David Thompson has been called “greatest practical land geographer that the world has produced”.
He travelled some 90,000 kilometres across North America as a fur trader and surveyor, mapping 4.9 million square kilometres of wilderness — one-fifth of the continent.
His work was so accurate that it remained the basis of all maps of the west for almost a century.
Thompson spoke at least four Indigenous languages — Blackfoot, Kootenay, Chipewyan and Mandan — and compiled a number of dictionaries, and he refused to trade alcohol for fur, provisions and guiding services after seeing the devastation this substance had brought Indigenous communities.
He saw more of the interior of British North America and knew it better than any man of his time. His contemporary, the great explorer Alexander Mackenzie, remarked that Thompson did more in ten months than he would have thought possible in two years.
And yet, Thompson claimed to have seen but a small, small fraction of the sprawling territory that would become the Dominion of Canada a decade after he died in obscurity, his achievements largely forgotten.
His biographer, D’Arcy Jenish, joined me to talk about this remarkable man’s life and work.
D’Arcy is a magazine journalist and the author of ten books, including Epic Wanderer: David Thompson & The Mapping of the Canadian West, The Making of the October Crisis: Canada’s Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ, and histories of the Stanley Cup, the Montreal Canadiens, and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
You can find more information about his work on his website.
We spoke about Thompson’s remarkable travels, his astonishing contributions as a map maker, and his role in creating the Canada we know today.