A Man to Match the Mountains


Usually, his only companions were Indians or halfbreeds who helped him find passages for his canoe and supplied him with fish and deer and caribou meat. In the face of an unending procession of hardships and close calls with death, he learned to live and travel like the natives, moving with speed and exactness across vast stretches of land, pausing only to seek protection from gales and blizzards or to gum the leaking seams of his cedar canoe with pine pitch. His sole comforts were the fair-weather lapping of lake water, the warming flames of evening fires, and the clean forest smell of pine-needle beds.

Despite his increasing interest in exploring and surveying, the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted him to confine his activities to trading, and in 1797, when his term with that company ended, he joined the more aggressive North West Company, whose partners were more appreciative of his special skills. Unhampered by the problems of trade, he set off at once on an unprecedented mapping tour for his new employers, traveling south across the plains to the Mandan Indian villages on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, charting the Red River country and the wild-rice lake district of northern Minnesota, coming within a few miles of correctly identifying the source of the Mississippi River (it was not found until 1832), and going on to survey for the first time the entire shore line of Lake Superior. During this trip, he met Alexander Mackenzie (see “First by Land,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1957), at Sault Ste. Marie and was told by that great North West Company explorer that he had accomplished more in ten months than the company expected could be done in two years. In those months, which included the worst wintry traveling seasons of the year, Thompson “had covered a total of 4,000 miles of survey.”

During the next two years, he mapped Canada’s cold and remote Churchill and Athabaska regions, again probing unexplored forests and barrens, knowing the howl of wolves and the nightly call of loons, and charting rapids and gale-whipped lakes across hundreds of miles of bleak, quiet land. In the summer of 1800, he returned to the birch and aspen groves on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, second in command of a party seeking to cross the mountains and open trade with Indians in the upper basin of the Columbia River, where whites had not yet been. The plan failed when the leader of the expedition came down with an attack of rheumatism, but Thompson reached the high precipices of the Canadian Rockies, west of what is now Banff. There he met some Kutenai Indians from the west side of the mountains, and gathered information about what lay beyond. When the groups parted, Thompson recorded that he sent two of his men, “La Gasse and Le Blanc,” to live with the Indians. They were the first two men of white blood from eastern Canada known to have entered the Columbia basin.

For the time being, the North West Company postponed further attempts to expand across the Rockies, and during the following years Thompson continued his exploring and trading activities in the more northerly regions of Lesser Slave Lake, the Peace River, and the “muskrat country” between the Nelson and Churchill rivers. In 1806, the Canadians were alarmed by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which threatened to flank British traders on the west, and once more the North West Company ordered Thompson to try to cross the Continental Divide.

This time he was successful. Setting out from the Saskatchewan River on May 10, 1807, he led a trade group up the mountains into “stupendous & solitary Wilds covered with eternal Snow, & Mountain connected to Mountain by immense Glaciers, the collection of Ages & on which the Beams of the Sun makes hardly any impression....”

On June 25, they finally topped the pass now called Howse and five days later, after following down the “foaming white” Blaeberry River, reached the upper Columbia River. Since it flowed north at that point, Thompson did not recognize it as the Columbia. He named it the Kootenai after the Indians of the area, and on it built the “Kootanae House,” a crude storage post for his trade goods and furs. [Note the many absurd differences in the modern spelling of this word. Canadian and American officials who were unaware of Thompson’s original version, Kootanae, stamped approval on all sorts of later local preferences.]

While there he sought to make contact and open trade with natives farther south. One tribe to whom he sent messengers were the Flatheads of Montana, but on August 13 the messengers returned with the doleful news that the Flatheads had been defeated by a band of Blackfeet and had gone, instead, “to a military Post of the Americans.” In explanation, Thompson noted in his journal that the Kutenais “informed me that about 3 weeks ago the Americans to the number of 42 arrived to settle a military Post, at the confluence of the two most southern & considerable Branches of the Columbia & that they were preparing to make a small advance Post lower down on the River. 2 of those who were with Capt. Lewis were also with them of whom the poor Kootanaes related several dreadful stories.”