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The Biography of David Thompson

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David thompson, explorer, cartographer(born in 30 April 1770 in London, England; 10 February 1857 Longueuil, Canada east).Early lifeThompson attended the Grey Coat Hospital in London, a school for the poor and orphaned. He was recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company when he was 14 and in 1784 he sailed to what is now Churchill, Manitoba, to work as an apprentice in the fur-trading business.

He had an experience that would change his life forever. In his journal, he describes how the devil came into his room and started playing checkers with him he describes the situation. “I was sitting at a small table with the chequer board before me, when the devil sat down opposite to me, his features and colour were those of a Spaniard, he had two short black horns on his forehead which pointed forwards; his head and body down to his waist (I saw no more) was covered with glossy black curling hair…” They played and the devil lost every game. “He got up or rather disappeared. My eyes were open it was broad daylight, I looked around, all was silence and solitude, was it a dream or was it reality? I could not decide.”Whichever it was, the experience changed him. He remained a devout Christian throughout his life.

Map-Making and Exploration

Thompson learned astronomy and mathematics and spent so much time examining the sun and stars that he lost his sight in one eye. He broke his leg and it healed badly and he had a limp for the rest of his life. Yet this one-eyed, limping man mapped more territory than any other European. He surveyed the territory west of Lake Superior and the 49th parallel, which eventually became the dividing line between Canada and the United States. He mapped the north and paddled to the west coast. He mapped not only the land but also the cultural and religious practices of its inhabitants. His journals (which numbered hundreds of pages) and his maps provided the most complete record of a territory that was more than 3.9 million square km and contained dozens of different First Nations bands.

In 1799, Thompson married a Métis woman named Charlotte Small. He was 29; she was 13. It was a love affair that lasted 58 years. They had 13 children, 5 of them while he was still exploring. Thompson often took those children and his wife on his trips, venturing into unknown, sometimes hostile territory. At the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was valued as a fur trader, but Thompson wanted to explore rather than trade. He left the HBC and joined the rival North West Company Where he spent the next 15 years exploring. In all, he spent 27 years mapping the west. “The age of guessing is passed away,” he wrote. Thompson predicted the changes that would come to the west, that it would become farmland and Aboriginal peoples would be pushed from their land. As the one who mapped it, he was aware that he was contributing to that future.

Later Years

Thompson’s later years were marred by tragedy. He moved to Montréal in 1812 so his children could get a formal education. He had saved some money from his years as a trader but lost most of it in bad investments in Montréal. Personal tragedy followed his financial setbacks. His five-year-old son John died, and then his seven-year-old daughter. His eldest son rebelled and left home and Thompson never saw him again.He took on odd jobs to pay the rent and kept working on the maps he had drawn of the west. But he couldn’t find a publisher for the maps. In the end he sold them to Arrowsmith, a London publisher, who paid him 150 pounds, an absurdly low sum for his life’s work. Then Arrowsmith didn’t publish them under Thompson’s name, which would have earned him some measure of fame, at least as a map-maker. Instead they used his maps to correct their own and didn’t credit Thompson.He took on the job of surveying the vast estate of fellow explorer Alexander Mackenzie, who wasn’t as ambitious or accomplished as Thompson, but was a much better manager of money. When that job ended, Thompson had trouble finding work and had to pawn his surveying tools and his winter coat.

He moved in with his daughter and son-in-law and spent his time working on his journals, trying to make them into something publishable. His one good eye began to fail him and he never completed the manuscript. One of the greatest explorers in history died in poverty and obscurity in 1857 and was buried in Montréal. His wife Charlotte was inconsolable, and she died less than three months later.

David Thompson’s crowning achievement

David Thompson’s map of western Canada, 1814. Source: Archives of Ontario, I0030317In 1814 Thompson’s wide-ranging explorations in western North America found eloquent expression in what has to be regarded as one of the greatest maps ever made. Based on his years of exploration across a vast area, the thousands of painstaking astronomical observations he’d taken under every conceivable difficulty — swarms of blackflies and mosquitoes in summer, freezing gales in winter — and reports from other explorers and aboriginal guides, Thompson created an enormous, five-by-three-metre map showing what is now western Canada.

To make this huge map he glued together twenty-five separate sheets of paper, and with an ink made from growths found on apple trees, in meticulous detail he drew the principal rivers, lakes, mountain chains, and canoe routes from Lake Superior to Hudson Bay and westward to the Pacific. The finished map, a prized possession of the North West Company, was by far the most accurate ever made of western North America up to that time, and remained so for nearly fifty years. Today it sits carefully protected in a humidity- and temperature-controlled glass case in Toronto, one of the most treasured artifacts in Ontario’s provincial archives. Thompson drew on it a wealth of new geographic information — including remarkably detailed outlines of Lakes Winnipeg and Superior, the course of the Saskatchewan River snaking across the Great Plains, the forbidding Athabasca Pass he’d charted through the Rockies, and a great river plunging through what is now the heart of British Columbia to the seacoast — what Thompson named the Fraser River, after his friend Simon Fraser, who had risked his life descending it in 1808.Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this more than two-hundred-year-old map; despite careful preservation, it has faded and is now difficult to reproduce. But it would be unthinkable to write about maps in Canada and not include Thompson’s crowning achievement.

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