History & Culture
Take a walk along the lakeshore in the Hamlet of Lac La Biche and see the David Thompson Statue. The statue was built to commemorate David Thompson's landing on this lakeshore back in 1798. In addition to this point of interest you will also find a network of trails.
David Thompson Explorer & Mapmaker David G Anderson
He has been called the world's greatest land geographer. Certainly no man of his time saw the rivers, islands and peoples of the western reaches of our continent with a vision so clear. His precision maps remained the official maps of western Canada for a hundred years and his perceptive writings have enabled us to see the aboriginal peoples of the early fur trade and to know the ways of a world long since vanished. Yet, less than a hundred years ago, his name was known only to a few. Even today, there is no known portrait of David Thompson and we remain unable to picture him other than by dwelling on his known similarity to two other historical figures: John Bunyan and John Philpot Curran.
For more information on the route visit http://www.cauc.ca/voyagetothebay/index.htm
A Welsh boy at Hudson's Bay
In 1784, as a 14-year-old Welsh boy in London's Grey Coat charity school, David Thompson accepted an apprenticeship with the Hudson's Bay Company to learn inland surveying at the remote fur trade posts of Hudson's Bay. After working under men such as Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, his real lifework began when, at the age of 27, he went over to the rival Montreal-based North West Company. At Ile-a-la-Crosse (Saskatchewan) he married Charlotte Small, a 14-year-old Cree-Scots mixed blood girl who bore him 13 children (five in the wilderness) and remained his closest companion throughout his life.
His three challenges
He was charged with three duties in addition to establishing trade with the Indians: to locate and map the Company's posts astronomically, to determine the source of the Mississippi River, and to gather large fossil bones. In the first two duties, he succeeded in a way that no other man could have surpassed. The third duty of finding large fossil bones was ironically fulfilled one hundred years later by David Thompson's biographer, J.B Tyrrell of the Canadian Geological Survey, who was the first to discover dinosaur bones in western Canada near what is now the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.
He sought the Northwest Passage by land
The three great explorers of the North West Company were Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson. They were all guided by the vision that dominates western exploration since John Cabot: the discovery of a trade route through North America to China. In this search, David Thompson was the first white man to explore and survey the Columbia River from its source in the Alberta Rockies to Oregon. The Columbia was truly Thompson's River and was later named in his honour. One of the great disappointments of his life was the ceding of the Pacific Northwest (Washington State, Northern Idaho and Montana) to the United States. In Thompson's own words: "I have always admired the formations of the rivers, as directed by the finger of God for the most benevolent purposes."
More than a land surveyor
In the course of his lifetime Thompson surveyed the prodigious extent of 80,000 miles of wilderness, mapping the trade routes of the North West Company and fixing the positions of their fur trade posts with a precision unrivalled even one hundred years later. For all that, he was more than a surveyor of the land -- for he possessed the power of the astronomer to locate and fix a point on the earth by calculations based on the location of the sun and stars. From the Indians he gained the name "Koo Koo Sint" (the stargazer) since he habitually did astronomical observations at the end of the twenty-hour fur trader's day. He made nothing of the fact that he had the sight of only one eye since the age of 29.
Made Lewis and Clark "look like tourists"
In the penetrating detail of the narrative based on his field journals, David Thompson anticipated our modern-day interest in the culture and habits of our aboriginal peoples and resisted the trade in liquor, which he felt demeaned both the sellers and buyers. His travels, in the words of a recent writer to National Geographic, "made Lewis and Clark look like tourists." His unceasing desire to interpret and understand the new world showed the scientific attitude and vision of a modern man. In his words, "the age of guessing is passed away and the traveler is expected to give his reasons for what he asserts." His stubborn honesty was strengthened by a steadfast and earnest devotion to his simple religious principles. At the day's end, surrounded by his loyal voyageurs, he read the Bible to them in what must have been Welsh-accented French.
His last days
His retirement to the Highland settlement of Glengarry in Eastern Ontario began in Prosperity at the age of forty-five, surrounded by former friends and partners from the North West Company, but ended twenty years later with heavy losses in land mortgages and other enterprises. Despite this, he later spoke of his farm in Williamstown as "the twenty happiest years of my life." It was there that he defined the exact location of the US-Canada international boundary following the settlement of the War if 1812 and surveyed "the boundary between the two Canada's" but in the end it was as if the vision that had made him one of the founders of western Canada finally failed him. He and Charlotte moved to Montreal and then to nearby Longueuil to live with his daughter's family, the Landells. During this period he surveyed the Muskoka region, then around Montreal and Eastern Townships. He wrote over forty articles for the Montreal newspapers and worked on the writings of his travel narrative, which was only published in 1916. Finally, an old man with snow white hair, nearly blind, and bereft of his fortune, he died at the age of 87 and was buried at Montreal on Mont Royal. His beloved Charlotte died three months later. It was said that he died a pauper, but his daughter later objected to the use of this term to describe a man whose last years were spent in the comfortable house of the Landells.
Where do we look for him?
In monuments at Bonner's Ferry, Idaho and Lake Windermere, B.C. and at Lac La Biche, Alberta. Or in the townhouse in old Terrebonne, Quebec, where he spent two years during the War of 1812 drafting the great map of the western posts. In the fine Georgian house, still lived in and scarcely altered, on the canoe bank of the Raisin River in the village of Williamstown, Glengarry County, Ontario, where he and Charlotte Small raised their family of ten. In one of the three remaining "mansions briques" of the Grand Trunk Railroad terminus in Longueuil, Quebec, where he and Charlotte lived their last years. And finally, in the Landell family plot at the Montreal Protestant Cemetery where a sculpted Grecian column, originally surmounted by a brass sextant, commemorates the life of Canada's greatest geographer.