Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Mystique of David Thompson, Part 1

[Image: David_Thompson_%281770-1857%29.jpg]

The Mystique of David Thompson, Part 1

By Airi Altinate
The Daily Magi
September 18, 2058


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's placement 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 14, 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.

He arrived in Churchill (now in Manitoba) and was put to work copying the personal papers of the governor of Fort Churchill, Samuel Hearne. The next year he was transferred to nearby York Factory, and over the next few years spent time as a clerk at Cumberland House and South Branch House before arriving at Manchester House in 1787. On December 23, 1788, Thompson seriously fractured his leg, forcing him to spend the next two winters at Cumberland House convalescing. It was during this time he greatly refined and expanded his mathematical, astronomical and surveying skills under the tutelage of Hudson's Bay Company surveyor Philip Turnor. It was also during this time that he lost sight in his right eye.

In 1790 with his apprenticeship nearing its end, Thompson made the unusual request of a set of surveying tools in place of the typical parting gift of fine clothes offered by the company to those completing their indenture. He received both. He then entered the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company as a fur trader and in 1792 completed his first significant survey, mapping a route to Lake Athabasca (presently straddling the Alberta/Saskatchewan border). In recognition of his map-making skills, the company promoted him to surveyor in 1794. Thompson continued working for the Hudson's Bay Company until May 23, 1797 when, frustrated with the Hudson's Bay Company's policies, he left and walked 80 miles in the snow to enter the employ of the competition, the North West Company where he continued to work as a fur trader and surveyor.


Thompson's decision to defect to the North West Company in 1797 without providing the customary one-year notice was not well received by his former employers. However, joining the North West Company allowed Thompson to pursue his interest in surveying and work on mapping the interior of what was to become Canada. In 1797, Thompson was sent south by his employers to survey part of Canada-U.S. boundary along the water routes from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods to satisfy unresolved questions of territory arising from the Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States. By 1798 Thompson had completed a survey of 6,750 km (4,190 mi) from Grand Portage, through Lake Winnipeg, to the headwaters of the Assiniboine and Mississippi Rivers, as well as two sides of Lake Superior. In 1798, the company sent him to Red Deer Lake (in present-day Alberta) to establish a trading post. The English translation of Lac La Biche-Red Deer Lake-first appeared on the Mackenzie map of 1793. Thompson spent the next few seasons trading based in Fort George (now in Alberta), and during this time led several expeditions into the Rocky Mountains.

In 1804, at the annual meeting of the North West Company in Kaministiquia, Thompson was made a full partner of the company and spent the next few seasons based there managing the fur trading operations but still finding time to expand his surveys of the waterways around Lake Superior. However, a decision was made at the 1806 company meeting to send Thompson back out into the interior. Concern over the American-backed expedition of Lewis and Clark prompted the North West Company to charge Thompson with the task of finding a route to the Pacific in order to open up the lucrative trading territories of the Pacific Northwest.

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