David Thompson, explorer extraordinaire


By Timothy Harper

Originally appeared in SKY magazine

David Thompson was a monumental figure in North American history. A fur trader, an explorer and perhaps the greatest land geographer ever, he led expeditions through incredible hardship and danger to safety. His 77 journals made important contributions to our understanding of culture, history and everyday life in North America before Europeans brought horses, guns, alcohol and disease. And he and his American Indian wife lived one of the great love stories of all time.

So why haven’t you heard of 19th-century frontiersman David Thompson? No doubt one reason is that he spent most of his long life in Canada, and like most Canadians, even in the early 1800s, he wasn’t one to blow his own powder horn.

Another reason might just be chance. Consider the hoopla— documentaries, books, commemorations—for the bicentennial of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804–06 expedition. Yet it’s been said that Thompson made Lewis and Clark look like tourists. Thompson covered 80,000 miles by foot, horseback, dog sled and canoe—compared with Lewis and Clark’s 8,000-some miles. His maps, made with relatively crude instruments and seat-of-the-buckskin-pants reckoning, covered more than 1.5 million square miles and stand up well to today’s satellite images.

But if Thompson has been overlooked before, he’s now beginning to get the recognition he deserves. “He had an uncommon thirst for knowledge,” observes historian James Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. “He posed questions that other fur traders never asked. He had a special affinity for native people.” As the wild places Thompson mapped become more precious and the cultures he chronicled in his journals renew their links to the past, many have new reasons to appreciate that uncommon thirst for knowledge.

A Young Man on the Frontier
David Thompson was born in England in 1770. After the death of his father, 7-year-old David was placed in London’s Grey Coat School for orphans and foundlings. He showed an aptitude for mathematics, and at age 14 the Hudson Bay Company sent him to work as an apprentice clerk at its fur-trading posts in North America. Thompson learned the ritual of smoking tobacco with American Indians for the palaver of fur trading, and devoted himself not only to riding, shooting, hunting and fishing, but also to becoming a woodsman in the Indian style, as he wrote about years later:

I had always admired the tact of the Indian in being able to guide himself through the darkest pine forests to exactly the place he intended to go, his keen, constant attention to every thing; the removal of the smallest stone, the bent or broken twig; a slight mark on the ground, all spoke plain language to him. I was anxious to acquire this knowledge.

At 17, Thompson spent the winter in a camp of the Piegan tribe, part of the Blackfoot nation, learning the language and culture. He began keeping journals describing the nature and people around him. Here’s his description of a fishing scene:

With a Woman or a Lad to paddle and steer the canoe, the Indian with his long spear, stands on the gunwales at the bar behind the bow, and ticklish as the canoe is, and the Lake almost always somewhat agitated, he preserve his upright posture, as if standing on a rock. On the Lake, especially in the fore part of the day, a low fog rises on the surface of the water, caused by the coldness of the water and the higher temperature of the air; which hides the Canoe; and only the Indian Man, with his posed spear ready to strike is seen, like a ghost gliding slowly over the water.

Unlike Lewis and Clark, who described their encounters with American Indians in much the same way they catalogued the flora and fauna, Thompson could admire them as people, and even be envious of them at times. In one passage, he dwelled on the Indian men’s posture and grace as they walked. It’s easy to see why he might focus on this when one learns he was short and compact, more like the rough-hewn French Canadian voyageurs he often traveled the rivers with. Though no photographs exist of Thompson, descriptions tell us he was not a handsome man. He had weathered skin, deeply furrowed features and dark hair cut straight across his forehead.

An Adventuring Cartographer
At 19, laid up with a broken leg, Thompson wintered with the Hudson Bay Company’s top surveyor, Philip Turner, who showed him how to use surveying instruments. Until then, maps of Canada and the American Northwest were dominated by large blank spaces. Thompson literally filled in the blanks that covered one-fifth of the continent.

Using a sextant, compass, telescope and watch, Thompson often took sightings while standing in a moving canoe. He used the positions of the moons of Jupiter, and sometimes hours of calculations, for his reckonings.

Both Canadians and Indians often inquired of me why I observed the Sun, and sometimes the Moon, in the day time, and passed whole nights with my instruments looking at the Moon and Stars. I told them it was to determine the distance and direction from the place I observed to other places; neither the Canadians nor the Indians believed me for both argued that if what I said was the truth, I ought to look to the ground, and over it; and not to the Stars.

He found and mapped the headwaters of the Mississippi and Columbia rivers. He was the first white man—and maybe the first man, period—to traverse the length of the Columbia. By 1812, he had done what many others, including Lewis and Clark, had tried but failed to do: map a navigable water route from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. “Fur traders, immigrants and adventurers followed this route until the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completed 74 years later,” notes editor Barbara Belyea of the University of Calgary in David Thompson: Columbia Journals, a selection of Thompson’s journal entries.

Mapmaking required not only Thompson’s scientific skills, but also his sheer physical endurance. Each day of his travels was difficult and dangerous. Once, while fording a raging river, members of Thompson’s party had to grab onto their horses’ tails to keep from being swept away. Thompson’s canoes—up to 40 feet long, bearing up to 1 1/2 tons of furs and paddled by six to 12 voyageurs each—sometimes had to be carried around rocks and rapids or pulled upstream with ropes. It once took Thompson three days to cover 2 1/2 miles. Another time, his canoes shot 74 miles downstream in less than six hours. Going over one set of falls, Thompson and his men lost their canoes and almost all their gear. (A member of the party managed to save Thompson’s sextant.) They were near starvation when they limped into an Indian encampment a week later.

Through it all, Thompson never seemed to lose his enthusiasm for whatever lay around the next bend or over the next mountain. “A fine day,” he repeatedly exclaimed in his journal, even when it was sleeting or he was plagued by mosquitoes.

A Thoughtful Businessman
Across land that’s now Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, through much of present-day Montana, Idaho and Washington, wherever Thompson went, he was often the first white man there. He built trading posts, which helped bring modernization to the area. “He was an agent of revolutionary change in the region: Its history turns on the moment of his arrival,” historian Jack Nisbet wrote in Sources of the River, a 1994 book retracing some of Thompson’s journeys.

Instead of tanning animal skins and using thorns to sew garments from them as before, American Indians could make clothes with fabric and needles that Thompson traded for beaver and other pelts. He brought iron arrowheads, the first pots and pans, good tobacco for peace pipes, and guns that made the Indians more productive hunters.

Thompson was unusual among fur traders in that he did not like to trade liquor to Indians. “He saw many tragedies of abuse, maimings and killings that he attributed directly to the sale of liquor as a trade item,” Canadian historian Pat McDonald says. Here’s what happened when he told one tribe that he would not trade liquor:

The Women were pleased, and said all the Men were fools that drank fire water . . . the Women in general kept themselves sober, and when the men were about to drink hid all the Arms, and Knives and left them nothing but their teeth and fists to fight with.

Once when he was packing for a trading trip, his partners insisted that he take along two casks of rum:

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, and for the next six years I had charge of the furr trade on the west side of the Mountains, no further attempt was made to introduce spirituous Liquors.

Thompson apparently never had any gun battles with Indians, though he talked his way out of numerous sticky situations. The Blackfeet, especially, threatened him for trading guns to rival tribes. Thompson bargained, cajoled and once in a while tricked Indians, and he wasn’t above giving a belligerent warrior a bloody nose.

But he was respected by Indians for his morality and fairness, and was occasionally asked to arbitrate their disputes. They called him “Koo-Koo-Sint,” or “Stargazer,” and some believed he saw the future in the stars. When word spread that Koo-Koo-Sint was approaching a tribe’s territory for the first time, a chief would come out to meet his party, knowing that Thompson would have goods to trade.

A Doting Father and Husband
At 29, Thompson took a wife: Charlotte Small, the daughter of a Cree woman and a Scottish fur trader. Many white fur traders had one or more native families, and most of them, like Charlotte’s father, abandoned those families when they retired to the East or Europe. Thompson doted on his wife, and she often helped him in his work; her knowledge of various dialects and languages was particularly helpful. When they started having children—they had five while living in the wilderness—Thompson often took the whole family on the trail. It must have been quite a sight: Charlotte, often pregnant, and a gaggle of small children in canoes or on horseback amid the voyageurs and Indian scouts, moving from camp to camp every night. During winters the family holed up together in cabins at trading posts.

David Thompson left the West in 1812, at age 42. He had been in the wilderness for 28 years, and never returned. He took his family to Montreal, where he and Charlotte formally married and had eight more children. He worked as a surveyor, primarily charting U.S.-Canada boundaries, and his maps were official for both countries into the 1950s.

As he got older, Thompson slipped into blindness, obscurity and poverty. Money he had loaned and invested was never repaid. He spent years going through his old journals and writing a narrative to raise money. Charlotte and the daughter they lived with often heard him chuckling as he relived his adventures. But his narrative was not published until 1916, decades after his death. He finally pawned his sextant to buy food.

Despite all his woes, Thompson was not bitter in old age. He said he had accomplished “all that one man could hope to perform.” He died in 1857, at age 87. Charlotte, his wife of 58 years, “proud to be the wife of such a fine man, who knew the ways of my people and would never disgrace me before them,” died three months later.