Little known explorer claimed Washington State for England

Time Before Now, July 1811 –  In a warm-up to the War of 1812, President James Madison cut off trade with Great Britain.  Europe’s most famous musician, Ludwig von Beethoven, was in Czechoslovakia recovering from a serious undiagnosed illness and Jane Austin completed “Sense and Sensibility,” the first of her six major novels.  Hollywood made way more money on the book than Austin.   The 1995 movie grossed $135 million and won actress Emma Thompson an Oscar for her adapted screenplay of Austin’s work.

July 9, 1811

On this day David Thompson, perhaps the most famous Canadian explorer you never heard of, staked a claim for Great Britain on a big chunk of America’s Pacific Northwest.  But even Canadians aren’t sure whether to count him as an explorer or a trailblazer.

What gets Thompson (right) into the record books was his journey as the first European to navigate the entire 1,243 miles of the Columbia River.  He stopped long enough at the mouth of Washington’s Snake River to plant the Union Jack for Mother England and the British fur trade five years after the Lewis and Clark expedition. (Right)

While not everyone agrees on whether Thompson actually found his way into territory nobody had discovered, he was unparalleled as a geographer and map maker.  Called “Stargazer” by the native people, he successfully mapped routes long established by the tribes into the isolated Canadian out back. 

Between 1797 and 1815, Thompson charted nearly two million square miles of North American wilderness, traveling some 56,000 miles, dwarfing the 3,600 miles covered by Lewis and Clark.  So accurate were his maps, they have been considered accurate well into the 20th Century.

Born in 1770, the orphaned son of an impoverished Welsh immigrant family, Thompson at age seven and his older brother, were placed in London’s Gray Coat Hospital.  A foundling school started by a Westminster congregation of the Church of England, Gray Coat was more than 70 years old by the time the Thompson brothers arrived.  Begun in 1698, their mission was to educate “… the Greatest Object of Charity (the orphans and neglected children)” in the Christian religion, reading, writing and “cast Accounts” before “binding them [as] apprentices to honest trades.”

London’s Gray Coat Hospital in 1782

Graduating from Gray Coat in 1784, Thompson had learned the basics of navigational mathematics.  Apparently the school considered the fur trade honest employment and apprenticed him for seven years to the Hudson’s Bay Company.  He arrived in Churchill, Manitoba, completely alone at the tender age of 14. 

At first put to work copying the personal papers of Samuel Hearne, (left) naturalist, author and  governor of Fort Churchill.  Eventually he was transferred to the wilds of Cumberland House in Saskatchewan’s northeast interior.  Founded by Hearne in 1774, it’s Canada’s oldest surviving settler community.

Advancing to a position of fur trader in the course of his apprenticeship, Thompson asked for a set of survey tools instead of the usual suit of new clothes given departing interns.  The company quickly obliged and kept him on, promoting him to surveyor.

In a harrowing episode in 1797, however, Thompson left Hudson Bay, hiking 80 miles through the snow to the headquarters of its competitor, the North West Company.  Increasingly unhappy with his employers for encouraging the use of alcohol among the native people, his defection without the customary year’s notice made Hudson’s Bay equally unhappy with Thompson.

North West Company fur post, circa early 1800s

The North West Company was, however, delighted with him.   Eager to support his interest in surveying, he was sent off to chart Canada’s interior and then south to map the U.S.-Canadian border region following the Jay Treaty.  

At 29, Thompson married 13-year-old Charlotte Small, Métis daughter of a Scottish fur trader and a Cree mother.  Unlike the common marriages of convenience between traders and native women, the couple remained together for 58 years and had 13 children, 11 living into adulthood.  Theirs is believed to be the longest marriage in Canada prior to 1867, the date of Canadian Confederation.

Traveling together as a family while Thompson surveyed and made maps, Charlotte, like Sacajawea, logged more wilderness miles than any other woman of her time. “My lovely Wife,” wrote David, “is of the blood of these people, speaking their language, and well educated in the English language; which gives me great advantage.”

Despite his success as a surveyor and map maker, he was less successful as a retiree.  A series of financial misfortunes led Thompson into insolvency and he was forced to move in with a daughter and son-in-law.  

Thompson died in obscurity on February 10, 1857, in Montreal at the age of 87.  Having lost his sight six years before his death, his book based on his 77 field notebooks from his nearly 30 years in the fur trade, was left unfinished.  Charlotte died just three months later, on May 4, at 72. 

All was not lost, however.  Canadian geologist, cartographer and accidental archeologist, J. B. Tyrell (right)  rescued Thompson’s legacy and published his notes in a 1916 volume entitled “David Thompson’s Narrative” for the Champlain Society. 

Tyrell  is guaranteed to not suffer the same fate.  Canada’s Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta was named in his honor after he discovered Albertosaurus sarcophagus dinosaur  bones there in 1884.   In addition, after retiring to Scarborough, he studied grafting and breeding in his large apple orchard.  He died in 1957 but his expanded orchards became the site for the Toronto Zoo.

London’s Gray Coat is still in operation, as well.  After surviving several “head master” scandals, it has served as day school for girls since 1874.  The school finally honored Thompson’s accomplishments with a plaque in 2007, more than 120 years after he left.  And the Canadian Government got around to issuing a postage stamp in Thompson’s honor on the 100th anniversary of his death, as well as christening the David Thompson Highway in Alberta. 

Left, sculpture at U.S. border and Invermere, B.C.

A monument dedicated to Thompson stands on the U.S. side of the border near the ghost town of Verendrye, North Dakota, two miles from present day Karlsruhe.   A statue of Thompson and his beloved Charlotte is located in Invermere, British Columbia.  It bears the simple inscription, “The man who measured Canada.”

Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail needs to go on hikers and bikers “to do” list. Most of the trails are temporarily closed.   When restrictions are lifted, visitors can explore a portion of David Thompson’s travels, westbound  on the one-mile portion  crossing Tanner Creek, past scenic overlooks, across Moffett Creek Bridge to John Yeon State Park, home to the 213-foot Elowah Falls. (Right)   

For more ambitious trekkers, the four-mile eastbound trail eases its way up to the Bridge of the Gods Trailhead.  Trails are generally open year round.  In the meantime, arm chair explorers can find Oregon Department of Transportation trail videos on YouTube.  For more information go to a park or call toll free 800 551-6949.  

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain. 

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.