National Treasure #92: David Thompson

David Thompson (1770-1857) fur trader, astronomer and surveyor, mapped more of North America than anyone else. By horseback, canoe, dog sled and on foot, he travelled some 90,000 kilometres (55,000 miles), equivalent to circling the globe twice. – Ontario Government Archives

David Thompson is the premier explorer and surveyor of North America. From 1792 to 1812, David Thompson mapped the country west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior, across the Rocky Mountains to the source of the Columbia River, and followed the length of the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. – The Fur Trapper

Variously described as an English explorer and a Canadian explorer, cartographer, and surveyor, David Thompson was born in London to a Welsh father, but lived in North America from age 14 on. He was trained as a surveyor by the Hudson’s Bay Company but ditched them to go work for the North West Company, apparently so he could keep on exploring rather than having to move into a management job in the fur trade.

Although he died ten years before Canada became a country, his explorations and map-making opened up the West to further exploration, white settlement, and the eventual formation of Canada. And he did most of his work with a limp from a leg fracture, and blind in one eye (likely from looking at the sun through surveying instruments without proper eye protection).

He had an affinity for the Aboriginal peoples of the West, spending one winter with a Peigan elder, learning several Aboriginal languages, and marrying a Metis woman, Charlotte Small. They had 16 children together.

You can read some details of his trips and work here.

You can read about Charlotte’s likely side of the story, here. Parks Canada considers her a person of national historic significance.


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4 Responses to National Treasure #92: David Thompson

  1. Jim Powers says:

    Sixteen kids? Charlotte was anything but small.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim P – Small but mighty, I guess. It’s hard to imagine a time when a woman’s entire child-bearing years would be spent in actively bearing children.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    David Thompson has been overlooked by Canadian histories, as taught in schools, it seems to me, because he didn’t aim at a single destination and reach it. Alexander MacKenzie reached the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean; Simon Fraser followed his river to the sea… But Thompson accomplished more than any of the others — he mapped most of western Canada. Even with his primitive instruments, and his damaged eye, he defined the watershed of the Columbia River, and the southern Rockies, with a precision that topographers still use. He should get far more credit than he does.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I knew his name (you can’t hardly miss it, in Alberta) but nothing about what he’d accomplished, under what circumstances. Not sure what the curriculum was supposed to cover, but there do seem to be some obvious gaps. As a schoolkid, I read books about the first explorers in what is now central Canada, but never saw anything about Thompson, who had worked in my own backyard, practically.

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