Thompson was born in London in 1770. His father died when he was two, leaving his mother to raise him. At age seven Thompson entered a London charity school. There he studied mathematics, hoping to enter the British navy. The 1783 Treaty of Paris resolved the conflict among the United States, France and Britain, which resulted in the reduced need for naval recruits; therefore, the school instead apprenticed Thompson to the Hudson's Bay Company as a clerk. He left London in 1784 at the age of 14, bound for Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. For the next three years Thompson served as a clerk at various posts on Hudson Bay. Then, in 1787 the company sent him inland to Cumberland House in what is now Saskatchewan. Thompson began to map the surrounding area in 1789 and two years later received informal training in astronomy from Phillip Torner, a Hudson's Bay Company surveyor. In 1799 Thompson married Charlotte Small. He was twenty-nine. She was the fourteen year old daughter of an Indian woman and North West Company partner. The two had thirteen children.
From 1793 to 1796, Thompson surveyed northern Saskatchewan. In 1796, the Hudson's Bay Company asked Thompson to stop surveying and dedicate more energy to procuring furs. As his third term of service with the company expired in 1797, Thompson joined the rival North West Company. Over the next two years, he explored present day Manitoba and Saskatchewan, traveling as far south as the source of the Mississippi and the Mandan villages on the Missouri. Over the course of the next twelve years (1799-1811), Thompson explored the Rocky Mountains, establishing a new route to Lake Athabasca and two new routes over the Rocky Mountains. He also surveyed the Columbia River from its source in present day British Columbia to its mouth on the Pacific coast. Thompson had hoped to establish a fur post at the mouth of the river, securing the first navigable route between Lake Athabasca and the Pacific Ocean, but he found that John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company had already established Fort Astoria.
Thompson returned east in 1812, settling near Montreal. In 1814 he delivered a map of western Canada to the North West Company. From 1816 to 1826, Thompson served as a member of the boundary commission surveying the international border south of Ontario. In 1843, he published two additional maps of the Northwest. Between 1846 and 1850, Thompson wrote an account of his travels. He died in 1857 having covered some 80,000 miles on foot, on horseback and by canoe in sixty years of exploring and surveying.
Appearance and Personality
In 1820, the English geologist, John Jeremiah Bigsby, attended a dinner party given by The Hon. William McGillivray at his home, Chateau St. Antoine, one of the early estates in Montreal's Golden Square Mile. He describes the party and some of the guests in his entertaining book The Shoe and Canoe, giving an excellent description of David Thompson:
I was well placed at table between one of the Miss McGillivray's and a singular-looking person of about fifty. He was plainly dressed, quiet, and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardener's ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply-furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. His speech betrayed the Welshman, although he left his native hills when very young. I might have been spared this description of Mr David Thompson by saying he greatly resembled Curran the Irish Orator...
I afterwards travelled much with him, and have now only to speak of him with great respect, or, I ought to say, with admiration... No living person possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson's Bay countries... Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he has a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow-storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snow-flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks.
This is the man that mapped Canada, without the aid of modern technology. If you want to travel anywhere, whether in the mental realm (eg music, maths, language etc) or the physical it first needs a man to go out and map it, to record all he see (senses) so that others can then traverse it for themselves. David Thompson is one of those men.
Check out some of the other entries from the 'Men of Yore' series: