Skip navigation links (access key: Z)Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives CanadaSymbol of the Government of Canada
Français - Version française de ce siteHome - The main page of the Institution's websiteContact Us - Institutional contact informationHelp - Information about using the institutional websiteSearch - Search the institutional - Government of Canada website

Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
Graphical element


David Thompson (1770 - 1857)

Of modest origins, David Thompson was born at Westminster, England, in 1770. He attended a school for poor children, where he did so well in math and navigational techniques that, at the age of 14, he was hired as an apprentice by the Hudson's Bay Company. He was sent to Hudson Bay as a clerical assistant and had the good fortune to spend his first year with the explorer Samuel Hearne at Fort Churchill, transcribing parts of the manuscript of his voyages. Immobilized by a bad fracture at Fort Cumberland in the winter of 1789-1790, Thompson met Philip Turnor, who taught him and Peter Fidler surveying and astronomy. Thompson acquired from his teacher a sextant, a telescope and nautical almanacs.

At the end of the summer of 1790, Thompson offered his services to the Company's secretary to conduct observations along the coast of Hudson's Bay. A first project to continue Turnor's work in Athabasca in 1792 was aborted because of friction with Native people and disputes among Company employees. In the spring of 1795, he learned that he had been appointed as surveyor since May 1794, with a considerable salary, but had been assigned jobs other than surveying. Frustrated at not being able to ply his trade, Thompson left the Hudson's Bay Company for the North West Company on May 23, 1797. He was starting a new life.

There was no map sufficiently precise to satisfy the requirements of the Jay Treaty of 1794 on the southwest boundary of the Great Lakes area that had been discovered by the La Vérendryes half a century earlier, so Thompson began to survey it. The Jay Treaty obliged merchants to respect the boundary as set by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the American Revolution, but enforcing this remained difficult as the precise location of the boundary was unclear. One year later, Thompson provided the most precise observations yet available on the area between the Red River, Missouri and the Mississippi.

In 1798, Thompson surveyed the territory around the Churchill River to the source of the North Saskatchewan River and continued to the Athabasca River before returning via the Methye portage. Returning through the same area the following year, on June 10 1799, at Île-à-la-Crosse, Thomspon married Charlotte Small, Métis daughter of Patrick Small, an associate of the North West Company. This young woman, age 13, would accompany him on almost all his voyages and the happiness and stability of their marriage  --  not common then  --  would be enviable.

Painting by George Back: Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

In 1801, Thompson tried to find a favourable route to the Pacific by going on the Ram River, but high water levels forced him back to Rocky Mountain House. More than ever, he was gripped by the desire to explore a new route to the sea after the American expedition of Lewis and Clarke in 1806, which had reached the mouth of the Columbia River by going through the area south of the Canadian border. The North West Company needed to know if this river could serve as an access route to its trading territories. It became imperative for the Company to establish a presence in the area and, possibly, to modify its barter system to include the Columbia. Thompson was given this mandate.

Thompson left on the North Saskatchewan with nine men and his wife and three children. After spending the winter at Rocky Mountain House, the group reached the crest of the mountains on June 25, 1807 and went down the Blaeberry River to the body of water called Kootana (Kootenay Lake). At this time, Thompson did not know that he had just reached the upper reaches of the Columbia River. For three years, the men traded furs here and Thompson surveyed the territory of the Kootenay and the Flathead peoples. The presence of white traders in this area diminished the position that the Peigan had previously held as middle-men, a fact which led to tensions that affected Thompson's expedition in 1810.

Painting: The Rocky Mountains from the Columbia River

The Pacific Fur Company had settled at the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean. The North West Company feared that furs would be drained from its reserve in the Rockies, and asked that Thompson explore a land route to the Columbia from the Company's base camp in the mountains. The Peigan blocked a large convoy of merchandise sent to Thompson, forcing him to take a detour. The way was so difficult that it discouraged the people he had hired and they abandoned him. With the three men left, Thompson reached the Columbia River at the mouth of the Canoe River and went down as far as Saleesh House. From there, by canoe and on horseback, they reached Spokane House, and took to the river again to Kettle falls. On July 15, 1811, colours flying, they landed at Fort Astoria. The Pacific Fur Company had gotten there before Thompson but he had just discovered a commercial route between Montreal and the Pacific. Unfortunately, this route became American territory after the Treaty of Oregon was signed in 1847.

Thompson returned to Montreal with his family. In 1814, he completed an enormous map showing the northwest from Lake Superior to the Pacific. Thompson continued his surveying career in Lower and Upper Canada and, especially, with the International Boundary Commission, which determined the southern border of Canada. In 1815, he bought a farm at Williamston, Ontario.

The Englishman John Bigsby met Thompson at a chic evening given by William McGillivray in Montreal in 1819. Bigsby was very impressed by this strange-looking man of some 50 years:

"He was plainly dressed, quiet, and observant, His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardener's ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply-furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. His speech betrayed the Welshman, although he left his native hills when very young. [...] He was astronomer, first, to the Hudson's Bay Company, and then to the Boundary Commission."

On this last point, Bigsby had neglected to mention the North West Company. He continued, in describing Thompson:

"No living person possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson's Bay countries, which from 1793 to 1820 he was constantly traversing. Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he had a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow-storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snow-flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks."

(Bigsby 1850, 112-114)

In his old age, Thompson retired to live with his daughter in Longueuil, where he died in 1857, poor and forgotten. In the 1880s, Joseph B. Tyrrell, the historian, started a campaign that regained for Thompson his true stature as a great Canadian explorer and geographer.


Tuesday, May 23rd, 1797

"This day left the service of the Hudson's Bay Co., and [entered] that of the Company of Merchants from Canada. May God Almighty prosper me."

(Tyrrell 1888, 7)

[Trip to Lake Athabasca]

"There is always a Canoe with three steady men and a native woman waiting the arrival of the annual Ship from England to carry the Letters and Instructions of the Company to the interior country trading houses; but very few men came out with her for the trade, and those few were only five feet five inches and under; a Mr James Spence was in charge of the Canoe, and his Indian wife looking steadily at the Men, and then at her husband; at length said, James have you not always told me, that the people in your country are as numerous as the leaves on the trees, how can you speak such a falsehood, do not we all see plainly that the very last of them is come, if there were any more would these dwarfs have come here. This appeared a home truth, and James Spence had to be silent."

(Glover 1962, 108-109)


Fort Astoria: This post, founded by the Pacific Fur Company, was bought by the North West Company in 1814.

Proactive Disclosure