Winter with a Native Elder
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David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
Winter with a Native Elder
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Winter with a Native Elder

From his inauspicious beginnings as a Hudson's Bay Company clerk, David Thompson soon entered a life of adventure in the Canadian wilderness.
Gordon Tootoosis portrays a Peigan elder named Saukamapee in Canada: A People's History.
Gordon Tootoosis portrays a Peigan elder named Saukamapee in Canada: A People's History.
His first glimpse of the vast interior came three years after arriving in Canada. Thompson was sent west with a group of men to build HBC posts and to establish trade in the foothills of Rockies.

For more than two months they paddled and walked, and Thompson got his first glimpse of the land where he would spend the next 25 years.

"At length the Rocky Mountains came in sight, like shining white clouds on the horizon," he wrote." As we proceeded, they rose in height, their immense masses of snow appeared above the clouds and formed an impassable barrier, even to the eagle."

As the group reached the Rocky Mountain foothills, Thompson was struck by the sight of a thriving native community of buffalo hunters - thousands of Peigan natives camped in a sprawling city of tents.

The seventeen year-old Thompson spent the winter in the tent of Saukamapee, a Peigan elder, learning the language and listening to his stories.

"Almost every evening for the time of four months, I sat and listened to the old man without being in the least tired...
A native elder told the story of a Peigan war party encountering an enemy encampment infected with small pox. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
A native elder told the story of a Peigan war party encountering an enemy encampment infected with small pox. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
the habits, customs and manners, politics and religion, such as it was, anecdotes of Indian chiefs, and their means of their gaining influence in war and peace, that I always found something to interest me," Thompson wrote.

One of the stories Saukamapee told described the first tragic effects of contact with the Europeans.

A Peigan scouting party had returned with news about a large enemy camp, which suspiciously seemed deserted.
The scouts suspected a trap but the Peigan attacked anyway.

"With our sharp, flat daggers and knives, (we) cut through the tents and entered for the fight. But our war whoop instantly stopped, our eyes were appled with terror. There was no one to fight with but the dead and dying..." Saukamapee said.

It was smallpox. The Peigan, who had never seen the disease before, stripped the dead of their infected possessions and went home, carrying the virus with them.

"The second day after, this dreadful disease broke out in our camp, and spread from one tent to another, as if the bad spirit carried it," Saukamapee said.
"We had no belief that one man could give it to another, any more than a wounded man could give his wound to another... We believed that the good Spirit had forsaken us, and allowed the Bad Spirit to become our master... Our hearts were low and dejected, and we shall never be again the same people."

A third of Saukamapee's people died of the smallpox they contracted. In the 1700s, waves of smallpox epidemics brought by unsuspecting European traders killed half the native peoples across the west.

David Thompson soon joined the ranks of men who would survey the west and hasten the onslaught of European settlement.

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