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BC Historical Books

BC Historical Books

David Thompson, the explorer Cochrane, Charles Norris, 1889-1945 1924

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The Series edited by W. Stewart Wallace,  Librarian
of the University of Toronto.
Associate Professor of Ancient History,
University College, Toronto
WISH   to  acknowledge  the great  debt
which I  owe to Mr. J. B. Tyrrell for
the use of material contained in his edition
of Thompson's Narrative,
It was Mr. Tyrrell who first rescued the
name of Thompson from the undeserved oblivion into which it had sunk. Those who
are familiar with his introduction and notes,
will recognize how largely I have borrowed
from them in preparing this short life.
' " 1     it        tic. N. C.
June 1924.  | CONTENTS
I Apprenticed to the Company 1770-1786 1
II  He Finds His Metier 1786-1791  17
III Trader, Surveyor, Explorer   1791-1797 34
IV With the North-Westers   1797-1798... 56
V  Eight Years of Trading 1798-1806  86
VI  Across the Great Divide  1806-1810 ... 105
VII  The Race to the Sea 1810-1812  128
VIII  Last Years  1812-1857  149  DAVID THOMPSON
|N THE 30th of December, 1783, the Governors of the Grey Coat School at Westminster, England, received from the secretary
of the Hudson's Bay Company a requestforfour
boys, trained in navigation, to be apprenticed
to the Company for service at their posts in
America. At that time, there were in the
school but two boys so qualified—Samuel
John McPherson and David Thompson. The
one was so terrified by the prospect of perils
and hardships unknown, that within a week
he ran away from the school and was heard of
no more. The other accepted the destiny for
which he had been marked out, and became
one of the greatest land surveyors that the
British race has ever produced.
When David Thompson was called before
the Headmaster to be informed of his fate, he
was in his fourteenth year, and had been for
1 David Thompson
nearly seven years a pupil in the school. No
description exists of the poor charity boy as he
then was; but from accounts given of him in
later life, it is possible to imagine his appearance. Though he was short of stature, his
sturdy frame already gave promise of the
strength that was to enable him to drive his
canoe through the currents and eddies of the
western waterways, or trudge at the head of
his men across the plains in the teeth of a
December blizzard. His complexion was ruddy, though his smooth cheeks were not as yet
tanned and furrowed by a life of exposure to
the sun and wind of the great North West.
The straight, black hair which hung down
over his forehead combined with a stub nose
to give him an odd look. Yet there must
have been already evident, in his expression,
the animation and kindliness which in after
years distinguished him, and suggested at
once the boldness and fire of Curran the Irish
orator, and the strength and piety of the
puritan Bunyan, both of whom he is said to
have greatly resembled. Apprenticed to the Company
Thompson's parents were Welsh, and had
borne the name of ApThomas until they had
come to live in London. It was there in the
parish of St. John the Evangelist, that David
was born on the last day of April, in the year
1770. While yet a mere child, he was left an
orphan by the death of his father. So poor
was the family that the dead man had to be
buried at the expense of the parish, and the
widow, with David and a still younger infant,
was left alone to face the hardships of life in
the metropolis. The boy, however, must
have shown unusual promise; because, while
still quite young, he attracted the attention
of a certain Abram Acworth. Through the
recommendation of this otherwise unknown
benefactor, he was at the age of seven accepted
as a scholar by the Governors of the Grey
Coat School.
The Grey Coat School was a royal foundation "the principall designe of which" was "to
educate poor children in the principles of
piety and virtue, and thereby lay the foundations for a sober and Christian life". Almost
within the shadow of Westminster Abbey, the David Thompson
old building is still to be seen—a red brick
house, built in the Elizabethan manner, its
walls covered with grape-vine and Virginia
creeper, standing in the midst of a large
garden and playground.
In the school, Thompson found himself a
member of the class in mathematics, and received such training in geography, algebra,
mechanics, and the art of navigation as was
possible with the aid of texts, many of which
were at that time a century old. In those
days books were scarce and dear; and, for
their general reading, the boys had to be
satisfied with such miscellaneous works as
came their way. These were passed eagerly
from hand to hand, and as eagerly read and
discussed. Youthful imaginations were excited by the romantic adventures of the
Persian and Arabian tales, or by the travels of
Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver in strange
lands and among strange peoples.
Within five minutes' walk of the school
was the Abbey and its cloisters. His hours of
recreation David spent mainly in wandering
through the venerable pile, reading the history Apprenticed to the Company
of England on the monuments of her heroic
dead, and drinking in the beauty of the
architecture, especially that of the noble
Henry VII Chapel. On other occasions, when
chance offered, he would stroll through the
Strand and Fleet Street as far east as London
Bridge or westward to Chelsea, rich in historical memories and famous for its beautiful
lawns. Other favourite haunts were St.
James' Park and Spring Gardens in Vauxhall,
across the Thames. Forty years of wandering through rock and forest, by plain and
mountain, served merely to render yet more
vivid his boyish recollection of the city and
its parks "where all was beauty to the eye and
verdure to the feet."
Thompson's school days, however, were
now to be cut short. By the 20th of May,
1784, the formalities were completed by which
he was bound apprentice to the Hudson's Bay
Company for seven years; and he at once
embarked from the Port of London on the
Company's ship, Prince Rupert, en route for
North America. The lines were cast off, and
the vessel with its  cargo of goods for the 6
David Thompson
Indian trade drifted lazily down stream with
the tide, carrying Thompson away for ever
from the sights and sounds of London, which
he knew and loved so well.
The voyage was uneventful, except for
the usual incidents that attended the westward
journey of the Company's annual fleet. Not
a detail, however, escaped the keen eye of the
young traveller, unaccustomed as he was to
anything but the quiet life of the school, and
thirsting to see something of the world, which
he knew only in the pages of Gulliver and
Robinson Crusoe. The ship sailed up the
North Sea to Stromness in the Orkneys, there
to wait three weeks for the two vessels which
were to accompany her across the Atlantic,
and to receive final instructions and sailing
orders. As they lay in the harbour of Stromness, Thompson's keen eyes noted the strange
life of the kelp-burners on shore, men, women,
and children who, half-naked, gathered the
dripping sea-weed in baskets, and lugged it
on their shoulders to the kilns. Gazing at
the rocky shore line and the low, dark cottages
with their smoky peat fires, which dotted the Apprenticed to the Company        7
barren hills, he was smitten with regret for
the rich meadows and woods of England, and
for a moment he wished himself back amid
the scenes of his school life. Yet in his
rambles ashore, the lad found much to interest
him. He observed with amusement the
quaint habits of the cottagers, who combined
a brisk trade in smuggled liquor with lengthy
and solemn weekly devotions at the old-
fashioned Kirk by the shores of the harbour.
Sailing orders finally arrived from London, and the little fleet was soon off on its
hazardous journey across the stormy North
Atlantic. Presently the sight of icebergs
drifting south with the Arctic current, warned
the crews that they were nearing Hudson
Straits. It was a month before they had
worked their way through the floating ice of
the Straits; after which the three ships separated, one for the factories at Moose and
Albany rivers, the second for York, while the
Prince Rupert, with Thompson aboard, headed
for Churchill, the most northerly of the
Company's settlements on the west side of the
Bay,    Before long, they sighted the granite 8
David Thompson
coast, which they followed southward. This
ended at Churchill in a low point of rock and
sand, surmounted by the grim stone battlements of Fort Prince of Wales, which two
years before had been gutted by the French
in their raid on the Bay. Rounding this
point, they found themselves in the mouth of
the Churchill, a noble stream, almost a mile
in breadth. • Up the river they made their
way for a distance of five miles to a small bay
at the head of the estuary, where they cast
anchor before the log huts of the still unfinished new fort.
The arrival of the annual ship was the
event of the year. Hurried preparations
were made for discharging the cargo of provisions for the factory and supplies for the
Indian trade, and taking on board the year's
accumulation of furs, which were destined to
adorn the persons of the fashionable world of
England and the Continent. In the midst of
this confusion, the new apprentice was taken
ashore, and within ten days the Prince Rupert
sailed away, leaving him to face the rigours of
his new life on the dismal shoresof Hudson Bay. Apprenticed to the Company        9
It was indeed a new life in which David
Thompson found himself. Apart from the
officers, there was a staff of sixty artisans and
servants in the fort. These were all busy
from dawn till dark; for, besides conducting
their trade with the Indians, they had to
maintain themselves as a community in an
utterly barren land. At six each morning in
summer, and eight in winter, the duty bell
summoned to their toil, accountant, steward,
armourer, shipwright, carpenter, cooper,
blacksmith, mason, tailor, and labourers.
Assisted by his officers, the governor, gorgeous
in scarlet tunic and ruffles, his sword and
pistols in his belt, supervised the labours of
the factory.
By the early part of October, the myriads
of wild geese and ducks which each summer
lived in the vast swamps to the south of
Churchill had winged their way to warmer
climes. The middle of the month saw the
marshes stiff with frost, and snow lying on the
ground. The polar bear made his appearance, waiting for the ice to extend some distance from the shore, when he left to prey on IO
David Thompson
the seal, his favourite food. By the fifteenth
of November, the broad and deep river was
frozen solid from bank to bank, not to break
up until the middle of June in the following
year. Till the end of December, the staff
were able to keep the yard of the fort clear of
snow. At that time, a three days' blow from
the north-east filled the fort with snow to a
depth of six feet, with drifts as high as the
stockades. Thereafter it was enough if they
could keep paths cleared from one hut to
The cold was intense. The noise of
rocks split by the frost broke the silence of
the night with a sound like that of a cannon
shot. On the interior walls of the still unfurnished huts, the rime collected to a depth
of four inches, and on this the shivering inhabitants threw pails of water in order that
it might form a coat of ice to increase the
warmth of the houses. Owing to the haste
with which the huts had been thrown up,
there had been no time to lay in a sufficient
supply of firewood for the winter; and all the
wood that could be gathered for fuel allowed Apprenticed to the Company      ii
only one fire in the morning and one in the
evening. During the rest of the day, if the
weather was bad, Thompson, with the others,
had to pace the guard room floor, muffled to
the eyes in his beaver coat, in order to keep
himself from freezing. On clear days, however, he passed his time in shooting grouse,
and this activity he enjoyed except for the
tumbles in the snow and the sore feet and
ankles that resulted from his eager efforts to
walk in snow-shoes.
The dreary winter seemed endless, when,
in the middle of June, summer burst with the
suddenness  of dawn in the Tropics, bringing
with it torments which made Thompson regret
even   the   discomforts   of  winter.    "Hudson
Bay," he says in his narrative, "is certainly a
country which Sinbad the sailor never saw,
for   he   makes   no   mention   of  musketoes."
These pests rose from the marshes in clouds,
driving man and beast to distraction.    The
dogs in the fort howled in their agony, rolling
themselves on the ground and hiding in the
pools.    Even the fox was in a fighting humour,
barking and snapping; and, hungry though 12
David Thompson
he was, he was forced to seek shelter in his
Such was Thompson's first year on the
Bay. He had expected, when he reached the
Fort, to be employed as a clerk, but he soon
found that his only business was to amuse
himself, "in winter growling at the cold, and
in the open season shooting gulls, duck, and
plover and quarreling with musketoes and
sand flies." Fortunately, however, he had
for company three of the officers of the factory,
the deputy governor, the sloop-master, and
the surgeon. To these gentlemen he felt himself greatly indebted for the loan of various
books on history and natural science, by
reading which he was able to put his hours of
idleness to profitable use.
The governor at that time was Samuel
Hearne, a handsome giant with a rubicund
face. It was Hearne who in 1782 had surrendered without a blow the great stone fort
at the mouth of the river. That fort had
cost the Company forty years to build, and it
was barely completed when Hearne raised the
white flag at the challenge of the French Apprenticed to the Company      13
admiral, La Perouse. To the mind of young
Thompson, this act was enough to stamp the
governor as a coward. It was, none the less,
the same Hearne who had succeeded in penetrating as far North as the mouth of the
Coppermine river, and was thus the first white
man to reach the margin of the Arctic ocean.
Nevertheless, Thompson disliked him. Like
so many others at the close of the eighteenth
century, Hearne was infected with the doctrines of Voltaire, and his atheism shocked the
sensitive mind of the pious boy. To a lad of
Thompson's ambition, the life of a hunter
afforded no sort of satisfaction, and he dreaded
lest he should succumb to the deadening influence of his surroundings. He complained
to Hearne that his lack of clerical employment might lead to the loss of his penmanship,
and was barely satisfied when the governor
handed him an invoice or two to copy, and
gave him occupation for a few days upon the
manuscript of his Journey to the North.
The idleness of which Thompson complained was, however, to end before long.
With the arrival of the annual ship in 1785, 14
David Thompson
orders came that the young apprentice should
proceed to York factory, the principal dep6t
of the Company, situated near the mouth of
the Hayes river, one hundred and fifty miles
further up the Bay. South of the Churchill,
the rim of granite which hems the coast
recedes for some miles inland, leaving a vast
waste of marshy alluvial between the hills and
the water line. Trees there are none, and the
monotony of the landscape is relieved only
by boulders which the ice has scattered over
the face of the land.
To journey on foot the length of this
swamp, with two drunken Indians alone for
company, was enough to test the courage and
reliance of a boy of fifteen. Equipped with
but a single blanket to protect him from the
chill of the September nights, the young
David was ferried across the river and put
ashore on the south bank. The day was fine;
but the Indians had been given their usual
gallon of grog on leaving the fort, and they
soon reduced themselves to a drunken stupor.
A night in the open, however, restored them
to their senses.    The next morning the party Apprenticed to the Company      15
made an early start, marching till evening
without breakfast or dinner. During the
day, the Indians had shot a goose and three
ducks. When they finally came to something like a dry spot by the bank of a stream,
the wild fowl were hastily cooked and eaten;
and the wearied travellers, wrapped in their
blankets, flung themselves on the ground to
Day after day, they trudged along the
beach at high water mark, always wet and
muddy. Innumerable creeks which drained
the swamp crossed their path and interrupted
their progress. Finally they came to the
mighty Kissiskatchewan or Nelson river, on
the north bank of which the Indians had laid
up a canoe. Paddling across to the south
shore, they crossed the tongue of low land that
separates the mouth of the Nelson from that
of the Hayes river; and were at last in York.
The governor to whom Thompson reported was the notorious Humphrey Marten.
This old tyrant was now in his twenty-fourth
year of service with the Company. Surrounded by his numerous native wives and a i6
David Thompson
horde of half-breed children, he ruled the fort
with a rod of iron. The Indians who visited
the factory he would beat most cruelly, sending them away with revenge burning in their
hearts. In the fort, his subordinates felt the
weight of his unbridled temper; and they
bowed to his brutality only because they
feared his vindictiveness. Amid such surroundings and under such a taskmaster,
Thompson passed the following year. He
kept the accounts of the factory in his neat
handwriting, and joined with the rest of the
staff in the hunting necessary to supply the
fort with food during the winter. CHAPTER II
IS first two years of service brought nothing but disappointment and disillusion
to David Thompson. Vaguely sensible of his
capacities, he was conscious of nothing except
that as yet he had been given no scope to
realize them. But in the summer of 1786 a
new and important chapter opened in his life.
Fitted out with a trunk, a handkerchief, shoes,
shirts, a gun, powder, and a tin cup, he was
included in a party of forty-six "Englishmen"
who left for the interior under the leadership
of Robert Longmore to establish trading posts
on the Saskatchewan river to the west of those
already occupied by the Company.
For over one hundred years from the
time when the merry monarch had vested in
them a monopoly of trading rights in the vast
territory whose waters drain into Hudson
Bay, the "adventurers of England trading into
17 i8
David Thompson
Hudson Bay" had maintained their factories
on the coast, and allowed the Indians from
the interior to make their way to them for
trade. Great rivers flowed from all directions to the Bay; but the courses of these
rivers were still unknown to the map makers
of the British Admiralty in 1784, the year in
which David Thompson landed at Churchill.
For Hudson Bay is encircled from Labrador
on the north-east to the Arctic on the northwest by a giant horse shoe of Archaean rock,
most of it clothed with the dense northern
forest; and so long as the red men were willing
to make the tedious journey up and down the
rivers, the slumbering giant on the Bay was
content to accept the annual tribute of furs
which they flung at his feet. Each September, when the ships from London arrived,
the factories were crammed with pelts that
meant a fortune on the markets of the Continent; and the traders eagerly awaited a fresh
supply of guns, axes, and kettles for the Indian,
and awls and beads for his squaw, as well as
the fire-water which made him the anxious
though reluctant slave of the great white
chiefs on the Bay. He Finds His Metier
But the monopoly of trade to which the
Company laid claim had not been accepted
without challenge. On the eastern face of
North America, the St. Lawrence river points
like a finger to the heart of the continent, and
from the head of Lake Superior it is possible,
by a comparatively easy portage, to cross the
height of land and descend through Rainy
lake, the Lake of the Woods, and the Winnipeg river to Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg forms a vast collecting basin for the
waters of the interior, before they finally discharge through the Nelson river into Hudson
Bay. Thus it affords communication south
and west by way of the Red and Assiniboine
rivers through the prairie country of southern
Manitoba, the Dakotas, and Minnesota; while,
from the north west corner of the lake, the
Saskatchewan- carries the traveller to its
sources in the Rockies. While therefore the
English had waited for the Indians to bring
their furs down to them on the Bay, the
French from Quebec had pushed their way
along these waters to the heart of the hunting
grounds,  and the advance of these gallant
1 20
David Thompson
adventurers was marked by a string of forts
that extended from Dulhut's post at the head
of Lake Superior to Fort La Jonqui&re near
the site of Calgary.
The fall of Quebec in 1759 had brought
with it the destruction of the organized French
fur trade, and the traders were scattered
through the wilds. But new groups of adventurers, mainly of Scotch descent, swarmed
westward from their headquarters at Montreal, and penetrated into the wilderness
further than the French had ever gone. By
the year 1772, the Montreal traders had
crossed from the Saskatchewan to the still
more northerly Churchill river, and cut the
line of communication ordinarily used by the
Indians of Lake Athabaska in their long
journey to Hudson Bay. The consolidation
of the rival interests into one great firm—the
North West Company—was accomplished in
1784 at the very time of Thompson's arrival
in the West. This achievement brought
vastly increased strength to the Montreal
traders by mitigating the evils of their fierce
competition.    Thus the Hudson's Bay Com- He Finds His Metier
pany was threatened with the loss of its fur
supply at the same moment as the French
war interrupted its convoys, and La Perouse
swept the Bay, destroying the posts at
Churchill, York, and Albany.
Energetic measures were necessary if the
lost trade was to be recovered. As early as
1774, Samuel Hearne had taken the momentous step of founding the first inland post of
the Hudson's Bay Company at Cumberland
House. Situated on the Saskatchewan a few
miles west of Lake Winnipeg, Cumberland
House stood, as it were, in the centre of a vast
web of waterways. "A canoe could start
from this house, and with no portage of more
than a day's length could be launched on the
Arctic ocean, Hudson Bay, the Gulf of St.
Lawrence or the Gulf of Mexico; and without
much greater interruption could be floated on
to the Pacific ocean." Despite the disasters of
the French war, and the dreadful epidemic of
small pox which in 1781 had swept across the
West, decimating and demoralizing the
natives, the advance of the Company was
continued by  the   establishment  of  further 22
David Thompson
posts along the Saskatchewan river. Thompson was thus drawn into the. forefront of
the battle for furs, when he was included
in Longmore's party in the summer of '86.
On the 21 st of July, the brigade of
canoes left York factory for the upper country.
Longmore, the chief, was well qualified for
the task of leading the expedition. For many
years he had served as lieutenant to Tomison,
the "chief inland" of the d6p6t at Cumberland
House. Here he had acquired the difficult
knack of dealing with the Indians, besides
earning their love and respect. Thompson's
immediate superior was Mitchell Oman, an
old and experienced trader of the Company,
to whom he had been assigned as clerk.
Oman could neither read nor write, but he
nevertheless impressed the lad by the unusual
quality of his curious and inquisitive mind.
During the tedious paddle into the interior,
he drew from the pages of a retentive memory
endless tales of the Company's early activities
inland. "In those days," he declared, "our
situation was by no means pleasant. The
Indians were very numerous, and although He Finds His Metier
by far the greater part behaved well, and were
kindly to us, yet among such a number there
will always be found bad men. To protect
ourselves from them, we had to get a respectable chief to stay with us and assist us in
trading, and prevent as much as possible the
demands of these men." His valuable reminiscences were not lost upon the boy.
As the boatmen slowly worked their
way up the river, Thompson's eyes gazed for
the first time on the country he was afterwards to know so well. Their course lay up
the Hayes river, and thence, by way of Lake
Winnipeg, to the Saskatchewan. Progress at
first was rapid, even against the stream, for
they were still in the low and marshy country
that fringes the south-west corner of the Bay.
Presently, however, they encountered the
first of the many rapids which mark the
descent of the river to the sea. At each of
these, with monotonous reiteration, the packs
were all heaved ashore and shouldered along
the rugged path of the portage to the higher
level of the river. At the same time, the face
of   the   landscape   suddenly   altered.    The 24
David Thompson
marshy alluvial gave way to naked granite,
and they entered the belt of dark and gloomy
northern forest. As they passed through the
heart of the rocky country, the character of
the river was also changed. From point to
point the stream was held back by ledges of
granite which broke its progress, giving rise to
an irregular chain of wide and deep lakes.
Through these lakes they threaded their way
until, reaching the end of the granite country,
they saw before them the broad expanse of
Lake Winnipeg, the "bad water" of the Indians. Sixty miles along its northern coast
brought them to the point where the Saskatchewan, after a swift and unbroken course of
over one thousand miles through the plains,
plunges in a long series of cascades into the
lake. Having portaged past these, and wended their way through the alluvial flats of
Cedar lake, they came at last to Cumberland
House, and the first stage of their journey was
Their objective was a point on the Saskatchewan about fifty miles above the present
site of Battleford.    As they continued their He Finds His Metier
journey westward from Cumberland House,
the forest gradually gave way to open country,
and they found themselves in the vast expanse
of the plains, dotted here and there with
clumps of trees—the country of the bison, the
antelope, and the red deer. Passing the forks
of the river, they came to the site which the
keen eye of Longmore had selected. There, on
the northern bank of the stream, they cleared
the ground and ran up a series of log huts,
surrounded by a wooden stockade—the future
Manchester House. Except for a solitary
post which the North-Westers had for three
years maintained about forty miles further up
stream, Thompson had now reached the limit
"of country at that time familiar to civilized
men. To the west stretched the unknown
wilderness, which it was his destiny, in considerable measure, to explore.
The object of the new post was to secure
the trade of the natives of the plains; and
during the following winter David was busy
learning the complicated ritual of Indian
barter. In the course of a year he had so far
mastered his duties that he was selected to 26
David Thompson
lead a party of six men across country to the
south branch of the Saskatchewan, in order
to open friendly relations with the Piegan and
Blackfeet Indians whose camps lay along the
banks of that stream. Each man had a horse,
and among them they carried a small assortment of goods. The duties of the young
diplomat were to find the camps of the Piegans
and winter among them, in order to induce
them to hunt for furs and to make pemmican
or dried buffalo meat for the traders. He was
to persuade as many as possible to travel to
the post for trade. With those who were
unwilling to do so, he was to bargain for furs.
The party set forth in October, under
their seventeen-year-old leader. The trail
they followed led through a fine rolling
country, everywhere clothed with short grass,
and dotted with islands of poplar and birch.
For twenty-three days they rode without
seeing any animals other than a chance bull-
bison which they shot for food. To the south
of the Bow river they found an Indian camp
pitched in a spot where the tender grass
afforded  rich pasture for  the   buffalo; but He Finds His Metier
the plains, which were ordinarily black with
moving herds, were at this time strangely
deserted. After several moves, they finally
struck a large encampment of Piegans near the
present site of Calgary. Sending some of his
men back to Manchester House, Thompson
settled down in this camp to spend the winter.
The Piegan, Blood, and Blackfeet Indians were three allied tribes of Algonquin
stock who had emerged from the northern
forest and taken possession of the plains,
driving their enemies, the Kootenay, Salish,
and Snake Indians, before them to the mountains. Since the white men had come to
trade on the river, they had advanced from
the Eagle hills in western Saskatchewan to the
very foot of the Rockies. This rapid conclusion of an age-long struggle for the mastery
of the grazing country had been due to the
fire-arms which they had procured from the
The manners and customs of the confederate tribes were in keeping with their warlike disposition and constant danger. Unlike
the  scattered forest Indians,  they lived  in 28
David Thompson
large camps, and without yielding their
traditional liberty to the control of a single
authority, they had nevertheless evolved a
rudimentary form of social organization.
Hunters of the bison, they were in constant
need of horses. Horse-stealing was thus
among them an honourable pursuit, and their
raids extended far to the south and west.
During the winter of Thompson's stay among
them, a raid on the Snakes took a part of two
hundred and fifty warriors a distance of one
thousand, five hundred miles to the southwest, as was testified by the thirty well-bred
animals that were brought back to camp, and
the Spanish saddles and bridles that lay
thrown about among the tents.
Of the three allied tribes, the Piegans
occupied the most exposed position, and
consequently led the most precarious and
watchful life. From boyhood they were
trained in arms, and their martial bearing and
enterprising character produced a strong impression upon Thompson. They had an
hereditary civil chief or "orator", as he was
called, who presided at all councils except He Finds His Metier
those of war. Arrayed in his splendid mantle
of otter skin, he paced the camp each day
three hours after sunset, reciting in a loud
voice the news which his couriers had gathered,
announcing in particular where the herds of
bison were feeding and what direction they
were taking. The war chief, on the other
hand, was a self-made man, whose power and
influence had developed from his conduct in
war. Kootanae Appee, as he was called, was
a magnificent giant, six feet six inches in
height, and was the father of twenty-two
warriors, no less tall and sinewy than himself.
In after years, when Thompson was battling
his way south along the Columbia river, the
bond of friendship which he now forged with
this old chief stood him in good stead.
The chief in whose tent Thompson passed
the winter bore the name of Saukamappee
(Young Man). Saukamappee was broad of
shoulder and strong of limb. Old age had
not bowed his grey head, nor had a troubled
life obliterated the mild and playful expression
of his countenance. During the long winter
evenings,  he entertained his guest with re- 3Q
David Thompson
miniscences that went back for fifty years.
From him, Thompson learned of the Indian
methods of fighting before the time of firearms, of the first importation of these deadly
weapons from the distant factory at York, of
the introduction of the horse among the
Blackfeet, and of the dreadful effects of the
small-pox epidemic in '81, of which Saukamappee himself had been a victim. While
Thompson thus learned the history of the
tribes among whom he was staying, he practised himself in the use of their language.
His note books contain long lists of Indian
words with their English equivalents, gathered
from the Piegans and from other tribes whom
he encountered.
The winter over, Thompson returned to
the post, from which he was sent to Cumberland House in the summer of 1789. Here
he began to keep a careful meteorological
journal, noting two or three times daily the
temperature, the strength and direction of the
wind, and the general character of the climate.
He also began a series of astronomical observations, as the result of which he was able to He Finds His Metier
determine the exact latitude and longitude of
Cumberland House. This post was thus the
first of a series of widely scattered points fixed
by him on the map of British North America.
It was then, too, that he acquired the large
brass sextant which was to be his constant
companion for years to come.
Having made this start, Thompson attempted in the following summer to make a
survey of the canoe route from Cumberland
House to York factory, by way of the Saskatchewan and the Hayes rivers. In the
autumn, he returned to Cumberland House.
While there^ he had the good fortune to meet
Philip Turnor, the man without whose guidance and help Thompson could hardly have
realized his future career.
For several years, the Colonial Office had
been urging the Hudson's Bay Company to
proceed with the survey of the vast territory
over which it exercised sway; and to satisfy
the pressing demand of the government, the
Company had engaged Philip Turnor as
astronomer and surveyor. Possessed of a
sound theoretical training, Turnor had been 32
David Thompson
employed in England as one of the compilers
of the Nautical Almanac; and since 1776 he
had added to his qualifications a wide practical
experience drawn from numerous surveys
throughout the region of the Bay. Here was
a man who could solve Thompson's doubts
and difficulties, and correct the deficiencies of
his education for the work which he had in
An eager pupil, Thompson sat at the
feet of Turnor during the winter of 1790; and
when, in the following spring, he returned to
York factory, it was as a man with his mind
made up. If a man knows clearly what he
wants and has the intelligence and perseverance to pursue his aims, no obstacle, not
even such as these which confronted Thompson, can keep him from attaining his goal.
Thereafter Thompson and his beloved
instruments were inseparable companions in
journeys that carried him for thousands of
miles through the wildest parts of the unknown west. By day and night, he was an
object of wonder to his French-Canadian and
Indian followers, as, armed with his sextant,
telescope,  compass,  and  other instruments, He Finds His Metier
he took observations on the sun, moon, and
stars. While he sought to determine the
position of rivers, lakes, and mountains, to be
recorded on the map which was to be his
life's work, his activities suggested to their
superstitious minds the idea that he was in
communication with powers not of this world,
and earned him the title which he bore among
them, Koo-Koo-Sint, "The man who looks at
the stars." CHAPTER III
HEN Thompson returned to York
factory in the spring of 1791, it was
to find that great changes had taken
place at the fort. Five years before, the
tyrannous sway of old Humphrey Marten
had come to an end, and he had been succeeded as governor by Joseph Colen. This
man was to direct Thompson's movements
during the next six years.
The new governor was a man of unquestioned ability; but his jealous and suspicious temperament made him work at cross
purposes with the governor of Churchill, and
brought him into frequent conflict with
Tomison at Cumberland House. He had
never caught the spirit of the aggressive
policy initiated by Samuel Hearne, and preferred to develop the fur trade with the Indians who came down to the coast for trade,
34 Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       35
rather than to follow them to their hunting
grounds. In his reports to the directors in
London, he endeavoured to excuse his lack of
enterprise by hurling vague accusations at his
colleagues; while his subordinates, men like
Thompson and Malcolm Ross, were irritated
and provoked by the lack of support from
headquarters which constantly frustrated their
efforts to push forward the work of exploring
the more remote interior.
The seven years of David's apprenticeship
were now at an end, and he was engaged at a
good salary as trader and surveyor to the
Company. He was not yet, however, given
an opportunity of practising his profession.
The previous spring, an ice-jam at the mouth
of the Hayes river had caused the water to
rise, flooding the low land on which the
factory was situated; and for a year or more,
Thompson had to assist Colen in moving the
fort to its present site on a high clay bank
about a quarter mile further up stream.
Meanwhile Philip Turnor had returned
from a journey to Lake Athabaska, and the
report of his  explorations  had  reached the 36
David Thompson
directors in London. Proceeding from Cumberland House, he had worked his way north
through Amisk and Pelican lakes to Frog
Portage, a distance of one hundred miles.
After crossing the portage, he found himself
in the basin of the upper Churchill river.
This stream he ascended as far as Isle a la
Crosse, and thence he made his way through
Buffalo lake and Lake la Roche to the Methy
Portage. This portage marks the divide
between the waters that flow eastward to
Hudson Bay and those that discharge through
the Mackenzie into the Arctic ocean. Crossing the portage, he descended the Clearwater
river to its junction with the Athabaska,
whose broad stream soon carried him to the
lake of that name. This was the regular
route followed by the Indians of the far
north in their journeys to Hudson Bay.
Tumor's report filled the directors with a
desire to dispute the trade of Lake Athabaska
with the men of the North West Company;
and they bombarded Colen with instructions
to send Ross and Thompson to that region.
But to Colen's mind there was a more pressing Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       37
necessity nearer home. The North-Westers
had entered the rocky belt to the south-west
of York, and had monopolized trade throughout the irregular series of lakes and rivers
which form the tributaries of the Nelson and
lower Churchill, thus challenging the "English" on their home front itself. Accordingly
Colen ignored the instructions from London,
and despatched Ross and Thompson into this
"muskrat country," as it was called, with
orders to build posts at strategic points and
restore the trade of the Company.
On the 5th of September, 1792, Thompson
set forth with two canoes on his first independent command. Rounding the point
from York factory, the canoes swung into the
broad channel of the Nelson river. By the
end of the month they were well above Split
lake, Thompson making a survey as they
moved along. At this point one of the
canoes turned aside to ascend Grass river,
while Thompson with the other continued
along the main stream until he reached the
upper end of Sipiwisk lake. Here in a little
cove formed by two projecting points of rock, 38
David Thompson
with the dark spruce forest at his back and a
view to the south west over the island-studded
lake, he built his first trading post, and
settled down to face the winter in a country
almost devoid of fish and game.
His heart, however, was set on exploration. From the Indians he learned that,
besides the well-known route which had been
followed by Turnor to Lake Athabaska, there
existed another, north from the Churchill
river to Reindeer lake, and thence westward
by way of the Black river to the east end of
Lake Athabaska. This route he made up his
mind to explore.
Accordingly, when the ice had cleared
from the rivers, he set forth alone without any
help or encouragement from headquarters.
Descending to the lower end of Sipiwisk lake,
he turned to the left and passed by a series of
portages through Wintering, Red Paint and
Burntwood lakes to the Missinippi or Churchill river, up which he paddled for a distance
of thirty-three miles. But the Indian guides
whom he had expected to meet failed to put
in an appearance, and he was forced to turn Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       39
back. He therefore descended through Burnt-
wood lake and the Nelson river to York
Colen had given the English directors to
understand that he planned to send Ross and
Thompson to the Athabaska country; and
with the arrival of the annual ship in the
autumn of '93, they wrote that they expected
much good to follow from the projected expedition, and that they wished William Cook,
who had accompanied David into the Muskrat
country the previous autumn, to join with
the others in the invasion of the far north.
But Cook was not recalled from his post on
Split lake, and Ross and Thompson were sent
up the Saskatchewan to Cumberland House.
Thence Thompson was despatched, not to
Lake Athabaska, as he had expected, but
westward along the river to a new post called
Buckingham House, from which he rode still
further west to the Beaver hills near the
future site of Fort Augustus (Edmonton).
Returning, he surveyed the Saskatchewan
east from Buckingham House to the Forks,
and from the Forks he resurveyed the rest of 40
David Thompson
the river. From Cumberland House, he explored a new route through Goose, Reed, and
Burntwood lakes to the Nelson, and thus
opened up a direct line of communication
between the d6pot at Cumberland House and
York factory, much superior to the old course
by way of Lake Winnipeg and the Hayes
Thompson's reappearance at York without having been to the Athabaska country
made it necessary for Colen to do no little
explaining to the impatient London directors.
In a long letter to them, he hinted that it was
Tomison who was responsible for the fiasco.
Tomison, he said, had refused to pass his word
for the advance of wages promised by the
Council to those who would volunteer to
accompany the expedition. Ross, he declared, was utterly disgusted with the repeated
disappointments, and would have returned at
once to England, had not Thompson prevailed
upon him to make one last trial, this time by
way of Reindeer lake. Thompson and Ross,
he added, were being fitted out with canoes
and supplies at York, and would be sent up Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       41
the Nelson river track. The directors were
deceived, and swallowed their 'disappointment, hoping to hear that the difficulties
which stood in the way of the Athabaska
expedition had been successfully overcome.
But, even now, Thompson was sent, not
to the North, but back once more to the
Muskrat country, this time to Reed lake.
Here, in a district comparatively rich in fish,
game, and furs, he built a house, and spent
one of the coldest winters in the history of
the Hudson Bay. While hunting and trading,
he also prepared for the directors of the
Company, the maps and surveys of the
country which he had already traversed. In
July of the following year, 1795, he paddled
down the river on what was to be his last
visit to York.
On this occasion Colen was absent on a
trip to England, but the factory was seething
with discontent. Thompson found the staff
impatiently waiting, in order that he, the
youngest and bravest among them, might
take the lead in drawing up a statement of
the   grievances   which   they   suffered   under 42
David Thompson
Colen's rule. This office he accepted, although with some hesitation on account of
the absence of the governor. Assisted by his
friend the surgeon, he drew up a statement
which Colen declared seriously prejudiced
him in the eyes of the directors; although,
according to Thompson, not one half of the
evils were even mentioned of which the staff
had cause to complain. Thompson was not
ashamed of the part he had played in this
mutinous outbreak. As soon as he had left
the service, he took the opportunity of explaining to his old chief that he was the author
of the protest which had so much displeased
him. "Many of us," his letter concluded,
"acknowledge with readiness that you have
some good qualities, and I once had the
greatest respect for you; I have some yet,
but it is not my wish to say those things
which I know you do not wish to hear. How
is it, Sir, that everyone who has once wished
you well should turn to be indifferent to you,
and even some to hate you, although they
are constant in their other friendships ?—there
must be a defect somewhere.   The fact is, Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       43
that from your peculiar manner of conduct,
you are also one of those unfortunate men
who will have many an acquaintance, but
never a real friend."
Thompson's final break with Colen did
not, however, occur until two years later. He
turned in his furs, and without waiting, except
to secure supplies for the coming winter,
went back to his duties in the Muskrat
country. This time he built a house far to
the north on Duck Portage, the link connecting Burntwood lake with the Churchill river.
When spring opened, instead of returning to
York, he made ready for his dash to Lake
Formal permission had reached him from
Colen, sanctioning his venture into the unknown wilds. This, however, meant nothing,
because it was not accompanied by help of
any kind. At that moment, indeed, the
Company was seriously crippled for lack of
men to keep up the few inland trading posts
that then existed, for the war which was
raging between England and France had
drained the Orkney islands of all men who 44
David Thompson
were fit for service in the army and navy.
The few miserable dwarfs who could be obtained for the fur trade excited the contempt
of even the Indians.
Thompson, nevertheless, was not to be
deterred from his enterprise. He proceeded
at once to Fairford House, the trading post
kept by Malcolm Ross on the Churchill near
the mouth of the Reindeer river, where he
hoped to get some assistance. To his great
disappointment, he found that not a man
could be spared from the trade in furs. There
were, however, a few Chepawyan Indians
lingering about the fort and from among these
he managed to engage two young men.
Kozdaw and "Paddy" had hunted for two
winters in the country he was about to explore, although neither of them had ever been
on the rivers and lakes in summer. Their
only practice in canoes had been to lie offshore in the lakes on a calm day, watching for
the deer to take refuge from the flies, and this
gave them no experience of the currents and
rapids of rivers; yet, such as they were,
Thompson had no choice but to take them. Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       45
The first task was to construct a canoe.
Having searched the forest for a supply of
birch bark, they made a boat seventeen feet
in length. Into this they packed their meagre
outfit, a fowling piece with forty balls, five
pounds of shot, three flints and five pounds of
powder, a fishing net, a hatchet and a small
tent of grey cotton. These articles, together
with a few handfuls of beads, rings, and awls
for trading, made up their terribly inadequate
In the grey dawn of a June morning, 1796,
Thompson launched his canoe on the turbid
waters of the Missinippi. The party advanced rapidly, making a survey as they
went. For supplies they relied on their
solitary net and gun. Turning into the
Reindeer river, they worked their way north
against a moderate current to Reindeer lake.
A hundred miles up the west coast of this
lake brought them to a point clothed with
tolerably good pines. This point Thompson
noted as a suitable site for building a trading
post on his return.
The whole distance through which they
had come had a barren, rocky appearance, 46
David Thompson
relieved only by patches of stunted birch,
aspen, and spruce. Since there was little or
no soil, the trees stood with their roots interlaced like the trees on the frozen lands of
Hudson Bay; and, like them, they were kept
moist in summer by the wet moss with which
their roots were covered. Through wide
stretches the forest fires had passed, leaving
the country unsightly and ghostlike, and
destroying the wild animals of the forest.
Thompson was now in fact approaching the
northern limit of trees, beyond which stretch
the barren lands, the home of the musk ox and
In order to avoid the wide circuit of the
Cochrane river, which flows to Reindeer lake
from Lake Wollaston, the guides directed
Thompson up a stream that emptied from the
west a few miles north of his point of pines.
From the head of this stream there was a
passage by a series of ponds and brooks to the
south end of Wollaston lake. But the water
was low, and they were forced to carry their
packs for the better part of fifty miles, stumbling over the rocks and wading through the Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       47
marshes, while clouds of mosquitoes buzzed
about their defenceless heads. It was a
welcome relief when they launched out on the
clear and deep waters of Lake Wollaston,
which. they crossed without trouble to the
Black river. Here they made camp on the
evening of June 23, and rested while Thompson took observations and made up the notes
of his survey.
Two days later they were once more under
way. Lake Wollaston, as Thompson discovered, was situated on the height of land
between the basins of Hudson Bay and the
Mackenzie river. Part of its waters discharged eastward and south into Reindeer
lake, while part flowed westward through the
Black river into Lake Athabaska. From this
curious circumstance, the lake was known to
the Indians as "Lake Manito," and was
considered to be of supernatural character.
Entering the Black river, the party passed at
first through the quiet reaches of the upper
river, in a wretched country of solitude, where
the wild laugh of the loon alone woke the
echoes   of  the  barren   hills.    Presently   the 48
David Thompson
banks closed in, and as the current stiffened,
they had to paddle vigorously to avoid the
projecting rocks. Finally an expansion of the
stream brought them to Black lake. It was
during this stretch that they came upon the
only human beings they had so far encountered
—five tents of Chepawyans, hunting and
fishing in an otherwise deserted land.
They could afford but one day to enjoy
the hospitality of the Indians. From Black
lake, the river tumbles in two wild cascades to
the level of Lake Athabaska. A series of
rapids, cutting through a high hill, warned
them that they were approaching the first of
the falls. For half a mile they shot the rapids
to a point where the river is compressed within
a channel only twelve yards in width. At
the end of this channel, the current rushed
against a projecting ledge of rock with such
force that the whole river seemed to be turned
up from its bottom. The dashing of the
water against the rocks, the deep roar of the
torrent, the hollow sound of the fall, in the
midst of the dark, high, and frowning hills,
made  a  sight  so  grand   and  terrible  that Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       49
Kozdaw and Paddy were awe-struck, and
offered their simple tributes to the manito of
the fall—the one a bit of tobacco, the other
a ring. Past this fall the travellers descended
by a well-beaten native trail. A second series
of rapids and a second fall brought them to
the last lap of their journey, and they paddled
quietly for six miles into the east end of Lake
Athabaska. Here they passed the night,
resting from their dangers, toils, and sufferings
under a pine tree which had been lopped and
marked by Philip Turnor in his survey of 1791.
Thompson's heart was thrilled by the
thought that he had finally accomplished the
journey on which for the last five years his
heart had been set, and that in so doing he
had blazed a trail through the wilderness over
ground which the feet of white men had
never trod before. He was sobered, however,
by the prospect of the long and difficult
journey home. His net and gun afforded but
a scanty supply of food, and should these
fail him, there was but slight hope of succour.
But gloomy as were his forebodings, it was well
that he did not know what lay before him. So
David Thompson
Half way up the Black river, he encountered one of the rapids which was broken
about the middle by a twelve-foot fall. Portaging past the fall, he attempted to "track"
the canoe up the rest of the rapid. The two
Indians were ashore tugging at the tow-line,
while Thompson in the canoe tried to steer
and at the same time direct their movements.
Near the head of the rapid there was at the
water's edge a tree which blocked their progress, and as the Indians stood hesitating
which side of it they should pass, the canoe
sheered off across the current. An upset was
inevitable, had not Thompson waved to the
Indians to let go the line and leave him to his
fate. Springing to the bow, he cut the rope
off short with the clasp knife which he kept
in his waistcoat pocket, and got the head of
the canoe around into the stream just in time
to take the plunge over the cataract. For an
instant, Thompson was buried beneath the
boiling water at the foot of the fall. Striking
his feet against the bottom, he pushed himself
to the surface close to the upturned canoe.
This he seized and dragged through shallow Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       51
water to the beach. The Indians came
rushing to his assistance, and, while he lay on
the rocks, bruised, bleeding, and exhausted by
his exertions, they searched the shore below
the rapids for what could be recovered of their
precious kit.
The gun, the axe, and the tent had
remained fastened in the canoe. In half an
hour's time, the Indians brought back the
cork-lined box containing Thompson's in-,
struments and the maps of his survey, together with their three paddles and a pewter
basin. Not one moment was to be lost.
Thompson's body was naked except for his
shirt and a thin linen vest, and his companions were in like condition. The small
tent they tore into three pieces with which to
wrap themselves as a defence against flies by
day and chill by night. Worse still, Thompson found as he painfully raised himself from
the rocks that the flesh of his foot had been
torn away by the impact of the jagged stones
of the river bed, and a part of his share of the
tent had to be taken to bind the wound.
The first duty was to repair the canoe,
and the Indians were sent to the woods to 52
David Thompson
procure gum from the pines. The question
was then how to light a fire, for they had
neither flint nor steel. Thompson pointed to
his gun from which they took the flint, and
with the steel blade of his pocket knife they
struck a spark. When the gum was melted,
they repaired the canoe and carried their kit
above the fall and rapids. The Indians
shouldered the canoe, while behind them the
wounded leader hobbled painfully along under
the burden of gun, axe, and sextant case.
Night had fallen before they found time
to make a fire and warm themselves. Their
situation was enough to strike terror into the
boldest heart. Destitute, almost naked, and
suffering from the weather, they faced a
journey of three hundred miles through a
barren country. Yet Thompson did not
despair. For two days they paddled and
portaged up the river without a bite to eat.
On the afternoon of the second day they saw
two gulls hovering over a reedy bay as if to
protect their young. They found the nest
and in it three young gulls, but the few
ounces of meat which they were able to pick Trader, Surveyor, Explorer   53
from their miserable carcases sufficed only to
sharpen their hunger.
The next day as they went along, Thompson remembered an eagle's nest on the banks
of a small lake before them. When they
came to the lake they found the nest in the
spreading branches of a birch tree, about
sixteen feet above the ground. Kozdaw had
barely time to climb to the nest before the
old birds arrived. Paddy and Thompson, with
shouts and stones, succeeded in preventing
them from attacking Kozdaw, while the latter
threw the two young eagles to the ground.
The birds fought with beak and claw for their
lives, but were finally killed and flung into
the canoe.
In the evening, they opened the eagles
by the gleam of the camp fire, and divided
the meat and yellow fat into three equal
portions. While Kozdaw roasted his meat
and oiled his body with the fat, the others ate
only the fat, reserving the meat for next day.
In the night they were both awakened by a
violent dysentery, which continued to plague
them for many days, although a strong in- 54
David Thompson
fusion of a certain dried moss, known as Labrador tea, brought them some relief.
Day by day they continued their voyage,
subsisting on the wretched crow-berries of the
far north. By the sixteenth of July, Thompson and Paddy were like skeletons, from
hunger, dysentery, and cold. On that day
Thompson scratched what he thought was
his dying message on a scrap of birch bark
which Kozdaw was to carry back with him to
civilization. Late in the afternoon, as they
paddled weakly and painfully along, they
came upon two tents of Chepawyans. The
savages pitied their condition and restored
them with broth. From them Thompson
procured some provisions, a flint and a few
rounds of ammunition, together with a pair
of shoes each for himself and his men. Thus
they were able to proceed on their journey,
and arrived without further adventure at
Fairford House after an absence of thirty-
one days.
At Fairford House Thompson was joined
by Malcolm Ross with a stock of provisions
for the  northern  trade,  and together they Trader, Surveyor, Explorer       55
returned to build a trading post on Reindeer
lake. Along with the supplies, Ross brought
a letter from Colen to Thompson, containing
a curt order that he should cease his surveys
and explorations.    This was his reward. CHAPTER IV
npHE chilly reception which Thompson met
after his return from Lake Athabaska
was enough to quench the enthusiasm of
any man. He might have lain down under
the blow. In that case he would no doubt
have ended his days as an obscure and broken-
spirited trader, embittered by his fate, but
powerless so late in life to change it. Another
course, however, was open to him, if he had
the courage and self-reliance to take it. This
was to throw up his post with the Hudson's
Bay Company, and seek employment in other
quarters where his talents would meet with
the recognition they deserved.
In the long winter evenings at Reindeer
lake, he weighed the problem before him.
Colen, his chief, had undoubtedly failed to
appreciate  the  value  of  his  work.    Worse
56 With the North-Westers
still, he had hampered it, since for the last
two years he had neglected even to supply
Thompson with the Nautical Almanac so
necessary for his surveys. But behind Colen
stood the Company. How far had they
given him the sympathy and encouragement
which he needed? The directors, he felt,
might easily have had the northern part of
the continent surveyed as far as the Pacific
coast, and thus greatly extended the range
of their trade. This they could have accomplished at trifling expense, for in England
there were numbers of highly-trained naval
officers on half pay, who would have jumped
at the chance of employment. But any explorations which they had undertaken were
solely at the behest of the Colonial Office.
His feelings toward the Company may not
have been altogether justified. Nevertheless,
he could only conclude that there was little or
no future for him in the service. With
Thompson to think was to act. On the 28th
of May, 1797, he left his post on Reindeer
lake and walked south through the bush for
seventy-five miles to the nearest house of'the 58
David Thompson
North-Westers. After ten days spent there,
he proceeded to Grand Portage, the headquarters of the Company at the west end of
Lake Superior, in order that he might offer
his services to the merchants from Canada.
Situated on a small bay at the mouth of
Pigeon river, Grand Portage had been for
several years the general d6p6t for the trader
of the North West Company, the lair from
which those "sly wolves of the North" had
sallied forth to work such havoc with the
trade of the English on Hudson Bay. Along
the shore ran a line of docks, which each
summer were piled high, now with the parcels
of merchandise for the interior trade, now
with the packs of furs which had been gathered
from the distant trading posts for the market
in the east. Along the bay front and up the
bank of the river sprawled the village of log
huts in which dwelt the half-breed families of
the French voyageurs.
The fort itself was in keeping with the
dignity of the Company and the magnitude
of its operations. A palisade eighteen feet
high enclosed the great square in which stood With the North-Westers
the various offices—storehouses, servants'
quarters, and lodgings for the clerks. In the
centre of the courtyard towered the main
building, a stout log structure surmounted by
a high balcony. This contained the apartments of the partners, and the great hall, its
walls covered with portraits of the leading
members of the Company in all the glory of
ruffles and scarlet coats. Here took place the
grave deliberations of the merchants, and
here each evening they dined in solemn state.
The stone powder magazine, the jail with its
barred windows, and the sentry in the archway of the great gate lent a touch of grim-
ness to the picture of this far-flung outpost
of commerce.
At Grand Portage, Thompson received a
warm welcome from those of the partners who
were at the time present in the fort. On his
way down he had met Roderick Mackenzie,
cousin to the famous Sir Alexander, and
Simon Fraser, soon to win distinction as the
discoverer of the Fraser river. At the post he
found the Honourable William McGillivray,
prominent in the councils of the Company,
m 6o
David Thompson
and Sir Alexander Mackenzie himself. Sir
Alexander had been the first white man to
descend the Mackenzie river to its mouth,
and he had blazed a trail across the Rocky
Mountains to the Pacific. He had but
recently returned from England, wearing the
honour of knighthood which he had earned
for his explorations. All of these gentlemen
impressed Thompson as being men of enterprise and vision, and among them he found
the liberal and public spirit which in his
former employers he had sought in vain.
At that time, questions of serious import
were agitating the minds of the partners. By
the treaty which closed the American Revolutionary War, the boundary between the
British dominions and the territories of the
United States had been fixed as a line drawn
from the northwest corner of the Lake of the
Woods to the source of the Mississippi, which
was then thought to lie considerably north of
its true position. Nine years later, the forty-
ninth parallel of latitude had been accepted
as the boundary; and by the Treaty of Amity
and Commerce subsequently passed, it had With the North-Westers
been agreed that all British trading posts
south of this line should be withdrawn. This
made it necessary for the Company to fix at
once the location of their houses on the upper
Red river, and incidentally if possible to discover the true source of the Mississippi. The
partners were also anxious to have a route
surveyed to the headwaters of the Missouri
river, where there existed the villages of an
Indian people who got their living from the
cultivation of the soil. The scientific spirit of
the merchants was shown by their further
desire to search for the fossil bones of prehistoric animals and any monuments which
might throw light on the earlier condition of
the regions surveyed. Finally, they wished
to ascertain the courses of the rivers and the
situation of the lakes, in order that they
might rearrange their network of trading
houses so as to cover more completely the
territory  under  their sway.
Thompson's arrival came therefore at an
opportune moment. He was promptly engaged as astronomer and surveyor to the
company,  and  the partners and  agents  all 62
David Thompson
agreed to send orders to their various trading
posts that he should be given any assistance
he required. In August, the great canoes
arrived from Montreal with the goods for the
Indian trade. When these were unloaded,
the merchandise was assorted and made up
in parcels each of ninety pounds' weight, so
that the boatmen might be able to shoulder
them over the portages. These were then
taken in charge by the various agents and their
shouting crews of voyageurs. Five days of
hard labour were needed for the carry over
Grand Portage to the upper waters of Pigeon
river. When all was ready, Thompson
climbed the long trail from the lake. Armed
with his precious instruments, he joined the
Swan river brigade of four canoes, and embarked on what was to be the longest, fastest
and most brilliant piece ot survey in his
whole career.
Progress was tedious until the party had
crossed the watershed beyond which all
streams flow north-westward into Lake Winnipeg and thence into Hudson Bay. They
then made a rapid descent through Rainy With the North-Westers
lake and the Lake of the Woods to the
Winnipeg river (the mad or foaming water of
the Indians), down which they paddled and
portaged to its mouth. Coasting along the
south shore of Lake Winnipeg under the
shelter of its low limestone cliffs, they came
to the mouth of the Dauphin or Little Saskatchewan river. The ascent of this stream
brought them to the waters of Lake Manitoba.
They had only to paddle to the head of this
lake, and from thence the length of Lake
Winnipegosis, in order to find themselves at
the mouth of the Swan river. Twelve miles
up this stream was their objective—Swan
River House.
As they approached their goal, Thompson
observed that the land was rapidly improving
in character; until at Swan River House he
found himself in the heart of a fine varied
country of hill and plain, woodland and
meadow—the beaver country par excellence.
Here on every side were to be found traces of
the labours of these industrious animals; the
dammed brooks, the flooded meadows, the
dome-like huts in which they lived and the 64
David Thompson
burrows to which they fled for refuge when
attacked. All this fine country was the
hunting ground of the Cree Indians, the
possession of which they had from time immemorial disputed with the beaver, the bison,
and the red deer.
When the early French traders arrived,
they brought with them chisels, knives, and
other implements of iron. The Indians, having got possession of these, were able to cut
through the dams, drain the waters of the
ponds, and thus expose the huts and burrows
of the beaver. Then, assisted by their small
half-savage dogs, they would chisel their way
through the thick walls of the huts until they
came to the beaver. Since there was a ready
market for his skin among the French traders,
they soon became rich, and for several years
men, women, and children were gay with
brooches, ear-rings and beads, and gaudy
with scarlet coats.
But then the Nipissing and Iroquois
Indians, who had exhausted their own countries, spread to the north and west. Armed
with their new steel traps, they began a war With the North-Westers
of annihilation upon the beaver; and by the
year 1797, when Thompson travelled through
the Swan river district, almost the whole of
that extensive region was denuded. The
short phase of prosperity was over. The
greed of the white man and the improvidence
of the Indian had done their work, and while
the native might still hope to gain a bare
subsistence from hunting the deer and the
bison, he was once more poor, thus to remain
for ever.
Over this country, Thompson made a
series of rapid excursions by horse and canoe,
in order that he might fix the location of the
various trading houses of the North West
Company. In the course of five weeks, he
had crossed to the basins of the Red Deer and
the Assiniboine rivers, and surveyed each of
these streams to its source. He then descended the Assiniboine to its confluence with
the Souris, near where the city of Brandon
now stands. Here toward the end of November he put up at Assiniboine House, which
was at that time kept by a trader called
John McDonnell. 66
David Thompson
McDonnell's house was the natural point
of departure for the journey across to the
Mandan Villages on the upper Missouri. The
trail lay in a south-westerly direction along
the south bank of the Souris river as far as
the great bend, and from thence across the open
plains to the heights of the Missouri. As the
country was generally treeless, the custom of
travellers was to move from point to point
where patches of wood growing in the river
bottom or at the higher levels afforded firewood and shelter for the night.
Winter had come, and three inches of
snow lay upon the ground, making travel
both disagreeable and dangerous. Worse still,
the road passed through the hunting grounds
of the Sioux Indians, those wild riders of the
plains who lived by pursuit of the bison. The
Sioux had lately suffered the loss of several
men at the hands of the Mandan Indians;
and these losses they blamed on the whites
who had supplied the Mandans with guns and
ammunition. They were therefore in a very
menacing temper, and had determined to
waylay, scalp, and plunder the next party of With the North-Westers
traders   who   ventured   the  journey   to   the
Thompson, however, was not to be deterred; and he made his preparations for the
dash across the plains. As guide and interpreter, he engaged a man who had resided for
eight years among the Mandans, by name
Rene Jussomme. He also picked up a light-
hearted Irishman, Hugh McCrachan, who had
often been to the villages for months at a
time. The rest of the party was made up of
French Canadians, gay and gluttonous vagabonds, who could nevertheless work as hard
as they boasted, and hunt as much as they
ate. All these men enlisted for the expedition
as free traders; that is to say, each of them
borrowed from McDonnell goods and trinkets
to the value of fifty beaver skins, which he
undertook to repay on his return. Thompson
himself was supplied with two horses, and
ammunition and tobacco for trade. Jussomme had one horse; while the men each
bought two half-savage dogs from the Assini-
boines. These were to haul their sled-loads
of goods across the plains. 68
David Thompson
Thus equipped, the party set forth on the
28th day of November. The dogs were unaccustomed to hauling anything. Snapping
and barking, they dashed hither and thither
in all directions, hardly restrained by the loud
sacrSs of the Frenchmen, reinforced by lashes
freely administered with their stout rawhide
whips. The motley procession crossed the
Assiniboine on the ice, and camped that
evening in a wood by the side of the Souris
river, hardly six miles from the point from
which they had set out. Meanwhile, the
temperature was falling. At eight that night
Thompson observed that it was 200 below
zero. By the following morning it had
dropped seven degrees more, and a stinging
west wind had sprung up which kept them in
camp. Here they remained for five days, in a
temperature that sank as low as 400 below
zero; while the high wind whistled through
their canvas, and filled the tent with smoke
from their fire. During this time, they
devoured the flesh of three bison which the
Frenchmen had brought into camp, while the
dogs rejoiced in the offal. With the North-Westers
The wind had by this time shifted to the
north-west, and the weather turned milder
with snow. When the storm was over, they
renewed their journey, keeping close to the
river in order that they might not lose sight
of the familiar landmarks, for the men neither
knew the compass nor would trust it to guide
them. After making eleven miles, they came
to a grove of hardwood, in which they found
five tents of Assiniboine Indians. These gave
them a hospitable welcome, but warned them
that the Sioux were on the warpath. Nevertheless, they pressed forward, and by the
following morning had reached the point
where the trail led away from the river across
the wind-swept plain to Turtle Mountain on
the international frontier.
Jussomme now announced that they
must prepare for an early start, as they faced
a long journey across country before they
could reach the shelter of the wooded heights.
At seven the following morning they were on
their way. Mile after mile they trudged over
the boundless plain until one o'clock in the
afternoon, and still no Turtle hill was in sight. 7o
David Thompson
The weather had now turned threatening, and
anxiety was in every face. At this point
Jussomme threw up his hands and confessed
that he had lost his way.
It was a critical moment. Springing to
his horse, Thompson galloped to the nearest
knoll, from which with his glass he scanned
the horizon on every side. Not a vestige of
wood was in sight, but far to the north-west
his eye caught what seemed to be the tops of a
clump of trees. On this he took a bearing
with his compass, and called to the party to
follow him, which after some hesitation they
made up their minds to do. Meanwhile the
wind came on with increasing force, and the
darkness closed in before they could see
whether it was really a wood to which their
painful and tedious march led. However,
they kept in file and close together, and the
dogs gave no trouble. It was black night
before they finally reached the wood. Utterly
wearied, the men hurriedly threw up their
canvas and sought shelter from the storm.
The blizzard continued through the next
day,  and  the men  were  too exhausted  to With the North-Westers
proceed. They remained in camp with
nothing but the meat of two tough old bulls
to relieve their hunger. The day following
two of the three horses went lame, their hoofs
eaten away by the hard crusty snow. Luckily
they encountered a small party of Assini-
boines on their way to McDonnell's house to
trade, and were able to send the horses back
with them to the fort, purchasing dogs from
the Indians in their stead. Two days later
they met another party of Indians, and from
them got a good meal. These Indians warned
them that the Sioux were in waiting at the
Dog Tent Hills; and no offer would induce
anyone of them to go forward with the
party as a guide.
They were now in the neighbourhood of
Turtle Mountain, and Thompson had taken
sole command. Another gale, another blizzard, and another march till nightfall brought
them to the hill. On this occasion again the
compass proved a trusty guide. In the darkness, Thompson's face brushed against the
overhanging branch of a tree, and he knew
that he had guided his men safely to the wood. 72
David Thompson
Thus they continued as far as the Dog Tent
Hills, near the elbow of the Souris. On approaching the broken country, Thompson
espied a long line of horsemen descending the
slope and moving off to the south. It was
the Sioux, who had made up their minds that
no traveller would venture forth in such
tempestuous weather. Thompson signalled
his men to throw themselves flat on the
ground. This they did, and remained un-
perceived until the enemy was out of sight.
They then entered the hills, and while they
rested and hunted, cut tent poles and firewood for the dash across the barren plain.
The fifty miles that still divided them from
the waters of the Missouri were passed without
adventure, and they arrived, tired but triumphant, at the upper village of the Mandans
after a journey of thirty-three days.
Thompson was now introduced by Jussomme to a chief who bore the name of "Big
White Man.'2 To this chief he explained
that his business was not to trade, but to
visit the various tribes of natives, in order to
see how they could be more regularly supplied With the North-Westers
with arms, ammunition, and other articles
which they much needed. Surprised and
pleased at this agreeable information, the
chief led the white man to his own hut, where
he and his servant Boisseau were comfortably
installed and entertained with all the rites of
native hospitality.
In company with Jussomme and Mc-
Crachan, Thompson then paid a visit to each
of the five villages in turn. These, he found,
were all built alike of domelike huts constructed of mud plastered over a framework
of wood, each with an aperture in the centre
of the roof to carry off the smoke of the fire
and admit light to the solitary chamber of
the dwelling. In front of each house stood a
porch made of stretched bison skins, affording
an approach to a doorway large enough to
admit a horse. Passing the door, one entered
a circular chamber about forty feet across,
and, from the earthen floor to the aperture
in the roof, eighteen or twenty feet in height.
To the left of the doorway, sat the master of
the house on a couch covered with buffalo
robes.    Before him was the fire, built in  a 74
David Thompson
circular space hollowed out of the floor, and
surrounded by vessels of native pottery containing maize and boiled meat, the food of the
household. Around the walls were a series of
frame bunks about three feet from the ground,
each of them enclosed by hides except for the
front and made comfortable by a soft buffalo
robe. To the right of the entrance were the
stalls for the two or three horses which belonged to the household, to which every evening they were led back after pasturing on the
plains. In the smallest of these villages,
Thompson counted thirty-one such huts, in
the largest one hundred-and-thirteen, each hut
containing a family of from eight to ten souls.
Surrounded as they were by fierce and
violent enemies, the Mandans had constructed
their villages with an eye to defence rather
than to comfort. For this purpose a site was
selected on elevated ground, so that no attack
could be made from above. The houses were
then built irregularly without regard for
streets, and the whole village surrounded by a
stockade of timbers at least twelve feet in
height.    On more than one occasion, Thomp- With the North-Westers-
son learned, the Sioux had taken advantage
of a dark and stormy night to approach the
villages and fire the palisades. But the
flames had no power to destroy the earthen
houses; there were no straight streets down
which the enemy could shoot; and, as a
regular siege was beyond the power of any of
their foes, the Mandans had hitherto escaped
The tribe, when Thompson visited them,
were already acquainted with the use of iron.
Their flint-tipped spears and arrows they
gladly laid aside, when they could, for a long
spear, headed with a flat iron bayonet nine
or ten inches in length. Thus far, however,
they had been visited only irregularly by
traders; and so had but few guns among
them. Iron was so precious for purposes of
war that it had not yet come into common
use for agriculture. Their ploughs were
made of the shoulder blade of a deer or bison,
neatly fastened by thongs to a handle. For
hoes, they used pointed sticks hardened in
the fire. A council of old men allotted to
each family its portion of ground in the rich 76
David Thompson
alluvial of the river bottom. From this they
were able with their rude implements to
raise a sufficient quantity of the maize,
pumpkins, beans, and melons which were
native to America.
Thompson was anxious to find out the
origin of this interesting people, for they had
not been many years on the banks of the
Missouri. Their traditions, however, went
back no further than the days of their great-
great-grandfathers. These, they said, had
dwelt to the eastward, possessing the rich
flats about the upper waters of the Red river
and the Mississippi. There the wild rice
grew in abundance and the deer were in
plenty, though the horse and the buffalo
were unknown. On all these streams they
had villages and cultivated the ground as at
present from before the memory of man.
The Sioux to the south of their ancient
home were their enemies, but, armed only
with stone-headed spears and arrows, could
do them little harm. To the north-east, in
the depths of the gloomy forest, dwelt the
Chippewas, who were likewise powerless to With the North-Westers
hurt them. But the day came when the
Chippewas, armed by the white traders with
guns, ironheaded arrows, and spears, silently
collected under cover of the forest, and sallied out to harry their villages with fire,
and cut off their men as they were scattered
in hunting parties far and wide. Hard
pressed by the attacks of an enemy whom
they could not resist, they gave way from
point to point until they arrived at the
banks of the Missouri; and thus put the
width of the great plains between them and
their implacable foes.
Having made friends with the natives
and taken the observations necessary to
determine the position of their villages,
Thompson prepared to depart. As the
Mandans dwelt in the territory of the United
States, and it was contrary to the treaty of
1794 for a British company to plant trading
posts among them, commerce was possible
only if they were willing to make the journey
to McDonnell's house to trade. Accordingly
a chief in the prime of life, together with
four young warriors, was selected to accom- 78
David Thompson
pany Thompson on the trip home. These
were joined by an old man and his squaw,
who said that they wished to see the houses
of the white men before they died. But the
heights of the Missouri were too much for
the aged couple, and they dropped out.
Fourteen days of storm and tempest on the
open plain sufficed to kill the spirit of two of
the warriors, and they also dropped out.
With the remainder, Thompson arrived at
Assiniboine House on the 3rd of February,
1798. Unfortunately, the attempt to open
up trade with the Mandans turned out to be
unsuccessful. The journey was long and
difficult in winter; and, in summer, the
Sioux were active and cut off parties who
tried to make the passage across their land
so that the Mandan villages proved to be
beyond the reach of the merchants from
At McDonnell's house, Thompson prepared the maps and notes of his survey to be
sent by the next convoy to headquarters at
Grand Portage. He then took leave of his
hospitable friend, and set forth on his ex- With the North-Westers
plorations up the Red river. With three
French Canadians and an Indian guide, he
started down the Assiniboine, hauling his
baggage and provisions by dog sleds on the
ice. The tedious windings of the stream,
and the ever increasing depth of snow
made progress difficult. Nevertheless, by
the 7th of March he had reached the
junction of the Assiniboine and the Red
rivers, where the city of Winnipeg now
stands. He then turned up the Red river,
and in six days' travel came to the international boundary, beyond which it was
his duty to warn all traders that they were
trespassing in the territory of the United
By the 25th of March he had worked
his way south as far as the post of Bap-
tiste Cadotte, which was situated on a
tributary of the Red river, near the present
site of the town of Red Lake Falls. From
this point he purposed to cross the height
of land to the western end of Lake Superior.
Could he do it before the break-up of winter,
and while the mantle of snow still lay on the 8o
David Thompson
ground to give passage to his dogs? He
had, it will be remembered, no experience
of southern latitudes. His last winter had
been spent by the shore of Reindeer lake,
where the ice stood firm till a windstorm
broke it up on the fifth day of July. Cadotte
warned him that the season was too far
advanced; but he took the risk.
On the 27th of March he began his
his journey eastward up the Clearwater river
into Minnesota, picking up a guide from some
Chippewas whom he found on the way. As
the day wore on, the rays of the sun increased
in power, and walking became difficult in the
thawing snow. The night was mild, and the
following morning the guide took care to break
his snow-shoes that he might have an excuse
for returning to camp. The day was wasted,
while Thompson waited impatiently for another
guide to be sent to take the place of the first.
At sundown a storm came on with thunder,
lightning, and rain, which continued the
night through and far into the next day. The
snow was now so heavy that progress was impossible.    The continuous rains had soaked With the North-Westers
the clothes and the baggage of the party
through and through. The fourth day opened
with gusts of hail and sleet. The country
before them was like a lake, and Thompson
was compelled to admit himself beaten.
Splashing and stumbling through the bush and
along the treacherous ice of the river, the
party struggled to make their way back to the
protecting shelter of Cadotte's roof. But
their baggage was too much for them, and
they had to give in. Finally Thompson with
one man, travelling light, pressed forward to
the post for help; and by the afternoon of the
second day the weary travellers were brought
safely into camp.
When the rivers were finally clear of ice,
Thompson, with his three Canadians and a
native woman, made a fresh start, this time
by canoe and with dried provisions to last for
twelve days. They had first to battle their
way against the current of Clearwater river,
to the portage which brought them to Red
lake. The country was everywhere soaked
with water, so that at night they were forced
to cut down trees and sleep on the branches. 82
David Thompson
Red lake, they found, was still covered with
patches of broken ice. Hauling and paddling
their canoe in turn they crossed the lake, and
entered an immense area of pond and marsh
to the south. Everywhere stretched beds of
wild rice, the haunt of innumerable geese,
duck, and loon. With infinite toil they made
their way from lake to lake and brook to
brook, until after five days in the marsh they
arrived at Turtle lake.
This lake Thompson took to be the true
source of the Mississippi. Twenty years
later American surveyors reached the conclusion that, of all the ponds whose waters
join to form the Mississippi, Lake Itaska
most deserved the name. Lake Itaska lies a
few miles to the south and west of Turtle lake.
Yet this fact hardly suffices to rob David
Thompson of the glory of being the first man
to fix the point from which the Father of
Waters takes its rise.
There was still a long journey ahead to
the coast of Lake Superior; and the canoe
was leaky from bumping about among the
ice floes.    Luckily two boats of Chippewas With the North-Westers
came along on their way to John Sayer's post
at Red Cedar or Cass lake. With these
Thompson and his party embarked. A carry
of two hundred yards took them past the
narrow and shallow waters of Turtle brook,
to a point where the stream was enlarged by a
tributary from a nearby lake. Here they
launched their canoes and followed the stream
through its incredible windings to the lake.
This was the country of wild rice and maple
sugar, and on these the poor Indians were
compelled to subsist. Not a deer or a beaver
was to be seen; all had been destroyed. The
geese and ducks flew overhead in safety; for
the impoverished natives could not even afford
the price of guns and ammunition, and they
had lost the art of making and using the bow.
Sayer supplied Thompson with a fresh
canoe, which enabled him to continue his
voyage. From the south of the lake, the
valley of the Mississippi now lay clear before
him to the south east—a wide expanse of
marshy ground through which the channel
meandered like a writhing snake. As he advanced, however, the marsh gave way to a 84
David Thompson
sandy loam, heavily clothed with resinous fir.
Arriving at Sand Lake river, he turned east
along this to Sand lake. Before him was a
great swamp, nearly five miles in width and
stretching north and south as far as the eye
could reach. This was the last barrier between him and the headwaters of the River
St. Louis. Shouldering their canoe and baggage, they advanced along the rude corduroy
road which the traders had laid across the bog.
As often as they missed their step, they sank
to their waists in the mire. A long day's
work was needed before they had reached the
other side. From thence a brook carried
them to the main stream of River St. Louis.
They passed into the forest country that
surrounds the lake; and were soon at the
trading house which the North-Westers maintained at Fond du Lac on the present site of
the city of Duluth.
Here they found an old twenty-eight foot
canoe, which they patched up and fitted with
oars, for their slight river craft was unequal
to the winds and waves of Superior; and they
had still to make a survey of the lake.    The With the North-Westers
weather was fine; and they made the circuit
without adventure, east along the south shore
to Sault Ste. Marie, and westward along the
north shore to Grand Portage. Late in the
evening of the 7th of June, Thompson set
foot on the pier, his long journey over.
At Sault Ste. Marie he had encountered
Sir Alexander Mackenzie and William Mc-
Gillivray travelling east to Montreal. When
they heard what he had done, they were warm
in their praise, and told him that he had
accomplished as much in ten months as
might have been expected in two years. His
reputation was thus established, and his
future with the North West Company was
assured. CHAPTER V
Eight Years of Trading
*" HHE report which Thompson made to his
employers after his return to Grand
Portage was of immense value to them. They
now had a clear idea of the whole stretch of
country from Sault Ste. Marie to the upper
waters of the Missouri river, and were in a
position to rearrange their trading houses to
meet the needs of the time. Similar work
remained to be done in the other regions to
which the interests of the Company extended.
But the same haste was not required, and the
surveys could be pushed forward with less
difficulty and expense in connection with what
was the main object of the partners, that is
the prosecution of the trade in furs. Thompson was therefore requested to undertake
some of the actual work of trading, with
freedom to make such journeys of exploration
as he saw fit.
86 Eight Years of Trading
The eight years following therefore mark
a new period in his service with the North
West Company, during which his activities
carried him far and wide along the great
waterways of the interior. Throughout these
years he exercised, to the full, the qualities of
mind and character which made him such a
unique surveyor. His bulky note books were
crammed with memoranda gathered with
painstaking accuracy and checked with minute
care. From time to time, where a less hurried
visit to one of the more comfortable trading
houses made it possible, he added his newly
acquired information to the map which he had
in hand. With each report that he made to
Headquarters, the picture of the Great West
gradually took shape. Its physical features
were delineated; its wild life was noted and
classified; its native populations, their numbers, their racial affinities and languages, their
manners and customs were as far as possible
described. This was indeed wizardry, as his
ignorant French-Canadian and Indian followers imagined; but it was the wizardry of
science, which, by the slow accumulation of 88
David Thompson
ascertained facts, lays the whole world of
nature at the feet of civilized man.
In the summer of 1798, the attention of
traders was largely directed to the western
forest country, which lies beyond the divide
separating the waters of the upper Saskatchewan from the basin of the Peace and
Athabaska rivers. Twenty years before, Peter
Pond had penetrated into this region as far as
Lake Athabaska, and there established a post.
At Lake Athabaska, ten years later, Roderick
Mackenzie had built Fort Chippewyan, from
which Sir Alexander had set out on his two
famous voyages, the one down the Mackenzie
to the Arctic, the other up the Peace to its
headwaters and from thence across British
Columbia to the Pacific. Apart, however,
from the activity centred in Lake Athabaska,
little had been done as yet to explore the
possibilities of trade in what is now northern
Thompson was therefore instructed to
proceed to Lake la Biche or Red Deer lake,
whose waters fall into the Athabaska river
about fifty miles below Athabaska Landing. Eight Years of Trading
On the 14th of July, he set forth from Grand
Portage with the Churchill river brigade. By
the middle of August they had reached Cumberland House, and a week later they had
crossed over Frog Portage to the main stream
of the Churchill.
From this point west the route lay
through a region as yet new to Thompson.
As he ascended the river to Isle a la Crosse,
he found that the country was still composed
of the denuded rock with which he was
familiar on the lower stretches of the river.
Ridges of this rock, crossing the valley of the
stream from point to point, gave it the character of an irregular chain of lakes with many
portages and falls. Like the rest of the stony
country, it was somewhat poor in game and
fur-bearing animals, although many of the
lakes teemed with fish.
From Isle a la Crosse to the valley of the
Athabaska there were two possible routes.
To the north there was Tumor's old course
by way of Methy Portage and Clearwater
river. To the south, the Beaver river led
through a district of plain and forest to its 9Q
David Thompson
headwaters at Beaver lake, from which there
was an easy portage over the height of land
to Lake la Biche. Thompson followed the
Beaver river, and arrived at Lake la Biche in
time to build a post before the beginning of
He was now at the southern end of that
vast stretch of country which he calls the
Great Western Forest, and almost in the same
latitude as that of Reed lake in the Muskrat
country where he had spent the winter of
1794-5. He was thus in a position to compare the climate and soil of this region with
that of his old home on the eastern or "Siberian" side of North America. Throughout the
long winter months, he kept as usual a careful
record of the temperatures registered from day
to day by his thermometer. At Reed lake,
the temperature for December had varied
from +310 to —45° with a mean of —10
For January it had varied from +n°
470 with a mean of — 21.30, and for February
from +39° to — 310 with a mean of +6°.
At Lake la Biche he found that although in
each of the three winter months, the mercury
to - Eight Years of Trading
sank as low as 480 below zero, it rose at times
as high as 43° above, and that the mean for
December, the coldest month, was not lower
than — 6.50. Then, too, while Reed lake was
hardly above the level of Hudson Bay, the
country about Lake la Biche was high and
dry, and the snow did not lie so thick on the
ground at the end of winter. Accordingly,
the rays of the sun had a chance to exert their
power on the face of the land much earlier in
the year, and spring burst at Lake la Biche
long before winter had loosened his iron grip
on the region about Reed lake.
The forests with their wild life responded
generously to the less rigorous climate. In
the Muskrat region, the wretched traders and
Indians were forced to scour the country for
fish and game in quantities sufficient to keep
them alive. At Lake la Biche the waters
yielded an abundant supply of fish; and
during the five months that he spent at the
post, Thompson saw no less than forty-nine
moose and several buffalo brought in, all of
which had been shot within twenty miles of
the house.    There also all the animals, in- 92
David Thompson
eluding  the  precious  beaver, attained their
full size and development.
Thompson wished to get an idea of the
extent and general character of this western
forest land, and the quickest way to do so
was to survey the Athabaskan waters from
their sources. Accordingly, when spring
opened, he rode across country southwest to
Fort Augustus and from thence westward to
the headwaters of the Pembina, which at this
point was divided from the valley of the
Saskatchewan by a narrow neck of land.
Embarking on the Pembina, he followed it
down till it merged with the main stream of
the Athabaska river. A short excursion up
the Slave Lake river enabled him to explore
the shore line of Lesser Slave lake. Returning to the Athabaska, he continued along its
broad stream past Athabaska Landing to the
mouth of the Clearwater river, and from
thence he made his way along the well-known
track by Methy Portage and the Churchill to
Grand Portage. Throughout the region embraced in his survey, he found little exposed
rock and therefore few lakes, but what was Eight Years of Trading
better for the beaver many small brooks and
streams which they could dam for their ponds.
The country thus promised a steady yield of
furs from year to year, and this, with the
generous supply of game which the forest
offered to trader and trapper, was enough to
justify the name which it bore, "The fur-
traders' paradise."
In the mad competition for pelts, the
different companies could not rest content
with the trade of regions already within their
grasp. Each of them sought always to push
further afield; for he, who could anticipate his
rivals in opening new country, might plant
his trading houses on the most advantageous
sites and bind the Indians to himself with ties
which later comers could not break. In 1790,
Peter Pangman for the North-Westers had
pressed along the course of the North Saskatchewan to a point five miles above its
junction with the Clearwater. There from a
hill top he had gazed along the line of snowcapped Rockies, and his eyes had travelled up
the winding course of the river to the gap
through which it issued from the mountains. 94
David Thompson
From that time the partners had never ceased
to dream of the wealth that lay beyond the
Great Divide. In a decade the line of their
trading posts had been extended to a point
but three miles short of "Pangman's Pine.':
There, in a wide plain not far from the forks of
the river, rose the walls and blockhouses of
Rocky Mountain House, destined to serve as
a point of departure for the invasion of the
last great area as yet unknown.
But much tedious work remained to be
done before it would be possible to hazard the
passage of the Rocky Mountains. Besides
the North Saskatchewan, there were two main
branches of the South river, the Red Deer and
the Bow rivers, and these had to be surveyed
to their sources in the foothills in order to
determine the best routes for trade. The
Blackfoot, Blood, and Piegan Indians, whose
encampments lay along the courses of these
streams, were suspicious and hostile. They
held these regions by right of conquest from
the Kootenays and Snakes whom they had
driven to the mountains; and these needed
only to procure the muskets and ammunition Eight Years of Trading
which the white men could supply in order to
sweep down through the rugged passes and
revenge themselves for the defeats of many
years. The Indians therefore steadily opposed any movement of the traders toward
the Rockies, and even the stoutly fortified
trading posts were hardly secure against a
sudden assault.
In these circumstances, the partners at
Grand Portage could think of no one better
qualified than David Thompson to accomplish the objects of the company. They
remembered the early connections which he
had made among the Piegans during his
service with the English, and they had complete confidence in his skill and daring.
Thompson was accordingly taken away from
his work in. the Athabaska country, almost
.before it was well begun, and despatched up
the Saskatchewan to Fort George, in order
that he might draw the maps of his recent
surveys and complete his preparations for the
work that was now in hand.
In the spring he took horse and rode
overland to Fort Augustus, and thence south 96
David Thompson
along the Edmonton-Calgary line to a point
just short of the present town of Lacombe.
Turning west, he struck the Clearwater near
its mouth and found himself at Rocky Mountain House. While he himself descended the
North Saskatchewan to the elbow, making a
survey as he went, he sent four French Canadians south to the Red Deer river, with
orders to follow it to its junction with the
main stream of the South Saskatchewan. A
short distance below Rocky Mountain House,
he found a party of Hudson's Bay men encamped for building. The English, as well as
the Canadians, were bent on crossing the
Great Divide; and it would be a serious blow
if they were allowed to anticipate the North-
Westers in so doing.
Accordingly, on his return to Rocky
Mountain House, Thompson brought with
him Duncan McGillivray from down the river,
in order that he might have assistance in
pressing forward his explorations. Along with
McGillivray, he rode across to the Red Deer
river, where he found a camp of Piegans. A
short stay among them was enough to lull Eight Years of Trading
their suspicions; and Thompson was then
able to ride twenty-two miles west to the foot
of the mountains, where he expected to meet a
band of Kootenays. These he found, twenty-
six strong. With their women and children
they had crossed the divide to meet the
white traders. These Kootenays were the
first of the British Columbia Indians whom
Thompson had encountered. He warned
them of the presence of the Piegans only a few
miles east, and sent them back across the
mountains. In order to avoid the Piegans,
they travelled by way of the North Saskatchewan and succeeded in reaching their homes
Meanwhile, with McGillivray and four
men on horseback, Thompson crossed the
Red Deer river and rode still further south to
the banks of the Bow, not far from Calgary.
This stream he surveyed as far east as the
bend and westward to Exshaw at the foot of
the mountains. McGillivray then made a
traverse across from the north fork of the
Saskatchewan to the valley of the Athabaska,
the   results   of  which  were   carefully  incor- 98
David Thompson
porated in Thompson's notes. Thompson
himself spent the rest of the winter at Rocky
Mountain House, trading with the natives
and taking observations to fix the location of
the post.
When spring opened, he resolved to
attempt a journey into the mountains by
land. With a party of eight men and an
Indian guide, he started westward from
Rocky Mountain House. In the narrow
valley of the Sheep river, the horses could go
no further; and as the guide knew of no other
route, they returned to the post. A second
attempt, this time by canoe up the SasT
katchewan, was equally unsuccessful because
of the floods on the river. When Thompson
returned to eastern headquarters in the
spring of 1802, he was not yet able to report
that he had opened a practicable route to the
west of the Rockies.
What was the effect of this news upon the
minds of the partners? From Thompson's
subsequent movements, it is possible to surmise. The attempt to pierce the mountains
from the headwaters of the Saskatchewan was Eight Years of Trading
for the time being abandoned, and attention
was once more transferred to the north.
According to the surveys already made by
Thompson, the west end of Lesser Slave
lake could not be more than fifty or seventy-
five miles from the valley of the Peace river,
up which Alexander Mackenzie had travelled
ten years before. Thither Thompson was
sent, with instructions to explore a route
across the watershed.
From the upper end of Lesser Slave lake,
he pushed his way west through a wide valley
until he came to the banks of the Smoky
river. On the different branches of the Saskatchewan, he had noted the seams of coal
exposed along the banks. At Smoky river,
the coal beds, ignited by spontaneous combustion, had been burning from beyond the
memory of the oldest Indians on the river,
and the dark clouds of smoke which they sent
forth gave the river its name. Smoky river
was a tributary of the Peace. A short journey
down stream brought him to the Forks where
now stands Peace River Landing. IOO
David Thompson
Thompson spent the winters of 1803 and
1804 developing trade from the old posts
built by Mackenzie at the Forks of the river,
and westward beyond the frontiers of British
Columbia. Here, as at the headwaters of the
Saskatchewan, he found rivals. No sooner
was he settled at the Forks than a party of
XY traders from Montreal landed a few yards
from the post and made preparations for the
erection of a house. Thompson prosecuted
his work with his accustomed vigour. In the
winter of 1805, when Simon Fraser set forth
on the journey that was to make him famous,
he found that a base for his exploration of the
Fraser river had been soundly established on
the Peace by his friend and colleague David
Thompson. He honoured him accordingly
when he gave the name of Thompson to the
greatest tributary of the Fraser river.
By the summer of 1804 Thompson was
once more back at headquarters, no longer
at Grand Portage (for that had been surrendered to the Americans), but at Fort
William on Thunder Bay, where the dep>6t of
the company had now been established.    In
ill Eight Years of Trading
that year, the trade war with the XY Company
had reached an acute stage. The Hudson's
Bay Company had also reorganized their enterprises, and between them these rivals had
almost succeeded in wresting from the
North-Westers the trade of the Muskrat country. Thompson was therefore withdrawn
from the fields of his recent activity, his
chance of crossing the mountains was indefinitely postponed, and he was sent into the
Muskrat country to restore the trade of that
region to the Canadians.
With a heavy heart he turned his back
on the far west, and entered the cold and dismal
forest which he knew only to loathe. But
loyalty was one of the deepest instincts of his
nature, and so, with indefatigable energy,
he proceeded to build new posts and explore
new routes in the region north-east of Lake
Winnipeg. In the course of his efforts, he
carried the flag of the North-Westers to a
point on South Indian lake not more than
two hundred and fifty miles distant from
Churchill itself. In his relations with rival
traders, he exhibited a friendliness and courtesy 102
David Thompson
that stands in marked contrast with the cutthroat methods too frequently adopted at
critical moments of competition. The surveys begun years before, when he was working
under Joseph Colen, were now triumphantly
finished. Of them, a member of the Canadian
Geological Survey says, "After Thompson
had completed his surveys of this muskrat
country, no further information was obtained
about it for nearly a century, and when in
1896, I travelled through it, the only map of
any service which was available was that
drawn by David Thompson in 1813 from
surveys made at this time."
It is sometimes imagined that the Indians a century ago existed in vast numbers;
and that they were universally of a warlike and
bloodthirsty disposition. This is a complete
mistake. It was only in especially favourable
localities that conditions were such as to
promote the evolution of large bands, and generally speaking the Indian was a poor ,and
humble creature. Lacking the power of invention, he was often satisfied to make use of
utensils of the most primitive character, and
he was almost, if not quite, unarmed. Eight Years of Trading
Throughout the whole of the Muskrat
country Thompson was able to count but
ninety-two widely scattered families, each of
them numbering perhaps seven souls. This
gave to every human being from two to three
hundred square miles of hunting country.
Yet so poor was the region and so great the
improvidence of its inhabitants that, in unfavourable seasons, the population was often
reduced to the verge of starvation, and it was
only by means of the greatest efforts that they
wrested a livelihood from their gloomy land of
rock and forest.
All of Thompson's efforts therefore did
not avail to bring satisfactory returns from a
region so poor in furs, and inhabited by such
a sparse and wretched population. It was
with joy in his heart that he handed over the
district to a partner in the early summer of
1806, and once more wended his way back
to Fort William.
Two events of personal interest in the life
of Thompson occurred during these eight
years. The first was his marriage to Charlotte Small, the half-breed daughter of
Patrick Small, an early trader in the West. io4
David Thompson
Small was a member of a famous Irish family,
which had given generals and admirals to the
service of the Empire. He had, however,
followed the custom of the country and taken
a native woman to wife. Thompson's marriage took place at Isle a la Crosse in the
summer of 1799. The other event took place
on November 8, 1804, although the news of it
did not reach Thompson until some time later.
On that date the North West Company and
the XY Company agreed to cease their
ruinous competition and join forces for the
expansion of their trade. In the terms of
agreement, the name of David Thompson
appears as a partner of the United Company.
This was good news in itself; but better still
was the prospect that loomed up before his
eyes. With the wounds of competition healed, and the Canadian trading interests now
presenting a united front, the last obstacle to
an aggressive forward movement was removed,
and the conquest of the Rockies might finally
be achieved. CHAPTER VI
H f^HERE are long stretches in human life
when the contest with fate seems endless
and the result uncertain, but it is such periods
that test the mettle of a man. In the life of
David Thompson, the eight years just past
had been marked by no striking achievement.
Yet with unflagging patience and zeal he had
discharged his routine duties, constantly adding to his equipment the knowledge and
judgment that come from maturer years and
wider experience. When therefore his hour at
last struck, he was not unready. Expert
surveyor, skilled trader, he was now to crown
his life-work by a piece of original discovery
and exploration on a scale grand enough to
place him in the foremost rank among the
builders of British North America.
It was summer of the year 1806 when
Thompson returned from the Muskrat coun-
10s io6
David Thompson
try to headquarters at Fort William. There
he found a new excitement and a new enthusiasm in the air. During the preceding
year the American officers, Lewis and Clark,
had crossed from the upper Missouri to the
valley of the Snake river, and followed that
stream to its junction with the lower Columbia, down which they had made their way to
the Pacific ocean. John Jacob Astor, the
great American merchant, was exerting all
his strength to build up a fur trading empire
on the Pacific slope under the flag of the
Republic; and the full extent of his ambitions
was now disclosed. For some years the
Hudson's Bay Company had been knocking at
the barrier of the Rockies, and, spurred by
competition, they might at any moment burst
through. Fraser for the North-Westers had
already advanced from the Forks of the
Peace, and accomplished the difficult and
dangerous feat of descending the Fraser river.
But between the Fraser river on the north
and the Snake on the south was a vast region
on which the feet of white men had never trod;
and the North West Company,  no longer Across the Great Divide
crippled by their civil war with the XY traders,
were resolved to claim this region for themselves. Thompson was at once despatched
to Rocky Mountain House, with definite instructions to cross the mountains, this time as
senior officer at the post and in full charge of
the operations.
The winter of 1806-7 was spent in preparation; and John McDonald of Garth,
trader of the Company, together with Quesnel
and Finan McDonald, clerks, lent a hand in
the work. The route selected was by way of
the North Saskatchewan, which Thompson
knew must be practicable, because it was
along this road that the Kootenay Indians had
returned, when he sent them back to their
homes some years before. He therefore despatched one of his men, a half-breed called
Jaco Finlay, up this road into the mountains,
with instructions to spy out the land. Everything was done with the utmost quietness.
The Piegan Indians suspected nothing, although they were at all times visiting the fort.
Even the Hudson's Bay people, encamped
on the river just below the North-Westers,
had  not  an   inkling  of Thompson's  plans. io8
David Thompson
In the spring Jaco Finlay returned to the
post with his report. He had penetrated
through the gap in the mountains to a large
valley near the head of the river, where he had
built a small outpost and got in touch with
the Kootenays. From this valley he had
crossed the watershed to a small stream which
flowed south-westward and emptied into a
mighty river. At the mouth of this stream
he had built a canoe, which he had carefully
"cached" for Thompson's use.
At this moment an incident occurred
in distant Montana, which, tragic in itself,
was not without advantage for Thompson.
Captain Lewis, the American officer, had became embroiled with the Blackfeet. They
attacked his camp and two of their warriors
were killed. Suddenly all the allied tribes were
inflamed with the passion for revenge. War
parties gathered throughout the plains, and
the Piegans in the neighborhood of Rocky
Mountain House were drawn off to the south.
Perceiving the passes unguarded, Thompson
gathered his equipment and made an immediate start.    With his wife and children, Finan Across the Great Divide
McDonald and a party of half-breeds to help
him, he moved up the river by horse and
canoe and entered the mountains.
As he advanced, the country became
rougher and wilder. The grassy hills were left
behind, and the mountains raised their heads
in mad confusion height on height, bald and
precipitious masses of solid rock, except for
the patches of pinewood that clung here
and there to their slopes. At times, the crags
came together compressing the river to the
width of a few yards, through which the current rushed against them. Again, when the
valley widened, the stream would divide into
many channels dotted with rugged islets and
marked by shoals of rock and sand. Finally
they reached the valley in which Jaco Finlay
had built his house—a low and level plain to
the north side of the river, about five miles
long and not less than a mile in width. On
every hand were to be seen the remains of old
tepees erected by the Kootenays, who frequented the spot to make dried provisions
from the buffalo and mountain goat. For this
reason Thompson gave the valley the name of
Kootenay plains. no
David Thompson
Above Kootenay plains, the river contracted to a width of barely fifteen yards, and
so continued to the forks, at which point the
canoes had to be laid up. From the forks,
there was a splendid view of the mountains
still ahead, their peaks more elevated and
craggy than they had so far seen, for they were
in fact the main range of the Rockies. Taking
the left branch of the stream they followed
it to within a mile of its end in Glacier lake.
At this point, between Mount Balfour on the
right and Mount Forbes on the.left, was a gap
opening to the west. Into this gap they turned. A march of two miles through heavy
pinewood brought them to a rivulet whose
waters flowed to the west. "May God in his
mercy," says the pious explorer, "give me to
see where its waters flow into the ocean and
return in safety.'' Thus he marked out his
programme for the next four years.
This rivulet (Blaeberry creek) descended
sharply through a narrow, winding valley between the heights; and it was necessary for
the party to force their way through the thick
woods along the steep and rugged slopes, and Across the Great Divide
to cross and recross the stream through water
knee-deep, in order to reach the mouth. A
full day's travel, however, brought them to the
valley of the Columbia. The weather had
done its work on the canoe built by Jaco
Finlay; and it was quite unseaworthy. They
had to halt while they scoured the woods for
materials and built new canoes. Finally they
embarked and paddled south up the Columbia
until they came to its headwaters. There, a
short distace from Lake Windermere, they
hewed logs of heavy fir and built a cabin
which they strongly stockaded on three sides,
the fourth resting.on the steep bank of the
river. This was Old Kootenay House, the
first trading post erected by white men on the
waters of the Columbia.
In this remote spot, the safety of all depended upon the courage and resource of the
leader. Additional supplies were needed from
Rocky Mountain House, and Finan McDonald was sent back across the mountains to
fetch them. Until the end of autumn, provisions were scarce, for the red deer and antelope had not yet descended from the higher 112
David Thompson
levels, and the mountain goat was hard to
shoot as he leapt from crag to crag. The
party therefore relied on fish and the flesh of
wild horses whose feeding grounds were not
more than two miles from the house. For the
purpose of trade, it was necessary to get in
touch with the natives and to examine the
country as well as possible. The season was
late, but Thompson was able to make one
short excursion with a chief of the Flatbow
When Finan McDonald rejoined his
chief, he brought with him alarming intelligence. In the course of the summer, the
brother of Old White Swan, a Blackfoot chief,
had with his band assaulted and pillaged
Fort Augustus, possessing himself of many
guns, much ammunition and tobacco and
various other articles. Whether or not he
had murdered the traders at the Fort, McDonald could not say; but it was clear that
the spirit of unrest and resentment against
the whites which had for some time pervaded
the whole Blackfeet confederacy was now
coming to a head; and Thompson could hardly Across the Great Divide
hope that he himself would escape serious
Trouble came rather sooner than he expected. The fort was not yet finished when
twelve Piegan Indians appeared on foot from
across the mountains. A month later twenty-
three more arrived. These set up their tents
along with the others just outside the gates.
For over two months they hung about the
stockade, making themselves very objectionable, and forcing the garrison to remain together within the walls. But Thompson had
a small stock of dried provisions on hand, and
he put his men on short rations, so that
there might be no need to scatter over the
country for hunting. For water, he let down
two large kettles nightly from the steep river
bank and this was enough for the daily needs
of the post. Towards the end of October,
two of the Indians disappeared from the group,
and the garrison feared a general attack.
Nothing, however, materialized, and before
winter set in, the savages drifted quietly away.
Yet their peril was not yet over. One
morning, two more Piegans presented them- ii4
David Thompson
selves at the fort. Thompson was anxious,
but he did not flinch. He showed them the
strength of his stockades and bastions, the
walls bored with loopholes for his muskets.
"I know," he said, "that you are come as spies
and intend to destroy us, but many of you will
die before you succeed. Go back to your
countrymen and tell them this.'J At the
same time, he loaded them with presents of
tobacco for their friends. A fortunate circumstance hastened their departure. Two of the
Kootenay Indians came to the fort while they
were there, and when they saw the Piegans,
they glared at them like tigers. Meanwhile
the little garrison watched and waited, six
hardy voyageurs ready to die if necessary in
order to make good the words of their chief.
And while they waited, winter came on, covering the mountains with snow and placing them
in safety.
It was some time before Thompson
learned the details of his escape. The two Piegans were, as he guessed, the advanced guard
of a large war party that was being formed at
the instigation of the civil chief to crush the Across the Great Divide
white men and the natives to the west side of
the mountains before they became well armed.
The war chief (Thompson's old friend Koot-
anae Appee) had opposed this venture. How,
he urged, could they smoke to the Great Spirit
for success, if without warning they invaded
the lands of a people with whom for ten summers they had been at peace? Such, however,
was the influence of the wilder spirits, that
the old war chief was compelled to yield to
their will.
In fifteen days about three hundred warriors under three chiefs assembled at the
rendezvous named by Kootanae Appee, and
under his leadership marched through the
mountains to within twenty miles of the post.
There they awaited the return of their
scouts. It was not long before the latter arrived. The Kootenays, they said, were gathering under the white man to fight for the
protection of their post. At the same time
they presented the chiefs with Thompson's
gifts, six feet of tobacco for Kootenae Appee,
eighteen inches for each of the lesser chiefs,
and a fine pipe of red porphyry with an ornamental stem in which to smoke it. n6
David Thompson
Thompson's knowledge of the Indians
was thorough, and in this case, his guess as to
their intentions had hit the mark. When the
war chiefs heard his message of defiance, they
were dumbfounded. "What can we do with
this man,'5 they exclaimed," our women cannot mend a pair of shoes but he sees them"
(alluding, of course, to Thompson's astronomical observations). Then the eldest of the
three war chiefs, wistfully eyeing the tobacco,
of which they had none, observed: "I have
attacked tents, my knife could cut through
them and our enemies had no defence against
us. I am ready to do so again. But to go and
fight against logs of wood that a ball cannot
pierce, and with people we cannot see and
with whom we are at peace, is what I am
averse to. I go no further!" So saying, he
slowly fitted the pipe to the stem and handed
it to Kootenae Appee. Led by Kootenae
Appee, they all smoked; and, having accepted
Thompson's present, were unable to go further
against him. Thus by his own resource and
by the support of an old friend won in the days
of his service for the Hudson's Bay Company, Across the Great Divide
David Thompson prevented the destruction.
of the first trading post on the Columbia.
With the coming of spring began the
work of exploring the country. Leaving McDonald in charge of Kootenay House, Thompson embarked with four voyageurs on the
20th of April, 1807, and paddled through Lake
Windermere to the source of the Columbia.
From thence, an easy portage of two miles
across a grassy plain brought him to a fine
stream flowing south, the Kootenay river of
today. Launching his canoe, he proceeded
to search for Indians.
The river flowed swiftly along between
high and steep banks of rock, their slopes
clothed with magnificent timber of all kinds.
From time to time the stream narrowed so
that the travellers were forced to paddle
briskly in order to keep ahead of the current.
As they approached Kootenay Falls, in
Lincoln county, Montana, the river entered a
canon no less than a mile in length, terminating in a gorge where the trail left the river side
and meandered along the dizzy slope of steep
bed rock, three hundred feet above the level U8
David Thompson
of the stream. An hour and a quarter was
necessary for the carry; and they cut their
shoes to pieces. The least slip would have
meant sure destruction; and they struggled
along over the jagged rocks without a grain
of earth or sand on them to relieve their crippled feet. On the 14th of May, having followed the winding course of the stream southward across the present international boundary and northward again as far as Kootenay
lake, they at length came upon ten tepees of
During all this time, they had shot nothing except for a few antelope and they were
nearly famished. Once they came upon the
carcase of an antelope, on which an eagle was
feeding. Chasing the bird, they seized the
meat, but it was tainted and made them all
sick. The day following, they encountered
the Indians. These, however, had nothing
to offer the white men except a few dried carp
and some bitter black bread, made of the moss
collected from the bark of the resinous fir and
the larch.
The snows of the mountains were now
melting, and the water of the river had risen Across the Great Divide
six feet, overflowing the wide meadows. Owing to the floods, none of the Kootenays were
willing to come to the house to trade. To
paddle home against the current was impossible. Thompson therefore laid up his canoe,
bought horses from the Indians and engaged
a guide who undertook to lead him overland
by a well-known native trail northeast along
the valley of the Grand Quete river to Kootenay House.
A day's travel brought them to a large
brook, so deep and rapid that the horses could
not cross. Thompson selected a large cedar
growing by the bank. This he felled so that it
lay across the stream and served as a bridge
over which they carried their luggage. The
horses were taken separately, and by means of
a heavy strap of rawhide, dragged kicking and
struggling to the further bank. The guide
then went hunting, but returned empty
handed, and the party went supperless to bed.
Early next morning, he killed a small antelope,
which was eagerly devoured. But the fainthearted guide had already had enough.
Without warning, he decamped and returned 120
David Thompson
to his people, leaving the white men stranded
among the hills, without provisions and utterly ignorant of the country.
For two days they waited with faint
hopes of his return. Thompson then sent two
of his men back to the tepees to ask for another
guide. In the presence of these men, Ugly
Head, one of the chiefs, made a bitter attack
upon his followers. He reproached them for
their lack of spirit, contrasting their conduct
with that of the white men who braved every
danger and hardship to bring them arms, ammunition and other things which they needed.
"How many of you," he said, "will volunteer
to accompany the strangers back to their
home?" Not a man answered the call.
They knew too well the dangers of mountain
travel at that season of the year. In this
crisis Ugly Head himself announced that he
would act as guide; and, with the voyageurs
to lead him, made his way to Thompson's
The noble and manly conduct of the
Indian inspired the little party with great confidence and hope.    Under his leadership, they Across the Great Divide
made their way among the rugged hills,
avoiding the inundated meadows. The raging torrents they passed by throwing bridges
of trees across them. Finally they reached
the Kootenay river not far below the portage;
and here, after building a canoe to complete
their journey, they took leave of their guide.
In a short time they were safe at Kootenay
Thompson had now to conduct the
winter's hunt all the way east to Rainy River
House, and bring back supplies for the following year. Among these supplies were two
kegs of alcohol, which his partners insisted
that he should take with him. Thompson
was well aware of the deplorable results that
had followed the introduction of spirits among
the Indians, but he was overruled. When he
came to the defiles of the Saskatchewan, he
caused the two kegs to be loaded on the back
of a vicious horse. By noon the kegs were
empty and broken to pieces. He wrote to
his partners, telling them what he had done,
and vowing that so long as he was in charge
of the fur trade across  the mountains,  he 122
David Thompson
would do the same with every keg of alcohol
which was sent to him. He was as good as
his word; and thus for a few years at least
succeeded in keeping the curse of spirits from
the Indians of the Pacific slope.
When Thompson reached Kootenay
House, the season was too far advanced to
allow of further exploration. He therefore
sent Finan McDonald to open a trading house
at Kootenay Falls, while he himself remained
for the winter at the post, taking observations
and trading with the Indians. In the following spring, he had once more to cross the
mountains with the furs, but by midsummer
he was back at his house ready to prosecute
his discoveries further to the south.
In the neighborhood of the Falls, Thompson had found that the Kootenay river bent
sharply to the west and north. In this direction, he had traced its course to Kootenay
lake, before the floods came on, compelling
him to cross overland to his home under the
guidance of the chief Ugly Head. To the
south of the Kootenay was a ridge of mountainous country, intersected however, by well- Across the Great Divide
marked Indian trails running north and south.
These trails, he was told, led to another great
river, parallel with the Kootenay and, like it,
flowing mainly to the west. This river (now
known as Clark's Fork) he made up his mind
to explore.
His point of departure was from Ugly
Head's encampment, near the present site of
Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. There he laid up his
canoes, and borrowed horses from the Kootenays for the journey across country. A two
day's ride brought him to Clark's Fork at the
point where it expands to form Lake Pend
d'Oreille. Here he was met by a large deputation of Salish Indians, who welcomed him
with presents and gave him every assistance
in finding a site suitable for the erection of a
post. Their joy was easy to understand, for
they were armed merely with a few rude lances
and flint-headed arrows, utterly useless in
warfare against the Indians of the plains.
Thompson had guns, ammunition, and iron
arrow-heads for trade, but he warned them
that in order to procure these advantages, they
must learn to be industrious in hunting for 124
David Thompson
beaver and other furs, and cease spending
their days and nights in gambling—the pet
vice of the savage. This they eagerly promised to do.
It was the end of September before he
had finished the construction of his new post
(Kullyspell House), and he followed it up, by
constructing a second post, Salish House,
sixty miles further east along the river.
From Salish House, he had only to ride out to
the great camp of the Salish Indians near
Flathead lake in order to secure the promise
of their trade. He was now thoroughly
established along the whole course of Clark's
Fork river.
From information he had gathered,
Thompson judged that both the Kootenay
river and Clark's Fork were tributaries of the
Columbia, and that if he followed them westward to their mouths he would strike that
mighty river. From the unwelcome visitations he had experienced at the hands of the
Piegans, he realized that the line of approach
from the defiles of the Saskatchewan to his
new trading post was exposed throughout its Across the Great Divide
length to raids of the plainsmen through the
easy passes of the mountains. He therefore
attempted to explore Clark's Fork to its junction with the Columbia, hoping that from
thence he might discover a route further west
and less accessible to his foes.
For some time he followed the course of
the river westward through a country of extensive meadows and forests, enriched by innumerable streams of pure water, and already
in March responding to the generous rays of
the sun, and the warm breezes from the ocean.
But as he approached the mouth, the appearance of the land was changed. Rude blocks
of basalt made the country difficult for horses;
the stream, tumbling in countless rapids and
falls, was unnavigable for canoes. He was
forced to turn back; and as the winter's furs
were waiting for his arrival, he made his way
to Kootenay House and thence, to the depot
on Rainy river.
In the course of the winter the Salish
Indians had traded upwards of twenty muskets and several hundreds of iron arrow-heads,
and by dint of constant practice had become 126
David Thompson
so proficient in their use that they felt themselves a match for the Indians of the plains.
In the month of July, when the bison bulls
were getting fat, they formed a camp of not
less than 150 men to hunt and make dried
provisions as Thompson had asked them to do.
With Finan McDonald, Michel Bourdeaux
and Baptiste Buche to help and encourage
them, they crossed the mountains by an easy
defile to the east of Flathead lake, and boldly
proceded to hunt for the buffalo.
It was not long before the Piegans got
wind of their presence. One morning, the
scouts came riding into camp at breakneck
speed with the cry, "The enemy is upon us.,:
Down went the tents, and tent poles and
baggage were quickly formed into a rude rampart. This was barely ready, when the enemy's
horsemen came dashing at the rampart with
wild shouts of rage. The Salish stood their
ground; and neither a second nor a third
charge was able to shake them. The battle
was now to be of infantry. The Salish lay
quietly behind their ramparts awaiting the
assault; while all day long the enemy advanced Across the Great Divide
in parties of thirty or forty, shouting insulting
cries and doing their best to lure them from
their cover. As often as they came within
gunshot, they were met with a fusilade of
bullets. At nightfall they retired discomfited,
leaving the Salish in possession of the field.
This was the first occasion on which the
Salish had ventured to face the Piegans in the
open field, and although no scalps were taken
on either side, they counted it a victory to
have stood their ground. As for the Piegans,
their hearts were full of bitterness; and they
swore an oath to wreak vengeance on the
white men who had crossed the mountains to
the west, and furnished arms and ammunition
to their age-long foes. CHAPTER VII
DY THE middle of October, 1810, Thomp-
"^ son was once more at the foot of the
Rockies en route for the Columbia with four
canoe loads of supplies. At Rainy River
House, he had learned that a vessel chartered
by J. J. Astor and loaded with goods in charge
of two former North West traders was on her
way around Cape Horn, bound for the Columbia; and his orders were to anticipate this ship
in reaching the mouth of the river. He was
therefore anxious to get through the passes
without delay, and at all costs to avoid a
conflict with the Piegans.
Since the 24th of September the brigade
had been held up in the neighborhood of
Rocky Mountain House. The post was
thronged by noisy bands of Piegan, Sarcee,
Blood, and Fall Indians, who had come
ostensibly to trade, but really to head off any
128 The Race to the Sea
movement of the white man toward the
mountains. Alexander Henry, the trader in
charge, endeavoured to get rid of these unwelcome visitors, but all in vain. In such a
crisis, the time-honoured expedient was rum.
While some of the Indians were drunk, however, others were sober, and for some weeks
it was impossible to get the canoes away
without observation, either by day or night.
Finally, however, Henry got the frightened
voyageurs under way, and by the 13th of
October, the brigade was already within
twenty miles of the mountains.
Thompson himself with a partner, William Henry, and two Indian hunters had
ridden ahead to the gap, scouring the country
for game and keeping a sharp watch for possible enemies. The party had killed three
red deer, made a scaffold, and placed the meat
on it for safety against wild animals. Days
passed, and the canoes did not put in an appearance. On the 17th the oldest hunter,
rising as usual very early in the morning, looked
at the scaffold and remarked, "I have had bad
dreams; this meat will never be eaten.''    So 130
David Thompson
saying, he saddled his horse and rode away.
Thompson could no longer conceal his
anxiety. He ordered Henry and the other
Indian to proceed down the river in search of
the canoes; with positive orders not to fire
a shot except in self-defence. At eight in the evening they returned, and he heard their story.
Some miles down the river, they had seen a
number of Piegans encamped on the bank.
A short distance below this camp, they had
descended the slope to the river, where they
found the marks of canoes and near them in the
bottom a rude rampart of stones on which there
were traces of blood. Proceeding further down
stream, they had fired a shot as a signal to the
lost canoemen, but it was not returned.
Thoroughly alarmed by their rashness
and folly, Thompson prepared to fly for his
life, for he knew that the Piegans would be on
them in the morning. At dawn of day, they
took horse and made their way east by a wide
detour through the forest. Fallen trees and
undergrowth interrupted their progress, and
their horses' hoofs made their track easy to
follow.    Fortunately the  afternoon brought The Race to the Sea
with it a light fall of snow, giving them some
hope of shaking off their pursuers, and late in
the evening they ventured to halt and kindle
a small fire.
Racked with fear for his own safety and
anxiety for the fate of his men, Thompson
passed a sleepless night. His first care was
to find the brigade. Avoiding Rocky Mountain House, he continued east for sixty miles
along the river, and there, on the second
afternoon, he came upon his men, safe
and sound, encamped in an abandoned trading-post known as Boggy Hall.
All hope was now abandoned of passing
in safety by the defiles of the Saskatchewan,
and Thompson determined to blaze anew trail
across the Rockies by way of the Athabaska
river. The route projected lay over an old
path of the Assiniboine Indians to a point on
the Athabaska not far from the present line of
the Canadian National Railways; and from
thence along the valley of the river past the
mouth of Yellowhead Pass to its headwaters
some miles further south. From this point a
pass led across the height of land to the Wood 132
David Thompson
river, a small tributary of the Columbia. In
later years this pass (known as the Athabaska
Pass) was the regular route for traders of the
Hudson's Bay Company on their journeys to
British Columbia.
Horses and dogs were rapidly collected
for the trip over land. The men were detailed
to their several duties, four to hunt, two to
clear a path through the woods, and the remainder to look after the animals and perform
the labour of the camp. By the 28th of
October all was in readiness; and the little
party set off with Thomas, an Iroquois Indian,
to act as guide.
It was a full month before they had
crossed the belt that lay between them and
the Athabaska. The road ran through a
wretched country, over mountains and across
muskegs. Here and there the fires of the
forest had cut wide swathes through the
woods, leaving in their wake a tangled mass
of fallen timber, through which they had to
hack their way. In the bogs the horses lost
their footing, shifting their packs and bruising their knees, until in a short while they The Race to the Sea
were almost useless. To complete the misery
of the travellers, there was the difficulty of
securing food. Their dried provisions were
soon exhausted. Game was scarce; and the
hunters often returned empty-handed after a
long   day's   chase.
By the first of December they had reached the Athabaska. Four days later they had
come to a point on the river a little above Brul6
lake, where the guide informed Thompson
that owing to the lateness of the season, all
thought of crossing the mountains with
horses had to be given up. The greater number of the beasts were therefore sent back to
Rocky Mountain House; four only were retained to ease the burden of the dogs.
The thermometer now registered 320
below zero; and the party threw themselves
into the work of building a rough shelter of
logs to serve while they prepared sleds and
snow shoes with which to complete their
journey. At the end of the month they made
a fresh start. Urged by the shouts and lashings of the voyageurs, the dogs with their burdens scurried along the ice of the river.    In 134
David Thompson
five days they came to the grassy ponds that
marked its headwaters—the last possible
pasturage for horses. Here, therefore, the poor
animals were turned loose to survive the
winter as best they could.
Four days more brought the party to the
height of land. The landscape, as far as the
eye could reach, was clothed with a heavy
mantle of gleaming snow. Round about
towered the lofty peaks, their sides scarred by
avalanches which had swept the slopes bare
of trees and rocks in their descent. To the
right lay an enormous glacier, a mass of blue-
green ice, the eastern face of which was not
less than two thousand feet in height. The
night was fine, and the stars shone with such
brilliance that one of the men told Thompson
that he felt he could almost touch them with
his hands.
Early next morning they began the
descent to the valley of the Columbia. On
the eastern face of the mountains, the approach to the height of land had been a long
and steady climb. To the west, the ground
fell away in a series of abrupt slopes, so steep The Race to the Sea
in places that it required sure footing to avoid
a tumble. A short advance therefore was
enough to produce an amazing difference in
the climate. The snow which to the east of
the mountains was thin and dry, here lay
heavy and wet upon the ground; and they
entered a forest of clean grown pine of gigantic height and girth. So heavy were the
loads and so steep the slope that the dogs were
unable to guide the sleds, and from time to
time they came against the base of a pine tree
with considerable force, dog on one side, sled
on the other, so that they were disentangled
with difficulty. To relieve the animals,
Thompson had a portion of the loads removed
from the sleds. The men grumbled as they
were forced to lug these packs forward
through the heavy snow. Finally after fifteen
days' travel they arrived at the banks of the
Mutterings of discontent were now openly
heard among the French Canadians. They
had had enough, and would follow the madman no further. Four of them suited the
action to the word and deserted.    Two of the 136
David Thompson
others Thompson despatched with letters to
William Henry, describing the route he had
discovered, and ordering Henry to follow him
along it with an additional supply of goods.
With the remainder, Thompson set forth on
the journey up the Columbia. They had
gone but one day when they, too, balked at the
restless energy of their leader. Faced with
incipient mutiny, Thompson had no choice
except to return to the mouth of the Wood
river, and there pass the rest of the winter.
The place of his enforced residence was
the famous "Boat Encampment" of later
days. At this point, the Columbia, after
having pursued a north-westerly course for
upwards of two hundred miles from its
sources, bent sharply around the head of the
Selkirk Mountains, and flowed off to the
south. At the bend, the stream was joined
by two tributaries, the Wood and Canoe
rivers, coming in from the north, and forming
at their mouths a wide meadow of rich
alluvial soil. There in the midst of a forest
of giant pine and larch, the party cleared a site,
and built themselves a rough cabin.    Thomp- The Race to the Sea
son, never idle, spent his time exploring the
neighbourhood, and constructing a boat for
the remainder of the journey. As there was
no birch bark available, he built it clinker-
fashion of cedar boards split thin; and these,
in default of nails, he sewed together with the
fine roots of the pine.
The snow was not yet off the ground
when he was once more on his way. He had
counted on reaching the mouth of the Columbia not later than the first of August, and
would gladly have made the descent by way
of the river itself, which here lay clear before
him. Of his canoemen, however, three only
had the courage to risk the chances of the
voyage. With so few men it would have
been madness to venture a long journey on
unknown waters and in the midst of possible
enemies; so he determined to make his way
past his old trading posts to the Salish
country. There he knew he could find plenty
of free hunters to help him in accomplishing
the voyage to the sea.
It was six weeks before he had reached
Salish House, where he hoped to find Finan 138
David Thompson
McDonald. But neither McDonald nor Jaco
Finlay was at the post, and, as they had left
no letter to indicate their whereabouts,
Thompson prepared to descend Clark's Fork
by himself. The river presented an appearance vastly different from that of the autumn
of 1809, when he had passed down it before.
The spring floods were now at their height,
and the water was rising at the rate of two
feet each day, inundating the meadows to the
foot of the hills, and dashing along with such
violence that every island became a water-fall,
with a strong eddy at the lower end. Down
this raging torrent they paddled, keeping in
midstream, and thankful as they passed each
danger spot in safety. The antelopes had retired to the hills, and they lived on the meat of
horses which they traded from the Indians.
On the 8th of June they arrived at the
point where the river entered the Box canon
and became utterly unnavigable. There
Thompson found a small camp of Kullyspell
Indians, who informed him that Finan McDonald was now at a post which he had built
on the banks of the Spokane river further The Race to the Sea
south. Thompson engaged two of these
Indians to inform McDonald of his presence;
while he himself waited until the latter should
join him with horses to carry his goods overland to the new post. Four days later McDonald, with thirteen horses, arrived; and
Thompson with all his possessions was transported overland to Spokane House, about ten
miles northwest of the present city of Spokane.
The Spokane river, like Clark's Fork, was
a tributary of the Columbia, and, like it, unnavigable toward the mouth. Thompson
therefore left a small assortment of goods
with McDonald, and proceeded northwest
along a well-beaten Indian trail to a point on
the Columbia, just below Ilthkoyape or Kettle
Falls. Here the stream dropped several feet
in two magnificent cataracts, the roar of
which could be heard for many miles around.
Just below the falls was an Indian
village, the first of its kind that Thompson
had seen. It was composed of a number of
huts, each from thirty to sixty feet in length,
roughly built of large cedar logs which had
drifted down the river, and roofed with mats 140
David Thompson
of woven fibre stout enough to withstand the
rain. The Indians who dwelt here subsisted
mainly on fish. Each spring, as the spawning season drew near, they propitiated the
manito of the salmon with elaborate dances
and ceremonies. Thus purified, they took
their stand just beneath the falls and speared
or netted the fish, which they smoked in
quantities sufficient to last them through the
Thompson enquired of these people regarding the course of the river both up and
down. From them he learned that the village
at Kettle Falls was the highest along the
stream that had survived the incursions of
the Piegans. Below them there was a journey
of ninety miles of rapids, at the end of which
stood another village of salmon fishers. Beyond this they could tell him nothing. Meanwhile the canoemen were busy preparing a
boat. In this region timber was very scarce.
They had to journey seven miles from the
river before they found a clump of cedar from
which they could hew the planking of a canoe;
and it was not until the third day of July that
the boat was finished. The Race to the Sea
With five French Canadians, two Iroquois
Indians, and a couple of the natives for interpreters, Thompson now embarked on the last
stage of his journey to the sea. He remembered how, following the settlement of the
international boundary west of Lake Superior,
the traders of the North West Company had
been driven from a country which they had
made their own. By that settlement, the forty-
ninth parallel had been accepted as the line
from the Lake of the Woods to the watershed of
the Rocky Mountains. West of the Rockies
however, all was still debatable land; and in
that vast region, with its timbered mountains
and rich valleys, the wealth of fish in its
rivers and of minerals hidden in its bosom, he
claimed the right of a discoverer. At the
stern of his little craft', the Union Jack floated
proudly in the breeze; and at each halting
place, Thompson posted a written notice in
the name of the North West Company of
merchants from Canada, formally taking
possession of the country for His Majesty,
King George the Third. 142 David Thompson
Down the river sped the canoe, the
paddlers with long swinging strokes easily
keeping abreast of the stream. Most of the
rapids they were able to shoot; and before
nightfall they had completed the ninety miles
to the village of which they had heard above.
Tents were pitched and Thompson summoned
the chiefs to smoke with him.
In a short while the chief arrived, followed
by his men in single file. All sat down in a
circle about the tent, and the chief made a
brief speech, welcoming the strangers and
offering them presents of dried salmon and
native herbs. Pipes were then lighted and
solemnly passed round. Following this the
chief delivered a long harangue, in which he
expressed the hope that the white men would
provide his people with guns, ammunition,
axes, knives, awls, not to mention steels and
flints and many other articles of which they
stood sadly in need. They were, he said, able
and willing to hunt, and would pay for everything they got. At present, however, they
had only their hands with which to procure
food and clothing. The Race to the Sea
Thompson explained that his object was
to explore the course of the river to the sea.
If it proved navigable, very large canoes would
come from over the ocean with goods of all
kinds, and industrious hunters would be
supplied with everything they required.
The colloquy finished, permission was
given for the women of the tribe to approach.
A dance of welcome followed, at the end of
which the weary travellers were left to their
repose. In this way Thompon made friends
with the natives wherever he found them
along the river.
As he advanced, Thompson passed out
of the forest country, and entered the arid
plain that lies about the confluence of the
Snake river with the Columbia. Occasional
willows and cottonwoods were to be seen,
growing in the neighbourhood of streams; but
over the greater part of this region, the only
shrub capable of finding a lodging was the
hardy sage. The natives he now encountered
were of the unhappy Snake family, who had
been driven for refuge to this barren country
by the relentless pressure of their foes.    Some 144
David Thompson
of them fled in terror at his approach. Others,
less timid, gazed with admiring eyes upon
the guns, kettles, axes, and other paraphernalia of his camp. Their eagerness to obtain
such wonders was in proportion to their need;
for they did not appear to possess even bows
and arrows or the stone axes and knives that
were common among the Eskimos of the far
The river now turned to the west; and
far ahead on his left Thompson discerned the
snow-capped cone of Mount Hood, which
marked the line of the Cascade Mountains
near the coast. Fifty miles short of this, he
came to a village at which, as usual, he put
ashore. Here the natives warned him of the
treacherous Dalles or rapids just ahead, where
the river for a distance of two miles glides
noiselessly through a canon never more than
two hundred yards wide, and the ledges of
basalt, projecting into the stream, create
whirlpools and eddies in which the traveller
is sucked to his death. At the same time,
the natives informed him that at the mouth
of the river, a party of white men who had The Race to the Sea
come in a great canoe from the ocean, were
busy erecting a house. Thus he learned that
the Astorian party had anticipated him in
reaching the mouth of the Columbia.
A guide from the village carried him
safely through the Dalles, was paid, and returned to the village. Fifty miles further down
stream, Thompson approached "the Cascades," where the river cuts through the deep
lava beds of the Cascade mountains and makes
a descent of about three hundred feet. Here
the canon was no less than six miles long, and
nearly a mile in depth. Trying in vain to
secure a guide, Thompson entered the rapids
alone. For three miles he "ran" the rapids;
a portage of one mile followed, taking him
past the worst stretch of the river; he then re-
embarked, and emerged in safety to the quiet
water below.
There was still one hundred and fifty
miles to the mouth of the river; but the magnificent forests of Douglas fir, cedar, and
hemlock which now clothed the country told
them that they had come within the benefi-
cient influence of the sea.    Two days' paddle
H 146
David Thompson
brought them to Tongue point, beyond which
they had a full view of the ocean. To the
left, not more than a couple of miles distant,
they beheld four low log huts, constructed of
timbers newly cut—in the words of Thompson,
"the famous Fort Astoria of John Jacob Astor
and the United States".
At Fort Astoria, Thompson was welcomed by Duncan McDougall and David
Stuart, old colleagues in the service of the
North West Company. As their guest, he
spent a week at the post taking observations
for its position and preparing for the return
voyage. Toward the mouth of the river, the
natives had been demoralized by their association with wandering traders from the sea;
and remembering their surly behaviour and
menacing looks, Thompson saw to it that his
men had their arms in readiness. On the
22nd of July, he embarked. At the Cascades,
he was forced to appeal to the natives for
assistance in climbing the rapids. The scoundrels were importunate in their demands. With
knives in their hands and poisoned arrows in
their bows, they were ready to kill and plunder
the travellers.    But the courage and resolu- The Race to the Sea
tion of Thompson warded off the crisis; and
once above the Cascades he was again among
the poor but friendly savages of the interior.
Thompson was anxious to avoid the
ninety miles of rapids below Kettle Falls.
When he came to the mouth of the Snake
river, he turned up this stream and ascended
it as far as the present Lyon's Ferry. From
thence, having borrowed horses of the natives,
he journeyed overland across the sterile, sandy
plain as far as Spokane House; and from Spokane House, with the assistance of Jaco
Finlay, he once more reached the Columbia
above Kettle Falls. There, building a fresh
canoe, he re-embarked and made his way
through the Arrow lakes to the Boat Encampment, thus completing his survey of the
Columbia from its source to its mouth.
The followmg winter Thompson spent
inspecting his various posts, and distributing
among them additional supplies of goods
which he had received from beyond the
mountains. From Salish House, he rode east
along Clark's Fork to a hill top within the
limits of the present city of Missoula; and from
thence he was able to trace the route of Lewis 148
David Thompson
and Clark through the Bitter Root Mountains
to the banks of Snake river.
In the spring he was once more back at
Kettle Falls, where the furs from the winter's
hunt were being collected. The results were
excellent; six canoes had to be made ready to
accommodate the packs. By the 22nd of
April, his preparations were complete. The
brigade set off by way of the Columbia,
Athabaska pass, and Churchill river route to
Fort William.
In the summer of 1812, when Thompson
arrived at Fort William after his last journey
from beyond the Rockies, he was in the forty-
third year of his life. It was twenty-eight
years since he had landed as an apprentice on
the shores of Hudson Bay; and twenty-three
years since he had actively embarked on his
career as a surveyor. During all this time he
had been constantly accumulating materials for
his great map of the North West. His work
was now complete; so that instead of returning to the interior, he joined the annual
brigade of great canoes bound for Montreal.
Thus did David Thompson bid adieu forever
to the Great North West. I       CHAPTER VIII
FN 1812, hostilities had broken out between
the British Empire and the United States,
and the flame of war was raging along the
international border. In the St. Mary's
river, the voyageurs of the North West convoy
with which Thompson was travelling feared
that American troops might intercept their
rich cargo of furs, but they passed through
the narrows without being molested and were
soon safe among the islands of the north shore
of Lake Huron. From thence they made a
speedy passage up the French river and down
the Ottawa to Montreal.
His country endangered, Thompson accepted a commission in a battalion of infantry then being raised by his old colleague
Roderick Mackenzie, but it does not appear
that he was ever on active service. The
winter of 1813-4 he spent in preparing a final
149 IS©
David Thompson
draft of his map. This map, in which was
embodied the record of his life work, became
a proud possession of the North West Company. For many years it occupied a place of
honour on the walls of the banqueting hall
at Fort William.
When the war was over, Thompson was
selected as British representative on the
commission which surveyed the international
boundary from the River St. Lawrence to the
Lake of the Woods. This task occupied him
for the next ten years, and was concluded in
the autumn of 1826.
At this time, Thompson planned to offer
to the public an edition of his map, and even
went so far as to prepare a prospectus. This
prospectus is worth reproducing, because it sets
forth in Thompson's own words the achievements of his career as a geographer:
"To be published in England, by David
Thompson, a new and correct map of the
Countries in North America; situated between
the parallels of 45 degrees; and 60 degrees of
North Latitude; and extending in longitude Last Years
from the east side of Lake Superior, and
Hudson's Bay, quite across the Continent
to the Pacific Ocean; and from his own local
knowledge; being the result of 22 years employment in discovering, and laying down
the several rivers, lakes, hills and mountains
on this extensive tract of country; many parts
of which had never before been explored;
these discoveries were only finished in 1812.
The whole founded on astronomical observations, the author being an astronomer by
"A small part of this work has already
found its way to the public, being copies of a
rough map laid before the North West Company of Canada.
"Of these regions the map makers have
no doubt given the best delineation they
could acquire; but of what was known, so
little was founded on astronomical observations; and their being obliged to fill up the
vacant space with what information they
could procure, has led them into many errors.
"In this map now offered to the public,
almost all the great rivers on the above part 152
David Thompson
of the continent, on both sides the great
mountains are traced to their sources; the
sources of the Mississippi, and several other
great rivers, and the shores of Lake Superior,
have been examined and laid down by the
author only.
"The position, extent and height of the
hills and mountains, have engaged much of
his attention; of which he has many landscapes.
The last six years of his discoveries were on
the west side of the mountains to the Pacific
Ocean. Each Indian Nation's Territories,
with their limits, and the places of the trading
settlements will be marked out.
"The courses and distances, (taken when
necessary to ioo yards,) with their calculations, etc., the astronomical observations,
and rough maps on the scale of one inch to a
mile, on which these maps are founded will be
open to the inspection of the curious, while
the work is publishing; and it will doubtless
afford much speculation to the scientific, to
find many of the great rivers of North America
taking their rise in a small compass, and going
off to the different seas like Radii from a centre. Last Years
'To render the map more general, and to
give connection to all the parts, the author
will avail himself of the Sea Coast of Hudson's
Bay and the Pacific Ocean, etc., etc., as laid
down by the latest navigators and travellers; whatever he has not personally examined
himself, will be in a different colour, and the
authority mentioned.
"Nothing less than an unremitting perseverance bordering on enthusiasm could
have enabled him to have brought these
maps to their present state; in early life he
conceived the idea of this work, and Providence has given him to complete, amidst
various dangers, all that one man could hope
to perform.
"The map will be engraved in a neat,
chaste manner, combining elegance and economy, on the scale of 3 inches to one degree of
longitude and will form either a map or an
atlas at the will of the subscriber.
"The arduous survey, on which the author
is at present employed does not permit him
to present the Public with a description of
these Countries and the nations of aborigines. 154
David Thompson
This he hopes to perform as soon as time
"It is expected the geographical map
will be ready for delivery to the subscribers
by the latter end of the summer of 1820 at the
"These parts of North America have
long been a desideratum on geography.
"He also offers to the scientific public,
of the same size as the general map, a chart
to contain only the grand features of this part
of the Continent, such as the great mountains
and hills, the principal rivers and extensive
lakes; as he proposes to delineate on this
chart, the position and extent of the coal
mines; of the various beds of different kinds
of stone and rock; of the great meadows and
forests; the limits of the countries on which
the Bison, Elk, Red Deer, Wild Sheep, etc.,
etc., are found; the line of the old, and new
portions of this part of the continent; the
line of the position of the Countries, over
which, is the most constant appearance and
greatest brightness of the Aurora Borealis;
and the line that bounds their appearance to Last Years
the westward, beyond which they are not
seen; and whatever else he may deem worthy
of remark; all of which could not have been
delineated on the geographical map without
causing confusion."
The terms of this prospectus reveal in
striking fashion the scientific spirit in which
Thompson's great work was conceived; but
if he hoped that the learned world would
welcome and support his efforts, he was doomed to disappointment. In the early years of
the nineteenth century, interest in the interior
of North America was confined to very few
persons. It may have been that the number
of subscribers was inadequate. It may have
been that no publisher would take the risk of
issuing the work. At any rate the map and
chart which Thompson projected never saw
the light of day.
At the conclusion of his labours on the
International Boundary Commission, Thompson felt himself in a position to retire. Throughput his working career, he had always enjoyed
a good salary. With part of his savings, he
purchased a comfortable house at Williams- 156
David Thompson
town in the county of Glengarry, where he
settled down with his wife and growing
family. It was there, on the 4th of March
1829, that the last of his thirteen children
was born. With characteristic public spirit,
he entered into the life of the community.
When the Presbyterians of Williamstown
desired to build a church, he lent them money
with which to do so. As his sons grew to
manhood, a considerable amount of his savings was required to set them up in business.
Thompson's declining years were clouded
by financial worries, which were largely the
result of his generous and honourable disposition. The congregation whom he had assisted
were unable to pay off their mortgage, so he
deeded to them the church and grounds. His
sons failed in business, and in discharging
their debts, he seriously crippled himself.
He sold his. home at Williamstown, and removed to Longueuil, near Montreal, where
there were greater opportunities of securing
employment. Resuming his old occupation,
he surveyed the canoe route from Lake Huron
to the upper Ottawa.   This was in 1837, and Last Years
some years later he surveyed the shores of
Lake St. Peter.
During these years, Thompson worked
on the narrative account of his explorations
which he Tiad undertaken to give the world
at the time when he planned to publish his
map. He was anxious also to earn what
money he could from the publication of his
book. It is said that Washington Irving,
the great American writer, and the author
of Astoria, wished to buy the manuscript.
Irving, however, was unwilling to promise
that in using it he would give to Thompson
the recognition which he felt was his due;
and, jealous to the last of his reputation, the
old man refused to part with his work. The
manuscript therefore, like the map, lay forgotten, until it was discovered in recent years,
and published in 1915 by the Champlain
The American Revolutionary War had
left a legacy of boundary disputes which were
destined to disturb peaceful relations between Great Britain and the United States for
years to come.    Owing to his work both for 158
David Thompson
the North West Company and on the International Boundary Commission, Thompson
was better acquainted than most men with
the issues involved in these disputes; and he
was convinced that on account of the stupidity
and carelessness of British diplomats, the
just claims of British America had been continuously ignored or overridden from the
time when the original treaty of peace had
been drawn in 1783. In his narrative,
Thompson relates an interesting story regarding the settlement made in that year. The
story is worth repeating, not only because it
illustrates his attitude toward the boundary
question, but also because of the light it
sheds on conditions in the North West at the
time, and the greatness of the service which
Thompson and others performed in mapping
the country.
Among the traders, he says, who made
their way from Montreal into the fur countries was a certain Peter Pond, a native of
Boston. Pond was a man of violent and unprincipled character. In the winter of 1780-1,
he was stationed at Lake La Ronge with orders Last Years
to act in concert with Wadin, a fellow trader
of the North West Company. One evening,
while dining with Wadin, he made himself
drunk; and in an outburst of passion shot
Wadin through the thigh. His unhappy
victim expired from loss of blood.
Pond, however, was an energetic trader;
and since in those wild times and remote
places the arm of the law was weak, he escaped
the punishment which he richly deserved.
A few years later he had penetrated to Lake
Athabaska, the first white man to do so.
There he disputed the fur trade with a certain
John Ross, who followed him into the country
in the interests of a rival firm. An altercation took place between the two traders, and
Pond shot Ross dead.
On this occasion Pond was arrested and
brought to Canada for trial. But the authorities at Quebec did not consider that their
jurisdiction extended to the territories of the
Hudson's Bay Company, and the prisoner
was set at liberty. He thereupon returned
to Boston, his native city.
The peace negotiations were at that time i6o
David Thompson
in progress. The commissioners for great
Britain were two honest, well-meaning gentlemen, who however knew nothing of the geography of the countries with which they had
to deal. The maps at their disposal were
wretchedly inadequate. One of them, Far-
ren's, dated 1773, showed the country as far
west as the middle of Lake Ontario. Beyond
that point the interior was represented as
made up of rocks and swamps, and described
as uninhabitable. Such maps gave every
advantage to one who was personally acquainted with the west, and the United
States commissioners had at their service the
expert advice of Peter Pond.
Had the British possessed the slightest
idea of the value of the territories in question, and had they been disposed in the
slightest degree to press their claims, they
might have insisted on a line drawn due west
from the middle of Lake Champlain. Such a
division the Americans would have been glad
to accept, for it gave them more than they
could justly demand. But Pond was at the
elbow of the United States  commissioners. Last Years
He suggested to them a line passing through
the Great Lakes to the north west corner of
the Lake of the Woods, and from thence
westward (as he imagined from his own
rough surveys) to the head of the Mississippi
river. This demand, exorbitant though it was,
the British commissioners accepted, and it
was confirmed by both nations. Such was
the hand (concludes Thompson grimly) that
designated the boundary between the dominions of Great Britain and the territories of the
United States.
The settlement of 1783 was in Thompson's eyes merely the first of a serjes of unfortunate arrangements, by which the British
dominions were robbed of extensive and
valuable territory. Edmund Burke had remarked that a malignant fate seemed to
attend all the operations of Great Britain on
the continent of North America. Thompson,
who from his personal experience knew the
land and the people who disputed its possession, was able to explain in a less mysterious way the failure of the British to defend
their  claims   against  American   pretensions. 162
David Thompson
Accordingly, in the summer of 1840,
Thompson addressed a number of letters to
Sir Robert Peel, Lord Stanley and the Hon.
W. E. Gladstone on the subject of disputed
points along the border. His object was to
urge a prompt and just settlement in each
case. Such a settlement, he felt, was important if peace was to be maintained with "so
litigious a neighbour." It was vital, if the
steady encroachments of that neighbour were
tol)e brought to an end, and Britain was not
to be gradually deprived of her hold upon her
last possessions in America.
Thompson therefore endeavoured to
arouse the leading statesmen of the Mother
Country to the significance of American policy
as he saw it. The leading men of the United
States, he pointed out, all held it as a maxim
that no foreign power had any right to any
part of North America; and that every means
ought to be employed to expel this foreign
power. They were well aware of the insecurity of their position. On their northern
frontier a powerful foreign nation was in
possession for upwards of one thousand miles. Last Years
Their sea coast was open and exposed. The
numerous slaves in their southern and western states were ready for revolt; while to the
west were seventy thousand Indian warriors,
who had been compelled by force or fraud to
quit their lands, and who could readily be
aroused to a war of revenge.
Accordingly, he alleged, the Americans
had aimed ever since the treaty of 1783 to
restrict as far as possible the territory of Great
Britain and to destroy her influence over the
Indians. Their method was to advance
claims which, though exorbitant, would be
softened and rendered familiar by the operation of time, and in each case, when the
settlements came to be made, they aimed to
be in possession of the areas in dispute.
British subjects on the other hand had been
compelled to yield ground from point to point,
because they could not rely on the support of
the Imperial government if they stood firm.
As he wrote, the situation was acute
along the whole length of the frontier. On
the Quebec border, all the way from St. Regis
on the St. Lawrence to the Connecticut river, 164
David Thompson
the Americans were holding fast to a line
some distance north of the true parallel of 45 °
which had been named as the frontier in the
original treaty of peace and confirmed some
years later by the award of the King of the
Netherlands. In the St. Mary's river, American commissioners were claiming two of the
three boat channels and all but two or three
hundred yards of a river bed four miles wide.
If their demands at that point were granted,
Great Britain would surrender the keys to her
northern and western dominions, and shut
herself off from communication with them
except by the frozen shores of the Hudson
Bay. At the head of Lake Superior, the
Americans had driven the British traders from
two of the three possible routes joining the
Great Lakes with the Lake of the Woods, and
were claiming that the treaty of 1783 implied a
boundary running along the line of the third
and last possible route (the Kaministiquia
river), although the very existence of that
route was utterly unknown until at least
seventeen years after the treaty was drawn.
In  the  present  congress  they  were   again Last Years
urging the necessity of taking possession of
what they called the "Oregon Territory,"
and demanding a line down the middle of the
Columbia river to the Pacific ocean.
Thus did the old man endeavour to arm
British statesmanship for the diplomatic contests which he foresaw were inevitable; but his
efforts bore little or no fruit. On the part of
Great Britain, conciliatory motives continued
to prevail; and within a few years, Thompson
had the mortification of seeing even the
Oregon territory (that is, all the fine country
south of 490 north latitude which he himself
had discovered) lost to the Empire. It is
not surprising that he fumed at British diplomats in general, and in particular at "the
stupidity of that blockhead Lord Ashburton."
There is little more to record in the life
of David Thompson. Presently, his eyesight failed, and he suffered the misery of a
destitute old age. One by one his possessions
fell into the hands of money-lenders. So
poor did he become that he was forced to part
with his precious instruments, and even to
pawn his coat in order to buy a little food.   A 166
David Thompson
late entry of his diary reads, "This day borrowed 2/6 from a friend. Thank God for
this relief." On the 10th of February, 1857,
the long ordeal was ended and Thompson
passed away in the eighty-seventh year of his
age. He was buried in Mount Royal cemetery without even a stone to mark his grave.
For a long while after the death of
Thompson, it seemed as though the memory
of his achievements had perished with him.
But of recent years his fame, so nearly
eclipsed, has shone with renewed brilliance,
and it is now possible to estimate in some
degree the greatness of his character and the
magnitude of his work.
In the sheer length of his journeys, few
western explorers have equalled the record
of Thompson, for he travelled in all not less
than fifty thousand miles. Much of this was
through country untrodden by the feet of
white men; nearly all of it was in regions as
yet unsurveyed. The unvarying exactitude
with which Thompson mapped this vast area
excited the surprise and admiration of members of the Canadian Geological Survey who Last Years
with infinitely better equipment traced his progresses nearly a century later. There are certain districts which since his day have never
been re-surveyed; some of his work therefore
still appears on the published maps of .Canada.
Throughout his life Thompson was inspired by a restless impulse to push forward
the exploration and mapping of the west until
not a corner of it remained unknown. The
greatest satisfaction of his career was undoubtedly the discovering of the Columbia
valley. West of the Rockies, he was not
merely a surveyor and explorer, but in a real
sense an Empire builder, for he added a region
of vast and varied resources to the territories
of the Crown.
It is difficult for Europeans to associate
with savages without misunderstandings more
or less serious. The savage governs his life
by an elaborate ritual which he has inherited
from his ancestors. His code is sufficient to
cover his dealings with his fellows; but it fails
to guide him in his relations with the strange
new beings who burst in upon him from what
is in truth a different world.    The white man, i68
David Thompson
unless he is gifted with unusual tact and
sympathy, treats with contempt and scorn
the customs of the natives and seldom attempts to understand their ways. Worse
still, he feels himself freed from the restraints
which bind him in civilized life, and frequently gives rein to the basest passions of his
nature. Thus mutual misunderstanding too
often breeds hatred, and results in the shedding of blood.
To a surprising degree, the traders of the
Hudson's Bay and North West Companies
were able to overcome the difficulties and
dangers of dealing with the Indians, and their
relations with them were correspondingly
successful. Yet even successful traders often
lacked the imaginative sympathy which would
have enabled them to submit with patience to
the complicated ritual of Indian life; and
standing aloof as they did from the Indians,
they were involved in constant broils and, not
infrequently, in danger at their hands.
Moreover, in the fierceness of their competition, the traders were too often willing to
play sharp tricks on one another, and these Last Years
practices taught the Indians evil ways. To drug
the natives with liquor and steal furs destined
for rival firms was a habit only too common. It
sometimes happened also that small independent traders had their supplies taken from
them, their canoes destroyed and themselves
beaten senseless, so that they were driven
from the fur countries, ruined men. Individuals like Peter Pond were guilty of offences
more serious still. Their hands were stained
with the blood of their competitors, and in
the rough and tumble of life in the wilds, their
crimes were hard to detect and harder still to
punkh. The Indians had learned that the
Great Spirit hates to see the ground reddened
with blood. But when they saw thuggery
and murder flourish, how could they preserve
their simple faith?
Throughout his career in the west,
Thompson was one of those whose influence
among the Indians was almost wholly for
good, and whose activities shed lustre on the
history of the Hudson's Bay Company and
the North West Company, whom they served.
His travels carried him into the rocky belt 170
David Thompson
south-west of the Bay, over the prairies,
through the western forest, and across the
mountains of the Pacific slope. Wherever
he came in contact with the natives, he easily
won their admiration and respect. This was
due to the insight with which he studied their
customs and to the sympathy with which he
regarded their way of life. For Thompson
was infinitely more than a trader: he had the
mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet.
Love of country springs from many
roots; but perhaps the deepest patriotism is
that which comes from an intimate knowledge of the face of the land itself. Thompson
loved the great North West with the love of a
man who knew it in all its moods; for he had
journeyed through it and studied it carefully
over a long period of years. He foresaw the
day when the rolling prairies would be covered with smiling farms, and the Columbia
valley would be the seat of a rich and vigorous
civilization. In one respect, his vision of the
future fell short of reality. Living in an age
prior to the development of railways, he failed
to see that these regions were destined to be Last Years
linked by steel bands with the Canadas in a
Dominion stretching from sea to sea. He
thought of them rather as isolated communities, the middle west looking mainly for its
outlet to Hudson Bay, the Pacific coast joined
to civilization by the paths of ocean.
Characters such as David Thompson
are all too rare in the annals of a nation. So
long as honour is due to great men, his memory
deserves to be enshrined in the hearts of his
countrymen; and his high qualities should be
a model to those who inherit the Dominion
which he did so much to make. BIBLIOGRAPHY
The most important source of information regarding the life and work of David
Thompson is to be found in the Publications
of the Champlain Society, Vol. XII. (Toronto,
1915). This volume contains the Narrative
of Thompson's explorations, edited by Mr.
J. B. Tyrrell with a full general introduction,
an itinerary or catalogue of Thompson's
journeys year by year, and notes on the text.
The manuscript journals of Alexander Henry
and David Thompson have been, published,
under the title of New Light on the Early
History of the Great North West, by Elliott
Coues (2 vols., New York, 1897), In this
work, Henry's journal has been published as a
continuous narrative, and extracts have been
made from Thompson's journal to throw additional light on specific points. Thompson's
original note books are in the Crown Lands
Department, Parliament Buildings, Toronto.
172 Bibliography
They are too bulky, and too much encumbered with mathematical data, to be of interest
to the general reader, and so have never been
published as they stand. An article by Mr.
L. J. Burpee in the Canadian Historical
Review, vol. IV., 1923, p. 105 ff., contains the
prospectus of Thompson's map, and the
series of five letters which he addressed to
English statesmen on the subject of boundary
disputes in 1840.
Washington Irving's Astoria presents a
graphic picture of the occupation of the
mouth of the Columbia by the agents of John
Jacob Astor. The narrative contains an
interesting account of the appearance of David
Thompson at the newly erected fort, and of
the impression which his arrival made upon
the Astorians.
There are short chapters on Thompson in G. Bryce, History of the Hudson9s Bay
Company, Agnes Laut, Conquest of the Great
North West, and W. S. Wallace, By Star and


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