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The Man That Looks At Stars

For the week of Monday April 26, 2004

On April 30, 1770, David Thompson was born in London, England. Thompson's experiences in Western Canada earned him the title of the greatest 19th century explorer in North America.

In May 1784, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) recruited a young David Thompson to travel to Canada to work as an apprentice and clerk. Thompson immediately set sail for Hudson Bay, never to see England again. His work often sent him to the interior where he quickly learned to live, travel and trade in Aboriginal lands. An unfortunate accident four years later sent him in a new direction. A broken leg changed his life and career. It forced him to remain indoors where he studied under Philip Turnor, the company's surveyor, and learned the astronomical techniques of surveying.

David Thompson taking an observation with a sextant
© Library and Archives Canada / C-073573
After his apprenticeship ended, Thompson travelled throughout what is today northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba trading and surveying the land. In 1797, seeking greater adventure and greater respect for his surveying skills, he left HBC to join their rival, the Northwest Company (NWC) as a surveyor and trader. He completed mapping the fur-trading territories east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as the Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Columbia rivers. Thompson followed the routes established by First Nations peoples, gaining the respect and co-operation of those he encountered. The Salish-Flathead people named him Koo-Koo-Sint or "Star Gazer"  since he took astronomical observations at the end of every day.

View of the Rocky Mountains from the Columbia River
© Library and Archives Canada / C-026348
In 1807, David Thompson crossed the mountains via Howse Pass and established Kootenai House anchoring the trans-mountain fur trade. A year after abandoning the Howse Pass in 1810, Thompson and his party crossed the mountains by Athabasca Pass, travelled down the Kootenay River to the mouth of the Columbia only to find the Pacific Fur Company already there. He was the first non-native person to travel the entire length of the Columbia River. In his lifetime, Thompson charted and mapped the western wilderness including almost 2.59 million square kilometres of today's Canada! His maps became the basis for all future maps of Western Canada. His narratives of his western travels at the time of first contact have provided insight for generations of historians.

David Thompson died penniless in 1857 in Montréal without witnessing his own fame. For his role as Canada's greatest explorer and for creating the first map of western Canada, David Thompson was designated a person of national historical significance.

To learn more about David Thompson's adventures in western Canada, please read the following story from the This Week In History Archives: "Good Fire" and "Bad Fire" Cross The Mountains

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