m. 10 JUN 1799
Facts and Events
David Thompson (April 30, 1770 – February 10, 1857) was a British-Canadian fur trader, surveyor, and map-maker, known to some native peoples as "Koo-Koo-Sint" or "the Stargazer". Over his career he mapped over 3.9 million square kilometers of North America and for this has been described as the "greatest land geographer who ever lived."
Thompson was born in Westminster to recent Welsh migrants, David and Ann Thompson. When Thompson was two, his father died and the financial hardship of this occurrence resulted in his and his brother John Thompson in the Grey Coat Hospital, a school for the disadvantaged of Westminster. He eventually graduated to the Grey Coat mathematical school and was introduced to basic navigation skills which would form the basis of his future career. In 1784, at the age of fourteen, he entered a seven-year apprenticeship with the Hudson's Bay Company. He set sail on May 28 of that year, and left England forever.
Thompson's arrival in North America was at the trading post in Churchill (now in northern Manitoba) where he worked as clerk. Over the next several years he worked at various trading posts at throughout Rupert's Land for the company. These travels and his interactions with the natives increased his fluency in French, Cree and other native languages. During convalescence from a fractured leg in 1788, Thompson refined and increased his astronomical surveying skills. He left the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company to join their rivals, the North West Company in 1797.
While working as a fur trader, Thompson was sent to Île-à-la-Crosse where he met his future wife, Charlotte Small, the mixed-blood child of a Scottish fur trader and a Cree mother. They were married on June 10, 1799 although their marriage was not formalized until October 30, 1812 at the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Montreal. He and Charlotte had thirteen children together; five of them were born in what is now Western Canada before he left the fur trade. Their first child Fanny was born in Rocky Mountain House in 1801. Four more children were born during his travels: Sammy (1804) near Peace River in what is now Northern Alberta, Emma (1806) in Reed Lake House, now in Manitoba, John (1808) in Boggy Hall not far from Rocky Mountain House, and Joshuah (1811) in Fort Augustus, now Edmonton.
From 1810 to 1812 Thompson charted the Columbia River all the way to the Pacific Ocean with the aim to set up a trading post for their for the North West Company. He arrived at the mouth of the Columbia a few months after the establishment of Fort Astoria by The Pacific Fur Company. Never-the-less, Thompson produced detailed maps of the Columbia river basin and was the first European to navigate the river's length. In 1812 Thompson began his return across the continent arriving in Montreal in 1812.
Return to the East
Upon his arrival back in Montreal, Thompson retired with a generous pension from the North West Company. He settled in nearby Terrebonne and worked on completing his great map, a summary of his lifetime of exploring and surveying the interior of North America. The map covered the wide area stretching from Lake Superior to the Pacific, and was given by Thompson to the North West Company. Thompson's 1814 map, his greatest achievement, was so accurate that 100 years later it was still the basis for many of the maps issued by the Canadian government.
However, the family did not adjust easily to life in Eastern Canada and two of the young children, John (aged 5) and Emma (aged 7) died of round worms, a common parasite in 1814. Two more children were born during this time in Montreal, Henry (1813) and Charlotte (1815).
In 1815, Thompson moved his family to Williamstown, Upper Canada and a few years later was employed to survey the newly established borders with the United States from Lake of the Woods to the Eastern Townships of Quebec, established by Treaty of Ghent after the War of 1812. Over the next 14 years of their stay in Williamstown, the couple produced 6 more children: William (1819), Thomas (1822), George (1824), Mary (1827), and Eliza (1829).
Unfortunately for the Thompson family, several bad business ventures would eventually ruin him. By 1831 he was so deeply in debt he was forced to take up a position as a surveyor for the British American Land Company to provide for his family. His luck continued to worsen and he was forced to move in with daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, the railway engineer William R. Scott in 1845. He began work on a manuscript chronicling his life exploring the continent, but this project was left unfinished when his sight failed him completely in 1851. In his final years Thompson and Charlotte moved in with their youngest daughter Eliza and her husband Dalhousie Landell in nearby Longueuil.
Death and Legacy
On February 10th, 1857 Thompson died poor, and in near obscurity aged 86. He was interred in the Landell family plot at Mount Royal Cemetery in an unmarked grave. It was not until 1926 that efforts J.B. Tyrell and the Canadian Historical Society resulted in the placing of a tombstone to mark his grave. David and Chalotte's marriage lasted 58 years, the longest Canadian pre-Confederation marriage known.
The land mass mapped by Thompson amounted to 3.9 million square kilometres of wilderness (one-fifth of the continent). His contemporary, the great explorer Alexander Mackenzie, remarked that Thompson did more in ten months than he would have thought possible in two years.
Despite these significant achievements, Thompson died in Montreal in near obscurity on February 10, 1857, his accomplishments almost unrecognized. He never finished the book of his 28 years in the fur trade, based on his 77 field notebooks, before he died. In the 1890s geologist J.B. Tyrell resurrected Thompson's notes and in 1916 published them as David Thompson's Narrative.