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Document Number: AJ-138
Author: Thompson, David, 1770-1857
Title: David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 [excerpt]
Source: Tyrell, J.B. (editor). David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812. (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1916). Pages 209-237 and 375-398.
Pages/Illustrations: 56 / 0
Citable URL:

Author Note

Fourteen-year-old David Thompson (1770-1857) came to Hudson Bay from London to learn to be a fur trader. Although possessing only rudimentary training in astronomy and cartography, over the next three decades he carefully mapped the locations of all the most important fur trade routes in the Canadian plains and Rockies. By the time he retired to Montreal in 1812, Thompson had traveled by foot and canoe over fifty-six thousand miles of western Canada, from Hudson Bay to the Pacific, making scientific surveys of nearly two million square miles of wilderness. After returning to civilization, he drew and published the standard comprehensive map of the Canadian West. Although Thompson emerged from the woods at age fifty-two as a reasonably affluent man, a series of domestic and business misfortunes ruined his later years. By the time he died at the age of eighty-seven, he was bankrupt and largely forgotten, though the great British fur corporations and countless settlers continued to rely on his meticulous maps and surveys.

Expedition of 1797-1798 to the Mandan Villages

Thompson left his headquarters in Canada on November 28, 1797, with a small party to discover the location of the Mandan Villages near modern Bismarck, North Dakota. The Mandan lived in permanent agricultural settlements and, because they possessed cultivated crops and trade goods from St. Louis, were a commercial focal point for the nomadic plains and mountain tribes further west. Thompson arrived at their village from the north and stayed with the Mandan until January 10, 1798, but was unable to win their allegiance away from the French-speaking American traders who came upriver from St. Louis. He returned home after a brutal winter trip on February 3, 1798.

Expedition of 1807-1808 to Montana and Idaho

Ten years later, when the Piegan Indians moved south in the summer of 1807, Thompson attempted to cross the mountains into the Columbia River basin. He built a trading post called Kootenai House near Lake Windermere, British Columbia, that summer, and held off Piegan warriors in it that autumn. In April 1808 he left the Columbia River to descend the nearby Kootenai River into Montana and Idaho. On May 14, 1808, he headed north again and reached Kootenai House on June 6, 1808. He would later explore the Columbia Basin all the way to the Pacific.

Document Note

Thompson kept careful journals of his travels, some of which have been edited and published (see below). At the end of his life he used these journals to draft a Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812, which he began writing in 1846. After his death in 1857 this manuscript passed to one of his sons, who sold it to a private collector in Toronto. In the 1880s, Canadian geologist and cartographer J.B. Tyrrell, who had surveyed much of the territory covered by Thompson, purchased the manuscript of the Narrative but professional duties prevented him from editing it. Finally in 1906 he was able to begin working on it, and it was published by The Champlain Society in 1916 after a decade of meticulous editorial labors.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

A long and detailed biography of Thompson is available in the online Northwest Journal at

A shorter one can be viewed at the National Library of Canada's “Pathfinders and Passageways” web site:

Thompson's original journals were printed in the following books:

Columbia Journals, edited by Barbara Belyea (Montréal & Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); David Thompson's Journals Relating to Montana and Adjacent Regions, 1808-1812 , edited by M. Catherine White (Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1950); and New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest: the Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry, Fur Trader of the Northwest Company, and of David Thompson, Official Geographer and Explorer of the Same Company, 1799-1814, edited by Elliott Coues (New York: F.P. Harper, 1897).

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