The Man Who Looks at Stars
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David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
The Man Who Looks at Stars
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The Man Who Looks at Stars

Four years after he arrived in Canada, David Thompson's began his work as a geographer and mapmaker when fate and opportunity collided.

In 1778, two days before Christmas, the Hudson's Bay Company clerk had an accident.

"On coming down a rude steep bank, I fell and broke the large bone of my right leg, and had to be hauled home, which by the mercy of God, turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me," wrote Thompson.

As the boy's shattered leg slowly healed, Phillip Turnor, the HBC's chief surveyor, began teaching Thompson the art and science of surveying.

"Mr.
Phillip Turnor, the Hudson's Bay Company chief surveyor, taught David Thompson the art and science of surveying in the late 1770s. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Phillip Turnor, the Hudson's Bay Company chief surveyor, taught David Thompson the art and science of surveying in the late 1770s. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Turnor was well versed in mathematics... Under him I regained my mathematical education, and during the winter became his only assistant, and thus learned practical astronomy under an excellent master of the science," wrote Thompson.

Surveying was the key to mapmaking - and mapmaking was the key that would unlock the continent. Thompson thrived on its rigorous discipline.

"The mean of the foregoing observations places Cumberland House in Latitude 53 degrees 56 point 44 north. Longitude 102 point 13 west of Greenwich and the Variations of the Transit of the Sun and a well regulated watch is 11 degrees 30 East" wrote Thompson.

Astronomy so consumed him that he sometimes ignored his well-being - to temporary distress.

"By too much attention to calculations in the night, with no other light than a small candle my right eye became so much inflamed that I lost its sight..." wrote Thompson At the end of this protracted apprenticeship, Thompson was half-blind but eager.
At the completion of his Hudson's Bay apprenticeship, David Thompson requested a set of surveying tools instead of the customary suit of clothes. He received both. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
At the completion of his Hudson's Bay apprenticeship, David Thompson requested a set of surveying tools instead of the customary suit of clothes. He received both. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
He wrote the HBC in London that instead of the suit of clothes, which they regularly gave employees who had finished their apprenticeship, he would prefer a set of surveying instruments. The HBC, who recognized Thompson's talent, sent him both.

For the next 20 years he measured the latitude and longitude of every place he visited; the Indians called him The Man Who Looks at Stars.

"Both Canadians and Indians often inquired of me why I observed the sun, and sometimes the moon, in the daytime, and passed whole nights with my instruments looking at the moon and stars.
I told them it was to determine the distance and direction from the place I observed to other places. Neither the Canadians or the Indians believed me, for both argued that if what I said was truth, I ought to look to the ground, and over it, and not to the stars."

David Thompson would become recognized as one of the greatest mapmakers and geographers in the history of North America.

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