English-Canadian Fur Trader, Surveyor and Explorer
David Thompson has been characterized as "one of the greatest practical land geographers the world has ever known," having done all his work in western North America, principally Canada and the northwestern United States.
Thompson was born in London, England, of Welsh immigrants. His father died when Thompson was only two years old. His formal education was limited to seven years of attendance at a London charity school for the poor, where he learned something of navigation and mathematics. In 1784 he went to Canada as an apprentice with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), landing at Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. Though principally assigned to do clerical work, he soon became a competent woodsman, familiarizing himself with the countryside. He learned surveying, astronomy, and applied mathematics with the HBC surveyor Philip Turnor (1789-90). During this time, he also lost the sight in one eye. Over the years, he spent some time living and trading with the various western Native American tribes. In 1794 he became an HBC surveyor, having decided to make that his profession.
In 1797 he accepted employment with the North West Company (NWC), remaining with them for 15 years. His motives for leaving the HBC without the customary one-year notice were controversial. This probably happened due to friction with his supervisors, since he was in a good position to advance and earn bonuses within HBS. He was at first a surveyor with the NWC, then a clerk trader, and finally a partner for six years (1806-12). During his first year with the NWC, he surveyed the 49th parallel from Lake Superior west to Lake Winnipeg, as well as the headwaters of the Mississippi River and parts of what are now the northern plains states. Over a period of several decades, he surveyed and mapped many of the river systems in Western Canada, traveling some 50,000 miles (80,467 km) over sometimes difficult terrain through what are now the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and portions of the Northwest Territories. In June 1799 he contracted a "fur trade" (common law) marriage with 13-year-old Charlotte Small, daughter of a retired Scots NWC partner and a Cree woman, with whom he had 13 children. They remained very close, and their union was regularized in Montreal in 1812.
In 1807 he discovered the source of the Columbia River, and during 1811 he mapped it from its source to its mouth. This work was accomplished in part because of NWC concern about American explorations, surveys, and business enterprises (mainly fur trading) in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon. Following his retirement from the NWC in 1812, Thompson continued a private surveying practice. At various times between 1817 and 1827, he surveyed the border between Canada and the United States from the Lake of the Woods east to the St. Lawrence River. He compiled a large, extremely accurate and detailed manuscript map of the areas he had traversed and studied. Measuring more than 5 by 10 feet, it covered approximately 1,700,000 square miles (2,735,885 sq km) in both nations, more than two-thirds of them in Canada. It included information from his own surveys and those of other explorers, among them Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838). It has been carefully safeguarded at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Thompson continued doing occasional smaller surveys during the 1830s. He purchased a farm in Ontario in 1815, and later was involved in several business enterprises, but afterward suffered a series of financial reverses. For a time in his mid-sixties, he was compelled to take up his old profession of surveying in order to stave off bankruptcy. Poverty-stricken in his last years, he began drafting a narrative of his experiences, which historians have found an invaluable view of exploration and fur-trading in the early nineteenth-century West. It is more interestingly written and refreshingly different from most of the official reports and histories put out over the years by the Hudson's Bay Company. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete it because he became completely blind in 1851. Fortunately, his wife was strongly supportive of him until the end. When he died in 1857, he was almost forgotten. His manuscript, dealing with events in his life and career down to 1812, was edited and published by J. B. Tyrell in 1916. In 1927, 70 years after his death, a monument was placed over his hitherto-unmarked gravesite in Montreal.
KEIR B. STERLING
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3408501666