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David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
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Life as a Hudson's Bay Clerk
In the decade after 1750, competition in the North American fur trade was heating up.
As a schoolboy in London, David Thompson showed an aptitude for mathematics and a passion for adventure stories. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
As a schoolboy in London, David Thompson showed an aptitude for mathematics and a passion for adventure stories. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
The Hudson's Bay Company and its main rival The North West Company tried to outdo each other in the search for new trade routes, giving adventurous young men a chance to make their mark on the continent. One such man was David Thompson.

The son of Welsh parents, Thompson was born in London in 1770 and from the age of seven attended the Grey Coat Hospital, a charity school for the poor and orphaned. He had an early obsession with numbers, counting his steps as he circled the schoolyard during the daily half hour of exercise, working out mathematical problems on a slate. He thrilled to the adventures of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and read Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

At the age of fourteen, he was recruited by the Hudson's Bay Company.
The Hudson's Bay Company recruited David Thompson at age 14 to work as a clerk at a remote Canadian trading post. (As portrayed by Joe Dinicol in Canada: A People's History)
The Hudson's Bay Company recruited David Thompson at age 14 to work as a clerk at a remote Canadian trading post. (As portrayed by Joe Dinicol in Canada: A People's History)
He left London in May 1784. He would never return to England.

At Churchill on Hudson Bay, Thompson anticipated the kind of adventure he had read about in London, but instead found himself a shivering clerk enduring the rude surprise of a northern winter.

"The cold is so intense that everything in a manner is shivered by it... All our movements more or less were for self-preservation. All the wood that could be collected for fuel, gave us only one fire in the morning, and another in the evening. The rest of the day, if bad weather, we had to walk in the guard room with our heavy coats of dressed beaver," Thompson wrote.

To keep warm, he paced the way he had in the Grey Coat schoolyard. Instead of adventure he had the clerk's job of making lists of flannel, flint, gin, hardtack and hatchets, a numbing alphabetical inventory.

The summer provided little relief.
Hudson's Bay Company clerks were provided a hard bed in a small room at the isolated, dreary trading posts. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Hudson's Bay Company clerks were provided a hard bed in a small room at the isolated, dreary trading posts. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
"Summer, such as it is, comes at once, and with it myriads of tormenting Muskitoes; the air is thick with them, there is no cessation day nor night of suffering from them."

Despite the army of mosquitoes, summer was also a time when the trading posts came alive when flotillas of canoes arrived with the winter supply of furs. In the best years the native trappers and hunters unloaded more than 100,000 animal pelts. Clerks like David Thompson kept meticulous accounts of the goods the company traded with the natives. When trading began the beaver became the standard of currency.
One blanket cost seven pelts and a gun cost fourteen.

Like a number of men who were isolated, Thompson found God in the vast, unkind landscape of the New World, though few conversions were as dramatic as his.

"A strange incident (now) happened to me and which some[times] happens to mankind which brings with it a strong influence on their conduct for the rest of their lives. I was sitting at a small table with the chequer board before me, when the devil sat down... we began playing, played several games and he lost every game, kept his temper but looked more grave; at length he got up or rather disappeared. My eyes were open it was broad daylight, I looked around, all was silence and solitude, was it a dream or was it reality? I could not decide."

After this encounter, Thompson became a pious young man, and kept his faith until his death.
Despite infrequent moments of mysticism, Thompson's life was governed by rigorous science. The clerk's keen mind would soon lead him to a life of adventure and help open up a continent.

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Battle at Seven Oaks
David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
Life as a Hudson's Bay Clerk
Winter with a Native Elder
The Man Who Looks at Stars
Opportunity for Adventure
Overland to the Sea
Fading Star
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