THE INCREDIBLE DAVID THOMPSON #2
We shall continue the fascinating story of David Thompson from
"Canada - a People's History" - a production of the CBC Canada.
FROM CANADA BY LAND
1793 - Peace river West. Alexander MacKenzie set out to seek the
Pacific ocean. He has to go overland; the natives have trading
routes West. He is not too far away when angry natives surround
him and his men. They tell him death awaits them if they
continue. He writes on a rock: Alex MacKenzie from Canada by land
22nd of July 1973.
He becomes the toast of London; through the book he writes he
becomes famous and rich. He is knighted. Napoleon is an admirer.
American President Jefferson is inspired to send the Lewis and
Clark expedition across the United States. MacKenzie becomes a
hero - his ambitions are met.
His route across the North West is useless - the rivers too
turbulent - the mountains too steep.
A route that can be used will fall to another Pathfinder - David
In the early 1800s NorthWest Fur is in transition - new people
have arrived with new designs on the fur trade. The fur trade
competition turns to war. The fur trade empire will give way to
gold miners and farmers, and a new world will take shape.
In the 1700s the former student of the Charity School in London
is now a surveyor and explorer of the Hudson Bay Company. David
Thompson keeps meticulous notes and observations along the many
trails, about the landscape, the vegetation, and especially his
partners in the fur trade, the peoples of the West.
"On becoming acquainted with the Indians, I found almost every
character in civilized society can be traced among them. From the
gravity of a judge, to the jester, from open-hearted generosity,
to the avaricious miser."
But the trade with the natives is turning vicious and ugly. The
amount of liquor traded more than doubles, as the competition
between the NorWesters and the Bay men intensifies. David
Thompson is one of the few fur traders to defy convention.
"I made it a law to myself that no alcohol should pass the
mountains in my company, and thus be clear of the sad sight of
drunkenness in its many evils. But these gentlemen insisted upon
alcohol, being the most profitable article that could be taken
for the Indian trade. In this I knew they had miscalculated."
Thompson has been with the Hudson Bay Company for 13 years, and
he is becoming frustrated and restless. While NorWesters like
Alex MacKenzie are making fame and great fortune, Thompson is
ordered to stop surveying and return to Hudson Bay and focus on
In 1797 he chooses a different option.
"Tuesday - set off - this day left the service of the Hudson Bay
Company and entered that of the Company of merchants from Canada.
May God Almighty prosper me."
He walks 80 miles in the snow to the nearest NorthWest Company
post. The NorWesters offer him more money, more opportunity, and
they encourage him to fill the missing portions of his emerging
map of the North West. Now he feels he is with the real
"How very different, the liberal and public spirit of this
NorthWest Company of merchants from Canada is from the mean,
selfish policy of the Hudson Bay Company - styled, honorable"
(tongue in cheek).
And so begins his greatest years of exploration. David Thompson
will begin his extra-ordinary Western travels. Alex MacKenzie
once said that David Thompson accomplished in 10 months more than
he would have thought possible in 2 years.
But David Thompson's most celebrated trip still lies before him.
By 1810 David Thompson has built NorthWest Company trading posts
and pioneered routes up into the Rockie Mountains. He is about to
go on leave when he receives new orders. He is to go to the
"I'm getting tired of such constant hard journeys. The last 20
months I have spent barely 2 months under the shelter of a hut,
all the rest has been in my tent. And there is little likelihood
the next 12 months will be much otherwise."
His travel is critical because the Americans are heading to the
The John Astor (Pacific Fur Company in New York) is the most
powerful business man in the United States. He proposes to build
a post at the mouth of the greatest river leading into the
Pacific - the Columbia. In September 1810 Astor's ship the
"Tonquin" sets sail on a voyage around Cape Horn to the Columbia
Meanwhile David thompson is sent overland to secure the
Trouble begins almost immediately. Thompson and a small party on
horseback, plan to meet the rest of the expedition travelling by
canoe. They are in "Pagan" territory. The "Pagan" are furious
with the NorWesters for supplying their enemies with guns. When
Thompson arrives at the meeting point there are no canoes.
"I thought some accident had happened. I told Mr.Henry to proceed
through the woods, and down the river in search of the canoes,
and see what detained them. I gave positive orders to fire no
shot, but in self defense."
But one of William Henry's men disobeys. Now the "Pagan" can
track them down.
"I told them that they had acted very foolishly, that the "Pagan"
Indians would be on us very early in the morning, and that we
must start at dawn of day, and ride for our lives."
They ride till dark, not knowing whether they were being
"We made a small fire and passed the night with some anxiety. My
situation precluded sleep. Cut off from my men, uncertain where
to find them. Equally so of the movements of the Indians, I was
at a loss of what to do, or which way to precede. Morning came,
and I had to determine what course to take. After being much
perplexed, whether to take to the defiles of the mountains, or
try to find my men in canoes, I determined that finding my men of
the most importance."
Eventually he does contact with his missing men. But the "Pagan"
have blockaded his planned route through the mountains. With
winter closing in, he has to detour hundreds of miles north,
towards the Athabasca river, into territory he has never charted,
facing a new threat - avalanches!
"We must now change our route to the defiles of the Athabasca
river, which would place us in safety, but will be attended with
great inconvenience - fatigue - suffering, and prevention. But
there was no alternative."
In the deep snow they have to abandon their horses and rely on
While Thompson struggles in the Athabasca pass the "Tonquin"
rounds Cape Horn. It is now only a matter of weeks before John
Jacob Astor's men reach the Columbia. And Thompson is still
"January 9th. Hauling very bad. The weather so mild that the snow
is dropping from the trees, and everything wet. We could precede
only about 4 miles. The snow is a full 7 feet deep. The dogs
often sink in it, but our snow shoes did not sink more than 3
No matter what hardships his men endure during the day, every
clear evening David Thompson takes mathematical readings. While
inching across the mountains, the man who looks at stars is
studying infinity and precisely charting his journey.
Finally, after 3 months David Thompson and his men reach the
crest of the mountains.
"My men admired the brilliance of the stars, and as one of them
said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand. As
usual when the fire was made, I set off to examine the country
before us. Many reflections came to my mind. A new world was in a
manner before me."
The Athabasca Pass - David Thompson's route through the mountains
will be used by fur traders for half a century. But for now
Thompson's party can go no further. They are snow-bound, stuck
for the rest of the winter.
Meanwhile the "Tonquin" arrives at the mouth of the Columbia
river, and Ascot's men start building a fort.
To be continued