David Thompson (1770-1857) was a Canadian explorer, cartographer, and surveyor. He was the first white man to descend the Columbia River from its source to its mouth.
David Thompson was born at Westminster, England, on April 30, 1770. After a surprisingly good education at Grey Coat School, a charity school near his home, he was apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company at the age of 14. He was sent out immediately and spent the years from 1784 to 1797 as a clerk, either at the bay or at various locations in the interior. He left the company's employ in 1797, in circumstances that virtually amounted to desertion. It was a poor repayment to an employer that had treated him well and trained him as a surveyor.
It was his surveying skill and his wilderness experience which made Thompson welcome at the North West Company, the great rival of the Hudson's Bay Company for the fur trade of the Northwest. The wealth of the company allowed him to devote most of the time from 1797 to 1812 to surveying and exploring with only infrequent periods of actually engaging in the fur trade. In 1804 he was made a partner in the company.
For several years Thompson made extensive journeys through the western plains, the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific slope, mapping and surveying as he traveled. In 1810-1811 he undertook the expedition for which he is best known. The Columbia River had long been a magnet for western traders, and Thompson was the first to travel the river from its source to its mouth. In one sense, his trip was a failure since his company had hoped that he would establish a post at the point where the Columbia emptied into the ocean before the arrival of the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. After excessive and unnecessary delay, he found Ft. Astoria already built when he came to the Columbia's mouth.
The following year, 1812, Thompson retired from the company and settled at Terrebonne, Lower Canada, later removing to Williamstown, Upper Canada. His surveying skills were employed in the establishment of the boundary between these two provinces. Later he was engaged in surveying the Canada-United States boundary as far west as Lake of the Woods. He never returned, however, to the Northwest.
In 1799 Thompson had married Charlotte Small, an Indian woman with whom he had 16 children. He died on Feb. 10, 1857, at Longueuil near Montreal.
Further Reading on David Thompson
The most valuable source of information on Thompson is the result of the meticulous scholarship of Richard Glover, who edited David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812 (1962). Also useful are W. S. Wallace, By Star and Compass (1922), and C. N. Cochrane, David Thompson, the Explorer (1928).