Leading explorer David Thompson
by Ed Hird
David Thompson represents the best of the early Canadian explorers. A strong Christian, he remained faithful to his wife and never sold alcohol to First Nations people. Thompson had seen so many First Nations people harmed by the liquor trade that he had acquired a strong aversion to such profiteering. When once forced to carry alcohol on his donkeys, he tied the ropes so loose that the barrels were smashed on the mountain rocks.
Born April 30, 1770 in Westminster, Middlesex England to Welsh parents, Thompson’s father died when he was only two years old. His mother moved the family to London, changing their Welsh name ApThomas to the more easily spoken Thompson. When Thompson moved to Canada, he never again saw either his family or London. In his journal, he wrote of a “long and sad farewell to my noble, my sacred country, an exile for ever.”
Thompson grew to love “the forest and the white water, the shadow and the silence, the evening fire, the stories and the singing and a high heart.” He was modest, talented and deeply spiritual. The First Nations people gave him the name Koo-Koo-Sint, which means ‘Star-Gazer’, in recognition of his star-based map work. A dedicated scientist using the best mapping technology of his day, Thompson had learned about map-making during a year-long recovery after badly breaking his leg, and nearly dying.
Thompson apprenticed with the Hudson’s Bay Company, but later switched to their competitors, the North West Company, because the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted him to focus on furs, not map-making. The North West Company appointed Thompson their official Surveyor and Map Maker, and proudly displayed his finished map of Canada on their boardroom wall. The early 19th Century map of Western Canada was essentially blank until Thompson filled it in. Thompson has been described as a great surveyor disguised as a fur trader, and a marvelous scientist with the sensitive soul of a prophet.
He explored and surveyed more than a million and a half square kilometres of wilderness, accomplishing the staggering feat of mapping half a continent. Renowned explorer Alexander Mackenzie was astounded, and remarked Thompson had performed more in 10 months than could have been done in two years. Thompson’s map, his greatest achievement, was so accurate that 100 years later it remained the basis for many of the maps issued by the Canadian government and railway companies. We can even credit him with the exacting survey of much of the Canadian/US boundary along the 49th Parallel.
Thompson’s travel journal (Columbia Journals, available on Amazon.ca) shows his multifaceted gifts as scientific explorer, geographer, cartographer, and naturalist. Some scholars have described Thompson’s Journal as one of the finest works in Canadian literature. His directness in prose, his modesty and ability to see himself and others, his sharp powers of observation and intense practicality all contribute to a vivid glimpse of early Canadian pioneering.
Unlike many ‘Nor-Westers’, Thompson did not abandon his Metis wife Charlotte and his family when he finally became wealthy. David and Charlotte Thompson, who had seven sons and six daughters, were only parted by his death 58 years after their marriage.
Thompson tried in vain for years to find a profitable trade route to the Pacific. Upon hearing that American Jacob Astor had sent out his sea and land expedition to the Oregon country, the Canadians sent Thompson to try once again. Thompson and his voyageurs bravely made their way down the Columbia River. They were continually wet up to the middle, and exposed to cold highwinds. The glacier water deprived them of all feeling in their limbs. Despite such hardships, Thompson never gave up, instead writing in his journal that they “continued under the mercy of the Almighty and at sunset put up, each of us thankful for our preservation.”
When they finally reached the Pacific watershed, Thompson knelt on the banks of the Blueberry Creek and prayed aloud: “May God in his mercy give me to see where these waters flow into the ocean, and let us return in safety.” He and his voyageurs eventually did make it to the mouth of the Columbia River, but unfortunately arrived there after Jacob Astor.
Despite Thompson’s great success in canoeing to the mouth of the Columbia and in mapping most of Western Canada, he died in extreme poverty and obscurity, even having to pawn his beloved surveying equipment and his overcoat to buy food for his family. Yet throughout the hardships, Thompson never stopped gazing at the Morning Star, Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Ed Hird is Rector at St. Simon’s Church in North Vancouver, of the Anglican Mission in Canada. He is author of Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit.