Archives of Ontario
77 Grenville Street, Unit 300
1-800-668-9933 (Toll-free number-Ontario only)
1.75 metres of textual records
David Thompson (1770-1857) was a fur trader, surveyor, and astronomer known for his explorations and mapping of western Canada, as well as his survey work on the United States border for the British Commission of the Treaty of Ghent. David Thompson was born in London, England on April 30, 1770. At the age of seven he was sent by his widowed mother to Grey Coat, a charitable school in Westminster. Thompson's abilities were evident at a young age and he was recruited in 1783 to apprentice overseas with the Hudson's Bay Company. Thompson arrived at Churchill factory, in what is now Manitoba, in 1784. In 1786, he set off on his first expedition from York Factory to Cumberland House, led by Robert Longmoor. During a period of recovery from a broken leg, Thompson began to learn astronomy and other fundamentals of surveying under HBC's chief surveyor, Philip Turnor. His first surveys for HBC concentrated on the river systems of the Prairie provinces. In 1797, Thompson took a post with the Northwest Company on the promise that his surveying skills would be better supported. It was around this time that Thompson met Charlotte Small, who would become his wife of 57 years and mother to his thirteen children. In his fifteen years with the Northwest Company Thompson conducted numerous important surveys, including that of the 49th parallel from Lake Superior to the Prairies, where he located the source of the Mississippi River. His Rocky Mountain voyage of 1800-1801 and the Columbia River survey of 1807, which he undertook for the Northwest Company in reaction to Lewis and Clark's Pacific explorations of 1806, are his most celebrated. Thompson retired from the Northwest Company and moved to Terrebonne, Lower Canada in 1812. Still a partner of Northwest, Thompson was commissioned to create a map using the data he had gathered in his twenty years of exploration. The result was his 'Great Map' of western Canada and the northwestern United States, which he completed in 1814. The following year Thompson moved to Williamstown in Glengarry County, where he would reside with his wife and family for the next thirty years. In 1817, the British Commission for Treaty of Ghent hired Thompson as astronomer and surveyor for the United States border along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. He remained with the Commission until 1827. During much of that time and into the 1830's, Thompson also held the post of Justice of the Peace for Glengarry County. In the late 1830's, following a number of failed business ventures and the loss of his savings in a poor investment, the affluence Thompson had gained in Williamstown quickly vanished. He was forced to move to Montreal, where he attempted to support his family with only occasional contract work. During this period he made several failed attempts to have his Great Map published. Growing increasingly destitute, Thompson penned his "Narrative" describing his experiences in the fur trade. The Narrative was eventually published in 1914 by The Champlain Society through the efforts of the geologist J.B. Tyrrell. Thompson died, blind and in poverty, in 1857. He and his wife Charlotte are buried at Mount Royal Cemetary in Montreal. Series consists of notebooks and journals kept by David Thompson over a span of 62 years. The journals and notebooks, created between 1789 and 1812, document Thompson's travels to the interior of Canada and the United States while working for the Hudson's Bay Company and Northwest Company. Entries combine astronomical observations with descriptions of the landscape, wildlife, climate, members of his traveling parties, as well as the peoples and cultures encountered in the course of his explorations. These provide unique documentation of the daily life of a fur trader and explorer, as well as some of the earliest descriptions of the landscape of western Canada recorded by Europeans. The journals kept between 1812 and the late 1830's describe various aspects of Thompson's life and career following his retirement from the Northwest Company. Captured in these pages are Thompson's two years in Terrebonne where, still a partner in Northwest, he drafted his 'Great Map' of western Canada and the northwestern United States. Also documented is Thompson's work on the boundary survey for the Treaty of Ghent and subsequent years spent in Williamstown. Entries are a mixture of astronomical observations, thoughts on his work as a Justice of the Peace for Glengarry, lists, inventions, and countless ideas and observations about the world and his daily life. Series also serves as a record of Thompson's later years in Montreal where, plagued by diminishing eyesight and the loss of his property and status, he penned a narrative account of his extensive travels in the west. Journals for these years also include Thompson's observations about the Oregon Boundary Dispute of 1849. There are four unnumbered notebooks in this series documenting Thompson's work on the boundary line westward from Lake Superior, a survey of the Ottawa River.