He Mapped the West

In 2007, the Flathead Valley will join our Canadian neighbors to commemorate the life and work of David Thompson. Considered by many as the foremost land geographer of the American continent, Thompson mapped more than 1.5 million square miles in both Canada and the United States. In March 1812, he became the first white man to document Flathead Lake, then known as the Saleesh Lake. His name appears on our landscape and yet, American history books say little about this remarkable man and his achievements.

Born in Wales and educated at London’s Greycoat School, Thompson prepared for a career in the military. At age 14 he found there was little demand for new recruits so he signed on with the Hudson Bay Company and sailed for Canada. In 1786, he was selected to travel inland to the prairies and by the next year, he had traveled to the Rocky Mountains where he wintered with the Piegan.

In 1788, an accident resulted in a broken leg, probably a compound fracture. During his long recuperation, Thompson met Hudson Bay Company surveyor Philip Tumor who taught him about celestial observation, navigation, and cartography. Following his recovery, Thompson spent the next seven years traveling, trading furs and surveying his routes on the Canadian plains.

When Hudson Bay Company wanted him to stop his exploration, Thompson quit and joined the Northwest Company where he first surveyed the Mandan territory along the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark used his survey and maps on their famous journey west.

Thompson finally journeyed over the Continental Divide in 1807 and for the last five years of his western career, he explored and traded in the Northwest Company’s Columbia Department. It was during this period that he traveled and mapped the entire 1,100 miles of the Columbia River, not to mention much of the Columbia Plateau. He mapped and established trading posts in Northwest Montana, Idaho, and Western Canada.

While in Montana, Thompson established Saleesh House, the first Montana trading post west of the Rockies. The Kootenai gave him the name Koo Koo Sint, or Star Looker, because of his nightly astronomical observations. Thompson mapped more than a million square miles of western North America, traveling 80,000 miles in the wilderness (contrasted to the 7,000 miles logged by Lewis and Clark). He was usually accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, a Cree who bore him 13 children.

Thompson was more than a geographer and cartographer. His daily journals detailed not only the natural world but the people he encountered and their ways of life. He wrote 77 field journals followed by his Narrative that details his western explorations, providing details for several generations of historians.

The year 2007 will mark the 150th anniversary of Thompson’s death in 1857 and the 200th anniversary of his first crossing of the Rocky Mountains in 1807. The David Thompson Bicentennial is a project of Parks Canada and the Mountain Parks Heritage tourism Councils in Canada.

For more information on events relating to David Thompson in the Flathead Valley go to the Flathead Valley Convention and Visitor Bureau website at www.montanasflatheadvalley.com.

Article by Carol Edgar, courtesy of Flathead Valley Convention and Visitor Bureau.