Sunday, September 16, 2012

David Thompson, explorer and geographer

David Thompson monument photo: Roadside America

This granite monument stands at Verendyre, North Dakota. A globe marked with lines of latitude and longitude, it is dedicated to the great geographer, David Thompson. The worn inscription says Thompson passed near here during 1797-8 while preparing the first map of the state. The marker was placed by the Great Northern Railway in 1925.

David Thompson was born to Welsh parents in London in 1770. His father died when he was two and he was later enrolled in a charity school, where he showed great aptitude for mathematics. Studies in astronomy and navigation prepared him for a life in the Royal Navy.

Aged fourteen, he was apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company, and sailed for the new world. He served the company first at Churchill and York Factory. Then, at the age of sixteen, he traveled along the North Saskatchewan River to Manchester House, a fort located near today's town of Battleford. He spent the winter of 1787 camped with a band of Peigans on the Bow River near Calgary, and returned to the fort the following year.

An unfortunate fall resulted in a broken leg, and with the limited medical care available, it took Thompson a full year to recover. He was to be sent to York Factory, but got only as far as Cumberland House. His injury led to a lifelong limp.

It was during his long recovery that young David took lessons with Philip Turnor as he made plans to take a party to survey the Athabasca country. During his training, Thompson measured the latitude and longitude of Cumberland House with great accuracy. Unfortunately he also lost the sight of his right eye that winter, and was unable to accompany the survey party to Athabasca.

But by now Thompson was a surveyor. As J and A Gottfried mention, when he finished his apprenticeship with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1791, he asked for a brass sextant and other survey equipment instead of the customary suit of clothes. The Company gave him both, but it was another five years before Thompson's collection of survey equipment was complete. His kit included a telescope that allowed him to observe the moons of Jupiter, and he was nicknamed Koo Koo Sint, the stargazer, by native peoples, as Ray Mears mentions in his BBC program.

In 1797, Thompson left the strongly trade-oriented Hudson's Bay Company to join its rival, the North West Company. In the years that followed, he explored vast areas of the west. In the summer of 1807, he crossed the Rockies by way of Howse pass from Rocky Mountain House, and established Kootenae House on the Columbia River. He carried out extensive explorations in what is now British Columbia, and travelled as far south as Spokane and the mouth of the great Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. A couple of years later, he re-crossed the Rockies eastward via Athabasca Pass.

As a geographer, David Thompson was unparalleled. In 2008, his achievements were celebrated with the Thompson Brigade, a 3300 kilometer canoe trip from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ontario. The David Thompson Brigade 2011 celebrated the 200th anniversary of his exploration of the Columbia River.

In B.C. the North and South Thompson Rivers were named after him, and Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops was named in turn after these. David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver was also named in honour of this early explorer of North America.

Canadian storyteller Stuart McLean has said that he considers Thompson one of the greatest geographers who ever lived.

A more personal achievement was Thompson's fifty-seven year marriage to Charlotte Small, his Metis wife.

No comments:

Post a Comment