- Historic Sites
A Man to Match the Mountains
To David Thompson—who died blind, penniless, and bypassed by history—we owe our first knowledge of the American continent’s rugged Northwest
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
After collecting the year’s furs, Thompson decided to return east by exploring the only part of the Columbia he had not yet seen. From northern Washington, he ascended the river to its big bend, passed many dangerous rapids, and at last reached the camp in which he had rested after his last crossing of the Rockies. Still avoiding the Blackfeet, he went over the Athabaska Pass again and made his way east across Canada to a North West Company post, where he exchanged his furs for more trade goods and supplies. Then, scarcely pausing for rest, he returned across the mountains, descended the Columbia, hastened from Washington to Montana, and finally reached his old Saleesh House among the Flatheads. It had been a whirlwind trip of almost two thousand miles through wild and rugged country of every description, and he had accomplished it in a little more than two months.
Up to now, Thompson and his engagés had been the only North West Company men in the Columbia country. Alone, he had explored this vast land, mastered its tangled geography, mapped its routes, opened trade with many Indian tribes, most of whom had never seen a white man before, and prepared the way for traders who would have neither the time nor the ability to start from scratch. A week after his return to the Saleesh House, the first reinforcements of North West traders, clerks, voyageurs, and other employees came pouring across the Rockies and down the Columbia, following the charts and directions that Thompson had given them. With their arrival, Thompson’s role in the area was finished. He made several more short exploratory tours through Montana, but on April 22, 1812, departed from the region for the last time. He went back up the Columbia and across the Athabaska Pass, and on July 12 reached company headquarters at Fort William, where he was granted permission to return to eastern Canada and work on a map of his explorations. It was the end of his fur-trading days, and the end of his great travels.
In the western country that he had left behind him, the newly arrived Nor’Westers followed the routes he had found and filled the posts he had established. Astor’s men, coming up from the mouth of the Columbia, met the newcomers, who forced them to withdraw from the country, and the Columbia basin fell firmly into the hands of the North West Company. But that company’s existence also was short, and in 1821 a fresh wave of new arrivals took over the region for the Hudson’s Bay Company. They knew little, if anything, about Thompson, and the terrain features he had first seen were given the names of Hudson’s Bay men. The pass by which he had first found his way to the Columbia became known as the pass of a Johnny-come-lately named Howse, and the region of the icy heights where he had made his heroic crossing of the Athabaska Pass was named for a Hudson’s Bay trader called Jasper.
As Thompson’s savings and eyesight vanished in the East, obscurity closed around him in the West. When American trappers came back into the Columbia country in the 1830’s, all trace of his activities in the interior had vanished. It was known from the records of the Astorians that he had appeared at the mouth of the Columbia in July, 1811. But it was assumed that he had come into the region only once, a late and unimportant arrival. By the time covered-wagon emigrants rolled into Oregon and made that great territory American, David Thompson was a forgotten footnote in the history of the Northwest.