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A Man to Match the Mountains

April 2024
18min read

To David Thompson—who died blind, penniless, and bypassed by history—we owe our first knowledge of the American continent’s rugged Northwest

David Thompson was a short, stocky man with snub nose and hair “cut square” across his forehead in a way that made him resemble John Bunyan. That is all we know about his looks. Until recently, historians knew little about who David Thompson was or what he did, and even today, few people recognize his name. Among those familiar with his exploits, however, he is now deemed one of the most important explorers of the New World, and has been acclaimed as one of the greatest land geographers ever produced by the English-speaking people.

That is high praise, but consider Thompson’s achievements. During a twenty-year period, betweeen 1792 and 1812, he crossed and recrossed the unknown wilderness of the northwestern United States and Canada, usually accompanied only by Indians, exploring and mapping the principal features of more than a million and a half square miles of territory, from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean and from the Great Lakes to the Athabaska wasteland of northern Canada. On the maps, when he began his explorations, all that vast region was a blank.

He was the first white man to explore and settle upon the upper Columbia River. He was the first to build white establishments in the present-day states of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. He was the first to make a full survey of the shore line of Lake Superior, and the first to map the relationship between the Missouri River and the principal streams of the central Canadian plains.

In addition, he was the first, and in some cases the only man to gather certain information that is today recognized as indispensable for an accurate history of the early West. He met Blackfeet and other Indians of the plains and Rocky Mountains who told him what it was like when they first got guns, and when they saw their first horse. He heard anecdotes and learned the history of Indian warfare and tribal movements before white men knew of the existence of those tribes. And in the American Northwest, his records have startled historians with references to other white men who were in that remote part of the continent at the same time as Lewis and Clark, including a mysterious second United States exploring expedition about which nothing else has ever been known.

Thompson’s discoveries and surveys enriched the world with knowledge of the northwestern part of this continent. But the professional cartographers and engravers who used his information failed to acknowledge him as their source, and the people who in later years followed the routes he pioneered were unaware that he was the author of the maps they used. Similarly, his written records were not published, and no one knew where he had been or what he had done. When he died in 1857—poor, blind, and unknown—he was buried in an unmarked grave in Montreal.

Thompson might have been altogether forgotten had it not been for the curiosity of a Canadian geologist, Dr. Joseph R. Tyrrell, who was working in the West during the 1880’s as a member of the Geological Survey of Canada. Tyrrell was struck by the completeness and accuracy of the old government maps he was using, and he became interested in trying to discover their source. His search led to the files of the Crown Lands Department of the Province of Ontario at Toronto, where he uncovered a group of weathered journals and notebooks of David Thompson, as well as a huge manuscript map of the western half of North America between the latitudes of 45 and 60 degrees, which the explorer had made years before. Study of the diaries and notebooks revealed the hitherto unsuspected extent of Thompson’s many journeys as a fur trader and surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay and the North West companies, and the map confirmed him as the original source for the government charts of the West that Tyrrell had been using.

In the years that followed, Dr. Tyrrell continued his quest for further information, and eventually learned that while Thompson had been in the service of the fur companies, his maps and reports had been sent by his superiors to Aaron Arrowsmith, the English cartographer, who used them to help prepare his maps of North America. But Arrowsmith never acknowledged Thompson as the source of his information. Dr. Tyrrell also learned that in 1814, while still in the employ of the North West Company, Thompson had completed his own great manuscript map of all the territory he had explored and surveyed. For a while it had hung in the dining hall of the company’s post at Fort William, on Lake Superior, where it was seen only by company partners and employees. At the time, the company had no interest in having the map circulated, because its members were then engaged in intense competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose traders would have valued the detailed information it contained.

After Thompson retired from the fur trade, he tried on a number of occasions to have his map published, but never succeeded. He settled in eastern Canada with his half-breed wife and their children, and continued as a surveyor. From 1817 to 1827, he was employed by the British Boundary Commission to survey the international border between Canada and the United States from St. Regis on the St. Lawrence River to the Lake of the Woods, north of Minnesota. Later, he was overcome by a series of misfortunes. Most of his savings disappeared in the unprofitable business ventures of his sons. His eyesight failed. Further difficulties forced him to sell his scientific instruments—and at one time even pawn his coat—in order to eat. When the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies merged, a new generation of fur men forgot the name and achievements of David Thompson, the Nor’Wester.

Thompson’s own modest character contributed to his obscurity. Quiet and unobtrusive, he failed to push himself forward or seek recognition. In extreme poverty, on the edge of complete blindness, he managed when more than seventy years old to write a narrative of his explorations, hoping to make a little money from its sale, in some way Washington Irving heard of it and tried to buy it but, according to Thompson’s daughter, failed to offer enough money or to satisfy Thompson with regard to acknowledgment of its authorship. There were no other bidders. The narrative, like the great map, remained unpublished, and when Thompson died at eighty-seven, there was sparse evidence for historians to know that he had ever existed.

Thompson was active in the Canadian fur trade during some of its most colorful and exciting days, when agents of the rival trading companies were leapfrogging past each other westward across the unexplored forests and plains of the continent, competing with guns and alcohol for the beaver trade of newly discovered tribes. Thompson was born on April 30, 1770, in Westminster, England, of poor and obscure parents, and after his father’s death he received some education at the Grey Coat School, a charitable institution in London. An industrious youth with ability in mathematics and writing, he was bound to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a seven-year apprentice, at the age of fourteen. Young Thompson was shipped to the bleak and lonely Churchill Factory post on Hudson Bay, and after a year was sent on foot with two Indian guides to York Factory, 150 miles away. He had a gun, but was given no provisions for the trip, and the difficult journey along the icy, windswept shore of the bay taught the fifteen-year-old boy how to live off the land.

His wilderness education continued at York Factory, where he served as a clerk and hunter; one year later, in 1786, he was sent with an expedition deep into central Canada to establish a new trading post on the south branch of the Saskatchewan River, about as far west as white men had yet penetrated. Though only sixteen, and a quiet, unassuming youth with a devoutly religious turn of mind, he was already considered an unusually capable wilderness man, bold, intelligent, and resourceful, a reliable leader with a sense of responsibility to his companions and a devotion to hard work and duty. The next year he was selected to accompany six men southwestward across the unexplored buffalo plains to find the Blackfeet Indians, teach them to trap beaver, and turn them into providers of furs for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Near present-day Calgary, Alberta, the group found the Blackleet, and Thompson spent the winter in the lodge of a friendly and aged chief who instructed him in the life and traditions of the Indians inhabiting the country along the eastern side of the Rockies. Much of what Thompson learned that winter, and recorded in his narrative, is the only known account of Indian history in that area before the white man came.

Back on the Saskatchewan River, Thompson became interested in meteorology and surveying, and was instructed by Philip Turnor, the official surveyor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He kept daily records of weather, temperature, and wind, and began to take astronomical readings and learn to solve problems of time, latitude, longitude, and variations of the compass. He acquired a ten-inch brass sextant and, wherever he traveled, made careful observations with compass, watch, and a crude artificial mercury horizon. His thoroughness and skill gradually helped him attain a high degree of precision in his calculations, and Dr. Tyrrell was only the first among many geographers and surveyors who, retracing the ground with modern instruments in later years, were surprised by the accuracy of Thompson’s work.

In 1791 his apprenticeship ended, and the following year he became a trader. For a number of years he was assigned to the great watery wilderness west of Hudson Bay. He traveled through thick forests sown with lakes, streams, and mosquito-filled bogs, and across treeless muskeg, stretching in cold and lonely silence toward the Arctic horizon. No white man had been in the country before him, and wherever he went, he surveyed and mapped. He built log huts in the forested areas for the trade of small, isolated groups of Indians, explored canoe routes through muddy, marsh-choked ends of lakes, and charted difficult portages around rushing waterfalls and boulder-strewn white water.

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.”

This is a significant addition to history. The only Americans known to be heading for the west at that time, one year after the departure of Lewis and Clark from the Columbia, were a group of fur trappers under a St. Louis trader named Manuel Lisa. But at that moment, Lisa’s men were still far east, on the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. One could assume that the Kutenais might have heard of this party, or had gotten their information mixed up, save for the fact that Thompson’s messengers also gave him a letter from the Americans, a copy of which Thompson sent back east across the mountains.

The letter was dated “Fort Lewis, Yellow River, Columbia, July 10, 1807” (when Manuel Lisa and his men were even farther down the Missouri, near the mouth of Nebraska’s Platte River) and was signed by “James Roseman, Lieutenant” and “Zachary Perch, Captain & Commanding Officer,” and listed American regulations for foreigners who were trading with Indians in territory claimed by the United States. The signers said they were sending Thompson the regulations under “Power delegated to us by General Braithwaite Commander of all the new ceded Territories northward of the Illinois,” and added that they had heard about Thompson’s trip to trade in the Columbia basin from informants among the Mandans.

U.S. Army records reveal no Lieutenant James Roseman, Captain Zachary Perch, or General Braithwaite, but Thompson’s entry takes on even greater drama when it is realized that the position ascribed to “General Braithwaite” was actually held at the time by General James Wilkinson, a master of intrigue and deceit, who was deeply involved in the Aaron Burr conspiracy to establish an empire in the West. Moreover, the regulations given to Thompson closely paralleled advice that had been given by Lieutenant ZebuIon Pike to some British traders in northern Minnesota during the winter of 1805-06. Pike had drawn up those regulations in the field, but had given a copy of them to Wilkinson, his commanding officer, when he returned to St. Louis.

On December 24, 1807, Thompson received a second letter from the Americans, who revealed that they were with the Nez Percé Indians of Idaho and had had a fight with the Atsinas, allies of the Blackfeet, and had suffered losses. This letter was signed “Jeremy Pinch Lieut.” and, blaming Thompson for arming the Atsinas and causing the Americans their difficulties, threatened him with force if he did not withdraw “with a good grace” from the country. Thompson sent the Americans an answer to this letter, saying that he was “neither authorized nor competent” to discuss the question of who owned the Columbia country, and he forwarded a copy of Pinch’s letter to his superiors east of the mountains, adding that “This officer was on a party of Discovery when he wrote the above.”

Thompson’s journals make no further reference to Jeremy Pinch, who is not listed in army records either, but British archives reveal that Pinch and the mysterious expedition received mention in correspondence in the 1840’s during British-American negotiations over Oregon. In addition, later journal entries by Thompson, as will be seen, and also maps made by other Canadian fur men, indicate that some unknown Americans were actually in the country at this time, and had a post near what is now Missoula, Montana.

Pinch, Roseman, and Perch might have been western militia officers, or the pseudonyms of Army Regulars, possibly on a private exploring and trading venture for Wilkinson disguised as an official government mission. A study of General Wilkinson’s intrigues in St. Louis shows a number of references to private expeditions he planned to send up the Missouri, as well as correspondence that raises doubt as to whether the United States government was aware of his dispatch of Zebulon Pike’s expedition to the southern Rockies in that same year of 1807 until it was well under way. Unlike that of Pike, however, the fate of the Pinch group is not known, but further study of the shadowy and little-known figures revealed by Thompson and other early Canadian traders as having been in the Northwest soon after the time of Lewis and Clark might uncover evidence of a western debacle that has never been recorded.

In the spring of 1808, Thompson started the first of many exploration trips through the Columbia country. Before winter settled in, he sent several of his men under a big, red-bearded clerk named Finan McDonald to establish a trading post on the Kootenai River in Montana. McDonald pitched two skin tepees and built a log storehouse opposite the site of Libby in northwestern Montana. It was the first structure built by whites in the state.

During the next summer, 1809, Thompson also went off to Lake Pend Oreille, where on September 10 he built the Kullyspel House, the first white establishment in Idaho. From this trading post, he explored east and west into mountainous Montana and Washington, making the first white contacts with many Indian tribes.

The winter of 1809-10 found him at still another new post called the Saleesh House, which he built for the Flathead trade on the pine-bordered Clark Fork River near Thompson’s Falls in northwestern Montana. In return for beaver furs and provisions of dried meat, he supplied the Flatheads with their first guns; those Indians, long persecuted by the Blackfeet, who already had white men’s arms, gave a Blackfeet band the surprise of their lives by opening fire on them with the newly acquired “lightning sticks.”

In February, 1810, Thompson referred again to Americans in the area, this time to a mysterious “Mr. Courter,” who had apparently had a post near Missoula and was killed by Blackfeet. Thompson rushed to the scene of his death and helped to halt the looting of the dead man’s property. Who Courter was, or where he came from, is not known, but he might have been a survivor of the Pinch group, because Thompson’s salary payments to the employees of the deceased American indicate that three years’ wages were owed to at least one of the men. In addition, another of Courier’s companions was a man named Rivet, who had accompanied Lewis and Clark during the first year of their expedition, leaving them in North Dakota.

During the spring, Thompson did some more exploring in northeastern Washington, then took his furs back across the Rockies to a company post in central Canada. This time, when he tried to return to the Columbia, he found his route blocked. The Blackfeet were enraged over the arming of the Flatheads and they were determined to put an end to the white men’s trade across the mountains. Their war parties guarded the approaches to the pass Thompson had been using. One of Thompson’s colleagues hit on a scheme for putting the Indians to sleep on “high wine,” a potent mixture of alcohol and water; though they got some of the native watchers “beastly drunk” one night, the plan went awry, and Thompson was forced to look for a new route farther north.

The journey proved to be one of the boldest and most dangerous in Thompson’s career, for in the midst of winter it took him through treacherous glacier fields and towering ranges of mountains, across what is now the Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Aided by Indian and half-breed trappers, he struggled on snowshoes through an unknown country half-hidden by high-altitude clouds and storms. Then, on January 10, 1811, he found the famous Athabaska Pass and eleven days later, worn by the hardships of the trip, he reached the Columbia. He was all for continuing to the coast, but his companions had had enough, and refused to go farther until spring.

It has been suggested by some historians that the detour and delay on the Columbia until the arrival of favorable traveling weather eventually proved costly to British claims to Oregon. The North West Company was aware of the plans of the New York fur merchant John Jacob Astor to send an American trading expedition to the mouth of the Columbia, and it is possible that Thompson had been directed that year to hasten all the way down the Columbia and build a post on the Pacific Coast before the Americans could get there.

Thompson stated in his journal that he would have liked to head immediately down the Columbia, but his party was too small to risk dangers from the unknown tribes it would meet along the way. First, he said, he would have to return to the Flathead country and enlist additional men from among those he had left at his posts. He made no mention, however, of being under orders to hurry to the coast; his failure to bend every effort to get there, once he did start traveling in the spring, supports a conclusion that can be drawn from a North West Company letter, written that year and recently found, stating that the company would establish a post on the Pacific Coast only if it were supported by the dispatch of a man-of-war and protected against the Americans by the erection of a British government fort.

At any rate, Thompson returned to Montana, where he heard of more Americans in the area—again, none of them known to history—and soon thereafter he finally turned to the formidable business of exploring the lower Columbia. He journeyed to Kettle Falls in northern Washington, built a stout cedar canoe, and on July 3, 1811, he embarked on the downriver voyage.

At the mouth of the Snake River, on the dusty sagecovered plains where Lewis and Clark had reached the Columbia six years earlier, Thompson paused to erect a pole and tie a paper to it, claiming possession of the country for Great Britain and announcing his intention of erecting a North West Company post on the site for trade with the Nez Percés, Walla Wallas, and other Indians in the vicinity. Then he hurried on, sweeping down the Columbia and reaching the coast on July 15. He was too late. Astor’s men had arrived at the mouth of the river in March and had already built a fort. The Americans, however, were surprised by Thompson’s appearance from the interior, and their chagrin was great to find that the British were already established among the inland Indians.

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.

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