed to the Athabasca region. Under his tutelage, Thompson studied mathematics, surveying and astronomy. In 1790 Turnor wrote to the London Committee about the skill of his protégé:

I have inserted some Observations which were made and worked by Your Honours' unfortunate apprentice, David Thompson. I am fully convinced they are genuine, and should he ever recover his strength far enough to be capable of undertaking expeditions I think Your Honours may rely on his reports of the situation of any place he may visit.

David Thompson taking an observation
Drawing by Charles William Jefferys
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-1406

Later that year, still too weak to accompany Turnor’s party to Athabasca, Thompson was sent from Cumberland House to York Factory. Now approaching the end of his apprenticeship, Thompson asked the Company’s officers in London, in a letter dated August 30, 1790, to send him a sextant and several other navigational instruments. In another letter, he submitted his topographical observations made of his journey from Cumberland House to York Factory, and requested that he be sent on surveys. Thompson’s letters were well received. He was awarded the customary three year contract as a clerk and was provided with the surveying instruments he sought.

By 1792, Thompson was instructed to continue Turnor’s work in the Athabasca with a survey of the waterway through the Muskrat region. Unfortunately, this expedition could not be completed at that time. Thompson obtained a second mandate in 1795. Although more direct, the new route to Lake Athabasca was barely passable for canoes loaded with trade goods.

In 1796, Thompson was named “Master to the Northward”. In that position his primary responsibility would have been the management of a successful fur trade. Unwilling to give up his surveying work, Thompson decided to leave the Hudson’s Bay Company for its main competitor, the North West Company. On May 8, 1797, at the age of twenty-seven and determined to pursue a life of exploration and mapping, Thompson left HBC. He arrived at Grand Portage, the North West Company's headquarters on Lake Superior, on July 22, 1797. The North West Company welcomed him with open arms.

Tracing the Columbia

American Chief Justice John Jay’s Treaty of 1794 resolved many issues outstanding between the U.S. and Great Britain following the American War of Independence. But in 1797 the boundary between British and American territory west of Lake of the Woods was still unresolved. Thompson’s first job for his new employer was to make a survey westward along the 49th parallel and to chart the position of the NWC posts.

Over the course of the next year Thompson mapped the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. In February 1798 he set out to discover a connecting route between the Red & Mississippi Rivers and the NWC’s headquarters at Grand Portage. He reported the source of the Mississippi to be Turtle Lake in northern Minnesota, a claim which later proved to be accurate to within a few miles. During these travels he mapped the locations of all the NWC trading posts, many of which were now south of the border.

Statue of David and Charlotte Thompson from Invermere, British Columbia
Ross MacDonald, Parks Canada, 2006

Between 1799 and 1806, Thompson mapped the entire trading territory east of the Rockies. At Île-à-la-Crosse in 1799 he married thirteen year old Charlotte Small, the daughter of NWC Partner Patrick Small and a Cree mother. Fluent in both Cree and English she was to become Thompson’s lifelong companion, bearing him 13 children: seven boys and six girls. She and their growing family accompanied him many of his subsequent travels.

In the fall 1800 Thompson explored the area south and west of the new post of Rocky Mountain House, travelling as far as present day Calgary and back. In June 1801 he made an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the formidable barrier of the Rockies. The following year he descended the Saskatchewan River, travelling all the way to the new NWC post at Fort Kaministiquia on Lake Superior. Later renamed Fort William (modern Thunder Bay, ON) this post became the NWC’s new Headquarters in 1803, replacing Grand Portage which now lay in American territory.

For the next few years, Thompson combined trading and surveying into his work as a NWC clerk. In 1804 he became a Partner in the Company. At the Company’s annual meeting at Fort William it was decided to establish a route across the Rockies and open up trade with the natives on the other side.

Fort William, an establishment of the North West Company, on Lake Superior, [ca. 1811] Watercolour by Robert Irvine
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-290

On May 10, 1807, the Thompson family, along with 9 others, set out to traverse the Rockies. Travelling up the North Saskatchewan River they crossed over by way of Howse Pass. They descended the Blaeberry River arriving June 30 at its junction with the Columbia. However, since the Columbia flows north at this point, not south, Thompson decided that the river he saw could not be the Columbia. Turning south, he headed upstream, arriving at Lake Windermere on July 18. Near the south end of the lake the men built Kootenae House, where they spent the winter trading with the local Kootenay tribe.

In the spring of 1808, Thompson left Kootenae House, travelling south across the portage at Canal Flats to the Kootenay River. He followed it into Montana and Idaho before returning to Kootenae House and crossing back over the mountains. Later that summer he travelled with Alexander Henry the Younger to Fort Vermilion at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Vermilion rivers, east of Edmonton. By November 10 he was back at Kootenae House. The following year found him back in Montana and Idaho, where he established Kullyspell House on Lake Pend Oreille and Salish House on the Clark Fork River.

By the fall of 1810 it was clear that the Piikani, one of the Blackfoot tribes, were determined not to let the Europeans into the Kootenay country again. The two tribes were traditional enemies. In order to prevent the Kootenay from gaining access to firearms, they effectively blocked the southern passes. That meant that a different route, one that bypassed their territory, needed to be developed. According to the journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, Thompson would ”endeavour to open a new road from North branch [of the Saskatchewan] by Buffalo Dung lake [Chip Lake] to the Athabasca river, and thence across the mountains to the Columbia …'

David Thompson in the Athabasca Pass, 1810
Drawing by Charles William Jefferys
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-9

Thompson set out December 29, 1810. After much hunger and hardship, he crossed the mountains through the Athabasca Pass – a brutal route west via the Athabasca, Whirlpool and Wood Rivers – reaching the forks of the Columbia and Canoe rivers on January 18, 1811. After the harsh crossing his men refused to go on, and he was forced to spend the winter nearby at a place called Boat Encampment.

In the spring the party constructed canoes out of cedar, there being no suitable birchbark to hand. Still apparently convinced that the northward flowing river could not be the Columbia he sought, Thompson instead chose the route he knew, travelling upstream to Kootenae House, by portage to the Kootenay River, and south to Spokane House. He arrived by horse, at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River at the end of June. Knowing the geographical positions of the NWC’s Columbia posts, he realized that the Pacific and the mouth of the Columbia were not far away. He arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean on July 14, 1811, only to discover Astoria, the new post of American John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, which had been founded three months earlier.

The return journey was no less arduous. Leaving Astoria in July 1811, the party retraced its route to Spokane House, thence overland to Kettle Falls. Canoe bound once more, Thompson made his way upstream as far as Boat Encampment, thereby completing his survey of the mighty Columbia, albeit by a very circuitous route. For much of his journey, in fact he had travelled its course upstream. By the end of November he was back at Salish House, where he wintered. The following spring, he travelled back up the Columbia to Boat Encampment and onwards to the Athabasca pass, which he crossed on May 8th, 1812. He reached Fort William on July 12th.

At this point Thompson decided to leave the North West Company. On August 24, 1812, Thompson left Fort William. He surveyed the north shore of Lake Superior on his way east and finally he arrived at Terrebonne, north of Montreal, that fall. After twenty-eight years he had traveled over 88,500 km (55,000 miles), and surveyed 4.92 million sq. km. (1.9 million square miles) of wilderness. He was forty-two years old. 

The Man who Looks at Stars

After his retirement from the North West Company in 1812, Thompson settled in Terrebonne, north of Montreal, with his family. At their summer meeting at Fort William the NWC Partners had decided that Thompson should be allowed his full share in the profits of the Company for the next three years and one hundred pounds besides. This income would allow him to complete his charts and maps and deliver them to Company’s agents in Montreal.

Map of the North-west Territory of the Province of Canada by David Thompson (1770-1857). [1814] Archives of Ontario. F 443, R-C(U), AO 1541

Thompson soon completed a large map of the entire Northwest, from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific. This meticulously detailed map hung for many years at Fort William. In 1814, he revised this map; this second great map, measuring 6½' high by 10' long, showed the location of every North West Company post. Today a copy of this map is on display to the public at the Archives of Ontario, in Toronto. Many years later, Thompson would compile an atlas which covered the same terrain in much greater detail. Although he hoped to sell it, he was never able to find to a publisher for his atlas of the west.

In 1815, Thompson settled in Williamstown, Ontario (southeast of Ottawa near Winchester) where he was based for the next 10 years. In 1817 he began working as an astronomer and surveyor for the International Boundary Commission to determine the precise location of the border with the United States from Quebec as far as Lake of the Woods. His financial fortunes began to decline in 1825 with the bankruptcy of a company in which he had invested a large portion of his life's savings. In 1833, at age 63, Thompson found employment carrying out hydrographic surveys for proposed canal projects and exploratory land surveys in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for the British American Land Company. In 1837, Thompson surveyed the Muskoka region of southern Ontario, trekking from Georgian Bay to the Ottawa River in search of an alternative canal route to the Great Lakes. But subsequent years proved very hard, and despite small projects such as the mapping of Lac Saint-Pierre and street surveys in Montreal, he was frequently penniless.

Following the merger of the NWC and HBC in 1821 Thompson’s work had been treated with indifference. It almost seems as if HBC never forgave him for leaving in 1797. George Simpson continued to send Thompson's survey data to mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith of London, who used it freely without crediting the explorer. After Thompson's protests, the British foreign secretary paid Thompson the paltry sum of £150 to compensate him for the information that had been sent to Arrowsmith. But his maps and the completed atlas that he had sent to the Foreign Office in 1843, were neither returned nor paid for.

In 1846, at age 76, his vision became so bad that he could no longer work. The following year, he began to write up his memoirs, basing them on the 39 parts of his personal journals. It was a work he would not complete. Over the remaining years of his life, he was forced to sell all of his possessions, including his instruments, to support his large family.

Thompson spent his final years living with his daughter, first in Montreal and then in Longueuil. He died in 1857. Charlotte, his faithful companion for most of her life, followed three months later. They are buried side by side in Montreal's Mount Royal cemetery.

Thompson’s significance as a geographer and mapmaker cannot be underestimated. Not only was he the first to chart vast regions of the continent, but his work was so accurate that it remained the basis of all maps of the west for almost a century. The same meticulous observational skills that made him a superb surveyor also made him an excellent naturalist. His journals are full of acute details of the plants, animals and birds he encountered. His intellectual curiosity was broad: he reports various natural phenomena, such as meteor showers, as well as conditions such as snow blindness, which he realized was more prevalent among blue-eyed people.

Thompson enjoyed excellent relations with the First Nations. He spoke at least four indigenous languages (Blackfoot, Kootenay, Chipewyan and Mandan) and compiled a number of dictionaries. He respected aboriginals, their ways and beliefs. He believed in judging First Nations people on their own terms, not those of the Europeans. They, in turn, marvelled at the one they called Koo-koo-sint – “The Man who Looks at Stars”.

Thompson was an evocative story-teller, a talent that is revealed in his journals. These were finally published thanks to the efforts of Dr. Joseph Burr Tyrell, the Canadian mining engineer and explorer. Throughout his life Tyrell (1858-1957) was keenly interested in the history of the fur trade. He collected documents related to it including, in 1895, the unfinished manuscript of Thompson’s narrative and his journals. He completed the narrative of Thompson's explorations and accomplishments which was finally published by the Champlain Society under the title David Thompson, Narrative of his Explorations in Western America 1784-1812.

David Thompson stamp and First Day Cover
Elizabeth Hutchinson collection, Library and Archives Canada
© Canada Post Corporation {1957}. Reproduced with Permission

In 1957 the Canadian Government remembered David Thompson with a postage stamp.  Today, Thompson is commemorated by monuments at Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, Lake Windermere, B.C., Lac La Biche, Alberta and finally in Mount Royal Cemetery. In 1927 the Champlain Society erected a sculpted Grecian column, originally surmounted by a brass sextant, atop his previously unmarked grave. The inscription, by J.B. Tyrell, reads: “To the memory of the greatest of Canadian geographers …”.