Overland to the Sea
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David Thompson - Mapping a Continent
Overland to the Sea
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Overland to the Sea

By 1810 David Thompson had built North West Company trade posts and pioneered routes deep into the Rocky Mountains but his most celebrated trip still lay ahead.
Attempting to reach the Pacific Ocean, David Thompson struggled through the Athabasca Pass in the Rocky Mountains during the winter of 1810-1811. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Attempting to reach the Pacific Ocean, David Thompson struggled through the Athabasca Pass in the Rocky Mountains during the winter of 1810-1811. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Thompson was about to go on leave when he received new orders - to head to the Pacific Ocean. The North West Company wanted him to find a convenient route to the Pacific, to open up trade with the coastal natives and to establish trade with China.

It was not welcome news for a surveyor who had been hoping to return to civilization for the first time in 25 years.

"The critical situation of our affairs in the Columbia obliged me to return. I am getting tired of such constant hard journeys For the last 20 months I have spent only bare two months under the shelter of a hut, all the rest has been in my tent, and there is little likelihood the next 12 months will be much otherwise," wrote Thompson

But this was a time of heightened competition; the Hudson's Bay Company had 242 trading posts across the west and the North Westers 342.
On his journey down the Columbia River in 1811, David Thompson claimed the territory for Britain and the North West Company with a proclamation tied to a small pole. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
On his journey down the Columbia River in 1811, David Thompson claimed the territory for Britain and the North West Company with a proclamation tied to a small pole. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
There weren't enough beaver to support both companies and they relentlessly pushed their territories to the north and to the west, looking to exploit the land west of the Rockies, looking for a route to the Pacific that was more practical than Alexander Mackenzie's tortured path.

Added to that was pressure from the south as Americans competitors headed to the Pacific. John Jacob Astor, a powerful American businessman, planned to build a trading post at the mouth of the mightiest river leading into the Pacific - the Columbia. Astor's ship The Tonquin set sail from New York City, on a voyage around Cape Horn to the Columbia River.

David Thompson was sent overland to secure the Nor'Wester interests along the Columbia.
By the time he arrived at the Pacific Ocean in 1811, David Thompson had charted most of the Canadian west.
By the time he arrived at the Pacific Ocean in 1811, David Thompson had charted most of the Canadian west.
Trouble began almost immediately. When Thompson ventured into the Rocky Mountain foothills, he encountered hostility from his old friends the Peigan because the North West Company had supplied guns to their traditional enemy, the Flathead. The Peigan pursued Thompson and eventually blocked his way through the mountains.

Thompson and his party were forced to make a detour 600 miles north toward the Athabasca River - into territory he had never charted.

It was a two-month detour through an avalanche zone. The horses they had brought were useless and had to be abandoned. The temperature dropped to 30 below zero and there was seven feet of snow.

While Thompson struggled in the Athabasca Pass - the Tonquin rounded Cape Horn.
It was now only a matter of weeks before John Jacob Astor's men would reach the Columbia. Thompson was now two months on the trail.

"January 9th, Hauling very bad. The weather so mild that the snow is dropping from the trees and every thing wet. We could proceed only about four miles...The snow is full seven feet deep...the dogs often sunk in it, but our snow shoes did [not] sink more than three inches," Thompson wrote.

No matter what hardships his men endured during the day, every clear evening David Thompson would take mathematical readings. While inching across the mountains, The Man Who Looks at Stars was studying infinity and precisely charting his journey.

His men were less enraptured; all but three deserted.

Once across the mountains, Thompson made camp and waited for winter to end.

In the spring, the resourceful Thompson made a cedar canoe and explored the upper Columbia River, the first European to do so.
He made contact with the Simpoil, Nespelim, Methow and Wenatchee Indians, telling them about the trading opportunities with the North West Company.

And in 1811, he made it to the coast only to find that the natives were already trading with the Americans who had arrived by sea.

Still Thompson's journey was a personal triumph. Through his efforts, the interior of what is now British Columbia was claimed for the North West Company.
Thompson had also found a viable trade route, the Athabasca Pass, that would be used by fur traders for half a century.

And he had reached the Pacific Ocean.

"Thus I have fully completed the survey of this part of North America from seas to sea," he wrote.

It was Thompson's last heroic trip; he had charted almost all the unknown areas of the west. "The age of guessing is passed away," he wrote.

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