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David Thompson, Almost Forgotten Explorer of Canada and North America

Athabaska Pass, Canada

Athabaska Pass, Canada

David Thompson  Canadian Explorer

David Thompson Canadian Explorer

Early Years of David Thompson

David Thompson was born in 1770 in London to David and Ann Thompson. His father died when he was very young, and due to financial problems, his mother had to place David and another brother in the care of the Grey Cook Hospital for underprivileged children. While there, David studied math, navigation, and surveying, where he excelled and graduated. Joining the Royal Navy, he received further schooling in math, trigonometry, geometry, and the use of nautical instruments. By 1784, at age 14, the Grey Coast paid the Hudson Bay Company five pounds for David to serve as an indentured servant for seven years as a clerk.

David would go on to become one of the greatest land geographers of the world. His life was hard, and he started in poverty, made many important discoveries, and mapped more of Canada and the northwest of America than anyone. Later in his life, he ended up ill and again in poverty but what he gave to Canada and the United States was immeasurable.

He would receive a high honor by the Canadian government and be named a NATIONAL HISTORIC PERSON in 1927.

David Thompson Monument

David Thompson Monument

Thompson Sails to North America

Sailing on May 1784 from London, David arrived in Manitoba, Canada, in September. For several years he worked in Saskatchewan and then in the Manchester House by 1787. He broke his tibia about this time, and while recuperating, he studied math, astronomy, and surveying under Phillip Turner. His indenture time was coming to an end, and instead of receiving the usual gift of clothing on departure, he requested surveying tools. He hired on with the Hudson Bay Company whereby 1794, he was promoted to a surveyor, and he worked there until 1797. Thompson discovered Athabasca Pass, a mountain pass between Alberta and British Columbia. His maps were so accurate they would be used for over one hundred years.

David was determined to be a surveyor, not just a fur trader, so he left Hudson Bay Company and walked eighty miles to the North West Fur Company. Immediately he was hired and tasked to survey the boundary along the water route from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. In 1804 the company made him a full partner. Sometime in 1806, he was sent to find a route to the Pacific Ocean to open trading in the northwest. Crossing the Rocky Mountains in 1807, he explored and mapped the Columbia River basin.

And David successfully explored and mapped over 1.5 million miles, and he did this by horse, canoe, dog sled, and on foot. One of the maps David made was given to the North West Company in 1814 and is now housed in Ontario, Canada. The map covered 1.5 million miles.

Thompson's Map of Exploration

Thompson's Map of Exploration

Thompson and the Columbia River

During the year 1799 David married Charlotte Small, a thirteen year old Metis, daughter of a Scottish fur trader and a Cree mother. Together they would have thirteen kids and remain married for 57 years. Charlotte proved to be invaluable to David. She was able to speak the language with the natives and traveled with David even with the children. David was called Koo-Koo-Sint or 'Stargazer' by the natives.

One of David's biggest contributions was his exploration and mapping the entire length of the Columbia River. He was the first to explore the Columbia. David had spent 34 years exploring and mapping.

Columbia River

Columbia River

Columbia River

Columbia River

Monument at Verendrye, North Dakota

Monument at Verendrye, North Dakota

The Monument in North Dakota

On land donated by the Great Northern Railroad Company and the monument was dedicated 7/17/1923 with the following inscription:

  • 1770 DAVID THOMPSON 1857
  • Oceanographer and Astronometer
  • Passed here 1797 and 1798 on a scientific expedition and made the first map of North Dakota

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David Thompson's Later Life

After years of exploring and mapping, David and his wife retired to Quebec. His sight was failing, and he was unable to finish his memoirs from his 77 notebooks. It was J.B. Tyrrell who reconstructed his notes in the book David Thompson's Narrative. Authors Rock Glover in 1971 and Victor Hopewood William Moreau.

David died in 1857, Quebec, Canada,

and buried in an unmarked grave until, in 1926, efforts by J.B. Tyrrell and the Canadian Historical Society placed a headstone on his grave in the Montreal Mt. Royal Cemetery.

Named after David Thompson:

  • David Thompson Highway, Alberta
  • David Thompson High School, Alberta
  • Thompson Falls, Blaeberry River
  • Parks Canada named their new research ship, RV DAVID THOMPSON
  • Thompson Rover, British Columbia
Thompson Stamp

Thompson Stamp

Thompson Sogn

Thompson Sogn


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 30, 2021:

Alicia, thanks for your visit. I sincerely appreciate itr.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 27, 2021:

Eurofile, thanks so much for reading. I agree he made important contributions. He certainly was remarkable.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 23, 2021:

This is a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing all the information, Fran. It sounds like David Thompson made great use of his life.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 23, 2021:

Peggy, thanks for visiting. Agree with your comments.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 23, 2021:

What an amazing life David Thompson lead! Thanks for informing us about his important work in mapping out many places in North America and Canada. The fact of his wife and many children traveling with him is fascinating. They must have had many stories to tell!

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 23, 2021:

Thanks, Pam, I appreciate your visit.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 23, 2021:

This is such an interesting article about David Thompson, Fran. He had an amazing career and accomplished so much. Thanks so much for all this information that was new to me.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on April 23, 2021:

Very nice.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 23, 2021:

Eurofile, thanks for visiting. I agree with you, he was quite an explorer and mapmaker.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 23, 2021:

This is a fascinating account of Thompson's life. I had heard the name before, but I had no idea that he had made such a great contribution to mapping in Canada and North America.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 23, 2021:

This is a very interesting account as I like to read about Explorers. I am reminded of two Indians Chain Singh and Nain Singh who explored Tibet in the 19 century and one can just imagine how difficult it would have been. I hadn't read about David Thompson and it was nice reading about him.

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