Landscape and history are interconnected. For 350 years, rivers were the highways for the fur trade – an exchange by Aboriginal peoples of furs (especially beaver) and bison pemmican for European goods such as fabrics, pots and guns. After crossing the continent by dogsled and canoe the furs continued, via ship, to Great Britain to be made into hats and other fashion items.
Two hundred years ago this trade crossed the Rockies through the efforts of David Thompson (1770 – 1857). Thompson was the greatest chronicler of his day of landscapes, peoples and nature. There is growing awareness that he is the most under-recognized figure in Canadian history.
Although David Thompson is usually categorized as a fur trader and explorer, he was in fact a multifaceted and complex man. He overcame numerous challenges to rise from rags to riches, only to return to poverty and obscurity.
From an impoverished childhood in Westminster, England, David became a successful fur trader in the wilds of North America. Over a 28 year career he travelled and surveyed 100,000 km by foot, canoe and horseback. In the process he established two commercially viable routes across the Rockies, Howse Pass and Athabasca Pass. In proving the Columbia River navigable, he completed the last leg of the long sought Inland Northwest Passage that connected the Montréal trade to the Pacific. His route from the northern plains to the ocean was used for more than 40 years.
During his travels he was often accompanied by Charlotte Small, his Cree/Scottish wife, with whom he fathered 13 children (five in the wilderness). Their 58 year marriage is a great Canadian love story.
Thompson was unequalled as a surveyor. After retiring from the fur trade he converted his years of surveys into maps. His famous map of the Province of Canada covered four million square kilometres (1/6) of the continent, with unprecedented accuracy and became the basis for other maps depicting much of Canada and the United States until the 20th century. For a decade after the War of 1812 he was the official surveyor for 1,600 km of the newly established international boundary.
One of Thompson’s defining qualities is how well he faced adversity. While recovering from a broken leg he learned surveying and mapping. When poor birch bark prevented canoe construction he invented a cedar plank canoe that evolved into the boats that served the Columbia River trade for decades. Although the fur trade had made him rich, bad luck and poor investments left Thompson destitute in old age but he rose to this challenge by writing his remarkable memoirs. Although never published in his lifetime, this narrative has ultimately renewed interest in the man and his legacies.
The bicentennial of David Thompson’s trans-mountain activities (1807-1811) has inspired a far reaching commemoration of the man and related history. Beginning in 2002, a grassroots network of educators, artists, writers, historians, surveyors, environmentalists and paddlers have created hundreds of commemorative projects across Canada, the north western states to Britain.
Some highlights include:
- Protection for 69,456 hectares of heritage landscapes
- 4 voyageur canoe brigades covering a combined 5500 km of waterways and involving 850 participants
- More than 200 events and re-enactments
- Recognition of Charlotte Small as a person of national historic significance
- Recognition of the Columbia Express as a national historic event
- 6 academic conferences
- 3 archaeological projects
- 6 documentaries (including PBS and BBC)
- 24 books (2 more are on the way)
- Educational resources across western Canada and the northwestern states
- A national Thompson Award for surveying excellence
- Statues of David and Charlotte Thompson in Invermere, British Columbia
- Museum exhibits in many communities
- Thompson inspired artworks
- Expansion of Howse Pass and Athabasca Pass National Historic Sites
What is the legacy of this wide ranging bicentennial? David Thompson is less likely to be forgotten again because of new historical references, exhibits and documentaries. Charlotte is coming out from David’s shadow as a historical personage in her own right. Perhaps the most important legacy is the deepened sense of place for residents and visitors along the many rivers and valleys touched by the fur trade. Throughout Thompson’s country these heritage landscapes remain much as he knew them awaiting exploration by today’s travellers.
Learn more about the North American David Thompson Bicentennial at: davidthompson200.org.
~By Ross MacDonald, Founder of the David Thompson Bicentennial
Photos and Graphics-
Top; David Thompson’s explorations – Courtesy of davidthompson200.org
Second from top; Koo Koo Sint (Stargazer) Trail at Mount Revelstoke National Park – Photo courtesy of Ross MacDonald
Third from top; Black powder salute at Rocky Mountain House, AB for 2008 David Thompson Brigade – Photo courtesy of Ross MacDonald
Bottom; Voyageur canoe on Columbia River – Photo courtesy of Ross MacDonald