'The age of guessing is passed away': an exhibition to mark the David Thompson Bicentennial


This celebration of the remarkable achievements of Canadian explorer, trader and cartographer David Thompson (1770-1857) forms part of the North American David Thompson Bicentennials initiative. As the institution that holds one of the primary source documents of the life of Thompson, the narrative of his 'Travels', the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has undertaken this exhibition to commemorate not only his life, writings and works, but also the long and rich tradition from which he came—the explorers and fur traders who mapped Canada.

David Thompson was born in poor circumstances in London in 1770. At the age of seven he entered the Grey Coat Hospital, a charity school, and from there went to the Grey Coat mathematical school where he received some training in navigation. Apprenticed at fourteen to the Hudson's Bay Company, he left for Fort Churchill, and never returned to England. Thompson spent his early years with the Company traveling throughout the north, assisting in establishing trading posts and learning Cree and Peigan. What could have been a disastrous leg fracture led to the discovery of his future life's work when he received a short apprenticeship in surveying over the winter of 1789-1790 under the guidance of Philip Turnor, the Company's inland surveyor. Exploration and surveying became his greatest interests and it was the possibility of a promotion, with its stationary position in one of the trading forts that led Thompson to approach the North West Company, the Hudson's Bay Company's chief rival, as he felt his wish to survey would be more welcome there. Thompson remained with the company for fifteen years, until his retirement in 1812. He spent the next few years preparing one of his great legacies, the large map of the Northwest which hung for many years in the Company's headquarters at Fort William. Thompson became a surveyor, sometimes the sole surveyor, of the boundary commission created under the sixth and seventh articles of the Treaty of Ghent which was to fix the boundary between Canada and the United States, and remained with the commission for some years, trusted and respected by both sides. Financial reverses in later life led to unsuccessful attempts to sell his maps, and to publish the narrative of his travels. He died in poverty in 1857 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Montreal.

During his lifetime David Thompson explored and mapped 3.9 million square kilometres of the Northwest, from Montreal in the east, to Astoria on the Pacific Ocean and from the Great Lakes to Fort Churchill. His legacy comes to us in his many maps, in the work he undertook for the boundary commission and in his writings. Thompson was a prolific writer; examples of his letters, surveying notes, essays, notebooks and journals are housed in archives across North America. Most important are the 101 notebooks and journals, as well as the great map, now at the Archives of Ontario, and the 'Travels', based on those journals, held here at the Thomas Fisher Library.

This exhibition examines the role of the fur trade in the exploration and mapping of this country. Early exploration of Canada, by the French along the eastern coastline and into the interior by way of the St. Lawrence River, and by the English from the north through Hudson's Bay was undertaken on the possibility of trade. The search westward for a trade route to China was promoted and financed by European powers looking for an easier and more certain route to the riches of the east. The land mass in the way offered possibilities both in its abundant fisheries and the potential of rich mineral deposits, but the economic staple which was to influence European exploration of this new territory for almost three hundred years was the beaver.

Sandra Alston