We were introduced to David Thompson in the most recent Ponderings. His story began with his birth April 30, 1770, in Westminster, England. Of humble beginnings, frail, and orphaned, he received his early education at Grey Coat Hospital, a strict boarding school “designed to educate poor children in piety and virtue”.
In his early teens, he caught the attention of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), who found him suitable to apprentice in their fur-trading business. To set him on his way, the company posted him, at age 14, to Churchill Factory on Hudson’s Bay. His position was, essentially, that of a clerk. His first task – transcribe the Coppermine River journey manuscript of Samuel Hearne, explorer, fur trader, author and naturalist.
Not content with copying another person’s work and keeping accounts and records and calculating the value of furs, Thompson had ambitious plans to conduct his own explorations, the seed having been planted during his time at Grey Coat Hospital school, where mathematics and surveying was part of the curriculum he enjoyed. Consequently, when HBC offered clothing at the end of his seven-year apprenticeship, he declined. Instead, he requested and received a brass sextant, and other navigation instruments with which he would “shoot” stars to determine positions of lakes, rivers, and trading posts on his agenda. In the end, he received both the new clothes and the surveying tools.
While a broken leg, which left him with a limp, put him out of commission, he spent his recovery improving his math, surveying and astronomy skills with tutor Philip Turnor, an accomplished HBC surveyor, at Cumberland. Turnor was credited with laying “the permanent Foundation for the Geography of that part of the Globe [interior parts of North America – Canada]”. This was about the time Thompson lost the sight of his right eye. Some say it was from time spent observing the sun and the stars.
By 1792, the same year explorer Alexander Mackenzie overwintered at Fort Fork, approximately15 miles upstream from the town of Peace River, to set off in May 1793 for the Pacific, Thompson performed in his fur-trader role. This year, he also completed his first significant survey – mapping a route to Lake Athabasca – the site of the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Having proved his map-making and surveying skills, the HBC in 1794, recognized his accomplishments and promoted him to Surveyor.
By 1795, Thompson was named Master to the Northward. Along with the title came the responsibility to successfully manage the company’s fur trade – a responsibility he didn’t want. Rather, he wanted to remain a surveyor. Coincidentally, the North West Company wanted his surveying skills for their purposes. Although competitors in the fur trade business, Thompson and the NWC’s Simon Fraser developed a friendship which resulted in wooing him to the competition.
He left the employ of the HBC May 8, 1797, age 27, to take his skills and his passion for surveying to aggressive fur-trading competitor North West Company (NWC) for whom Alexander Mackenzie, famous for his sea-to-sea-to sea explorations and his time at Fort Fork, once was employed. “The North West Company welcomed him with open arms” on his arrival at Grande Portage – company headquarters – a month and a half after leaving the HBC. According to sources, the HBC, which had invested time, energy and resources in Thompson and for whom it had high hopes, was not amused. Peter C. Newman, in History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, suggests Thompson was fired by the HBC, after years of service, for spending too much time shooting the sun instead of trading pelts. The fact he was known as “Stargazer” and “Philosopher” probably did not help his continued employment, although those monikers, attributed to First Nations people, may have come later. That, and his failure to provide the required one year’s notice, must have added to the company’s annoyance.
The year he became a NWC surveyor/mapper, the company sent him south to survey part of the Canada-United States boundary along water routes from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. This, to “satisfy unresolved questions of territory arising from the Jay Treaty” – a 1794 treaty between Great Britain and the United States “that averted war, resolved issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolutionary War …”
In 1798, after he had completed a 4,190-mile survey from Grande Portage, through Lake Winnipeg to headwaters of Assiniboine and Mississippi rivers and two sides of Lake Superior, the company sent him to what is now Lac La Biche to establish a trading post. For the next two trading seasons he was based at Fort George on the North Saskatchewan River, near Elk Point, from which he led several expeditions into the Rocky Mountains.
In 1799, Thompson was at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sakitawak), now a northern village in northwestern Saskatchewan – second oldest community in the province, where Patrick Small, a NWC partner had established a company trading post. Here he met Charlotte, Patrick’s daughter, born September 1, 1785, who along with her unidentified Métis mother, Patrick had left behind when he returned to Scotland. This abandonment was not unusual. “Unlike European women ‘country wives’ [a la façon du pays] were accustomed to harsh elements and knew how to survive in the wild. A union also created an alliance with the women’s Native family, and she could translate and trade on her husband’s behalf.”
June 10, 1799, David Thompson and Charlotte Small married – he 29 – she13. Thompson wrote in his journal: “Today wed Charlotte Small”. Recognition of the marriage and Charlotte’s name is noteworthy. The marriage ceremony, as one can imagine, simple – no formal ceremony, nor documents required. “In the ‘country’, was plainly stated: an exchange of gifts or goods might. take place, and the couple moved in together.” While David continued with his assignments, Charlotte left behind her family – mother, brother and sister – and the only home she had known.
Unlike many such marriages between a European man and an indigenous woman, we are told this one was not only one of convenience and practicality, but one of affection, if not love. David wrote of Charlotte: “My lovely wife is of the blood of these people, speaking their language and well-educated in the English language, which gives me a great advantage.” This was evident as Charlotte accompanied David on many of his excursions. She spoke not only French and Cree, but also was able to decipher related dialects of the tribes they met along the way. “She moved easily among them and was more readily trusted, for although her father was a lowland Scot, Charlotte’s appearance was that of her mother’s people. Her grandson, William Scott, described her as a “about five feet tall, active and wiry, with black eyes and skin almost copper-coloured.”
The Indigenous people whom the fur traders encountered tended to be helpful in many ways, making the fur traders time in unfamiliar territory more pleasant than it might otherwise have been. Of great value were the women, who acted as language interpreters, providers of food and clothing and negotiators.
In the next Pondering, we will accompany David and Charlotte Thompson as they discover more of Western Canada.
Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.
Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929; Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton; Record-Gazette; Edmonton Journal, June 6, 1936; New York Sun; Alberta Dental Association Updater, October 1997; Archives Canada; Answering God’s Call, Rolland C. Smith; Joseph Cardinal, Feb. 26, 2009; Don Weaver; Alliance Review; Métis Archives; Portrayal of Our Métis Heritage by J. Overvold; Land of Hope and Dreams; Bricks Hill, Berwyn and Beyond; Peace River Record, April 25, 1946; Delayed Frontier, Lure of the Peace and The Last Great West by David Leonard; I Remember Peace River, Alberta and Adjacent Districts, 1800s-1913; Land of Twelve Foot Davis by McGregor); Turning the Pages of Time, History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Colourful Historic Pioneers of Peace River by Muriel Oslie; Western Producer, June 24, 1976; Seventh Day Adventist website; Ribbons of Steel, Ena Schneider; Edmonton Journal, Nov.20, 2011; Singing Wires, Tony Cashman) Myron Momryk, retired archivist, Library and Archives Canada; Peace River Record-Gazette; Saga of Battle River, We came … We stayed; Canadians Visit Our Northern Neighbours, published by Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society; MacEwan University Web site; The Peace River Country Canada, Its Resources and Opportunities; Laying Down the Lines, Judy Lamour; Land Surveyors Web site; Identification of Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Fort Fork, F.W. Howay