David Thompson, the early years leading up to crossing the divide in 1807.

Westminster Abbey, London.

Historical background.

1770. David Thompson was born in the Parish of St. John, Westminster, London of Welsh ancestory.

1777 Proposed and accepted as a student at Grey Hospital Charity School, Westminster.

1779 Captain James Cook is killed in Hawaii, having sailed up the coast of North America and traded off the B.C.Coast.

1784 Thompson leaves school and is apprenticed to Hudson Bay Company and sails to Canada.

Cook's journals and maps are published showing information and maps of the North American Pacific Coast.

1785 Thompson learns the Fur trade. In December 1788, He breaks his leg, and was laid up until August 1789, at which time he began to write daily enteries into a journal.Convalescence confining him at Cumberland house provided him with the third greatest opportunity of his life. Philip Turnor the official "surveyor and astronomer" of the Hudson's Bay Company had been sent to survey the uncharted (and therefore also unclaimed) lands of the West.

Turnor tutored Thompson in the principles of practical astronomy, building on Thompson's own navigational skills acquired at the Grey School. Thompson passed the winter of 1789 and the spring of 1790 honing his skills and recording and checking his measurements with a sextant. He practised over and over again, reaching a high degree of competance which impressed Turnor who was making his preparations for his survey expeditions. Thompson's leg is not fully recovered and he cannot accompany Turnor on his expedition. Peter Fidler accompanies Turnor.

Explores and Trades in Northern Territories, Athabasca and Rocky Mountain Trench.

1785-7 The American Peter Pond travels and draws a map of the now Mackenzie River Basin. Peter Pond an American furman travelled west from Hudson's Bay, crossing the divide in Northern Alberta - He was the first man to see and note the tar sands. Working his way west he made notes, drawings and maps of the rivers and waterways west of the Rockies. Pond shared this information with Alexander Mckenzie advising on the best route to the Pacific Ocean.

1790 British Captain Vancouver follows Captain Cooks maps to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, in order to chart the waters for the British Government in order to settle the coastal claims and disputes with the Spanish.

1792 American Captain Robert Gray sails to the mouth of a large river on the west coast, does not explore it, but names it The Columbia River after his ship.

Peter Fidler meets a group of Kutenais at the headwaters of the Old Man River in Alberta, trading with them and studying their customs. 1793 Alexander Mackenzie reaches the Pacific Ocean.

1797 Thompson leaves Hudson's Bay Company and joins the opposition, North West Company, Montreal.

1799 Spring - Takes a wife, Charlotte Small (Born September 1, 1785), Daughter of Patrick Small one of the original NWC partners and a Cree lady. Mr. Small left the family and retired back to England to enjoy the life of a Gentleman.

1800 David Thompson makes several attempts to cross the divide, and explores the country around the Rocky Mountain trench on the Alberta side of the divide. Several members of the North West Company cross the divide over Howse Pass and make contact with the Kutenais, the information is passed onto David Thompson. The Hudson Bay Company are also collecting information in preparation for crossing the divide.

David Thompson arrives at Rocky Mountain House in Alberta and prepares to cross the Divide in order to trade with the Kootenais and find a navigable river route to the Pacific Ocean.

At the end of October 1806, David Thompson celebrated All Saints Day with his brother-in-law McDonald of Garth who was returning to Fort Augustus leaving David Thompson in charge at Rocky Mountain House, the North West Company's trading post in Alberta.

New year's Day was celebrated with the traders of The Hudson Bay Company who's trading post 'Acton House' was situated close by. Each post traded with the Piegans, and the Blood Indians who were at war with the Cree, all three did not want the fur companies to trade with the Kutenais.

The bounty of furs was dwindling East of the Rockies, partly due to disease but mainly due to over trapping caused by the desire to trade for the whiteman's goods. The Kutenais had risked their lives and horses crossing the divide from the West side of the Rockies in order to trade with The North West Company. Thompson had made several attempts to cross the divide into 'The Land of The Kutenais' so that they could trade safely away from the Piegan's who patrolled the Mountain Passes, threatening all who dare to cut into their trade. Thompson now a partner in company was authorised to prepare to cross the divide and establish trade in 'The Land of the Kutenais'.

There would be no difficulty finding the pass through the mountains this time. Six years had lapsed since Canadians La Gasse and Le Blanc the first white men on the Upper Columbia and Kootenay Rivers had returned from being despatched by The Northwest Company to winter with the Kutenais.Several of Thompson's voyageurs were already familiar with the land.

Jaco Finlay, a gunsmith, guide and Canadian fur trapper of French/Cree/English/Scottish descent who had just returned from preparing the way for this current expedition had been across the divide on numerous occasions.

During the summer of 1806 with his wife and two children, Jaco had explored and done some trading of his own across the Howse Pass, down the Flat Bow River and well into future American Territory. He furnished Thompson with a map of the land showing The Columbia Lakes, and many rivers flowing into the Columbia to the West.

Unlike Thompson's previous abandoned attempts to cross the divide, this expedition in addition to more geographical information, was better equiped, and had more experienced personnel. Surprisingly the North West Company were not overly generous with their financial support considering that the 'Oregon Country' (as the uncharted wilderness west of the Rockies was known ) contained a huge amount of unclaimed territory for potential trade.

The United States had acquired a vast region of land from France in 1803 as 'The Louisiana Purchase'. Spurred on by reading Mackenzie's published account of his travels, Thomas Jefferson in expansionist mode, financed The Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Oregon Country. They reached the the mouth of the Columbia late in 1805, claiming the territory for America. Thompson's orders were to establish trade with the Kutenais, assess the fur-trapping potential, survey the territory and find a navigatable trade route to the Pacific Ocean, which (for Thompson) included finding the elusive Columbia River.

Meanwhile Simon Fraser was crossing the divide in Northern Alberta to explore a south flowing river that Alexander Mackenzie had drawn on a map. (Mackenzie had drawn-in an imagined Columbia River that followed a line going south from the latitude of the source of the Fraser River of today, down to the latitude of the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast as drawn on Vancouver's map. Fraser eventually realized that this was not the Columbia, after travelling down it's course. The latitude at the River's mouth, was too far North to correspond to Vancouver's Map. However, Simon Fraser had successfully explored, travelled and established a Canadian route to the Pacific. Thompson attributed the River to Fraser on his map, and Fraser reciprocated by naming an East-bound tributary, The Thompson River. Note: When you view the placement of the Thompson River on the map, it is easy to understand that David Thompson's 'Kootenae River' (present day Columbia River) flowing north could mistakenly be thought of as being one and the same as The Thompson River.

David Thompson some members of his family. In the spring of 1807, at the North West Company's trading post at Rocky Mountain House in Alberta, David and Charlotte Thompson and their children ages 6, 3, and 1, Clerk Finan McDonald, eight voyageurs, along with two of their wives, three children and numerous dogs were assembled ready to take part in an expedition to explore the Western side of the Great Divide of the Rockies.

They set out in May, travelling West up the North saskatchewan River, then onto Kootenay Plains, a favourite grazing ground for Kutenais' horses, and heading for Howse Pass. On Monday June the 22nd at 1 Pm, the expedition would travel through the Howse Pass and arrive at the height of the land, greeted with melted snow underfoot and warmer Pacific air.Then down the Bleaberry River, making their way to the banks of The Kootenae (near Golden on the Columbia River of today) heading south on the river and arriving at Windermere Lake.

By the 19th day of July, 1807, David Thompson had built his first fort in the Kootenays on the northern shore of Lake Windermere, this turned out to be an unsuitable location and the fort, (later added to and named Kootenae House) was relocated and rebuilt on Toby Creek.

Time was of the essence and he wanted to explore the Flat Bows Country which included a large River (The Kootenay - or McGillivray's River) that travelled south, which he hoped to determine if it was the Columbia or not before returning East.

Several Kutenais, which Thompson called 'Lakes Indians' visited with the strangers.

In his journal entry of 17 September 1807 He writes " They (Lakes Indians) drew me out a Sketch of their Country, and to near the Sea, which they say I may go to from hence and be back in a month's hence, were it summer time."

Thompson asked if they would guide him South along the river through their country. They declined saying that only their Chief could do such a thing. They would ask their Chief to consider the request.

After making several trading trips, they returned and David Thompson met Chief Ugly Head (so called because of his curly hair) the Flat Bow Kutenais.

The French Canadians that had preceeded Thompson into the valley had named this band - 'Arcs plats' ( Flat Bows), and named (what we presently call Kootenay River and Lake), the Flat Bow River and Flat Bow Lake after them. David Thompson renamed the Flat Bow River and Lake, McGillivray's River and Lake after his colleagues having already named the river running North of Canal Flats The Kootenae River after the Kootenais, not realizing that this was the elusive object of his quest, 'the mighty Columbia' that travels north and then turns south down to the Pacific.

They met again on September 28th. The next day Chief Ugly Head guided Thompson from Windermere to Canal Flats. Thompson had wished to see the junction of the Kootenae (Columbia of today) and what He thought was the Columbia (Kootenay of today), and found that it was not a junction but a portage over (today's) Canal Flats.

Thompson travels by horseback on a trail down the direction of McGillivray's (Kootenay of today) River and having satisfied himself that it is navigable by canoes decides to turn back on the 3rd of October 1807, and enters in his Journal that St. Mary's River is "the Torrent Rivulet". Retracing their steps they did not realise that they would arrive back at the very spot they were actually seeking - the headwaters of today's Columbia River.

David Thompson spent the winter of 1807 at Kootenae House.The saga is continued with his travels down The Kootenay River and south of the border, the quest is finally within reach

References: David Thompson's Columbia Journals. Edited by Barbara Belyea. University of Washington Press. For an enjoyable read that brings Thompson's Travels into our modern world - Sources of the River by Jack Nisbet. Sasquatch Books. Seattle.

A more serious academic study of David Thompson's travels on the Columbia Plateau is Jack Nisbet's more recent book - Mapmaker's Eye, luxuriously illustrated, chockfull of interesting research and information. Published by Washington State University Press.