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The Mapmaker’s Eye: Douglas Thompson on the Columbia Plateau

By Jack Nisbet

Review By I.S. MacLaren

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 156-157 Winter-Spring 2007-2008  | p. 183-6

More than an exhibition catalogue but every bit that as well, Jack Nisbet’s Mapmaker’s Eye takes its reader farther into Anglo-Welsh-Canadian explorer David Thompson’s five years (1808-12) on the Pacific Slope than has any previous publication. Visually enhanced by the sketches of several artist-travellers who succeeded Thompson over the next five decades, The Mapmaker’s Eye is a suitable title for this highly illustrated work, which is as inquisitive, ample, and engaging as is Nisbet’s Sources of the River (1994; 2007). If Thompson carries a disincentive for scholars of the West, it is that, apart from his maps and a few sketches of mountain ranges, he did not compile a visual record. We know from his verbal record that his eye was catholic in its scope, taking in features particularly of the non-human world that escaped all other early recorders. But Bodmer, Warre, Kane, Sohon, and Wilson all compiled distinctive visual records – at least of people and landscapes if not of flora and fauna – near enough in time to Thompson’s years in the Columbia watershed to justify the use of their work to complement a treatment of Thompson’s discoveries and observations. Their works were put to effective use in the well-researched exhibition mounted in Spokane by Marsha Rooney of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, from 8 October 2005 to 3 September 2006, in advance of bicentenary events marking the acme of Thompson’s career. The Mapmaker’s Eye is the exhibition’s legacy. Not only those illustrations but also portions of most maps in existence during Thompson’s explorations (by Turnor, Pond, Mackenzie, and Vancouver) are also reproduced effectively. 

Nisbet does not restrict his treatment to the 1808-12 period; rather, he grows Thompson up in London, sails him to Hudson Bay, and initiates him into the fur trade. And, after 1812, he winds him down in Terrebonne, Williamstown, and Montreal. Steeped in archival as well as published textual and carto-graphical sources, the brief first two chapters portray the boy’s culture, learning, and experience prior to his becoming an explorer and cartographer, and it rehearses the history of the Pacific as well Thompson’s own explorations up to the time of Lewis and Clark’s winter on the upper Missouri, 1804-05. (More might have been made of Vancouver’s achievement, given that his four-and-a-half-year expedition along the west coast was the longest naval survey in history – surely no little achievement in the eyes of a fellow surveyor-explorer.) These preliminary chapters point out the fetching possibility that Thomas Jefferson learned that Thompson was in the Rockies in 1803 and responded with his western initiative – a complementary variation on the view of Donald Jackson, John Logan Allen, James Ronda, and others that Alexander Mackenzie’s book, Voyages from Montreal (1801), was the chief catalyst for Jefferson.

The third chapter takes its reader with Thompson over the mountains in 1807 to Windermere Lake, where he built Kootenae House. The fourth recounts two and one-half years’ travel of epic proportions: down McGillivray’s (Kootenai) River and back on a circular journey to Kootenai Falls in early 1808; over the mountains and across the Prairies to Rainy Lake (northwestern Ontario) and back by November; winter at Kootenae House; a mountain traverse to Fort Augustus (near modern-day Edmonton) and back in mid-summer 1909 in time to reach the Kootenai River by 20 August; from there, with the help of flatheads who came north to meet him, a trip south to Pend Oreille Lake, where, in early September, he built Kullyspel House “just west of the delta where the Clark Fork River spills into Pend Oreille Lake” (75) and met Pend Oreille and, later, Spokane people for the first time; thereafter, a trip southeast up Clark Fork River on a circular route that brought him back to Kullyspel House (as Nisbet explains [156], Thompson used the name “Saleesh” for all three of the Pend Oreille, Clark Fork, and flathead rivers because he heard a linguistic consistency as he travelled along them); then another journey up Clark Fork in order to establish Saleesh House, where he passed the winter of 1809-10 before failing, the next spring, to reach the Columbia by way of the tortuous lower Pend Oreille River and so, instead, crossing the mountains again by the Blaeberry River/Howse Pass route he knew well and passing down the North Saskatchewan to Fort Augustus by the end of June. Typical of Nisbet’s careful work are his identification, thanks to a living descendant, of Ugly Head, a flatbow leader who came to Kootenae House that September (47) and guided Thompson across Canal flats, and his two-page explanation of Thompson’s design for the wood plank canoes that he introduced on the Pacific Slope (94-95). But the book is festooned with nuggets that illuminate Thompson’s catholic interests and encyclopedic knowledge. Most impressive is Nisbet’s generous contextualizing of Thompson’s whereabouts both in the explorer’s terms and in those of readers prompted to retrace his routes on modern maps. Nisbet’s scholarship is not exhaustive – while his notes are sufficiently frequent, they are referential, seldom discursive  – but he is Thompson’s best, most intimately knowledgeable, biographer to date.

The fifth chapter covers the thirteen months from June 1810 to June 1811. No further insight is provided into Thompson’s moment of doubt on the North Saskatchewan and his decision to evade the Piegan blockade by going north to the Athabasca; however, a detailed explanation is provided, for the first time in Thompson studies, of the sort of “clinker built” craft that the party assembled at Boat Encampment on the upper bend of the Columbia (today’s Kinbasket Lake) for the season’s travels both up- and downriver (not clinker built at all, as it turns out), the first of seven boats that Thompson designed and that his men built in 1811 (125). By June, he had reached the southward flowing Columbia for the first time at Kettle Falls. From there, as Chapter 6 tells us, he launched his return trip to the river’s mouth, completing a survey of its entire length in seven months and not stopping before arriving at Saleesh House in November at “the end of a year and a half of continuous travel, often at a furious pace for a man who was now forty-one years old” (125). 

The Mapmaker’s Eye does not lose its focus at 1811, but Thompson covers so much more territory during this summer that any account necessarily widens its focus. Still, Nisbet finds room for enlightening remarks, such as this gloss on the explorer’s observation of a comet in a September sky: “Contemporary European astronomers called this the Comet Flaugergues, which at its brightest appeared at magnitude 1-2, with a tail twelve degrees in length. For several weeks, this spectacular object in the handle of the Big Dipper lit up the northern latitudes; its closest approach to earth was on September 12, 1811.”

If The Mapmaker’s Eye ended with Thompson’s crossing of the Cordillera for the last time in May 1812, it would have served its reader well, but Nisbet continues with a chapter on the explorer’s legacy, which delivers on the book’s titular promise by mounting a careful, detailed discussion of Thompson’s maps, the purposes he had for drawing each of them, and their whereabouts today. (One sketch map reproduced is notable: held by the Library of Congress, it depicts the upper bend of the Missouri, so identified by a note in the hand of Thomas Jefferson [34].) 

The Mapmaker’s Eye concludes with a series of five appendices. These discuss tribal trails in British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana; the region’s flora and fauna, well glossed by Nisbet’s expertise; tribal names; a list of “North West Company men and associated free hunters on the Columbia Plateau”; and a selected list of trade goods and supplies found in Thompson’s order for the Columbia Department in 1807-08, including something called a pischen. 

Nisbet expresses sympathy for Thompson’s efforts to influence negotiators of the Oregon Treaty in 1845 (he called for the border to run down the Rockies from the 49th parallel to the 47th parallel, west along it to the Columbia River, and then down that river to the ocean) and poignantly notes that the agreement that, as Thompson predicted, settled most of the territory in which he established posts on the United States, “deeply galled” him (139).

The bicentennial of his years on the Pacific Slope are bound at last to bring Thompson into a prominence that he has not enjoyed in popular North American history before now. His concern for accuracy, as exhibited in his nearly endless textual revisions, might have stood him in excellent stead as a cartographer, but it also denied him the prominence that book publication accorded less luminous predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. The bicentenary, together with a new edition of Nisbet’s Sources of the River and The Mapmaker’s Eye, as well as the promise of William Moreau’s edition of all of Thompson’s writings, will surely garner him a posthumous fame on a par with that of Lewis and Clark. 

That said, a gap remains in Thompsoniana: neither Nisbet, who foregrounds Thompson’s interests in geography, cartography, ethnography, and natural history, nor anyone else has yet plumbed the depths of Thompson’s Christianity in an effort to understand how his faith and his science aligned. Did the former render him more willing than most of his contemporaries to dwell among Native peoples, such that his career takes on a different shape from that of most out-and-back explorers? Was Thompson, as Matthew Wangler has suggested, a catastrophist? Without a knowledge of deep time, a concept that later occupied Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830), was Thompson, like Samuel Black after him, disposed to understand the formation of the Cordillera as a sudden geological event, like the Deluge of the Book of Genesis? If not, whence derived his idea that the Rockies “must once have been Liquid and in that State when swelled to its greatest Agitation, suddenly congealed and made Solid” (31)?