David Thompson

David Thompson (1770-1857): The Adventures of “Star Gazer” in Kalyna Country


A stellar cast of historical characters contributed to opening up the Canadian North-West to international trade and European settlement, including such illustrious figures as Samuel Hearne, Anthony Henday, Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Fidler and Simon Fraser. However, even in this elite group David Thompson stands out, for the sheer scale, remarkable breadth and lasting impact of his achievements exploring a vast part of the North American continent.

Arguably one of the greatest surveyors, mapmakers and land geographers of all time, David Thompson was born 30 April 1770 to Welsh parents in what is today the heart of London. Although his mother was tragically widowed two years later, she had the foresight to enrol David at the age of seven in the charitable Grey Coat School, near Westminster Abbey, providing him with a basic education. This enabled him to obtain an apprenticeship with the Hudson’s Bay Company when he was fourteen, which brought Thompson to Churchill Factory, near the mouth of the Churchill River, in September of 1884. The following year he was relocated to York Factory, further south on the Bay, after which he was moved inland to work at HBC posts at Cumberland, east of Lake Winnipeg, and then at South Branch, on the lower course of the South Saskatchewan River. These early postings gave Thompson his first taste of life in the Canadian wilderness, which he embraced with boundless energy and curiosity. It wasn’t long before Thompson’s talents were recognized by his superiors and he was given ever more challenging assignments in the interior, taking him to many places never before seen by white men.

Thanks to his work in the fur trade Thompson learned to speak Cree, also eventually becoming fluent in Blackfoot as well as French, languages that were widely used in the North-West. Endowed with a strong sense of piety and morality, Thompson was known for reading the Bible in French to the illiterate voyageurs who later worked for him, and for opposing trade with liquour.

David Thompson first passed through the eastern parts of Kalyna Country while travelling to the Peigan territories south of the Bow River, where he spent the winter of 1787-88 at the camp of an old Cree Indian named Saukamapee. There, he listened raptly to stories that Saukamapee told him about Plains Indian history before the arrival of Europeans, which he assiduously wrote down and preserved for posterity. Fascinated by Native lore and a keen observer of nature, Thompson is partly celebrated today for the wealth of details that he recorded about his experiences in the meticulous notebooks that he kept of his Western adventures.

In December 1789, while living at Manchester House, on the North Saskatchewan River east of the present-day Alberta-Saskatchewan border, Thompson fell down a steep bank and broke a leg, almost his losing life because of the severity of the injury. However, once he was well enough to travel he was transported downstream to convalesce at Cumberland House, near Saskatchewan’s eastern border with Manitoba. There, he devoted his months recuperating to learning how to be a surveyor, proving to be an excellent student with an obvious gift for astronomy and mathematics. Henceforth, Thompson’s constant use of a sexton to repeatedly fix his position was to earn him the Native name, Koo Koo Sint – which translates into English as the Man Who Looks at Stars, more poetically rendered “Star Gazer”. From 1790 onward surveying and mapmaking became Thompson’s great passions, to which he dedicated the better part of his talents and his life. He also took a great interest in meteorology, natural history, and in the cultures of different Native peoples, documenting his observations in a total of 84 field journals that in his old age he wrote up in a detailed narrative.

After several years at York Factory, Thompson was despatched in the fall of 1793 to the recently constructed post of Buckingham House, southeast of the modern-day town of Elk Point. Arriving at what was then one of the HBC’s most westerly outposts on 31 October, he made an exploratory trip the following month by horseback into the Beaver Hills, taking him through the heart of Kalyna Country to where Fort Augustus and Edmonton House were established two years later, opposite what is now the city of Fort Saskatchewan. He returned to Buckingham House on 29 November, and was to remain there until 16 May 1794, when he was called back to York Factory.

Over the next three years Thompson’s career as an HBC fur trader took him from Hudson’s Bay and Lake Superior in the east through large parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and as far south as the Missouri River in North Dakota and the headwaters of the Mississippi. Maps that Thompson drew at this time were subsequently used by the Americans Lewis and Clark on their celebrated 1804-1806 expedition. Notwithstanding these accomplishments Thompson felt constrained by the opportunities offered to him by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and thus at the conclusion of his contract in May 1797 he resolved to join the rival North West Company. Based in Montreal, the NWC was managed by Scots and employed large numbers of French Canadians.

Thompson spent the winter of 1798-99 at Lac La Biche, then in late March travelled to Fort Augustus, above the mouth of Sturgeon River, where he stayed for two weeks. In his one of his journals he memorably described the first Edmonton House, operated at the same site by the HBC, as being a “musket shot away” from the NWC post, perhaps alluding to the fierce competition between his former and new employers.[1] On 19 April he headed west with 3 horses and 5 men to the Pembina River, following it north to the Athabasca River, taking a side trip to Lesser Slave Lake,  and then travelling east via Fort-of-the-Forks (latter-day Ft. McMurray) to Ȋle-à-la Crosse on the Churchill River in what is now north-western Saskatchewan. There, on 10 June 1799 the 29 year-old explorer married the 13 year-old Charlotte Small – the daughter of a Cree woman and a fur trader named Patrick Small, who eight years earlier had left the fur trade and returned home to Scotland. Despite their age difference, Thompson and Charlotte forged a close and enduring bond that lasted until their deaths, months apart, 58 years later. Their long marriage was blessed with 13 children, five of whom were born in Western Canada.

From Ȋle-à-la Crosse, Thompson and his bride trekked all the way to the western shores of Lake Superior to deliver furs and pick up supplies. They then doubled back to Fort George, the NWC post built in 1792 a quarter mile from Buckingham House, which Thompson knew from his earlier stay there. When he arrived with his party on 5 September Thompson found the structure in a semi-derelict state, “… totally without Doors, or windows, all the Planks, Doors, Flooring, &c &c. carried away & 2 of the Beams cut out of the Great House.”[2] He immediately set about repairing it with materials obtained from J.P. Pruden, who was in charge of Buckingham House during its final years of existence. After wintering at Fort George, on 25 March 1800 Thompson made an overland trip via Fort Augustus to Rocky Mountain House, where he arrived on 8 April. He subsequently returned by canoe on the North Saskatchewan, passing Fort Augustus on 9 May and reaching Fort George on 12 May. Only six days later he departed on another lengthy trip to the east that took him to Grand Portage on Lake Superior. Interestingly, in his notebooks from this period Thompson refers to the “Island of Scotland,” his name for Fort d’Isle, where the NWC, HBC and X.Y. Companies established posts 18 miles upriver from Fort George in 1799. Although these posts were abandoned soon afterwards the island can still be seen two miles east of the Secondary Highway 880 bridge that crosses the North Saskatchewan River, north of Myrnam.

In the fall of 1800, Thompson left the Elk Point area for Rocky Mountain House, where Charlotte gave birth to their first child the following winter. From this new base Thompson made trips along the Red Deer and Bow Rivers and into the eastern ranges of the Rocky Mountains, which he unsuccessfully attempted to cross. In May of 1802 he again descended the North Saskatchewan River while making his way to Fort William on the shores of Lake Superior. Afterwards, he probably retraced his steps to the recently relocated Fort Augustus (at modern-day Edmonton), then travelled north to the Athabasca River and Lesser Slave Lake until he finally ended up in the Peace River valley. He spent most of 1803 there, before once more setting off for Fort William in March 1804, most likely accompanied on this physically demanding journey by Charlotte and his growing family.

Over the course of the next two years Thompson travelled between such far-flung places as Fort William (present-day Thunder Bay) and Cumberland House in the east, and Lake Athabasca and the Peace River country in northern Alberta. He devoted considerable time to roaming what was known as “Muskrat Country,” now northern Saskatchewan, producing maps that still contained the most detailed topographical information available about the region more than nine decades later. Next, after yet another trip to Fort William to obtain instructions, he moved his base further west to the Rocky Mountains, which then became the focus of his activities. Initially entering the Rockies through what was subsequently named Howse Pass, between 1808-1810 he surveyed the Kootenay and Spokane Rivers and established NWC trading posts in the modern-day states of Montana, Idaho and Washington.

During this period Thompson closely monitored developments further east, as these could affect his sometimes sensitive relations with the Native groups that he was dealing with in the foothills and the mountains. Thus, on 25 September 1807 he noted with obvious alarm that “About 2 or 3 months ago … a Blackfoot chief, had with his party of Blood Indians, and few Fall Indians, pillaged Fort Augustus ….”[3] While the post was quickly rebuilt, the incident heightened Thompson’s concerns that his own operation at Fort Kootenay was under imminent threat from a Piegan band, but fortunately an attack never materialized.

In conducting his work Thompson continued to make occasional trips through Kalyna Country to oversee the delivery of furs and supplies. Thus, in the summer of 1808 he left his family at Boggy Hall, a post downstream from Rocky Mountain House, and embarked on another major journey to the east.  Along the way he reported passing on 30 June 1808 the “Old Island Fort,” or Fort D’Isle, by then long abandoned. He also passed by the former Fort George, which that same year was described by Alexander Henry as a mere ruin, “only the chimneys” remaining visible. Stopping briefly at Fort Vermilion, a short distance downriver from Fort George, Thompson reached his Rainy House destination at the beginning of August. Situated at the mouth of the Rainy River, at present-day Fort Frances, Ontario, “Fort Lac La Pluie” was for several decades the North-West Company’s major transfer point for goods being moved between the Far West and Montreal. Allowing himself only two days there, he began his long journey “home” and by 23 September was back at Fort Augustus (Edmonton). Ten days later he reunited with his family at Boggy Hall, soon afterwards making his way through the mountains to Kootenay House, at the headwaters of the Columbia River.

Thompson was next in Kalyna Country the following year, when he spent from 24 June to 18 July at Fort Augustus. Then, in the summer of 1810 he made yet another trip to Rainy House, during which he recorded the steady deterioration of the original Fort Augustus near the mouth of the Sturgeon River: “On the evening of 22 June, arrived at Fort Augustus, now in ruins; this is the third year since this Fort has been deserted, it is situated on a high dry bank, as well built as possible with Logs of wood, and now in ruins: it is a strange fact that of all pine log buildings they are in ruins a few months after they cease to be inhabited, however dry the ground and the climate.”[4] A day later, he was at the NWC post at Fort White Earth, it being noted by Alexander Henry that Thompson’s family was travelling with him. Continuing on to Rainy Lake House, where he loaded four canoes with trade goods, he was back at Fort White Earth (also known as Terre Blanche and Edmonton House), just east of the future site of the Victoria settlement, by 11 September. On 16 September, having already sent the canoes ahead of him, Thompson rode to Fort Augustus and probably left his family there for the winter while he proceeded on to the mountains.[5]

In 1811 Thompson travelled all the way to the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Columbia River (below Portland, Oregon), where a few months earlier the Pacific Fur Company had established Fort Astoria. Following a short visit with the surprised American trader there, Thompson subsequently ascended the Columbia River and in the process completed his mapping of its entire length. But by now the 42 year-old David Thompson was ready to leave the North-West and the North West Company to pursue new challenges in central Canada.  Along with Charlotte and his five children he made one last trip through Athabasca Country to Lac La Biche, from which he crossed to the Churchill River by means of the Beaver, via Cold Lake and Ȋle-à-la Crosse. Turning south to Cumberland House on the North Saskatchewan, Thompson and his family descended Lake Winnipeg, continued west to Fort William, and in the fall of 1812 arrived at their new home at Terrebonne, north of Montreal. There, Thompson began yet another impressive chapter in his long and amazing life.

It is estimated that David Thompson travelled some 90,000 kms on foot, canoe, horseback and by dogsled in the 28 years that he spent in the North-West. He is credited with having mapped an area of almost 4 million square kilometres, equivalent to one-fifth of the North American continent. After moving to Montreal, he worked for a time surveying the Great Lakes, delineating much of the Canada-US boundary between the St. Lawrence River and Lake of the Woods. His famous 1814 map was so accurate that it was still the basis of many Canadian government maps in use a century later. On that map, the region now known as Kalyna Country served as an important link in the chain of his many accomplishments. It is something that all residents of east central Alberta can take great pride in during this period commemorating the David Thompson bicentennial.

[1] George Heath MacDonald, Edmonton Fort-House-Factory, p. 20.

[2] “Thematic Study,” Terry Smythe, p. 208.

[3]  Tyrrell, n. 1, p. 432, Glover n. 1, p. 311.

[4] Glover, pp. 311-12. The post had actually been abandoned in 1802, not 1807 as implied by Thompson.

[5] Richard Glover 1962, pp. xcvi-xcvii.