Opportunity for Adventure
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David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
Opportunity for Adventure
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Opportunity for Adventure

In the late 1700's the former apprentice from the Charity School in London-with mathematical skills and an adventurous spirit - was a surveyor and explorer for the Hudson's Bay Company.

David Thompson kept meticulous notes and observations along the many trails, about the landscape, the vegetation and, especially, his partners in the fur trade - the peoples of the west.

"On becoming acquainted with the Indians I found almost every character in civilized society can be traced among them from the gravity of a judge to a merry jester, from open-hearted generosity to the avaricious miser," wrote Thompson.
David Thompson measured the latitude and longitude of every place he visited in the west and earned the native nickname "The Man who Looks at Stars".
David Thompson measured the latitude and longitude of every place he visited in the west and earned the native nickname "The Man who Looks at Stars".
But the trade with natives was turning vicious and ugly.

The amount of liquor traded more than doubled as competition between the Nor'Westers and the Baymen intensified. David Thompson was one of the few fur traders to break with convention.

"I made it a law to myself that no alcohol should pass the mountains in my company, and thus be clear of the sad sight of drunkenness in its many evils. But these gentlemen insisted upon alcohol being the most profitable article that could be taken for the Indian trade. In this I knew they had miscalculated," wrote Thompson.

Thompson had been with the Hudson's Bay Company for thirteen years and he was becoming frustrated and restless. While Nor'Westers like Alexander Mackenzie were achieving fame and great fortune, Thompson was ordered to stop surveying.
David Thompson was one of the few fur traders to break with convention and resist the trade in liquor with the natives. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
David Thompson was one of the few fur traders to break with convention and resist the trade in liquor with the natives. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
He was to return to Hudson Bay and focus on fur trading.

In 1797 he chose a different option.

"Tuesday. Set off... this day left the service of the Hudson's Bay Co. and entered that of the company of merchants from Canada. May God almighty prosper me," wrote Thompson.

He walked 80 miles in the snow to the nearest North West Company post. The Nor'Westers offered him more money - more opportunity - and they encouraged him to fill the missing portions of his emerging map of the northwest. Now, he felt, he was with the real adventurers.

"How very different the liberal and public spirit of this North West Co.
Thompson's travels
Thompson's travels
of merchants of Canada from the mean, selfish policy of the Hudson's Bay Co., styled honorable," wrote Thompson.

And so began his greatest years of exploring. David Thompson would continue his extraordinary western travels. Alexander Mackenzie once said that Thompson had accomplished more in ten months than he would have thought possible in two years.

In 1799, Thompson married a Mtis woman named Charlotte Small; he was 29, she was 13. He often took his wife and children along with him on his extended trips.

Thompson became the chief surveyor of the North West Company, traveling the unmapped plains with his family, making notes and consulting the stars. He surveyed the territory west of Lake Superior as well as the 49th parallel.
In his seventy-seven journals, he described the customs and beliefs of different Indians, and analyzed their language. The habits and diet of moose, deer, fox and field mice were noted. The nature of rivers was examined, their flow and idiosyncrasies. He mapped not just the geography of the space but what filled it as well, parsing the Great Plains into something Europeans could understand.

But David Thompson's most celebrated trip still lay before him.

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