David Thompson Was an Original Western Badass

David Thompson began life as an orphan and died in obscure poverty, but in between he explored and mapped more wilderness, more accurately, than any one else. He was one of the first Europeans to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first to paddle the length of the Columbia River, and he established a string of fur trading posts throughout western Canada, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon (many of which are towns and cities today). His maps were so accurate the Canadian government used them for 100 years. But what really sets him apart as a badass of few equals is the amount of country he explored in his career. Historians estimate over 36 years he traveled 56,000 miles mapping nearly two million square miles.

What makes his life’s story even more remarkable is Thompson’s humble origins. He was born on the 30th of April, 1770, not long after his parents moved from Wales to London. Two years later his father died. Destitute, his mother made the difficult decision to hand Thompson and his brother over to the care of the Grey Coat Hospital, a school for disadvantage boys.

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The upside to this sad beginning is that instead of the child labor that most likely awaited him, Thompson got an education in math and surveying. He graduated school at 14 and immediately began a seven-year apprenticeship with the Hudson Bay Company.

Between 1670 and the founding of Canada in 1867, HBC owned a British government sponsored monopoly on the fur trade in the Hudson Bay watershed of Canada. With a steadily growing network of trading forts spread along the rivers leading inland, indigenous and European trappers brought beaver and other animal pelts to the forts every spring and summer and traded them for food and goods shipped over from England.

In 1784 Thompson sailed across the Atlantic to Fort Churchill, one of the main HBC posts. Soon misfortune smiled on him again. A few years into his internship a seriously broken leg laid him up for two winters with an HBC surveyor. Thompson spent the time honing his math, astronomy, and map-making skills.

After seven years with the HBC, most apprentices received a new set of fine clothes. Thompson requested surveying tools instead. He received both, was hired as a fur trader, and in 1792 the HBC sent him to map the route to Lake Athabaska, on the present day Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Thompson loved map making; HBC promoted him to surveyor.

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It didn’t take long until Thompson’s itch to explore exceeded the HBC’s appetite for expansion. During his apprenticeship, a rival trading company had begun competing with the HBC. Based in Montreal, the North West Company was a tech start-up compared to the HBC’s AOL: young, ambitious, and employee driven. Fed up with his employer, Thompson quit without notice in May 1797 and walked 80 miles to the closest North West Company post.

His new employer embraced his skills. One of his first jobs was to survey Lake Superior. In a year he mapped 4,190 miles of the lake’s coastline and the headwaters of the Assiniboine and Mississippi rivers.

When Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to reach the Pacific overland, heard about the monumental effort, he told Thompson that he had accomplished in 10 months what would have taken Mackenzie two years.

His work ethic earned him a promotion: to find a route to the Columbia River and on to the Pacific. It would consume the rest of his fur trading career.

Thompson and the North West Company knew another fur monopoly awaited whomever could reach the uncontacted native tribes on the Pacific side of the mountains. Over the next few years Thompson probed the valleys, finally finding Howse Pass, the gateway to the headwaters of the Columbia River. The next spring, 1807, he led a small group of traders, including his wife and two children, down to Lake Windermere and set up the first post in the Pacific drainage. But the Prairie First Nations didn’t appreciate that he’d traded guns to their historic enemies to the west. In 1810 they blocked access to Howse Pass. Thompson had to find another route through the Rockies.

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It was fall by the time he started hunting. He spent weeks bushwhacking through burnt forest in temperatures as cold as -30 Fahrenheit and was running low on food. Then the snow started piling up. By the time he arrived at Athabasca Pass, the new route to the Columbia River, there was 20 feet of snow on the ground. He pushed on through the entire winter. By spring he was finally in familiar territory on the Columbia River. Determined to make the descent of the Columbia, he didn’t pause. His crew prepared canoes, loaded trading goods and set off downstream. On July 15, 1811, Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia and looked out on the Pacific. A few days later he paddled back upstream to map the entire 1,210-mile course of the river.

The following spring he climbed back over Athabasca Pass, headed east. He never returned to the west. For two years he transcribed his 77 journals into a giant map stretching from Lake Superior to the Pacific. It was his life’s work and covered the equivalent of one fifth of North America. The Canadian government continued to use this map for more than 100 years. Yet Thompson received little credit for his work.

After retiring from the fur trade, a few bad land deals left him destitute. He and his wife moved in with his daughter. He died in 1857, penniless. Eventually the Canadian Historical Society recognized his achievements and raised enough money to place a tombstone on his grave. 100 years after his death the Canadian government honored him with a postage stamp. Fittingly, it shows Thompson surveying with a sextant, his great map of western North America in the background.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia, Library and Archives Canada.

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