Thompson, David
(1770-1857)

David Thompson was one of Canada’s most outstanding explorers. He explored widely during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, completing the first map of western Canada in 1826. During his career he travelled some ninety thousand kilometres (55,000 miles) by canoe, horse, and on foot. One of the world's great geographers, he was the first to map the main travel routes in western Canada and the northwestern United States.

He first saw the Canadian Rockies while travelling by canoe up the Bow River in 1787. He wrote that they, "came in sight like shining white clouds on the horizon. As we proceeded, they rose in height; their immense masses of snow appeared above the clouds forming an impassable barrier, even to an eagle."

In November of 1800, Duncan McGillivray and David Thompson rode south from the recently established Rocky Mountain House. They were members of the North West Company, furtraders in competition with the Hudson Bay Company. The mountains were, "everywhere covered with snow," and seemed to, "present and impenetrable bank." After passing the present site of the City of Calgary and travelling south to the Highwood River, they rode west up the Bow Valley as far what is now Mount McGillivray.

On November 30th, they decided to ascend a peak to determine the lay of the land but it is not clear exactly where they went. They described this ascent as steep with many small stones which gave way to more solid rock as they got higher, but this had sharp points, "like an enormous rasp" which cut our shoes, socks &c all to pieces in a trice." (Place of Bows -Hart) But it was late in the season and it was not practical to travel farther up the valley to search for a pass into the headwaters of the Columbia.

Lying at the head of the Howse River, just five kilometres beyond Mount David Thompson, Howse Pass was first crossed by David Thompson in 1807. (Actually Thompson had sent an advance party over the pass in 1806. Jacques Finlay, a man named MacMaster and two others travelled over the pass, cut a rough trail down the Blaeberry River side, and built two canoes for Thompson's use. They then returned to Rocky Mountain House and presented Thompson with a map showing where they had been.) (McCart)

Thompson's employers, the North West Company, had been anxious to find a practical route to the Pacific and China having determined that Alexander Mackenzie's 1793 route was impractical for trade. Thompson, together with James Hughes, had attempted to locate a pass through the mountains above Rocky Mountain House as early as the summer of 1801 but had been unsuccessful. The newly discovered pass was named for Joseph Howse, a Hudson Bay Company trader who crossed it three years later. Howse had been in charge of Carlton House, near present-day Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, from 1799 to 1809. Joseph Howse and David Thompson met in the Kootenay Plains in 1810. (McCart)

David Thompson was on his way to the pass again in 1810 and this time it was his intention to follow the waters on the western slopes to the mouth of the Columbia River. But when he reached Rocky Mountain House he found that Chief Big Bear of the Peigans was camped upstream. Having been defeated in battle by a group of Indians who had been using arms provided them by the white traders, the chief was angry. Thompson felt his life was in danger and retreated to seek another route through the Rockies. The discovery of Athabasca Pass resulted from these efforts and was heavily used by the fur traders for the next fifty years despite the fact that Howse Pass would have been a much easier route to the Columbia River. Howse Pass remained un-visited for another fifty years.

The first white man to cross Athabasca Pass was David Thompson of the North West Company in 1811. Thompson had travelled through Howse Pass in 1807 and, using it as a trade route, had established himself and his company with the Kootenay Indians in British Columbia. In the fall of 1810 he set out with a supply of trade goods to cross the pass but was blocked by a Peigan war party who objected to his trading with the Kootenays. Instead of retiring to Rocky Mountain House for the winter, Thompson set off with no trail, limited supplies, and the threat of being caught by hostile Indians to try to locate and take his goods though a yet to be discovered pass in the dead of winter.

Guided by "Thomas the Iroquois" and with thirteen men on snowshoes and eight dogsleds, Thompson passed below what is now Mount Edith Cavell in early January and began the 48 kilometre ascent to the headwaters of the Whirlpool River. He was well aware of the difficulties he faced. "My men were the most hardy that could be picked out of a hundred brave hardy men," he later wrote.

After six days of struggling though metres of fresh, wet snow they reached the treeline and, "The view now before us was an ascent of deep snow, in all appearance to the height of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans; it was to me an exhilarating sight, but to my uneducated men...the scene of desolation before us was dreadful." Thompson's epic struggle continued as he began to descend the west side of the pass where he wrote, "Part of my men had strong feelings of personal insecurity." However Thompson and his party persevered, reached the Columbia River and, on July 15th, the Pacific Ocean.

The pass became the main fur trade route across the Rockies for the next half century. With forty kilogram packs the ascent was always a challenge. One early traveller who crossed the pass in the summer counted 62 fords before reaching the summit. Gabriel Franchere traveled through the pass with the spring fur brigade of 1814. "We were obliged to stop every moment to take breath, so stiff was the ascend," he wrote. "After two or three hours of incredible exertions and fatigues, we arrived at the plateau or summit. On either side were immense glaciers or icebound rocks."

In his book, "The Columbia," Stewart Holbrook wrote of David Thompson, "The sea was his goal, God Almighty was his guide, and no matter that fur was his business, his love was to walk up and down and across the Canadian west, adding lakes, creeks, rivers, mountains, and passes through mountains to the maps."

[Door Jamb Mountain]

[see "Rocky Mountain House" by Fred Stenson]

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