Popular historian D’Arcy Jenish recreates the adventure and sacrifice of mapmaker David Thompson’s fascinating life in the wilderness of North America.
Epic Wanderer, the first full-length biography of David Thompson, is set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries against a broad canvas of dramatic rivalries -- between the United States and British North America, between the Hudson’s Bay Company and its Montreal-based rival, the North West Co., and between the various First Nations thrown into disarray by the advent of guns, horses and alcohol.
Less celebrated than his contemporaries Lewis and Clark, Thompson spent nearly three decades (1784-1812) surveying and mapping over 1.2 million square miles of largely uncharted Indian territory. Travelling across the prairies, over the Rockies and on to the Pacific, Thompson transformed the raw data of his explorations into a map of the Canadian West. Measuring ten feet by seven feet, and laid out with astonishing accuracy, the map became essential to the politicians and diplomats who would decide upon the future of the rich and promising lands of the West. Yet its creator worked without personal glory and died in penniless obscurity.
Drawing extensively on David Thompson’s personal journals, illustrated with his detailed sketches, intricate notebook pages and the map itself, Epic Wanderer charts the life of a man who risked everything in the name of scientific advancement and exploration.
About the author
D’Arcy Jenish is the author of the award-winning Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy and the bestselling The Stanley Cup: A Hundred Years of Hockey at its Best. He is also co-editor of Canada on Ice: Fifty Years of Great Hockey.
Excerpt: Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Opening of the West (by (author) D'Arcy Jenish)
David Thompson is one of the most remarkable figures in Canadian history. His origins were humble, his career varied. He was a fur trader, an explorer, a surveyor, a mapmaker and an entrepreneur. He experienced triumph and failure, affluence and poverty, comfort and hardship. He died penniless and obscure in 1857 and remained unknown to the Canadian public until the publication, in 1916, of David Thompson’s Narrative, his account of the twenty-eight years (1784–1812) he spent roaming the Canadian West.
Thompson’s story has been told before, usually in abbreviated biographies that conveyed the basic facts but missed most of the drama. Or the focus was exclusively on his western travels. My aim here is a more complete telling, providing a more thorough account of Thompson’s early years with the Hudson’s Bay Co. and an examination of Thompson’s career after his fur-trading days, from 1812 till his death in 1857.
In endeavouring to produce a clear and vivid portrait of the man and the times, my first source was David Thompson’s Narrative, a roughly chronological work supplemented by the author’s observations on the flora and fauna, the seasons and the climate, the geography and the peoples of the lands he visited. I have drawn heavily upon his largely unpublished daily journals, which are rich in facts and details hitherto unused. In the journals and the Narrative, Thompson describes several encounters with aboriginals, including conversations, and reveals an uncanny ability to capture the rhythm and vocabulary of native speech. In all his writing, Thompson was preoccupied with his work and the world around him. He rarely said anything about his wife, Charlotte, or their children, and I have avoided trying to fill this gap in the story through speculation or supposition. I also relied on the daily journals of the Hudson’s Bay Co. posts where he served, which shed invaluable light on the youthful Thompson. For the sake of authenticity, I have retained the spelling and punctuation found in the Hudson’s Bay Co. journals, as well as those of Thompson. Finally, I consulted the published works of his contemporaries and, of course, secondary analyses of major historical events that occurred during his lifetime.
Thompson’s life, fascinating in its own right, provides us with an unparalleled view of a tumultuous and pivotal era in Canadian history. He served on both sides of the desperate, cutthroat battle for supremacy between the Hudson’s Bay Co. and its Montreal-based rival, the North West Co. This was more than just an average commercial rivalry. It was a fight between an imperial and a colonial enterprise, between an old and a new way of organizing a business.
The Hudson’s Bay Co. was controlled by distant shareholders and run by men who were essentially branch managers. The North West Co. was controlled by Montreal merchants and run by ordinary traders who had become partners, or shareholders. Thompson flourished among the dynamic and entrepreneurial Nor’Westers. He and a handful of others made the company North America’s first transcontinental enterprise. They also provided an inspiring example of what English, French and aboriginals could accomplish when they worked together.
Thompson also takes us into a time when the dynamics between whites and aboriginals were very different than they have been for most of the past two centuries. When Thompson worked in the West, natives were the majority. White men operated at the margins of a world dominated by First Nations. As such, many traders -- and Thompson was certainly one of them -- were free of the bigotry and prejudice that arrived with the settler and so poisoned relations between the races.
Finally, Thompson can offer contemporary Canadians a rare and jolting view of life without a social safety net. Many elderly people in his time ended their days in poverty. Few recorded the experience in a daily journal. Thompson did, and the story that emerges is one of remarkable strength and courage in the face of adversity.
The Old Man
The old man was writing again, hunched over the table, shoulders stooped, the pen slender and reedlike in his thick, callused hand. He had been at it for months now, seated amid his leather-bound journals, dozens of them, each crammed with the notes and minutiae, the observations and tales of nearly three decades spent roaming the great Northwest. He had seen more of that country -- the interior of British North America -- and come to know it better than any man of his time.
Then, he had been a fur trader, an explorer and a surveyor; he was young and robust and certain of himself. Now, nearing eighty, he was poor. His sight was failing and he struggled to decipher the words he had written decades earlier. Misfortune had befallen him in the years since he left the Northwest. He had quarrelled with his eldest son. His investments had gone bad. He had lost money. He had no savings, no pension, no prospect of employment. Who would hire a surveyor with poor eyesight?
Several years earlier, lawyers had seized the family home in Williamstown and his extensive landholdings in the surrounding County of Glengarry, Upper Canada, after he had defaulted on the mortgages. He and his wife, Charlotte, and seven of their ten surviving children had departed for Montreal, getting by for several years on whatever work he could find and then, when he could find no employment of any kind, living in painful and humiliating poverty until saved from complete ruin by their daughter Elizabeth and her husband, William Scott, who took them in and gave them a room in their home.
Yes, they were poor, too poor to contribute to the cost of running the household or to put food on the table or even to buy the pens, ink and paper he needed for his writing. Elizabeth, born in 1817 at Williamstown on the Raisin River, five miles north of the St. Lawrence, provided for them now, and on occasion she would read his manuscript too.
“D’Arcy Jenish tells Thompson’s story in a dramatic and entertaining way that keeps the pages turning. . . . This well-fashioned account should do much to introduce a remarkable Canadian to the public at large.”
—The Globe and Mail
“His brilliantly evocative Indian Fall . . . established Saskatchewan’s D’Arcy Jenish as a fine popular historian. Jenish’s new book is just as good. . . . Jenish’s marvellous effort has resurrected Thompson’s accomplishments as a great explorer and mapmaker.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“D’Arcy Jenish makes the flat statement that David Thompson remains ‘one of the most remarkable figures in Canadian history’ and then sets out to demonstrate this view. . . . He skilfully and quickly takes readers into this account in a stirring narrative.”