Mapmaker Thompson a godly man
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To mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of British Columbia, BCCN presents the first in a series of faith portraits. Following is an excerpt from The Battle for the Soul of Canada, by Ed Hird.

DAVID THOMPSON, of all the Canadian explorers, was one of the most godly and counter-cultural.  

He was so countercultural that, unlike many early explorers, he actually stayed married – even after he became financially successful!  

The early 19th century western Canada map was essentially blank until Thompson filled it in. Thompson was one of the master-builders of Canada and possibly the greatest geographer the world has ever known.

As a land geographer, Thompson was the peer of Captain James Cook, the great geographer of the oceans.  Thompson has been described as a great surveyor disguised as a fur trader, as a marvelous scientist with the sensitive soul of a prophet.  

By his own initiative, from 1792 to 1812, Thompson explored and surveyed more than a million and a half square kilometres of wilderness, accomplishing the staggering feat of mapping half a continent.  

He focused primarily on the territory west of the Great Lakes, encompassing the Rockies – and the Columbia River, in what was later called British Columbia.  

Alexander Mackenzie, another renowned explorer, remarked: “Thompson had performed more in 10 months than he expected could have been done in two years.”  

Thompson’s map, his greatest achievement, was so accurate that, 100 years later, it remained the basis for many of the maps issued by the Canadian government and the railway companies. We can even credit David Thompson with the exacting survey of much of the Canada/United States 49th parallel boundary.    

Thompson’s Travels Journal shows his multifaceted gifts as scientific explorer, geographer, cartographer and naturalist.  Some scholars have described his journal as one of the finest works in Canadian literature.  

His directness in prose, his modesty and ability to see himself and others, his sharp powers of observation and intense practicality all contribute to a vivid glimpse of early Canadian pioneering. His account of his adventures has also been described as one of the world’s greatest travel books.  

Thompson the Canadian immigrant  grew to love “the forest and the white water, the shadow and the silence, the evening fire, the stories and the singing and a high heart.” He was modest, talented and deeply spiritual.  

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First Nations people gave him the name Koo-Koo-Sint, which means ‘Star-Gazer’ – in recognition of his star-based map work. It wasn’t that he was a starry-eyed dreamer, but rather a dedicated scientist using the best mapping technology of his day.  

Thompson apprenticed with the Hudson’s Bay Company, but later switched to their competitors, the North West Company, because the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted him to focus on furs, not map-making.

The North West Company appointed Thompson as their official ‘Surveyor and Map Maker,’ and proudly displayed his finished map of Canada on their boardroom wall.  

Thompson’s brother-in-law, John McDonald, considered Thompson a good trader, a fearless traveler, and a man who was liked and respected by Indians.  His few criticisms of Thompson had to do with his spirituality, his passion for surveying, and his total unwillingness to drink or to sell liquor when dealing with customers. Thompson had seen so many First Nations people harmed by the liquor trade that he had acquired a strong aversion to such profiteering.  

Because of his deep respect for marriage, Thompson did not abandon his First Nations wife Charlotte and his family when he finally became rich.  Many other wealthy voyageurs just moved onto the next relationship. David and Charlotte Thompson, who had seven sons and six daughters, were only parted by his death 58 years after their marriage.  

Thompson tried in vain for years to find a profitable trade route to the Pacific.  Upon hearing that the American John Jacob Astor had sent out his sea and land expedition to the Oregon country, the Canadians sent David Thompson to try once again.

Thompson and his voyageurs bravely made their way down the Columbia River. They were continually wet up to their waists, and exposed to cold high winds. The glacier water deprived them of all feeling in their limbs.  

Despite such hardships, Thompson never gave up – instead, writing in his Travels Journal that they “continued under the mercy of the Almighty and at sunset put up, each of us thankful for our preservation.”  

When they reached the Pacific watershed, Thompson knelt on the banks of Blueberry Creek and prayed aloud: “May God in his mercy give me to see where these waters flow into the ocean, and let us return in safety.”  

He and his voyageurs eventually did make it to the mouth of the Columbia River – but unfortunately arrived after John Jacob Astor.    

Despite Thompson’s great successes, he died in extreme poverty and obscurity – even having to pawn his surveying equipment and his overcoat to buy food for his family.  

Yet through the hardships, he never abandoned his family – and never stopped gazing at the morning star, Jesus Christ.  

May 2008