David Thompson might have been small and stocky, but he is larger than life in reputation. I can hear his laugh, imagine the twinkle in his eye, see him urge his companions to exhuastion, and glimpse his star-gazing calculations on a frosty night. There is a lot written about Lewis and Clark, but Thomson can be considered the greater of the geographers. Not only that, but as a trader he was a perceptive businessman, respectful of the native peoples and the French Canadiéns with whom he operated, and unique to his peers, he was a loyal family man.
David Thompson’s great aptitude for surveying allowed him to map almost one-fifth of the continent with unusualaccuracy. His maps were regarded as authoritative well into the 20th century. Thompson completed a large map in 1814, which was still being used by the Canadian government 100 years later. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie once said that Thompson did more in ten months than he would have thought possible in two years.
Time and again Thompson proved his good judgment in commerce. He respected the Native chiefs with whom he conducted business and managed the relationships of traders and Natives with shrewd insight. The following amusing incident, which Thompson records in his journal, shows just how clever he was at diverting conflict and keeping his trading colleagues in good humour (text appears as it was written).
The Salish Indians were a fine race of moral Indians, the finest I had seen, and set a high value on the chastity of their women…two chiefs…entered the hall to smoke, but now with grave faces. I supposed they had heard of some chance of war: they soon broke the silence, …You know our law is, that a man that seduces a woman must be killed; I said I have no objection to your law, to what purpose do you tell me this;…one of your men has been every day, while we are hunting, to my tent with beads and rings to seduce my daughter. Looking round on my men, he said he is not here, (on their entering my servant had gone into my room, I knew it must be him; the men and myself were every day too much fatigued to think of women.) But wherever he is, we hope you will give him to us that he may die by our law. I told them I had no inclination to screen the Man, but…they must give me a Man to take his place…they looked at each other, and said we cannot find a man capable, besides his going among strange people where he may be killed;…then what is to be done, exclaimed the Orator. I replied, let him live this time, and as you are noted for being a good gelder of Horses; if this Man ever again enters your Tent, geld him, but let him live; at this proposition they laughed, and said, well let him live but so sure as he comes to seduce our women, we shall geld him; after smoking, they retired in good humour. But my men, all young and in the prime of life, did not at all relish the punishment.1
As a family man, Thompson was loyal and committed. The love story between David and Charlotte, his Metis wife, is legendary. In a time when most fur traders left their country wives and families behind when they returned to civilization, David Thompson remained faithful for life during 57 years of marriage. For her part, Charlotte traversed mountains, withstood hardship and encountered danger to travel with her husband, even with young children at her side. When David passed away in poverty and obscurity in 1857, Charlotte followed him in death only three months later. Their love was a testimony to their faith in God and their commitment to each other.
1Thompson, David. David Thompson's narrative of his explorations in Western America, 1784-1812. Ed. Joseph Burr Tyrrell.
Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916. 17 May 2007. p. 422-423