Weekly Ponderings: People brought character and culture to Peace River - Part 36

Thompson’s sight, compromised in his youth by the loss in his right eye, completely failed him by 1851, when he lost the sight of the left one. Although not a welcome situation, his complete blindness and years of misfortune did not diminish his belief in the ultimate goodness of Providence. Nor did it diminish the solace he found in wife Charlotte’s support and “unfailing care”.

On further researching the life of David Thompson, your scribe discovered it was not daughter Fanny, but rather daughter Eliza and her husband, Dalhousie Landall with whom David and Charlotte lived in Longueuil, near Montréal.


Thompson died, age 88, in 1857 – 57 years after his marriage to Charlotte, constant companion throughout. She, “inconsolable”, died less than three months later – age 71, “after all the miles, all the children, all the years”.

Side by side, the Thompsons were buried in the Landell family plot, Mount Royal Cemetery, Montréal. Their graves unmarked, initially.

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Thompson’s death was virtually unnoticed, except by his family and, fortunately, Joseph Burr Tyrell, multi-disciplined Canadian geologist, cartographer, and mining consultant. Probably, Tyrell is best known for discovering dinosaur bones in Alberta’s badlands (Albertosaurus sarcophagus) and coal around Drumheller in 1884, and the one for whom the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology was named.

Tyrell had been interested in Thompson for a while, advocating in the 1880s for recognition of his accomplishments “to give him his due”. To this end, in the 1890s, he acquired Thompson’s manuscript and edited David Thompson’s Narrative for publication by the Champlain Society in 1914. It was then, the account of Thompson’s career, up to his retirement to Montréal in 1812, became public. “The Narrative, somewhat flawed because it was written so long after the events, remains a major work of autobiography and an invaluable source for historians,” writes author and historian John Nicks.

John Jeremiah Bigsby, geologist, described the David Thompson he saw at a dinner party given by the Hon. William McGillivray at his home, Chateau St. Antoine, Montréal. This he did in his “entertaining book” The Shoe and Canoe. Bigsby was also Thompson’s associate on the Boundary Commission, which managed surveying crews in their field operations to discern boundaries between Canada and the United States. Although he was well regarded by many, “during the Oregon Boundary dispute in the 1840s, Thompson urged the British government to argue for all of the Oregon territory that he had explored rather than the 49th parallel suggested by the American government. The U.S. argument won out”.

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Bigsby’s description: “I was well placed at a table between one of the Miss McGillivrays and a singular-looking person of about fifty. He was plainly dressed, quiet, and observant. His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of a gardener’s ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply-furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. His speech betrayed the Welshman, although he left his native hills when very young.”

Bigsby continues: “I afterwards travelled much with him, and have now only to speak of him with great respect, or I ought to say, with admiration … No living person possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson’s Bay countries … Never mind his [John – author Pilgrims Progress] Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he has a very powerful mind, and a singular facility of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snowstorm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the rack of the rifle, or feel the snowflakes melt on your cheeks as he talks.

“On Sundays, in camp, he conducted religious service for the French-Canadian voyageurs. Our astronomer, Mr. Thompson, was a firm churchman. While most of our men were Roman Catholics, many a time have I seen these men most attentively and thankfully listen, as they sat upon some bank, while he read to them, in most extraordinarily pronounced French, three chapters out of the Old Testament, and as many out of the New, adding such explanations as seemed to him suitable.”

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Bigsby’s recollection of Thompson on the Boundary Commission task in which he was collecting geological specimens continues, again: “I came to a ravine some five hundred feet deep, young shrubs clung to its shelving and shattered sides, great blocks fallen from above, filled its bottom. The lake [Superior] was white with foam and the few stunted trees bent before the gale. I saw in the depths of the chasm, a figure kneeling, bare headed, on a flat rock. His back was turned to the wind, his iron-grey locks streamed before his face. It was our astronomer who, like Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, had escaped from the camp to worship the Lord.”

During his many years of surveying ventures, the land mass he mapped amounted to 3.9 million square kilometres (1.5 million square miles) of wilderness – one-fifth the continent. Some of that surveying, and fur trading, was in the Peace River area, when he and Charlotte spent 1802-1804 at Fort Fork. Here, second child – first son, Samuel, was born in 1804. It was while here, Thompson travelled the Grouard Trail, which he referred to as the “usual road”.

Thompson contemporary, Alexander Mackenzie, who overwintered at Fort fork in 1792-93 on his way to the Pacific Ocean, is said to have remarked, “Thompson did more in 10 months than he [Mackenzie] would have thought possible in two years”.

“David Thompson’s origins were humble, his final years spent in poverty. Yet, as an explorer and surveyor, his work has earned him a reputation as one of the best pioneering geographers in North America.”

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Fourteen years before his death, Thompson’s entry, dated 1843, in Journal #82, now in the Archives of Ontario: “I am the morrow 73 years old but so destitute that I have not where with to buy a loaf of Bread. May the Pity of the Almighty be on us.”

In a play written by Sharon Wass “of Métis blood”, Charlotte describes her husband of 57 years: “My David was a strong man, but he was different from many of the company of men and even many of the Natives. Most thought only of the task at hand. If they are tracking, they think only of the trail and don’t notice a pretty flower right in their path. Or as they are paddling, they think only of the river and don’t hear the beauty of the bird’s song or see the burst of new leaves on the bushes. They miss so much. Not my David. He liked to notice everything. Sometimes he would notice something, and he would catch my eye to see if I saw it too and we would smile. We were very close. My David and I.”

In 1957, the Canadian Government remembered David Thompson with a postage stamp. Today, Thompson is commemorated by monuments at Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho; Lake Windermere, British Columbia; Lac La Biche, Alberta; and finally in Mount Royal Cemetery. In 1927, the Champlain Society erected a sculpted Grecian column, originally surmounted by a brass sextant, atop his previously unmarked grave. The inscription, by Dr. J.B. Tyrell, reads: “To the memory of the greatest of Canadian geographers” – Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.

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More Peace River-related surveyor stories to come in next Ponderings.

Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929; Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton; Record-Gazette; Edmonton Journal, June 6, 1936; New York Sun; Alberta Dental Association Updater, October 1997; Archives Canada; Answering God’s Call, Rolland C. Smith; Joseph Cardinal, Feb. 26, 2009; Don Weaver; Alliance Review; Métis Archives; Portrayal of Our Métis Heritage by J. Overvold; Land of Hope and Dreams; Bricks Hill, Berwyn and Beyond; Peace River Record, April 25, 1946; Delayed Frontier, Lure of the Peace and The Last Great West by David Leonard; I Remember Peace River, Alberta and Adjacent Districts, 1800s-1913; Land of Twelve Foot Davis by McGregor); Turning the Pages of Time, History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Colourful Historic Pioneers of Peace River by Muriel Oslie; Western Producer, June 24, 1976; Seventh Day Adventist website; Ribbons of Steel, Ena Schneider; Edmonton Journal, Nov.20, 2011; Singing Wires, Tony Cashman) Myron Momryk, retired archivist, Library and Archives Canada; Peace River Record-Gazette; Saga of Battle River, We came … We stayed; Canadians Visit Our Northern Neighbours, published by Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society; MacEwan University Web site; The Peace River Country Canada, Its Resources and Opportunities; Laying Down the Lines, Judy Lamour; Land Surveyors Web site; Identification of Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Fort Fork, F.W. Howay
Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

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