Canada History

Canada History   timelines 
AskAHistorian    blog 




Prehistory | 2 Worlds Meet | New France | England Arrives | Clash of Empires | Revolution | British America | Reform/Revolt | Responsible Government | Confederation | Nation Building | Laurier | The Great War | Roaring 20's | Great Depression | WWII | The Peace | Cold War | Trudeau | PC's in Power | Modern Canada

  Constitution Act 1791 | Guy Carleton | Jay's Treaty | Black Loyalists | Alexander Mackenzie | Simon Fraser | David Thompson | John Graves Simcoe | Captain George Vancouver | The Northwest Company | Prevost's Conciliation | Tecumseh | The War of 1812 | Lord Selkirk | Newfoundland

David Thompson was born in London, England to poor parents and at 2 his father died. He was placed in the "Grey Coast" charity school by Westminster Abbey for his education. The school often prepared its students for a career in the royal navy and hence focused on disciplines such as geography, navigation, astronomy, algebra and trigonometry.  One of the other groups that made appeals for recruits was the Hudson Bay Company and in 1784 they asked for 4 apprentices from the school.  At 14 Thompson was place on the vessel Prince Rupert and set sail for the Hudson's Bay.

Thompson arrived at Churchill and transferred to York Factory to begin his career. In 1786 he was sent inland to Manchester House on the North Saskatchewan and where he spent the winter. The following summer he travelled south to the Bow river near present day Calgary where he spent the winter with local natives. In the spring of 1788 he set out for Manchester House and when only about a mile from his destination broke his leg. Thompson would take almost a year to recover and would limp slightly for the rest of his life.

In October of 1789 Philip Turnor, who was the HBC's official surveyor,  offered Thompson the opportunity to join in the class he was teaching on surveying. Thompson excelled at these lessons and also learned practical astronomy. During the winter of 1789/90 Thompson also lost the sight in one of his eyes which may have resulted from observing the sun with improper eye protection. In the spring he was sent to York Factory and was able to use his surveying skills, with the loan of Turnors instruments, enroute for the first time.

In 1790 Thompson finished his apprenticeship and instead of the usual suit of clothes, he requested surveying equipment. He acquired a sextant, and an artificial horizon. He received the clothes and the instruments. Armed with his new instruments he left York Factory with instructions to plot a new shorter route to the Athabasca country along the Churchill River. 

Thompson had problems with his watches which were required for surveying and was forced to return to York Factory the following spring. He set out once again and brought fur trading goods with him for a new fur trading post. In the summer of 1795 he returned with furs from  his expedition and then left again for his next expedition on July 18th.

Thompson was able to acquire an achromatic telescope and 2 compasses but was continually pressured to increase fur trade volume at the cost of his exploration and surveying. On the 8th of May, 1797 Thompson did the unthinkable and left the Hudson Bay Company to join it's archrival the Northwest Company. He travelled to Reindeer Lake and checked in with Alexander Fraser and then immediately set out to do what he really wanted to do - explore. He spent most of the rest of 1798 exploring and mapping the prairies and the North Central US along the Missouri River returning to the source of the Souris River in the new year. In June of 1799 Thompson married Charlotte Small whom he probably met the year before and their long marriage resulted in 13 children.

In 1800 Thompson headed west to Rocky Mountain House and prepared to cross the mountains into present day British Columbia. In October he followed and surveyed the Bow river up into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. In June of 1801 Thompson tried to penetrate the Rockies again but this time by travelling up the Saskatchewan River. Once again the rugged walls of rock stopped him and forced his party back to Rocky Mountain House. For the next 3 years Thompson traveled back to Lake Superior and then up the Saskatchewan to the fork of the Smoky and Peace Rivers where he remained trading and surveying until 1804.

On July 17, 1805 at Cumberland House, Thompson learned of the merge of the Northwest Company with Alexander Mackenzie's company. In May of 1807 Thompson once again attacked the Rockies and this time managed to find a pass through the ocean of mountains and named it hich would later be named Howse Pass. He journeyed through to the Columbia River. He spent the next few years travelling through the Rockies and down to Montana. He spent the winter of 1809 near modern day Thompson Falls in Montana.

Thompson settled in Williamstown, Ontario in 1815 and began work on his maps and journals. Over the next 20 years slowly lost or spent his money and was never properly compensated for his work. By  1833 he was bankrupt with no prospect for income except payment from the government for all of his surveying work. By 1846 his sight deteriorated quickly and he began to write his narrative. He was slowly force to sell all of his remaining possessions and in 1857 he died and his wife Charlotte  followed him to his grave 3 months later.

Thompson was perhaps North America's greatest surveyor and one of the greatest explorers.