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Exploring David Thompson



Clockwise from top left: A brigade logo; members of today’s David Thompson Brigade; a sketch of the explorer using a sextant to take an observation; a section of the Columbia River; one of the many mountain passes Thompson travelled through.

In late June, as schools across the country closed for the summer and families prepared for their annual vacations, 67-year-old Norm Crerar planned to slip into an eight-metre (25-foot) wood-and-Fiberglas canoe with five other paddling enthusiasts at Canal Flats, deep in the southeast corner of British Columbia. Crerar and his team were to lead the David Thompson 2007 Columbia River Brigade, a tribute to the fur trader, explorer, mapmaker and writer who ranks as one of Canada’s greatest wilderness travellers.

At least eight other teams, including some middle-aged survivors of breast cancer and members of the Ktunaxa First Nation, were to participate in the expedition, first paddling northwest on the Columbia River to Golden, B.C., and then south from Revelstoke to Trail, near the Canada-U.S. border, a journey of some 420 kilometres. “The more I read about David Thompson, the more I admire him,” says Crerar, the organizer of the brigade. “What he did for Canada was outstanding.”

Summarizing Thompson’s accomplishments is no easy matter. For one thing, the man lived a long time. He was born in London in 1770 and died near Montreal in 1857. He came to Canada in 1784 as a Hudson’s Bay Co. apprentice and spent 28 years travelling, trading and surveying from the shore of Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia, a vast, largely uncharted region then known as the Great Northwest.

After returning from the West, he produced a map of the northwestern interior for his boss William McGillivray, chief executive of the North West Co. The map encompassed some 1.2 million square miles of land, all based on his own surveys. It was astonishingly accurate, given the crude instruments he was using. He also spent about 12 years, from 1817 to 1829, working on a British-American boundary survey that extended from St. Regis on the St. Lawrence River to Lake of the Woods. When the job was done, Thompson and his U.S. counterparts had produced the first accurate and comprehensive set of maps of the upper St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes.

During the boundary survey, Thompson, his Métis wife Charlotte Small and their growing family–the couple produced 13 children, 10 of whom survived to adulthood–lived in a spacious and comfortable home in Williamstown, a village on the Raisin River in Glengarry County, Upper Canada, near present-day Cornwall, Ont. Thompson’s work in the fur trade and on the boundary survey had made him a prosperous man. He invested in land and businesses in Glengarry, and loaned a good chunk of his money to cash-poor neighbours attempting to turn virgin forest into productive farmland.

Unfortunately for Thompson, a bad recession hit Britain and America in the early 1830s, and the colonial economies of the Canadas went into the tank. Thompson was pushed into bankruptcy, and he and Charlotte spent an impoverished old age in and around Montreal. But he was not one to sit around and mope. Instead, with his eyesight failing and his body racked by rheumatism, Thompson produced a handwritten manuscript of his travels in the northwest that was nearly 700 pages long. The work remained unpublished in his final years and he died poor, blind and obscure.

By almost any yardstick, however, Thompson ranks as one of the outstanding figures in pre-Confederation Canada. Today he has legions of admirers among professional and amateur historians, as well as students of the fur trade. Back in the late 1990s, two of those fans–Parks Canada communications officer Ross MacDonald, who works out of Radium, B.C., and heritage consultant Bob Sandford, of Canmore, Alta.–decided that the country ought to do something to celebrate the man’s life and achievements. In January 2000 they created the David Thompson Bicentennial Partnerships and since then they have led the creation of volunteer organizing committees in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Montana, Idaho and Washington.

With little government support and not much public fanfare, the committees have put together about 100 events or projects that will occur between 2007 and 2011. The 2007 Columbia River Brigade is one of the first. It is a precursor to an even larger canoe expedition next summer that will start on the North Saskatchewan River at Rocky Mountain House, Alta., and end at Thunder Bay, Ont., recreating the annual trips by the wintering partners of the Montreal-based North West Co. Parks Canada is creating a David Thompson passport that will highlight historical events and places associated with the man in the mountain parks of Alberta and British Columbia. In Ontario, Parks Canada and the Archives of Ontario have put together a multi-panel travelling exhibit that will be on display this summer at venues across the province, including national historic sites and parks.

The bicentennial dates, 2007 to 2011, were chosen to celebrate Thompson’s work on the North West Co.’s Columbia enterprise, undoubtedly the high point of his years in the West. Sir Alexander Mackenzie conceived this project–the extension of the Montreal-based fur trade west of the Rockies–after his 1792 trip west to the Pacific coast via a route that was too arduous to be of any commercial value.

The Nor’Westers first sent Simon Fraser over the mountains in 1805 to launch the fur trade and to find a navigable waterway to the Pacific. By July 1807, he had completed the journey to tidewater down the wild and frightening river that now bears his name. He also established four trading posts. Fraser’s daring feat made him famous and earned him a lasting place in the textbooks of generations of Canadian school kids. But the river he explored was unnavigable and so his efforts had little practical effect on the fur trade.

The Nor’Westers next turned to Thompson. He headed west from Rocky Mountain House in early May 1807 to find a navigable river to the Pacific and to establish the company on its banks and its tributaries. His party included 16 European men, two Saulteaux hunters, his wife Charlotte and their three children, all under the age of six. They were delayed three weeks by deep snow cover in the mountains, and the thunder of avalanches day and night frightened Thompson’s children and spooked the horses.

On June 22, at 5:40 a.m., he left the camp on horseback with a French-Canadian voyageur to inspect the pass that the party would use to cross the Rockies. Four hours later, the two men arrived at a marshy meadow located in a bowl formed by two peaks. Here, Thompson saw a wondrous sight. A spring arose from the ground and trickled west down a slight incline into a creek no more than two yards wide. He had reached the Continental Divide that separates the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Pacific. Thompson, a deeply spiritual man, paused to pray and then made a note in his daily journal: “May God in his Mercy give us to see where it’s (sic) waters flow into the Ocean, & return in safety.”

So began Thompson’s adventures west of the Rockies. Over the next four years, he would travel thousands of miles. He would explore thousands of square miles of land. He would discover the source of the Columbia River in a long, deep and narrow lake between two mountain ranges. He would untangle the complex geography of the river and some of its major tributaries. He would endure near-starvation and many other hardships, and survive a mid-winter crossing of the Rockies. He would meet dozens of First Nations communities, some friendly and some hostile. And he would eventually reach the mouth of the Columbia, where the waters of that tiny spring, high in the mountains, drained into the Pacific.

He arrived there on July 15, 1811. By then, a rival enterprise–John Jacob Astor’s New York-based American Fur Co.–had established a post at the mouth of the Columbia, staffed largely by French-Canadians who had once been Nor’Westers. Gabriel Franchere, one of the French-Canadians, kept a journal and he described Thompson’s arrival:

“We saw a large canoe with a flag displayed at her stern rounding the point which we called Tongue Point. We knew not who it could be. We were soon relieved of our uncertainty by the arrival of the canoe, which touched shore at a little wharf that we had built to facilitate the landing of goods. The flag she bore was British, and her crew was composed of eight Canadian boatmen, or voyageurs. A well-dressed man, who appeared to be the commander, was the first to leap ashore, and addressing us without ceremony, said that his name was David Thompson and that he was one of the partners in the North West Company.”

Thompson spent the winter of 1811-12 on the Columbia, near the 49th parallel, and on April 22, 1812, began a long journey that would take him, his wife and their family to Montreal, where they would start a new life. He had travelled an estimated 80,000 kilometres in the Northwest, more than any man of his time, and had become the first person on record to paddle the Columbia from its source to its mouth, a distance of nearly 2,000 kilometres. He had learned Cree, Blackfoot and a smattering of several other Indian languages. He had established a network of posts on the Upper Columbia, which grew to include the Astor post following the War of 1812. His work west of the Rockies made the North West Co. the first business enterprise in North America that operated from Atlantic to Pacific. And he established a British presence on the Columbia, as well as a claim to all that territory, that lasted till the middle of the 19th century.

Thompson enjoyed a long, full and remarkable life. But history has not always treated him kindly. He first came to the attention of the Canadian public in 1916, nearly 60 years after his death, when the Champlain Society published the manuscript of his travels in the Northwest under the title David Thompson’s Narrative.

The editor, Joseph Burr Tyrrell–who had explored parts of the West for the Geological Survey of Canada and who now has a major museum in Drumheller, Atla., named after him–was an unequivocal admirer and, in a lengthy introduction, praised Thompson’s abilities as a traveller, a surveyor and a writer. He called him “the greatest practical land geographer the world has ever known,” and described the pious, teetotalling Thompson as one of the “few white men in the West in those early days who bore so consistently as he did the white flower of a blameless life.”

That seemed to arouse a healthy skepticism and a hearty dislike in some historians. The first was Arthur Silver Morton, who scrutinized Thompson’s work west of the mountains and published his conclusions in The Canadian Historical Review (CHR) in 1936. He questioned Thompson’s choice of travel routes, cast doubt on his ability to deal with the Indians, and implied that he lacked the courage of Fraser and Mackenzie.

The next to knock Thompson was Richard Glover, who had done some fine scholarly work on the Arctic trader and explorer Samuel Hearne, who also happened to be Thompson’s first boss when the young apprentice landed at Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. In the Narrative, Thompson has some unkind things to say about Hearne, and Glover exacted a measure of revenge in a 1950 CHR article titled The Witness of David Thompson. He concluded that Thompson’s account of Hearne was so full of mistakes, lies and half-truths that the rest of the Narrative had to be considered unreliable.

The Champlain Society then chose Glover to write the introduction to its second edition of the Narrative, which was published in 1962. There, the historian stated that a “hagiographical myth” (created by Tyrrell and burnished by amateur historians) had long hidden Thompson’s real character from public view. To set the record straight, Glover told his reader that the explorer was a flawed individual who was, by turns, dishonest, cantankerous and stubborn. He portrayed Thompson as a muddled traveller who never failed to make the wrong choice at a fork in the road.

Glover’s judgment stood for three decades and served as a template for others such as Peter C. Newman, who depicts Thompson as a cowardly fool in his 1987 work Caesars of the Wilderness. But now the winds have shifted and Thompson is back in favour.

In the past 15 years, professional and popular historians, including this writer, have revisited the story. There have been new works about his travels in the West and about the Columbia enterprise, along with a biography. This fall, the Champlain Society is scheduled to publish the first instalment of a new, three-volume edition of The Narrative.

These writers have found much to like about the man. He is seen as having been fair and humane in his treatment of aboriginal people–for one thing, he refused to trade whisky for furs. He is admired for having brought his country wife, Charlotte Small, and their children with him when he settled in the Canadas, unlike so many other fur traders, who abandoned partners and offspring.

The David Thompson bicentennial celebrations are the culmination of all this renewed interest. They began, symbolically at least, when Norm Crerar and his team dipped their paddles into the Columbia, not far from where Thompson began his explorations of that mighty river two centuries ago. Over the next four years, the bicentennial will give a new generation of Canadians some exposure to an individual who made a unique contribution to our history but has too often been overlooked or, worse, dismissed.


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