David Thompson (1770-1857)

  • Barbara Belyea
Keywords: Biographies, Boundaries, Expeditions, Exploration, Explorers, Fur trade, History, Hudson's Bay Company, Inland water navigation, Mapping, Thompson, David, 1770-1857, British Columbia, Manitoba, North America, Ontario, Prairie Provinces

Abstract

David Thompson's cartographic achievement is still one of Canada's best-kept secrets, even though the maps of this patient and determined surveyor were the first accurate and complete representations of the country. That Thompson's work should have been ignored so long and so completely would appear to be due to the circumstances of its first reception - circumstances intimately bound up withepolitics and the fortunes of the fur trade in the early nineteenthecentury. ... Thompson was greatly impressed by Mackenzie's daring voyages beyond the Athabaska region to the Beaufort Sea and the west coast, .... Thompson also admired Vancouver's scrupulous surveys, and he resolved to chart the vast areas from Lake Winnipeg to the Pacific. ... More than ten years were to pass before Thompson arrived at the moutheof the Columbia River, in July 1811. During this time he solved the puzzle of theColumbia, which had left botheMackenzie and Fraser mystified, and charted the tortuous routes of the Pacific watershed from the source of the Columbia River to the Snake and Willamette rivers near its mouth. ... Negotiations to run the border through the Oregon Territory, explored as much by Thompson as by Lewis and Clark, prompted him to offer the information he had to the British side. As soon as he had time, he recalculated all his courses, reworked his observations, and drew new maps showing this area. A first set of maps sent to the Foreign Office in 1826 was followed by a second, covering a larger area, in 1843. They met withethe same complete indifference. Thompson then petitioned the Earl of Aberdeen, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. On the advice of Arrowsmith, Lord Aberdeen refused him all but a token remuneration. ... Historians subsequent neglect of Thompson's achievement as a surveyor and mapmaker may well originate in the combined indifference of Simpson, Arrowsmith, and Aberdeen. Official channels were closed to Thompson, bothein the fur trade and in the government, and as everyone knows, institutions and organizations write history, even that of individuals. Certainly there is irony in the fact that Thompson the narrator is more esteemed than Thompson the cartographer. ... He himself feared neglect of his life work and wrote of "the mass of scientific materials in my hands, of surveys, of astronomical observations, drawings of the countries, sketches and measurements of the Mountains &c &c &c, all soon to perish in oblivion." Fortunately, however, this "mass of scientific materials" has not perished: it is merely in eclipse, waiting in various archives for interest in Thompson to bring it to light.
Published
1987-01-01
Section
Arctic Profiles